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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 486: debated on Thursday 22 January 2009

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Act 2008

1. What recent discussions he has had on the implementation of the provisions of the Energy Act 2008; and if he will make a statement. (249982)

Key policies enabled by the Act, including the introduction of the banding of the renewables obligation and the roll-out of smart meters to medium-sized businesses, will be in force by April 2009. Later this year, we will consult on the feed-in tariff scheme for small-scale renewables scheduled to be introduced in 2010, and confirm details of our plans announced last year for the roll-out of smart meters to domestic users by 2020.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Although it would be churlish not to welcome today’s announcement from British Gas of a 10 per cent. cut in pricing, does my right hon. Friend have something to say about those individuals—especially pensioners—who are making additional payments because they have prepayment meters?

My hon. Friend asks about an important issue. It is right to welcome the price fall in wholesale gas and this morning’s announcement of the reduction in British Gas prices, which will commence next month. We want price reductions that go as far as possible, as fast as possible from British Gas and other energy companies because wholesale gas prices have fallen.

On prepayment meters, it is welcome that Ofgem has proposed changes in the law and in licence conditions for the energy companies. That means not only eliminating some of the problems of the past few months, but, in future, stopping the sort of practices that offend us all and discriminate unduly against the poorest people in our society.

Will the Secretary of State have a close look at the innovative scheme in the borough of Kettering, whereby Kettering borough council and E.on got together? In return for the installation of smart meters, E.on’s dual fuel customers will get a council tax rebate if they make sufficient energy savings.

We will certainly look at that. The point of the community energy saving programme, the details of which we will announce shortly, is precisely to encourage that sort of work between energy companies, local authorities and community groups, to ascertain how we can help some of the poorest people in our society with their gas and electricity bills and with smart metering, and ensure that they can get a fair deal. We will definitely examine that proposal.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to implement the woodfuel strategy, which straddles both Departments? Has he considered the small costs of implementing that strategy, which might contribute to our renewables obligation and improve the quality of woodland throughout the kingdom?

My hon. Friend asks about an important subject, about which he has great expertise. It is important to consider such proposals—for example, renewable heat can help us in future. Such generation is currently at a low level and we want to introduce a renewable heat incentive precisely to encourage the sort of proposals that my hon. Friend mentioned. We are undertaking work with the Forestry Commission and DEFRA, and it is important in contributing to our renewables energy strategy.

Does not the Secretary of State’s initial answer simply confirm that the Energy Act is more about talk than desperately needed action? No real action has been taken on our critical lack of gas storage or how we can make carbon capture and storage a reality. There is no urgency about creating a national grid fit for the 21st century or methods of introducing the next generation of renewable technologies. There have been years of talking about the details of smart metering and feed-in tariffs, and further delays on biogas and renewable heat. Fuel poverty has not even been mentioned. Is it not clear that, if we are to have an energy policy that is secure, affordable and low in carbon, we need not more talking shops but a change of Government?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman; he obviously practised that in the mirror this morning. The answer to his question is no. The Energy Act is facilitating progress on a whole range of fronts, including feed-in tariffs, gas storage and nuclear power—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that that is all talk, but 17 gas storage projects are planned in this country, and the Langeled pipeline has been built since 2006—since the previous dispute between Russia and Ukraine—and is now supplying a large amount of our gas. This is not about talk; it is about a party that understands the importance of energy security and fairness to consumers.

Fuel Poverty

2. How many people in (a) North-West Leicestershire constituency, (b) the east midlands and (c) England are in fuel poverty. (249983)

The most recently available sub-regional split of fuel poverty relates to 2003 and shows that, in North-West Leicestershire, there were about 2,300 fuel-poor households. More recent figures for the east midlands and England show that, in 2006, there were about 236,000 fuel-poor households in the east midlands and about 2.4 million fuel-poor households in England.

Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), 40 per cent. of social housing tenants are forced to pay over the odds for at least one kind of energy because they use prepayment meters. This is sharp practice resulting from utterly unacceptable laxity on the part of the regulator. Does the Minister agree that Ofgem is still failing lamentably to carry out its principal brief, which is to protect the interests of low-income consumers? This disproportionate and grossly unfair charge continues to push many of my constituents yet further into fuel poverty.

I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents who are in fuel poverty. I assure him that we are working as hard as possible to address this matter. We have made it absolutely clear to Ofgem and the energy companies that unfair pricing has to stop, in relation both to prepayment meters and to standard credit. Pressure from us has resulted in £300 million being taken out of the premiums paid by customers, including those using prepayment meters, but I agree that this has gone on for far too long. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, Ofgem is now consulting on changing the licence agreements in order to deal with unfair practices. He has also made it absolutely clear that, if the regulator does not succeed, we will act in his place.

