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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Global Population

1. What recent discussions he has had with his international counterparts on the effects of climate change on the global population; and if he will make a statement. (277918)

May I first apologise for the absence of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State this morning? His partner, Justine, gave birth to a son on Tuesday, so he is taking paternity leave—thanks, of course, to the policy of this Government.

To answer the question, the Secretary of State has frequent discussions with his international counterparts on the effects of climate change on the global population. Adaptation to the impacts of climate change is a key priority for international climate change negotiations, and we recognise that the effects of climate change will have the greatest impacts on the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

I congratulate the Secretary of State and his partner on this new addition to world population.

Has my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary read Kofi Annan’s report for the Global Humanitarian Forum, showing that climate change is now responsible for 300,000 deaths a year—98 per cent. of them in developing countries? Has she also seen the forecast that if emissions are not brought under control, climate change will create 75 million refugees by 2034?

I thank my hon. Friend for bringing that most important report to the House’s attention. I have indeed seen the report and the figures that he has mentioned. We have absolutely no doubt that that adds to the pressure that we all as part of the international community properly need to absorb and bring to the discussions at Copenhagen at the end of this year. We will not get a global deal unless we can help developing countries to adapt to the effects of climate change, which are already happening and are, of course, the responsibility of the developed world.

We are strong supporters of the United Nations framework convention on climate change adaptation fund, and we have given a considerable sum of money to the climate resilience programme, which is enabling countries to adapt. In Zambia, we are helping people living on the Zambezi flood plain to protect their crops against damage caused by flooding; in Lesotho, we are helping people establish small gardens to make them less vulnerable to food shortage caused by drought; and in Bangladesh, we are helping people to raise their homes on plinths to protect them from the seasonal rains. This country has led the way on climate change, not only on mitigation but on adaptation.

First, I congratulate the Secretary of State. I want to ask the Minister whether the Government’s policy is based on ideology or science. She knows that for a theory to be scientific, it must be capable of being refuted by the evidence. Given that we have had three decades of rising temperatures, followed by a decade of stable and slightly falling temperatures worldwide, how many decades would she require before she were convinced that the theory on which she is committing £400 billion of taxpayers’ money might be slightly wrong?

Indeed, they are our figures, but we are talking about a sum of money that will be spent over more than 40 years, whereas the right hon. Gentleman presents it as if it were all for today. The issue that he has raised about science is very important. Scientists have been predicting for decades the effects of global warming, and the predicted effects are indeed happening. He needs to look at sea level rises, for example, which have been consistent, and the predictions are very extreme indeed. Where he claims that the temperature has gone down, that is very much a short-term phenomenon. When the period of temperature rises is measured against all historic records, it is very unusual. The consensus opinion of world scientists is that it extremely likely that all these effects are man-made. Even if he does not believe in the science, he should believe in taking action to adapt to what is happening—whatever the causes might be. We are quite clear as a Government that the consensus of world scientists is that this is a man-made phenomenon. We must take proper steps to tackle the continuing rise in greenhouse gas emissions, and we will do so.

Quite right too. My hon. Friend will know that the Waxman-Markey Bill on tackling climate change is working its way through the US Congress, but it has already been watered down somewhat—and it has not yet reached the Senate. That suggests that the Bill could be watered down more.

Considering that background, if we are to have higher ambitions in the EU based on a deal, should we not have benchmarks in place—I do not ask my hon. Friend to reveal those now, as they are obviously a matter of negotiation—to say that other annexe 1 countries, which one hopes the United States will soon become, should have higher standards and a better approach than that represented by the Waxman-Markey Bill?

We are most optimistic about the commitment made by President Obama, who has said that the US will lead in the climate change talks. His Secretary of State has said that the US is determined to see that the talks produce a result, and we are confident that it will play a proper part.

My hon. Friend is correct about the Bill—it has been somewhat watered down—and we are encouraging the Administration to have the greatest possible ambition: they are engaged; they accept the science; and they have negotiators with a positive approach. We believe that we will be able to achieve a global deal. It will be important that there is a commitment by the US to make the emissions reduction that is required by 2050, which is 80 per cent. for developed countries. Already, the President has said that the US can make that commitment. It is in a difficult situation because of the history under the previous Administration. We understand that, but there is a great deal of good will. This is a matter of negotiation, and we will continue to press the Administration for the greatest possible ambition.

Road Transport (Emissions)

2. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions arising from road transport. (277919)

I join in the congratulations offered to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and his partner on the birth of their son. There are regular discussions between Departments. Indeed, on 19 May, the Secretaries of State discussed carbon budgets.

