26 February 2020
Nadhim Zahawi responds to debate on Government support for business

Nadhim Zahawi outlines Government support for business and how, according to the Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute, the UK ranks as the second most entrepreneurial economy in Europe and the fourth most entrepreneurial in the world.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Nadhim Zahawi)

It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Bone. I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Arundel and South Downs (Andrew Griffith) and for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker). The quality of Conservative Back-Bench Members is clearly incredibly high. If the subs bench is of this quality, it keeps Ministers on their toes to keep performing. That is one great outcome of the general election where the Prime Minister Boris Johnson led us to that wonderful victory.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs on securing this debate. I assure the House that the Government are committed to supporting business. Of course, seizing opportunities now that we have left the EU is absolutely crucial to that. As my hon. Friend rightly pointed out, we will soon have a new relationship with our European friends, inspired by our shared history and values. We will have recovered our economic and political independence, which will enable us to control our own laws and of course our own trade—that is clearly what he is so passionate about. We will be able to strike new trade deals with partners around the world, helping our small and large businesses to export and grow on the global stage.

Hon. Members do not need to take my word for it, or that of my hon. Friend. The Global Entrepreneurship and Development Institute ranks the UK as the second most entrepreneurial economy in Europe and the fourth most entrepreneurial in the world. We rank higher than all other G7 countries except Canada on the World Bank’s “starting a business” list, although I take on board my hon. Friend’s comments about the ease of taxation, where we do less well. As someone who has started and run my own business, I can say that the UK is a great place to do so.

As my hon. Friend points out, we should remove friction and barriers to doing business and support our companies and entrepreneurs to succeed. That is why no permission is required to establish a business in the United Kingdom, there are no minimum capital requirements, and new companies can be registered online within just 24 hours for as little as £12. That is why, as my hon. Friend mentioned, only last week we launched a new website, businesssupport.gov.uk, which brings together information, support and advice for small businesses. It is why programmes operated by the Government-owned British Business Bank are supporting firms with finance. As of December 2019, more than £7 billion has been delivered to support over 91,000 small businesses in the UK, including £730,000 to 76 entrepreneurs in my hon. Friend’s constituency. Given his energy and how assiduous he is, I am sure he will endeavour to meet each and every one of the 76 beneficiaries of that support.

We are working together across Government to create smoother processes and the best environments for business, and I am pleased to say that we have already gone a long way towards integrating the customer interface with Companies House and HMRC. The streamlined company registration service was launched in 2018; it allows new companies to incorporate and to register for PAYE and corporation tax through a single portal. As my hon. Friend rightly reminded us, there is undoubtedly more work to be done to reduce the burden of tax, but HMRC is making progress, including through establishing a new VAT registration service.

We have also committed to a fundamental review of the business rates system. My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk quite rightly highlighted this issue, and challenge is important in this area. He is right to say that we need a holistic approach. The Treasury will provide more details about the business rates review in due course, but we have already provided reforms and reliefs to business rates worth £13 billion over the next five years. The Prime Minister has announced a towns fund of over £3.5 billion, including an accelerated £1 billion to support local areas in England to renew and reshape town centres and high streets. Through the taskforce giving expert advice on how to adapt and thrive, we are supporting local leaders and encouraging them to think differently about their high streets and to discover their unique selling points.

Andrew Griffith

May I contrast the Minister’s comprehensive programme of activity that is designed to improve the lot of small businesses in this country with the paucity of attendance on the Opposition Benches? Not a single member of any of the Opposition parties has deigned to grace us with their presence this morning.

Nadhim Zahawi

It is a shame and disappointing not to see any representation.

As part of my personal mission to improve the business environment, I am working across Government, including with the Department of Health and Social Care, on life sciences, which my hon. Friend described as one of the real future growth areas for jobs in our country, supporting collaboration across industry, Government and the NHS. With the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, we are developing plans to level up the regions across our great nation, with business and the economy at the heart of our plans.

My hon. Friend made an astute point about the importance of regulation and broadband access to business. Our pioneering regulatory regime has made the UK the go-to location for science, research and innovation for decades, and we are absolutely committed to learning from international best practice. The Better Regulation Executive has recently invited the OECD to undertake a review of our international regulatory co-operation, which will be published soon, but my hon. Friend makes a good point about getting them on an aeroplane to visit places such as Singapore or, dare I say, just across the channel in France. We are also committed to delivering nationwide coverage of gigabit-capable networks as soon as possible. The Prime Minister made that promise during the election and it was delivered as soon as he was returned to office, with £5 billion of public funding to close the digital divide and ensure that rural areas such as my constituency of Stratford-on-Avon and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs are not left behind.

As well as ensuring businesses across the country have the conditions they need to thrive, we are supporting sectors to ensure UK leadership in the industries of the future—as my hon. Friend points out, they are critical. Our study into tech competitiveness is due to report to Ministers this spring. We are supporting quantum with initiatives such as the quantum technologies challenge, providing up to £153 million of innovation funding for industry-led activities. The UK National Quantum Technologies Programme is set to invest over £1 billion of public and private investment over its lifetime.

We are also supporting life sciences, making a huge difference to people’s lives and to the NHS and how it delivers for people. Life sciences is an area of UK excellence and personal passion for me, with almost 6,000 businesses, 250,000 people employed and annual turnover of £74 billion. The Government have invested around £1 billion in a host of ambitious life sciences initiatives, with around a further £3 billion pledged by industry, including through our life sciences sector deal, which is part of the industrial strategy. That is one of 11 deals to drive productivity, innovation and growth across 10 sectors in the UK, from artificial intelligence to offshore wind, including a combined investment of £3 billion. Today we account for 36% of all offshore wind production on this planet, and we plan to go even further. That is this Government’s ambition, and that is what we will do.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Norfolk spoke about the high street. We are committed to conducting the review that I talked about earlier, but the reforms have already delivered the £13 billion that I mentioned. Although I will not deny that there are still challenges ahead for the high street and for small businesses, there are also fantastic opportunities. We talked about the towns fund, but local leaders need to be innovative. I see that in some local authorities that are returning people to live on our high streets. For far too long, retailers took on leases on our high street but left the upper parts vacant. We need to do much more to encourage people to live and work on our high streets in order to revive them; if people are living there, they will shop there and do many other things. I see it in my high street in Stratford-on-Avon, where we are beginning to think innovatively about how we deliver that—for example, with Shakespeare’s school, the King Edward VI School, where the great bard studied and learnt his craft. We have been looking at how we bring international students into some of the vacant properties to study over longer periods in the summer. Again, that would help the high street to deliver.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs for securing the debate, and I wish we had a lot longer to debate this issue. We need to ensure that—across our country, whether it is the Scottish Government or our Labour Opposition—we take business seriously. Ultimately, it is the lifeblood of the British economy.