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Energy Policy

Volume 458: debated on Thursday 22 March 2007

My Department works with a wide range of organisations in relation to energy policy. It might be helpful if I inform the House that the energy White Paper will be published in May.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. First, may I welcome the Chancellor’s statement yesterday that moves will be made to help families caught in the fuel poverty trap? From the Scottish perspective—and for me as an ex-miner—it is also welcome that we are now moving forward on carbon capture and on setting up a plant in the UK. My right hon. Friend has announced that the energy White Paper will be published in May. Would it not be prudent to consider the possibility of cutting across all the Departments that deal with energy and set up an Energy Department?

My hon. Friend’s final suggestion is a matter for the Prime Minister, but let me respond to his earlier points. He is right to say that we have done a great deal to help families on low incomes who face rising fuel bills. Among the measures we announced yesterday were those to help improve the insulation and energy efficiency of homes, which will assist people to cut their fuel bills. My hon. Friend is also right about carbon capture: if we reduce the amount of carbon emitted from gas and coal-powered fire stations, that could enable Britain to become a world leader in essential technology.

Yesterday afternoon, the Chancellor announced a £6 million boost in the budget for household renewable energy grants; that is welcome but modest. Yesterday evening, the Department of Trade and Industry issued a press release announcing a two-month suspension of the current programme. What does the Secretary of State have to say to the householders and businesses who were relying on the promised grants, and would he care to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality?

Actually, the press releases were issued at the same time, and deliberately so. As the hon. Lady knows, there have been problems with the grants, because the current arrangement is unsatisfactory: at the beginning of each month we make grants available and they run out almost immediately. We have also found that about £5 million of claimed grants have not been spent. The industry knows that there are problems, and we do too. I am glad that the hon. Lady acknowledges that additional money is being made available, and I would like us to take the necessary time to get the scheme right so that we do not repeat past mistakes. Up until yesterday evening, the industry itself had said that we needed to have discussions with it to make sure that the scheme works satisfactorily. It is important that we get the revised scheme up and running. It is also important that the scheme should be time limited to encourage people to do what they can to make their homes more energy efficient and also less dependent on carbon sources of energy generation. The scheme will be in place, but it is better to get it right than again to rush into doing something and to repeat the mistakes that were made in the past.

As part of the Government’s energy policy, my right hon. Friend is rightly looking into renewable forms of energy and, increasingly, into offshore wind farms. What liaison is he having with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs so that the voice of the fishermen is heard as more wind farms are licensed, and what liaison is he having with the Department for Transport so that ferry routes are protected, because our seas are not empty and when wind farms are erected that has an impact on other industries?

That is true up to a point, but it is perfectly possible to set up offshore wind farms and at the same time meet fishermen’s concerns and make sure that those wind farms are not put in sea lanes. We have been doing that satisfactorily across the piece. Let me say, however, that especially at a time when we are concerned to get greener sources of energy, we need more renewables. It is all very well for people to say, “Yes, we agree with that,” but not if they then come along and object to every planning consent that is sought whether onshore or offshore—in other words, if they are in favour of measures, but not in their backyard. We cannot proceed on that basis. If we do so, we will not get more renewable forms of energy. It is also worth bearing in mind another point, in respect of which I am sorry that not a single Scottish National party Member is present. The fact that yesterday’s Budget revealed that the projected revenues from North sea oil have fallen dramatically means that—

Interestingly, investment has gone up following last year’s tax change. The oil industry knows that it is a mature field with limited available reserves, which is why the SNP’s policy, under which Scotland would be totally dependant on one very unpredictable source of revenue, would be absolute folly. As I have said, I am sorry that not a single Scottish National Member could be bothered to come along to today’s Question Time.

The Secretary of State has had eight months since the energy review in which to prepare the White Paper. He tells us today that it will be published in May with the same certainty that he told us on an earlier occasion that it would be published in March. If he carries on like this, his Department will have been abolished before it gets to be published. Does he not understand that those postponements are delaying vital investment decisions in future generating capacity while investors wait for details about a cap-and-trade system, the future of renewable obligation certificates or ROCs, feed-in tariffs, the role of Ofgem and the whole future of the planning system? He cannot just blame that on the judicial decision to require better consultation, as there are many other outstanding issues. Does he not understand that our energy security requires that we have a Government who are prepared to act and lead rather than a Government who put off the difficult decisions?

That is a bit rich coming from a party that does not have a coherent energy policy. The hon. Gentleman will recall that following the judicial review I said that it was likely that the White Paper would be published in May, but that if I could publish it before Easter, I would. As there is precisely one week between now and the Easter recess, it is perhaps a statement of the obvious that it will not be possible to publish it next week, so I thought it helpful to tell the House that it will definitely be published in May.

On the hon. Gentleman’s substantive points, yes, I know that the industry wants a degree of certainty, but it is not possible to publish an energy White Paper without the consultation paper on nuclear alongside it, because nuclear is an important part of that consideration. I want to make sure that we get the nuclear consultation right, and I do not have the slightest doubt that there are those who will want a judicial review whatever we decide; some people are implacably against nuclear, come what may. However, I want to get these things right, and the overwhelming view in the industry is that it is important that we publish the two papers together, which I will certainly do.