The Minister may be aware of the Chinese company BYD, which is spending billions on developing the battery-powered cars of the future. My concern is that the UK may miss out on that important market. Will he join me in congratulating Vauxhall on its superb Ampera model, which most people will be able to drive most of the time while producing hardly any carbon emissions? What action are the Government taking to install more public recharging points around the country to enable this incredibly important market for the future to develop here?

A number of companies are taking the initiative to develop electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles, which are plug-in and rechargeable. We need to encourage such development not only in the UK, but worldwide. I congratulate Vauxhall on the work it has been doing and on the Volt, which is another General Motors product. That company has problems, but at least some real research and development work is being done. Increasingly, not just the energy companies, but some petrol and diesel suppliers, are recognising that they need to install plug-in points so that cars can be recharged. We are seeing the beginning of what, over the coming decade, is likely to become a vastly expanding industry, with thousands of such vehicles coming on to our roads.

Is there not a powerful argument for not producing carbon dioxide from transport emissions? May I alleviate the concerns of sceptics such as the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) by saying that we cannot go on acidifying the sea because the changes in that environment have gone way too far? That powerful argument for reducing carbon dioxide emissions is rarely used.

My hon. Friend is right that we need to ensure that we are aware of the acidification of the sea and that we recognise it as part of the overall development of a transport and environment policy.

The Government have been clear about the fact that we want real investment to go into developing vehicles that are less polluting—indeed, are low polluting—of the atmosphere. That is why we put £100 million into supporting research and demonstration of new vehicles and £250 million has been announced for consumer incentives in coming years for lower-carbon vehicles. There is a £20 million procurement of low-carbon vehicles for the Government and a £2.3 billion package of support for the automotive sector in the downturn, which has been tailored to support the development of low-carbon products.

Does the Minister agree that his Government’s proposal to expand Heathrow will inevitably lead to increased road transport and increased carbon dioxide emissions?

As part of the process of developing our transport policy, particularly in relation to Heathrow, we have ensured that we have clear targets for emissions reduction. Clearly, bringing aviation into our climate change policies is part of that. In relation to road transport and Heathrow, we want to ensure that we develop policies on hybrid and electric vehicles that will reduce overall emissions from motor vehicles in the coming decades.

Will the Minister of State convey our warmest congratulations to the Secretary of State and Justine on the birth of their son? We wish them much joy during the years ahead. I am lost in admiration for the meticulousness of Ed’s planning: he has provided himself with an excuse to go to ground this weekend that is even more convincing than John Major’s toothache.

Can the Minister of State say which electric vehicles will qualify for the £5,000 voucher announced the week before the Budget?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations, which I will pass on to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We will consult shortly on how the funding that we have announced will be best distributed. We want the growth in the use of electric vehicles to be a key area for development. The initiative will help to put electric vehicles within the reach of ordinary motorists, by providing help worth between £2,000 and £5,000 towards buying the first electric and plug-in hybrid cars when they hit the showroom, which we expect to occur from 2011 onwards, although some companies are indicating that an earlier date might be possible.

Is it not the truth that no electric vehicle is available now, or will even be available in 2011, that will qualify for the voucher? If we want to build support for a low-carbon economy, is it not essential that we avoid such gimmicks and stunts?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman sees the development of electric vehicles and support for consumers to purchase those vehicles as merely a stunt. There are already electric vehicles that are fine for short trips in the city rather than long-distance trips. We are prepared to put in place the incentives that will ensure that the technology improves—it appears that he would not do that were he ever in government. However, we are taking steps now to provide funding for research and development, and to identify funding, which the car makers and manufacturers will know will be in place, to provide incentives for consumers in future to buy the vehicles we want manufacturers to produce.

The hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) was looking for congratulations to Vauxhall for developing a new type of vehicle, which might well—we must wait and see—meet some of the criteria. If the Government were to change, however, it appears that Vauxhall might well be severely disadvantaged, and his constituents would be disadvantaged by re-electing him. Conservative Front Benchers seem to be abandoning Vauxhall and its workers.

Domestic Buildings (Energy Efficiency)

3. What recent assessment he has made of the energy efficiency of domestic and commercial buildings in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (277920)

The energy efficiency of individual domestic and non-domestic buildings is assessed primarily through energy performance certificates, which are required for all buildings when constructed, sold or let. The heat and energy saving consultation, published in February, sought evidence about energy efficiency in non-domestic buildings and asked for views on potential policy responses. We are now considering the responses to the consultation.