I follow exactly the last two questions from colleagues on the Labour Benches. We have now had nearly 12 years of a Labour Government, and we still do not have a fair system for fuel pricing for domestic users. Will Ministers promise that, by the time of the next UK-wide elections—be they the European elections or the general election—there will be a pricing system under which people will not be penalised for the method by which they pay, such as a prepayment meter—

Order. I am not expecting the hon. Gentleman to make a speech. I think that the Minister will now be able to handle a reply.

Order. The hon. Gentleman has the privilege of being a Front-Bench spokesman, and making a speech is not what I expect. The Minister may answer.

We have made it absolutely clear that it is the regulator’s responsibility to act. The consultation is under way, and it ends on 20 February. It is designed to work out a system that will bring unfair pricing methods to an end. That is what we want, and we are determined to get it, one way or the other.

Will the Minister have discussions with colleagues about the definition of fuel poverty? Is there not a case for targeting winter fuel allowances more directly, and to extend them to people with long-term, chronic illnesses?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I assure him that all aspects of our fuel poverty strategy are under review. It is important for us to see how best we can target the available resources and do the best job. This is an extraordinarily serious matter; we are deeply concerned, and I am looking at every aspect of the scheme.

The fuel poverty data take time to collect. They are based on a survey of 8,000 households in England; the devolved authorities obviously have to carry out the same work. In order to get an accurate picture, it is necessary to take two years’ data and to combine them. As I review everything else, I am perfectly happy to look into the way in which the data are collected. We are living in rather extraordinary times in terms of price rises, and that is what has so heavily distorted the numbers of people in fuel poverty, rather than the condition of the properties.

My hon. Friend will know as well as I do that among the poorest in our society are those who depend on the private rented sector. Fuel poverty in that sector is acute, because private landlords have no incentive to provide proper insulation. What can the Government do to ensure that we incentivise those private landlords?

The Government have already attempted to incentivise private landlords, but my hon. Friend is correct in believing that the response has been inadequate. We clearly need to do more. We are currently preparing documents for consultation on a wide range of energy-efficiency measures and we will look at the role of private landlords in those consultations.

We are right to address the question of prepayment meters, but another issue that affects many of the poorest people is our inability to insulate very poor housing stock, particularly when it lacks cavity wall insulation. I know that the Government are working on this, but can they redouble their efforts to find ways around this problem, which affects the most vulnerable people?

I hope that the hon. Gentleman might be aware that the Prime Minister announced a new programme in September, putting £1 billion behind energy efficiency. We have a number of such programmes, the foremost of which in terms of numbers, is the obligation on the energy companies. Over the next three-year period, we expect 6 million households to benefit from the measures already in place. We always keep them under review, and if we can do more, we will. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the programme has been accelerated and that more households are being offered help under those programmes.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

3. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on his Department's policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from housing. (249984)

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 17 December last year. Discussions included the Department for Communities and Local Government’s contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from housing.

But does my hon. Friend agree that homes are really at the heart of cutting carbon emissions and that although we want more houses, we also want them to be more sustainable? There are rumours that the Homes and Communities Agency is being pushed to concentrate on numbers and not to take so much notice of sustainability.

I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of homes, because 27 per cent. of our emissions come from our homes. The Homes and Communities Agency was set up and began operations only in December last year, but I can assure my hon. Friend that it is leading the way on making the zero-carbon homes agenda, which is our target for 2016, a reality. It is also leading with exemplar programmes like the carbon challenge and the Thames Gateway eco region. Over the years, the decent homes programme has brought a million homes up to decent standard, with the result that higher energy-efficiency standards exist in the public sector than in the private sector. Over the next three years, the Homes and Communities Agency will manage £2.4 billion worth of programmes to ensure that 350,000 homes are brought up to the decent home standard. I can assure my hon. Friend that the agency is committed, and that contact between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government is ongoing and specifically directed at reducing carbon emissions.

The Government are going to ban the use of incandescent light bulbs before they are required to do so. Is the Minister aware that the alternative bulbs are not only more expensive, but hazardous because they contain mercury, are unsuitable for certain applications—either because they come on too slowly or give out too little light, which can again be dangerous—and totally unsuitable for things like picture lights in galleries and so forth? Will she rethink her policy of gold-plating the EU requirement and rethink banning the use of those bulbs before that is necessary?

