Penrose Review: UK Competition and Consumer Policy — [Clive Efford in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:03 pm on 8th March 2022.

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Photo of Cherilyn Mackrory Cherilyn Mackrory Conservative, Truro and Falmouth 3:03 pm, 8th March 2022

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Efford. I congratulate my hon. Friend John Penrose on securing this crucial debate and on his excellent work not only on his review, but as the UK’s anti-corruption champion. His review is a vital piece of work and reveals how our competition policy can drive enterprise, productivity and growth. I am pleased to recognise that more competition and support for small businesses outside the south-east is key to our levelling-up agenda.

I speak as the Member for Truro and Falmouth in Cornwall, which has an economy built on fantastic small businesses, with three quarters of local companies employing fewer than five people. Although the terms “competition law” and “ competition policy” might seem far removed from our everyday lives, it can be argued that failing to create a better regulatory regime that fully supports small businesses, consumers and fair competition has led to higher prices and lower wages in Cornwall for much of the last decade. We must unpick the fact that Cornwall has the lowest productivity levels anywhere in the UK, and that places the region at the heart of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. I draw the House’s attention to section 6 of the report, which shows that Britain has a well-known productivity problem, especially outside the south-east.

Our geographical skew in productivity is not normal; only two other European countries, Poland and Romania, have bigger variations than we have. That difference translates into everyone’s wages. In Cornwall, one in three workers earn below the national living wage, and much of the employment in Cornwall is reliant on two low-paying industry groups, namely hospitality and retail. They are sources of pride for Cornwall and its flourishing tourism sector, but it is inescapable that both are sources of low pay and low productivity.

Against a backdrop of rapid change in the world of work and the need to increase productivity, action to improve skills in Cornwall is crucial. Investing in skills will attract more competitive and successful firms, creating a virtuous circle that attracts more high-skilled people to live and work in the area—boosting productivity, jobs and wages even further.

I am in talks with BEIS and other Government officials about the lithium that is under our feet in Cornwall. We are very lucky, geologically. Few people realise that there is enough lithium under the Cornish soil to power at least half of the electric vehicles that we will need in the future. Cornwall is very good at getting things out of the ground and sending them away, but we need to make sure that all the processing to get the lithium to a battery-ready status also happens in the county, creating long-term jobs. To do that, we will have to compete with firms in China and other overseas players. That makes it difficult, and that is why we need to work with Government to make sure that the processing happens locally.

I am pleased with recent progress, such as the news that the excellent team at Truro and Penwith College have applied to the skills accelerator programme, ushering in a new approach that ensures that all technical education and training is based on what employers actually need. That is yet another example of the principal Martin Tucker and his brilliant team at Truro and Penwith leading the way with excellence and innovation in the learning and skills sector. It adds to their strong existing offer, which includes free skills bootcamps in digital and technical careers and the higher level skills project, to support individuals looking to enhance their knowledge and develop their careers.

We must consider all the options on the table to increase the region’s productivity. The report makes several crucial recommendations to reform competition policy and put consumers at the heart of markets, and I urge the Government to consider those recommendations. In particular, the report notes that to raise productivity in areas such as Cornwall, we need to boost the “local competitive temperature” by supporting small businesses to compete with large competitors. That was what I was driving at in my earlier intervention.

I want to highlight two areas of the report: reducing the burden of red tape and supporting digital industries. Laws and regulations are a crucial part of our market economy, as we have already said. They protect staff, consumers and the environment. I have been very vocal about the need for strong regulations on water companies, which are currently responsible for much of the pollution in our rivers, including the River Fal in my constituency. I agree that we need better regulation that maintains standards but applies them in the least costly and most unbureaucratic way possible.

In particular, we must address the growing crisis in the fishing sector that is caused by complicated new export rules, a lack of clarity about fishing quotas and an increase in red tape. At this point, I have to declare an interest as a fishwife—these are issues that I hear about at the breakfast table daily. Those changes have significantly hit our shellfish producers in particular, and some businesses face the real possibility of collapse unless we take urgent action. The fishing industry plays a vital role in the Cornish economy, and I urge the Government to step in and address the issues to secure its long-term future.

We have a lot of small producers in Cornwall, and up until very recently their only option has been to take their catch to market. A couple of years ago, a fisherman might have received £1.50 for a kilo of mackerel at market. They could go into the supermarket the same day and see lesser quality, net-caught fish of the same type—fish that had been in a net for a couple of days and was not as fresh as line caught—and the consumer would be paying something like £10 or £12 a kilo for it. Somebody is making an awful lot of money out of that fish, and it is not the food producer; it is not the fisherman. I am pleased that the Government have been encouraging direct sales, but I encourage them to further reduce the red tape that these boys and girls have to put themselves through to ensure that they can sell directly to farm shops and even, if possible, directly to supermarkets.

I support the report’s proposals for a new pro-competition regime for digital markets. Digital technologies bring us many benefits, transforming our economy, society and daily lives. However, there are downsides caused by firms with enormous network and digital data monopolies, so we must ensure that digital regulation promotes competition and innovation. Digital industries are a growing part of the economy in Cornwall, which has a rapidly expanding digital and creative community that has grown by 76% since 2010. I will do all I can to support the Government to ensure that we build a pro-growth data regime that will allow the digital industry in Cornwall to thrive.

Improving productivity in areas such as Cornwall is key to levelling up in the UK, and that is why it is important that we invest in skills and reform to make better regulation in industries such as fishing and all the way to digital markets. I look forward to supporting the Government as they consider the recommendations of the report, and I will continue to champion all our small businesses, innovation and competition now and in the years to come.