Is it not a fact that between 1997 and the present day there has been hardly any improvement in household energy efficiency in the United Kingdom, according to ODEX, the index that measures these matters, and is it not a fact that in the preceding period—the years leading up to 1997—there was a 14 per cent. increase in household energy efficiency? What is it about this Government that has destroyed the improvement, as measured by the internationally accepted standard?

This country has a long history of poorly insulated buildings, which, as the hon. Gentleman knows, goes back many generations. The Government are making a real effort to ensure that much more attention is paid to insulation. We have already insulated 5 million buildings in the domestic sector as a consequence of our carbon emissions reduction target provisions and the obligations on energy companies. Our current programme will lead to the insulation of a further 6 million buildings, and, as I said earlier, we have introduced energy performance certificates. We have the green homes service, run by the Energy Saving Trust, and we have the Act On CO2 helpline.

There are many, many strategies in place, and we are making improvements. People are saving money as a result of our policies, and they are lowering their carbon emissions. However, we accept that there is much more to be done. We recently engaged in a major consultation on a heat and energy saving strategy, which will bring about improvements in millions of houses over the next few years.

May I ask that our best wishes and congratulations be passed to the Secretary of State, his partner and their extended family on the birth of their little boy?

Ministers know that so far we have performed very poorly in relation to energy efficiency in domestic properties. According to a ministerial answer, only one in 100 homes meets the required standards. The Minister has just referred to the range of existing programmes. Will she reaffirm the importance of the leadership of the European Union and the European Parliament in pushing forward energy efficiency? Given that this is also local election day, will she consider our proposal for the establishment of a single central Government agency to bring all the policies together, and for local councils across the United Kingdom to roll out a programme—arranged locally, but supported by national Government—to ensure that every home is a warm home within 10 years?

The Government are always happy to consider any proposals on these issues from any of the Opposition parties. If the hon. Gentleman examines the heat and energy saving strategy, he will see that it includes options that are not dissimilar to his proposal. As I have said, we believe that we need much greater drive and much more co-ordination. We have learned from many of the programmes that will come on stream in the autumn. The community energy saving programme will enable us for the first time to deal with the areas in greatest need, house by house and street by street. It will give us a basis on which to introduce programmes that will make the whole population energy-efficient over the next couple of decades.

We are very clear about the fact that by 2015 every cavity and loft that it is appropriate to insulate will have been insulated, and 7 million homes will have had a complete eco-makeover by 2020. That is a very positive programme. We will continue to keep everything under review. We need to do as much as we can, because the emissions from our homes constitute about 27 per cent. of total carbon emissions. We absolutely must get to grips with this sector. We shall need more co-operation and involvement on the part of the public at large, and I hope that all parties will play their part in helping that process.

I commend the Minister for her efforts, but will she accept that a major part of the energy expended by a building during its life cycle is expended during its construction, and that the vilification of older property—particularly antique property—that is not capable of being double-glazed or cavity wall-insulated as part of the home information pack process is rather unfortunate?

In this country, we have many historic and listed buildings. We are endeavouring to find ways both to preserve the fabric of historic buildings and to improve their energy efficiency. The Government have provided £1 million for ongoing work with the Energy Saving Trust. We know that we must achieve both those aims, and we are committed to ensuring that we do so. While that work is being undertaken, however, as the vast majority of homes in this country are more than capable of receiving standard measures, the most important thing we can do is both encourage people to get on with the work and continue with the Government programmes that give financial assistance and oblige energy companies to ensure that those homes that can be easily insulated are quickly insulated in advance of next winter.

I hope the Minister will also pass on my very warmest best wishes to the Secretary of State and his partner.

In the Minister’s answer to my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), she put her finger on the nub of the issue when she said that there are “many, many strategies in place”, because the fact of the matter is that the Government’s approach to energy efficiency is fragmented and confused. We have social energy tariffs, energy performance certificates, the decent homes standard, Warm Front, winter fuel payments, the low-carbon buildings programme, the carbon emissions reduction target, new building regulations, warm zones, the community energy saving programme, Fuel Direct, the green homes service and fuel poverty targets. No wonder the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said:

“There’s a lot…out there…but it’s hard to know where to start.”