I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I would be very surprised if his Front-Bench team did not support the use of energy-efficient bulbs in place of the inefficient ones in use today. If every household in the country changed, 5 million tonnes of carbon would be saved, so it is extremely important that we make that change. The right hon. Gentleman says that they are dangerous, but there is only a tiny amount of mercury in those bulbs and disposal facilities are available in every local authority to get rid of them safely: people can just throw them away and if they have an accident, it is simple to deal with it. These bulbs are not hazardous. A few people with particular medical conditions may be sensitive to such bulbs. We are looking into that carefully and working on it with the Department of Health, and we have made the facts known to the European Commission.

It is great that the Government have set the goal of all new homes being zero-carbon by the middle of the next decade, but is it not important for house builders and consumers to understand what is involved in a property’s being zero-carbon? Can my hon. Friend assure us that she is working across Government to set standards so that we all know what we are aiming for?

It is a very good question. The Government are working on this. Both our Department and the Department for Communities and Local Government are very much engaged in the definitions, and a consultation is in hand.

While our European competitors such as Germany are rolling out far larger energy-efficiency programmes, progress here is still too slow. Indeed, the Government have now cancelled the launch of their heat and energy-saving consultation for the second time. Given the sad failure to transform the energy-efficiency of our housing stock over the last decade, may I invite the Secretary of State to borrow yet another ambitious Conservative policy and offer all home-owners a £6,500 entitlement to energy retrofit their homes, thus creating real efficiency, real savings and real green jobs?

Let me respond immediately to the hon. Gentleman’s final point. He says that every home owner would be entitled to such a package, but when we made inquiries of the shadow Front-Bench team we were told that 1 per cent. of the population would receive it. If the hon. Gentleman has now resiled from that, may I ask him how the Conservatives will find the £150 billion that the programme would cost, given that they intend to cut the Department of Energy and Climate Change budget?

Our heat and energy savings consultation will indeed be delivered. It has certainly not been cancelled.

4. What recent assessment he has made of progress towards meeting the Government's target of reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. by 2010; and if he will make a statement. (249985)

Carbon dioxide emissions are expected to be reduced to 15 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010. That will help to make Britain one of the few countries to exceed our Kyoto target, although it is short of the more challenging unilateral 20 per cent. goal. So progress has been made, but we need to do more. Later this year I shall set out a carbon budget for the coming years to enable us to make our contribution to a successful global deal at Copenhagen this December.

Let me thank the Secretary of State for his courtesy in choosing to reply as well as for the content of his reply, and then move quickly on.

Will the Government be building the recommendations of the Committee on Climate Change into the consultation on carbon capture and storage, and would he or his colleagues and officials be willing to meet me—along with, perhaps, the non-governmental organisations—for discussions at some stage between now and July, when my private Member’s Bill will be up for debate, to establish what further progress can be made?

I shall meet the right hon. Gentleman with pleasure to discuss his private Member’s Bill.

Lord Turner’s recommendations in his report published in December represent an important step forward in the ways in which we can drive carbon capture and storage into any new coal-fired power stations. We are examining those recommendations carefully, and will say more about them in the next few weeks.

As my right hon. Friend knows, energy generation is one of the biggest producers of carbon dioxide, and if any major and worthwhile reductions are to be made, our means of power generation will have to be addressed. Will my right hon. Friend speed up our moves towards carbon capture and storage, given that people are now protesting against any form of coal burning, and will he also look at what Newcastle university is doing in connection with underground coal gasification?

My hon. Friend has made a good point. One of the important aspects of the climate and energy package that was agreed in the European Union last December was the €9 billion of investment in carbon capture and storage. That will make a huge difference to carbon capture and storage across Europe, and will build on the demonstration plant that Britain is seeking to build. I believe that we will be in a strong position to secure at least one of the European demonstration projects in addition to our own.

My hon. Friend is also right to suggest that we need to encourage the whole range of technologies and draw on the work of the academic community, including Newcastle university.

Does the Secretary of State accept that the Government’s success in wrecking the national economy will result in lower CO2 emissions?

Obviously, I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s description of our programme. What has happened to CO2 emissions in the last decade is interesting: we have, for the first time, decoupled economic growth, which has been at about 38 per cent. in that period, from carbon emissions, which have fallen. That is a major step forward, and it is an indication of what we need to do in the future.

As the Government focus on the carbon reduction targets, will my right hon. Friend redouble his efforts to ensure that green jobs and a green new deal remain at the heart of the Government’s programme to stimulate the economy during the global downturn?

My right hon. Friend speaks as a former Business Secretary who made great strides on energy, and she is absolutely right that, as we think about the future of our economy, we have to think about the low-carbon sectors where jobs are available, such as renewables, nuclear—in my view—and carbon capture and storage. Britain has unique assets in this area, not only in terms of renewables, but also in relation to carbon capture and storage. We need to turn those unique assets into employment for people in this country.