Given that the Government are now totally paralysed and Ministers’ minds are clearly focused elsewhere, is it not clear that they are never going to get to grips with energy efficiency, and that the bottom line is that the lights are on, but nobody’s home?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his amusing contribution. I am also most grateful to him for having listed so many of the Government’s programmes, and I hope the House is impressed by the extent of our work and our focus on these issues. The fact of the matter is that many programmes are required, because it is essential to involve many sectors and to have different approaches. We believe that there is scope for bringing approaches together—that is in the current consultation, which I recommend that the hon. Gentleman reads. I also thank him and the Liberal Front-Bench spokesman for their kind words about my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

Copenhagen Conference

4. What the Government’s priorities are for a global agreement on climate change in Copenhagen in December. (277921)

Our priority at Copenhagen is to seek a comprehensive agreement, which gives the best chance of limiting global temperature rises to no more than 2° C. To achieve that, we want to see ambitious emissions reductions targets from developed countries, action by developing countries to reduce emissions below business-as-usual levels and agreement on finance and technology flows to support developing-country action.

I thank the Minister for that response, but what grounds does she have for believing that Copenhagen will be more successful than Kyoto and that unanimity can be reached?

Since Kyoto, the world community has become more conscious of the science of climate change. In every country that we visit, no matter what its perspective, all the conversations that we have show a real understanding that the situation is very serious and that we need to avert the most dangerous climate change. Because of that, minds are much more focused and we have much more science—we also have a new mood in the United States of America, which is extremely important. We also know that China, which is doing a great deal domestically already, is now approaching the talks in a very positive manner, and we have great co-operation from the G77 countries. There is reason to be optimistic, therefore, and even more so because of the commitments that the US Administration have made.

The Minister has stated that one of her personal priorities, which is shared on both sides of the House, is the increased use of electric cars. The first law of thermodynamics says that one cannot create energy, so what sort of cost-benefit or overall analysis has she done on the effects on climate change of having to produce the extra electricity generation capacity to power all those electric cars, which we hope we will have—they will certainly help asthma sufferers in the UK—in the years to come?

The key to the extra generation of electricity is renewables—[Interruption.] I am being pressed as to whether or not that involves nuclear. We have said that there needs to be an energy mix, of which nuclear is a part. Nuclear power creates a lot of emissions through building and the mining of the ore, but when these facilities are in operation, they are then emission-free. So, of course nuclear power has a part to play, but renewables and, in particular—given that we are examining international needs and discussions—the ability to transfer technology, particularly to developing countries, to enable others to produce electricity by low-carbon or no-carbon means, are crucial. That is because there needs to be growth in those emerging economies. That is also why we are working with China on carbon capture and storage for coal, because that is another area where reducing emissions from energy sources is crucial.

Electric Vehicles

6. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Transport on the Government’s policy on carbon dioxide emissions arising from the generation of electricity used by electric vehicles. (277923)

Ministers regularly discuss these issues, and we are committed to reducing overall transport emissions as part of tackling climate change. We will publish our transport carbon reduction strategy this summer, which will examine, among other things, the development of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicles are often described as having zero emissions—that may be the case as they drive down Park lane, but it is not the case at Drax, Ferrybridge or Eggborough, where the electricity may be produced from coal. Given the current energy mix of our base load, and given that after allowing for the energy loss at the power station and transmission loss an electric vehicle is only about 33 per cent. emission efficient, which compares with a figure of 45 per cent. for a diesel car, which is the more carbon friendly, the diesel car or the electric car?

We are looking at the development of vehicles that will be increasingly low-carbon. That is one of the key reasons why the Government have already put a substantial amount of funding into research and development. It is possible to reduce the level of emissions from internal combustion engine cars that use petrol and other fuels, as well as developing electric vehicles, which are substantially lower generators of carbon and other emissions. We hope that such an approach will, in the long term, ensure that our environment is better protected. I think that the hon. Gentleman is right to say that at the moment we still need to work very hard on the research and development area, but that is precisely why the Government are putting in the extra funding and why, unlike his party, we believe we need to flag up the fact that consumers will be incentivised to buy low-carbon vehicles in the future.

Notwithstanding the Minister’s comments about the potential for reducing emissions from individual cars, is not the management and limitation of CO2 emissions in the generation of electricity potentially much more effective than reducing emissions from individual, carbon-fuelled vehicles, be they on the road or the railway? Does he agree that that is part of the overwhelmingly powerful case for the electrification of the midland main line and other similar routes?

It is important that we ensure that we electrify our main lines and put in place a transport policy that not only ensures that we do not transfer emissions from the streets to power stations, but whose overall breadth ensures that we recognise that public transport and developing community-based transport are key parts of the future development of a low-carbon energy strategy in the decades to come.

The Minister has made the point that the source of the electricity is crucial to the efficiency of the electric car, and therefore the Government have to deliver a low-carbon electricity-generating system. Would not the early introduction of smart metering help to make electric cars more efficient, so that they could be optimised to charge when the wind is blowing and renewable energy is available and surplus to capacity?

The hon. Gentleman is right: we need to ensure that we not only introduce smart meters—we have already announced that we want to see them introduced across the whole country over the next decade—but investigate the uses that a smart grid system can make of the smart meters. In a decade’s time, smart meters will have developed in sophistication, and be able to communicate with refrigerators and other equipment. It will be possible for signals to be sent from the central base to various gadgets in the home to reduce the amount of electricity they use at peak times and increase it during the night or other quiet times. We want a smart grid system to go with the smart meters, with a level of sophistication that enables us better to manage the amount of electricity that we use.

Topical Questions

The Secretary of State has reason to smile because he has just become a father, and also because the new Department has now been able to move most of its staff into its new building at 3 Whitehall place. It is always challenging to set up a new Department, but the move should be complete by the end of the month. I have now moved out of a photocopying room into a Minister’s office, which always helps, especially when I have visitors. The Department can now focus much more effectively on its key aims—to tackle climate change, to provide energy security for the UK and to do both at an affordable price.

Will the Minister confirm the figures in his Department’s document that say that the impact of the renewables target on gas bills will be to increase them by up to 23.6 per cent.? How many more people will that increase put into fuel poverty?

The hon. Gentleman is creating the image that everything will happen immediately and that next week we will suddenly see massive rises. We are talking about a considerable period of time in which we will develop renewables and a range of low-carbon energy generation—something that his Front-Bench team also claims that it wants to see happen. We need to ensure that happens over the next decade—indeed up to 2050 and beyond—to deal with the problem of climate change. The costs of not dealing with climate change will be much greater for the consumer and the world. It is essential that we develop renewables—

Order. In topical questions, I am looking for punchy questions and answers. Perhaps Mr. Hendry can try.

Thank you, Mr. Speaker. By the time the Minister has finished, the questions will not be topical any more. [Laughter.]

This morning we have heard from the Government about some of their consultation schemes on smart meters, energy efficiency, electric cars, tidal barrages, carbon capture, renewable heat and biogas. Does the Minister understand the frustration of so many people in the energy sector with the endless process of reviews and consultations? We need a Government with the power to make decisions and to stop just talking about things.

This Government have made a whole series of decisions on issues such as smart meters and developing nuclear. The Opposition, however, are a different matter. Let us take the example of nuclear: they were in favour of it, and then as soon as the Government said that we would consult on taking a view on the move to nuclear, they decided to oppose it. After we announced our move, they decided, “All right, we’re back in exactly the same position as we were before.” Those on the Conservative Front Bench cannot make up their mind about most things, whereas we have set out clear strategies for developing renewables, for developing nuclear, for dealing with climate change and for ensuring that we have energy security in this country.

T2. Will the Government make up their mind on how important they think tidal flow technology is? Of course we must harness green energy from the sea and of course it is possible to build something like the Severn barrage, but that would cause irreversible damage to the environment and economy of the whole Severn estuary. Instead, can we please put far more resource and effort into tidal flow technology around our coasts? (277940)

We are consulting on the development of this key area. Using tidal and using containment of tidal developments at the 4-metre tidal wave level in the Severn, we know that in the future we can develop a level of electricity generation around our coast that will help to protect our environment. That is why ensuring that we go through all the environmental analysis of the Severn estuary and of the development of tidal and estuary electricity in the future is key to our energy policy.

Increasingly, consumers are opting to sign up for so-called green electricity tariffs, often without knowing what they are getting or what they are signing up for. Will the Minister tell the House what the Government are doing to ensure that people are signing up for something of genuine environmental benefit?

Of course Ofgem is responsible for regulating the various tariffs and the way the energy companies charge people for the different rates of electricity that they supply. Ofgem has just completed a review of some areas of charging. It had some concerns and obliged the energy companies to change some of their proposals. If particular concerns arise with regard to so-called green tariffs, those are matters that Ofgem needs to deal with and the Government would strongly urge Ofgem to be straightforward in ensuring that it deals with these issues.

T3. We have established that domestic energy efficiency improvements under the Conservatives came to an almost grinding halt under this Government, but what about Government Departments? According to the display energy certificates for the 17 Departments, only two achieved a grade C and three achieved a grade E. Seven were graded F and five got the bottom grade of G, including the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Is that what the Government regard as leading by example? (277943)

As the hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well, the fact is that many Government buildings are very ancient or are listed buildings. DECC is in that category. It is extremely difficult for a Department to raise its standards quickly when it is occupying such a building, but we are absolutely determined to do so. We are looking at every aspect of the heating, the ventilation, the water use and the waste in that building. We are committed overall as a Government to a 12.5 per cent. reduction in emissions from Government Departments by 2010 and we are confident that we now have in place sufficient measures to achieve that.