Given its effect on emissions, does the Secretary of State personally approve of the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow?

It was the right decision, and let me explain to the hon. Gentleman why. Some may argue that people should stop flying, but that is not my opinion. I believe that we should have constrained expansion of aviation, and that is why we have been very clear in the Heathrow decision about the fact that only 50 per cent. of the slots have been granted and any future expansion beyond that will be conditional on the target we have set—we are the first Government in the world to have set it—according to which aviation emissions in 2050, at which time we have set our target to achieve an 80 per cent. cut in carbon emissions, must be back to 2005 emission levels. We have taken the right decision: constrained expansion of aviation.

The Secretary of State is an intelligent man. He knows that these mock concessions fool no one. Indeed, it is telling that the Prime Minister’s old tactic of briefing against his predecessor and claiming victory for spurious concessions is now being employed by his protégé against him. On emissions, will the Secretary of State confirm that one quarter of the progress claimed by the Government on emissions is bought in from other European countries?

Of course credits play a role, but I am surprised at what the hon. Gentleman says about aviation because he wrote a pamphlet in 2003 called “Free to Travel” and in it—I here refer Members to the position that there should be no more flying—he said:

“More people should be able to travel by air in future.”

He also said:

“We will not necessarily set our face against any or all expansion of the UK’s airports capacity”.

So once again we see that the hon. Gentleman has not thought his policy through.

The Secretary of State has mentioned support for carbon capture and storage, but is he aware that people in the industry are concerned about the slow progress that is being made and also that the demonstration projects might not be extensive enough? Is he prepared to meet me and representatives of the industry to try to resolve this?

I will definitely meet my hon. Friend. He is right that we need to make progress in this area. There is a huge amount of expertise and talent around the country, and research that we need to draw on, and I look forward to discussing those issues with him and his colleagues.

Following changes that Germany secured in the next stage of the EU emissions trading scheme, some commentators have calculated that up to 96 per cent. of processing firms could receive free credits. Has the Secretary of State identified which sectors of the UK economy will receive free credits and what impact that will have on future emissions targets?

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question. We will judge who gets free credits by a rigorous analysis of which sectors are really exposed to so-called carbon leakage—the UK argued very strongly for that in relation to the directive. What there must not be is simply a blanket exemption for everyone in relation to free allowances. This process will take place during this year, and we will then come up with the sectors that are affected. I think the import of the hon. Gentleman’s question is that we must be rigorous and we must make this as demanding an EU ETS as possible, and I share that view.

European Supergrid

Departmental officials have had discussions with the European Commission and other European countries about improved grid connections for offshore wind and to link up to European grids. A European supergrid is a big, long-term, interesting but expensive concept.

I thank my hon. and learned Friend for that reply. He will be aware of the proposals for North sea grid interconnectors using direct current cables and for wider connections using such cables across the whole of Europe to connect various forms of renewable energy together. Is he willing to meet representatives of the European e-Parliament, who are promoting that latter initiative in order to connect the whole of Europe’s renewable output for resources delivered across Europe as a whole?

In principle, I am happy to meet those representatives. However, in terms of linking up renewables, particularly wind power, to the UK, we have a massive programme to link up to 33 GW of electricity, at a cost of about £15 billion. The cost is already substantial, so I would not want my hon. Friend to think that we are other than cautious about this. As a long-term concept it is interesting, but in the short term we must focus on the things that are more at hand: getting offshore wind farms properly connected to the UK, so that we ensure that we get the electricity generated here.

Is the Minister aware that more than 600 wind turbines have either been completed or are planned for sites in the Wash and along the Norfolk coast, and that those could be linked up to a supergrid? Is he aware that those offshore wind farms command widespread public support, in complete contrast to the small clusters of onshore ones, which do a huge amount of damage to the environment and are very unpopular?

It is the case that we will need both onshore and offshore wind power in order to ensure that we reach the level of capacity that we need for renewables—I see some nodding of heads on the Conservative Front Bench. The hon. Gentleman has to appreciate that although those who oppose onshore wind farms are often speaking for some of their constituents, there is a national objective of ensuring that we develop the wind and renewable generation capacity that this country needs. That means that we need to continue to develop both offshore and onshore wind power.

In his discussions with his European colleagues about pan-European energy levels, will my hon. and learned Friend also raise the issue of the UK ceramics industry, which is, and has been for a while, at a disadvantage compared with other European producers because of the energy costs in this country?

I am very happy to raise that matter. I am aware of the concerns, particularly in Staffordshire and the Stoke area, about the problems that those in the ceramics industry have had, particularly in getting access to some energy sources. I am happy to ensure that we continue to raise those issues, as my hon. Friend and some of his colleagues have been doing for some time.