T4. Will the Minister confirm that on current policies, the UK will fall woefully short of its 2020 target on renewable energy? (277944)

T5. Will the Minister accept that the European Commission’s proposals to mitigate climate change could well cost this country £9 billion a year by 2020? It is estimated that that could put 1 million more households into fuel poverty, and increase the average fuel bill by £200. Is that what the Government want to achieve? I am not sure that that will be very popular. Should they not pay more attention to energy security, so that we do not get three-day-a-week black-outs, and every other problem that we had in the past? (277945)

Great attention is being paid to energy security. In the longer term, renewables will add to our energy security because they will reduce imports of fuel from other countries. The fact is that there is a need to do that work. The costs would be much greater to all of us if we did not mitigate dangerous climate change, and if we had adapt to the worst effects, so the money will be well spent. Of course, as we make progress people’s fuel bills will go down when they are able to take up all the measures. They will save energy and therefore money. Although it is necessary to put public funds into the development of renewables and energy efficiency, we are committed to seeing that it is done fairly. Of course, we do not seek in any way to put more people into fuel poverty. On the contrary, we have a strategy to get them out, unlike the Conservative party.

The consumer organisation Which? has calculated that there are something like 4,000 different tariffs; that can be very confusing for consumers. As a result, many of the people who are switching switch to a more expensive tariff. In the light of my ten-minute Bill, which would oblige energy companies to publish on their bills whether the consumer is accessing the company’s cheapest tariff—an idea welcomed, by the way, by the Secretary of State at the Dispatch Box—what steps are the Government taking to ensure that energy bills are used to highlight important information such as that, in order to improve energy efficiency?

Someone said, sotto voce, that that was a very good question, and indeed it is. Switching has highlighted the fact that some people are not getting information that enables them to ensure that they are better off when they switch. We need to make sure that the information they receive is much more honest and valid; sometimes those who encourage switching provide some questionable information. However, there are websites where reliable information could be obtained, and making sure that that information is more widely known is important. We will publish our broader strategy on fuel poverty in due course, and we are considering some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman has raised. Certainly, one of the issues to which we need to give serious consideration is the idea that he puts forward of having more information on bills about the sort of tariffs available.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Parliamentary Questions

1. What steps she is taking to ensure the completeness of answers to parliamentary questions for written answer. (277946)

4. What steps she is taking to ensure the completeness of answers to parliamentary questions for written answer. (277950)

My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I are fully committed to making sure that Ministers give faithful, honest, complete and timely answers to written parliamentary questions. We keep the matter under continuous review.

I have to say that I am generally very pleased with the quality of the answers that I get from the Department for Transport, but occasionally—possibly because I am at fault, not having tabled the question precisely enough—the question could be open to misinterpretation. I was pleased a couple of weeks ago to get a call from an official at the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency in Swansea asking for clarification, but more recently, I rather suspected that I had been fobbed off with an answer to a question that the Department would have preferred to have been asked, rather than to the question that I asked. Could officials be asked to take the opportunity to speak to Members more often to find out what information they need, so that Members do not have to table another question and incur more expense?

The hon. Gentleman makes a very good suggestion. In one particular case relating to some questions to the Department for Transport that he tabled, I have followed up on the problem that he had. I think that there was a misunderstanding in the Department, and the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Gillingham (Paul Clark), wrote to the hon. Gentleman this morning to say that he will make clear the precise situation and make a proper correction to Hansard.

When the Prime Minister said that he could not implement the full police pay rise of 2.5 per cent. at arbitration, but could pay only 1.9 per cent. because of the impact on inflation, I tabled a question to the Chancellor asking what the difference would be to the overall inflation rate if either pay rise were implemented. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury gave a long-winded answer that did not address the question. The Office for National Statistics could provide an answer, however, which was that either figure would not have made a blind bit of difference to the overall inflation rate. Clearly, the answer had not been given because it was embarrassing to the Government. Could we make sure that accurate and full answers are given, even if the information might embarrass the Government?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the Government should provide truthful answers, whether they embarrass the Government or not. I also take the point about providing timely and full answers, which is why this week I wrote to three Departments where there have been difficulties in providing enough timely answers. There is sometimes an issue with the numbers of staff who provide suggested replies to Ministers, and sometimes there is a problem for Ministers: for instance, one Minister in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, answers 600 questions a month. Obviously, that is a pretty severe stress.

I had a sneaking suspicion that the hon. Gentleman might raise the issue of his question last year. I should not say that the three, or perhaps four, paragraphs of the Chief Secretary reply were long-winded; if anything, they were not quite long-winded enough. In fact, on the fuller letter and the question that he asked me previously, I did some following up for him and I think he has had a more substantial answer that goes into some depth about all the issues that he raises.

We have had repeated assurances from the Leader of the House that Ministers’ written answers will have attached to them all relevant information, so that it is easily accessible to other Members as well as to members of the public who may read Hansard. It simply is not good enough that Ministers make reference to the “information being in the House of Commons Library”. Earlier this week, however, I received a reply from the Department for Children, Schools and Families concerning the number of children who are taken into care. It is a serious subject that is of huge interest to a number of Members across the political divide as well as to members of the public, and the information referred to was not so long and complex that it could not have been made easily accessible and published in Hansard. Will the Deputy Leader of the House undertake to have a word with the Children’s Secretary, while he still is the Children’s Secretary, to ensure that in future his Department supplies all relevant information in a format that is easily accessible to other Members and to members of the public?

I am absolutely sure that the hon. Gentleman is right. Ministers should not provide an answer that refers somebody to some obscure, other document, even if it is in the public domain. That is why I am happy to write again to Ministers and to ensure that we speak to the Cabinet Secretary, so that civil servants, via the permanent secretaries, also understand the expectation that hon. Members should not be fobbed off with a half or two-thirds answer, but receive a full answer. My only hesitation is that, before the Government came into power, in 1996-97, there were only 18,439 written questions; in the last Session, however, there were 73,357. Departments have to manage the process properly, so that we have high-quality, timely, faithful and honest answers in every case.

European Scrutiny

2. What assessment she has made of the effectiveness of arrangements for the scrutiny by the House of legislation brought forward under the European Communities Act 1972. (277947)

EU legislation, as I am sure the hon. Lady knows because she has been around for a while, is transposed into domestic law by a variety of means, including primary legislation, secondary legislation under the 1972 Act and other secondary legislation. We continue to keep the effectiveness of all those methods under review and are happy to listen to proposals for improvement.

The hon. Gentleman will be well advised to take advice from his right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House on the charm factor when responding to questions. He may or may or not be aware that the Government are considering removing part of the draft Flood and Water Management Bill that is before the House and introducing it in secondary legislation under the 1972 Act. Does he share my concern that that process does not allow for the same parliamentary scrutiny as a Public Bill Committee? It is highly regrettable in that regard. The legislation is not contentious, and that is why we should expedite and introduce the main—not a draft—Flood and Water Management Bill, rather than use secondary legislation, which is not subject to proper parliamentary scrutiny.

I did not intend to disparage the hon. Lady; I was merely trying to reinforce the view—of the whole House, I am sure—that she has considerable experience and expertise and brings wisdom to all her comments. She has made an important point, although she has completely and utterly misunderstood the Government’s intentions on the particular issue in question. As she knows, we are committed to providing a draft legislative programme, and we will publish it in the not-too-distant future. We will consult on it around the country so that people will be able to put their views on precisely how we should proceed with the measures. We have also introduced the whole process of pre-legislative scrutiny, which gives the hon. Lady the opportunity to make precisely the points that she has made.

Today, the whole nation should be looking at what is coming out of Europe that will affect this country. One of the crucial things to recognise is that transposing European legislation is a passive act of turning what comes concretely from Brussels into facts on the ground in this country. Should not the crucial message to the House and the Government be that we must ensure that that legislation is well and truly scrutinised before it is firmed up in Europe, so that when it comes to this country it is in a form that we can make best use of?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, of course. However, we often transpose EU legislation into UK law not through statutory instruments but through primary legislation. A classic example at the moment is the Coroners and Justice Bill, which transposes large elements of the services directive. Similarly, it is sometimes appropriate for us to bring forward provisions such as the Swine Vesicular Disease Regulations 2009 through statutory instruments; we want to ensure that, after consultation, there is clarity and swiftness around the country in respect of such provisions.

House of Commons Commission

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

Parliamentary Access

3. What steps the House of Commons Commission is taking to ensure unimpeded access to and from the parliamentary estate for hon. Members and staff at all times. (277948)

As you have said in the House, Mr. Speaker, the Serjeant at Arms is your contact with the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis on all such matters. The Serjeant at Arms continues to impress on the Metropolitan police the need and requirement for vehicle and pedestrian access to the parliamentary estate to be maintained.