Kyoto Protocol

6. What recent discussions he has had with his foreign counterparts on a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol. (249989)

In December last year, I participated in the United Nations climate change conference in Poznan, which was designed to prepare the way for a global agreement in Copenhagen this December. Over the coming year, the UK Government will try to make our own contribution to a global deal, through, among other things, our own ambitious domestic commitments, our work in the EU and co-operation with the new American Administration.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. He may wish to follow President Obama and

“roll back the spectre of a warming planet”.

As such, will he ensure that the climate conference in December is not derailed by discussions over what developing countries must do and that it accepts that those who produced the most CO2 over the past century must take most of the responsibility for emission reductions?

All of us want to follow President Obama, who has certainly made an impressive start. The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the commitment of developed countries. I think that they have to make strong and challenging commitments. We must find ways to ensure that developing countries are part of a global deal and can move away from a “business as usual” approach on emissions. Part of our responsibility is to find ways to finance those changes in developing countries. I agree with him about the approach that he suggests.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as per capita carbon dioxide emissions in the United Kingdom have risen in this century, the statutory target for cutting those emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050 will be impossible to meet, particularly with the continued expansion of aviation, and does he agree that 80 per cent. is an unrealistic target to achieve at Copenhagen?

No, I do not agree with my hon. Friend, which is rare. I think 80 per cent. is a realistic target. The Committee on Climate Change has shown in its report how that can be achieved through what we do with domestic transport, the power sector and the household sector. Yes, ambitious measures are required, but it is most important that they are driven by the science. The science says that the world as a whole must cut carbon emissions by at least 50 per cent. by 2050, and that developed countries must play their part in that. The target is non-negotiable. We must meet it, and I think we can meet it.

Topical Questions

The Department of Energy and Climate Change is committed to working to ensure security for Britain. During the past few weeks, we have been working with our EU partners to resolve the dispute over the gas supply between Russia and Ukraine, which has led to states of emergency in some European countries. The end of the dispute earlier this week was welcome and overdue. It is essential that the EU now takes effective steps in the European strategic energy review to improve energy resilience, and it is always important that we remain vigilant in ensuring UK security of supply by working with National Grid and Ofgem.

Residents living in fuel poverty in my constituency often do not have a bank account, so do not have access to the cheapest energy tariffs. Will the Secretary of State consider instructing energy companies to state on their bills whether customers are on the cheapest tariff and, if not, how much they would save if they were, and, more important, how they can gain access to that tariff?

The hon. Gentleman has suggested an ingenious idea, which we will consider. Ofgem has said that it needs to provide better information for customers, and the House will agree with his point about people who do not have access to bank accounts. It is important that Ofgem is proposing changes in the law and licence conditions to prevent unfair discrimination, but I agree that better information is also important for those customers.

T2. May I ask about the miners’ compensation scheme? I speak with some passion as the son of a coal miner. Is it appropriate that almost half the money set aside for that scheme has gone into the pockets of lawyers, some of whom are detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure? Will he ensure that the money is properly directed? (250003)

I have considerable concern about that—my constituency is also a mining one—and some of my constituents have been faced with solicitors who have claimed money not only from them but from the previous Department of Trade and Industry and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform. That is a matter of considerable concern. The Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal recently made some decisions that I welcome, but a lot more needs to be done to ensure that we get to the bottom of what seems to be a scandal of considerable proportions.

T3. What assessment has the Minister made of the 10 per cent. reduction in fuel charges announced today for standard tariff payers, which will result in a £100 reduction for prompt payment, whereas those on prepayment meters, as of December, will get only £22 off their bills, yet again widening the inequity between the two tariffs? (250005)

We welcome the decision of British Gas to bring down its prices. We met British Gas on Monday, and gave it a clear message. It has now written to me saying that it has accepted that message and has responded. We now want the other energy companies to get the message that wholesale prices are going down and we want prices to follow. We also welcome Ofgem’s work in its probe to ensure that unfair pricing with prepayment meters is dealt with. We have made it very clear that if the matter is not dealt with by Ofgem and the energy companies, we will legislate to do so.

T6. Does my hon. Friend realise that if only 0.5 per cent. of the upland, peat land and coastal marshes were taken out of operation and used for construction or any other purpose, it would totally negate any efforts to meet our carbon reduction targets for 2050? Will we preserve those areas? (250008)

We certainly want to ensure that each decision on a development is taken after a full and proper assessment of the environmental impact. Therefore, we have to ensure that we recognise areas of particular sensitivity and the importance of the need to preserve them, while balancing that with the need to ensure the proper development of renewables for the long-term safeguarding not only of our country but of the planet.

T4. The Government are committed to renewable energy sources and to some stringent requirements under the EU landfill directive, which they are currently on course to breach. Will the Minister therefore look at renewable energy sources such as energy from waste, combined heat and power, and anaerobic digestion? Otherwise, we will have to pay fines for not meeting the landfill targets, and that would be very unfair. (250006)

The Government are committed to ensuring that we do not pay fines under the landfill directive, and that has been the whole purpose of the major programme to provide more infrastructure, including £10 million for anaerobic digestion and £2 billion of private finance initiative credits to develop new ways of dealing with waste, some of which can of course include the production of energy and heat.

The Government have set environmental targets that must be met before expansion at Heathrow can go ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those targets must be independently assessed, enforceable and legally binding if we are to restore public confidence?

I do agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we have referred the question of the new target, and how we can best implement it, to the Committee on Climate Change, the independent experts. It is a significant target and I hope that Opposition Front Benchers—especially given their past writings—will look at that target. We are the first Government in the world to set such a target, and I agree that it must be enforceable, and enforced.

T5. Thousands of jobs in north Wales and elsewhere are dependent on electricity generated by the Wylfa nuclear power plant in north Wales, especially at the aluminium smelter on Anglesey, which is a supplier to one of the largest employers in my constituency. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has recently rejected commercial proposals to extend the safe operating life of that power plant. Will the Secretary of State now work with the Business Secretary to seek the reversal of that decision and protect jobs at this difficult time for the local economy? (250007)

The answer to that is yes. This week I met the local authority involved to discuss some of the issues. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is seeking to find out whether the NDA and Anglesey Aluminium—and Rio Tinto, which owns the latter—are prepared to negotiate a deal. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue is not only price, although that is a key factor, but what will happen when Wylfa goes and whether there is an alternative energy source available in the long term. It is a complex negotiation, but we are certainly anxious to resolve it and save the jobs involved.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people have been put into fuel poverty because the energy companies have increased their prices so hugely and have made immoral profits? The best and quickest way to take people out of fuel poverty is to reduce the price of electricity and gas alike.

My hon. Friend has been a doughty and effective campaigner on this issue. Let me put it this way: he is more right than wrong. We welcome the price reductions announced by Centrica this morning, and it is important that other companies follow suit. We need to see price reductions comparable to the price increases that we saw earlier this year. Wholesale gas and electricity prices are falling, and it is important that the benefit is fed through to customers.

Partnerships for Renewables is a rare British example of an initiative to promote the kind of community-based wind energy and renewable energy that has proved so popular in other countries and that might go some way to diffuse the opposition of local Conservative politicians. Why have the Government done so little to resource and promote Partnerships for Renewables, to the extent that most local authorities, agencies and Government Departments barely seem to know that it exists?

The hon. Gentleman often talks sense, and I think that he is talking sense on this occasion, too. We need to do more on Partnerships for Renewables. The public sector as a whole has not, in my view, risen to the challenge of building renewables sufficiently. There is more that we can do in local communities. The feed-in tariff will help in that regard, but I think that Partnerships for Renewables is a very important project. It needs to be promoted and the public sector needs to step up its game.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the raw fear in the steel sector of South Yorkshire and other manufacturing about the fact that the energy companies are not reducing prices for electricity to industry, when the price of oil has descended to a quarter of what it was six months ago? The Prime Minister is doing what it takes on banks—can the Secretary of State do what it takes on energy prices? If he cannot, will he understand that calls for the state ownership of our electricity companies will again come into play? We will not see manufacturing industry destroyed, as happened when the Opposition were last in power.

I certainly agree that we do not want to see the steel industry or other industries destroyed in the way that they were in the 1980s. However, we need to ensure that where energy prices are coming down and contracts are being negotiated—that is a key issue—those high energy consumers are able to get the best possible deals from the energy companies.

We welcome the fact that domestic energy supplier prices are coming down and the announcement from British Gas today, but we are also aware that wholesale prices are coming down. That will give some opportunities for large industrial users to negotiate better contracts. Some of them are tied into long-term contracts and that is part of the problem. New contracts will enable better prices, and I hope that that will help some of the highly intensive energy users.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Visitor Passes

1. What plans the Commission has to recycle lanyards used with parliamentary visitor passes once they have been discarded. (250010)

The new parliamentary visitor pass system was introduced last summer. The new system incorporates a temporary photographic paper pass carried in a lanyard. The lanyards are recovered at the exits to the parliamentary estate and returned to use where suitable. About 30 per cent. of the lanyards issued are currently reused in this way.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, which follows up an answer that I received from the Leader of the House about three months ago which suggested that the items were being stored before a decision on reuse was made. It is very good news that the House is reusing them. What work is being done to ensure that we further increase the reuse of the cords for visitors’ passes? After all, we have up to 1 million visitors a year coming through this place.

We do indeed. It is recognised that the current system of putting the passes into bins is not satisfactory. A new system, with better signage and a free-standing device to hang the passes on, is being brought in. That should improve the recycling rate considerably, but we do recognise that some people take their passes home as souvenirs of their visit.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Public Bills

2. If she will take steps to ensure that all Government amendments and new clauses to public bills are debated by the House on Report. (250011)

As far as possible, we always try to make sure that the Government do not table new issues on Report and that there is plenty of time for full debate. I have been working with Ministers in charge of Bills to ensure that we do better this year, but I confess that it is an art, not a science. No matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent Members’ loquacity or prolixity.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. Does he recall that during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, huge swathes of Government amendments and new clauses were never reached, which meant that this House failed to do its job in holding the Executive to account and carrying out the scrutiny that the Prime Minister rightly says it is a priority for him to improve? On the Coroners and Justice Bill, for example, will the Deputy Leader of the House give us an assurance that every effort will be made by Government business managers to ensure that this House can debate both Government and Opposition amendments and new clauses? If necessary, will he provide the second day on Report that is so often needed for us to do our job properly?

The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make sure we do our scrutiny job properly, and that means devoting enough time to every element that needs to be debated. However, he is wrong in the sense that some Government amendments introduced at Report stage are in direct response to requests from the Committee. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering again, but the truth is that that applies to the majority of Government amendments. I have spoken already to the Minister responsible for the Bill that he mentioned. We are trying hard to make sure that we are not introducing new elements and areas of debate and, if necessary, we will try to provide a second day for debate on Report.

Since 1997, there have been 66 criminal justice Bills. That is too many, and too often they merely undo improperly scrutinised earlier Bills, thereby wasting the House’s time. For proper scrutiny, and to avoid that problem in the future, may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we have two days on Report stage much more frequently?

I think that we need to have the right amount of time, but two other things can help. First, my hon. Friend has campaigned for a long time for pre-legislative scrutiny, which is an important way to make sure that we do a better job before a Bill is introduced into Parliament. Secondly, post-legislative scrutiny can identify legislation that is not working or has not been useful. For that matter, it can also be used on legislation that has not been fully implemented. We should take such legislation off the statute book and not let it lie there dormant.

The Deputy Leader of the House will know that the current regime for proceedings on Report was introduced about 10 years ago, following recommendations from the Modernisation Committee. Should they not be reviewed now? How might that happen, given that the Modernisation Committee has apparently stopped meeting?

I am not sure that this might not be a matter for consideration by the Procedure Committee; it has a splendid Chairman, who is unfortunately not able to be with us at this moment, and it does a very good job. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as hon. Members of all parties have occasionally not been satisfied with how the Report stage has progressed. Sometimes, they have confused Committee stage with Report stage, and that has made it difficult for us to do our job properly. So perhaps this is something that the Procedure Committee should look at.

It did not take long for the Deputy Leader of the House to forget that Report stage is the key moment for Back Benchers to scrutinise Bills properly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is not that Back-Bench Members speak for too long, as he suggests, but that programme motions do not take account of the business that is to be transacted? Moreover, far too many Government amendments are introduced at Report stage, not because they respond to points raised in Committee but because, as a result of the idleness or incompetence of the Ministers responsible for the Bill in the first place, they were not ready earlier.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for the Government to consider all the relevant issues before legislation is introduced. We should not bring in new elements after that, so it is important that the short titles of most Bills are fairly tight to render that impossible. However, he is wrong to suggest that the vast majority of the amendments tabled by the Government are new ones of their own devising. The vast majority are concessionary to the Opposition, and sometimes they are even a concession to a good point made by the Liberal Democrats.

Written Questions

3. How long on average it took to answer parliamentary questions for (a) ordinary and (b) named-day written answer in the last five years. (250012)

I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend. Collating the 73,357 questions to 29 Departments, and working out a mean, median or indeed average reply rate has not been possible. However, Departments know that they should answer written parliamentary questions within a working week, and named-day questions on the day that they are for answer. I want to know about it if they are failing to do so. As it happens, the office of Leader of the House has answered 100 per cent. of named-day questions on the day that they were for answer, and 200 out of 202 other questions within five days.

Computers have been around for 60 years, for goodness’ sake. Departments are required to answer questions accurately, promptly and truthfully, but their performance is often deplorable, as I know from my protracted attempts over the past year to extract information about the recording of hospitality for senior civil servants. Does my hon. Friend support my recommendation that Secretaries of State should have their salaries reduced by, say, 5 per cent. for every day over the two-week target that their Departments take to answer the average written question?

I am not sure that I can entirely support my hon. Friend in that suggestion—although perhaps if all Secretaries of State were paid the same as Deputy Leaders of the House that would be an interesting point. The important point that I think he is trying to make is that every Department should answer questions promptly, fully and without any form of obfuscation, and I want to ensure that that is what they do.

The Deputy Leader of the House is being unusually intransparent—if that is a word; I like to make things up—untransparent. [Hon. Members: “Opaque.”] Indeed. Anyway, the point that I am making is that it is beyond belief that an average could not be worked out by taking a sample of questions. My view is that the Government are hiding something. Does he agree?

Funnily enough, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I do not think that I am being opaque. I certainly do not think that I am being intransparent. The important point is that we should ensure that Departments in every area of government answer questions properly on the named day or within the time scale. The vast majority of questions are done so. He may not be happy with every answer that he gets, but the one thing that I undertake to take on—I have been working closely with ministerial colleagues in every Department—is for instance, before Prorogation, to ensure that Ministers do not just suddenly say, “Oh well, prorogation is coming up; we’re not going to answer any questions.” We did better last year than the year before. I also want to ensure that, if there are pinch points in individual Departments and we are not getting sufficient answers swiftly enough, we deal with that.

I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is it not disgraceful that some of the questions that were not answered had been tabled months before Prorogation? It is a device to allow Departments to get away with it. I retabled all my questions in the new Session, but I hope that he will look into this, because it is not right.

That matter was raised before the last Prorogation, and I wrote to Ministers at the time laying down the rules that govern it. I am very happy to provide a copy of that letter to my hon. Friend and to place one in the Library.

The Deputy Leader of the House tells us that he wishes to be informed where there are lapses. Perhaps he ought to be aware that, at the end of the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, nearly 500 questions, tabled for more than a month, did not receive a reply at all—not even the usual Prorogation reply. Will he look into these serious lapses and tell us what he proposes to do to ensure that, in future, all written questions receive a substantive reply in good time?

The shadow Deputy Leader of the House takes a keen interest in what happens before Prorogation. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I wrote to Ministers before Prorogation to try to ensure that, if anyone was thinking of using such a device to get out of answering a question, they should not do so. Perhaps my letter was sent a little late, and this year we will try to make a better fist of this.

Parliamentary Privilege

4. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the arrangements for parliamentary privilege in protecting the rights of hon. Members. (250013)

The right of Members of Parliament to speak without fear or hindrance, and their duty to speak without favour are essential parts of our parliamentary democracy and will always need a stout defence.

I am pleased that the Deputy Leader of the House rightly considers parliamentary privilege to be essential, critical and vital if Members of Parliament are to carry out their duties and responsibilities without fear, hindrance or favour, but does he not agree that implementation of the statement made some while ago by Mr. Speaker that a Committee should be set up to look into this matter is very long overdue? Bearing in mind not only the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Damian Green) but the more recent case—I am not entering into its merits—of my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), it clearly is time that the House had an opportunity to look deeply at how parliamentary privilege might be safeguarded.

As I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will know, parliamentary privilege has been fiercely debated for many centuries; indeed, elements of it go back to 1515. It is important that we have a clear understanding of parliamentary privilege. Any hon. Members who have not read the 1999 report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege should do so; it is a fine exposition of the issues. On the question relating to the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski), I think that you, Mr. Speaker, are likely to cover the matter in your statement in a few moments. On the Committee that was set up, we would be more than happy for it to meet. Unfortunately, we have not had the support of Opposition parties on that. The Committee could choose a Chairman, and as soon as police or any other investigations are completed, it will be able to get on with its business.

I am glad that the Deputy Leader of the House referred to the 1999 report; I was a member of the Committee that produced it. The Government have never implemented the recommendations, even though they indicated sympathy with them. May we have an early debate on that report, with some definitive statements from the Government?

The hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, not least because the report highlighted the significance of freedom of speech, which is vital to our parliamentary democracy. The report reiterated article 9 of the Bill of Rights of 1689, which says that

“freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament ought not to be impeached or questioned in any court or place out of Parliament”.

There were a series of recommendations. Some of them have been followed through in the business of the House, and some of them have not yet been put into law. The hon. Gentleman perhaps makes a good point about the need for us to have a full debate, so that people can fully understand the nature of parliamentary privilege, which is not quite as some members of the press have suggested it is.