As the House is well aware, recently the Tamil demonstration and protest meant that the access of Members and staff to the House was completely cut off and for long periods was greatly restricted. Only this week, owing to a demonstration by cyclists—representing the Green party and campaigning in the European elections, I understand—Bridge street was closed for a period, thus greatly inconveniencing Members of Parliament.

And the public as well. Only this week, the very entrance to the House of Commons has been blocked by odd mavericks and others seeking to inconvenience—perhaps even arrest—Members of Parliament. Is it not time that the police, who appear to be completely unable to deal with the situation, developed a strategy and tactics to enable them to ensure that Members and staff of the House, and the public, have unimpeded access to the House of Commons?

We are aware of the instance to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but obviously policing on London’s streets is a matter for the Metropolitan police. The service says that it has to give a proportionate response, which, in the light of complaints about the policing of protests, is understandable. However, we will continue to make clear to the service the need for Members to be able to get in and out of the House at all times. For the time being at least, protests in Parliament square are legal and legitimate. If the hon. Gentleman and others wish to see a change in the disposition of the law, there may be legislative opportunities to which they will wish to contribute.

I have some grave concerns about what is going on in Parliament square, not least because this is very much an iconic building and we have a lot of tourists who want to visit this area. Equally, I do not entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), in that I think peaceful protest is an important part of the process as well. I want to stress to the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) that rules are already in place. There should be no encampment, as there has been of Tamil demonstrators in the past seven weeks, and there should be no more than 50 protestors at any one time. The police already have considerable powers in this regard, and they should be properly exercised.

We will continue a dialogue with the police, and the Serjeant at Arms will continue to make clear to them the need to sustain access to the Palace.

Although I can well understand Members’ irritation about this, I, too, impress on the hon. Member for North Devon (Nick Harvey) the need to recognise that there is a balance to be struck between the convenience of Members and the legitimate right to peaceful protest, and to ensure that whatever solution is found to the current issues out there, that balance is struck.

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. However, I stress again that any change to the legislation is a matter for this House, while the detailed arrangements for policing the streets are a matter for the Metropolitan police, and the Serjeant at Arms will continue to impress upon them the need to maintain access.

Is it not a fact that the licence for the noisy use of amplified broadcasting equipment ran out long ago, and that no enforcement of the existing laws is being carried out? As long ago as October, we were promised in this House that legislation was imminent. When are we going to see it?

The timing of legislation is not a matter for me. The Joint Committee on the Constitutional Renewal Bill has been looking at the provisions, and we await with interest the legislation’s coming before the House.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Business of the House

5. If she will bring forward proposals to establish a business committee to determine the House’s business; and if she will make a statement. (277954)

Confidence in Parliament has certainly taken a hit in recent months, and the questions of timetabling and a business committee, which are being considered by the Procedure Committee, are ones that we need to address, bringing together Members from all parts of the House.

I am grateful for that more conciliatory response to the question than I have heard from the Minister before. Given that the Prime Minister is now clear that constitutional reform needs to go more quickly, and that the public seem clear that Parliament and the Government should be separate so that we can do our job in holding the Government to account, I hope that Ministers will now be positive about the business of Parliament—the House of Commons—being determined by Parliament, not by Government, and will be very supportive of this proposal.

Obviously, the Government are the Government only because they have a majority in Parliament. That makes the system that we have to have in this country somewhat different from that in some other countries, particularly those where there is no one party with a majority. The hon. Gentleman and others have made interesting points on this issue, and we want to ensure that that debate can be carried forward properly. In our present system, we have substantial measures to ensure that elements of the business are not decided entirely by Government but by the Opposition. Indeed, my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House is about to announce several days coming up that have not been determined by Government at all.

House of Commons Commission

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

Freedom of Information Act

6. How much has been spent from the House of Commons administration vote on completed administrative and legal challenges to decisions of the Information Commissioner, the Information Tribunal and the courts made in respect of the Freedom of Information Act 2000. (277955)

Legal actions have incurred external costs to the administration estimate of £55,361 to date. The internal costs associated with legal challenges are absorbed within the cost of running the House administration and cannot be separately identified. The figure does not include costs charged to the Members’ estimate.

A number of my constituents have asked whether that sum might be paid back out of existing budgets of the House of Commons. Is that possible?

I am unclear what the hon. Gentleman means. To whom would it be paid back, and by whom? If the money were paid to the Treasury from the House of Commons administration estimate, then it would be going round in a circle. I cannot see what public interest would be served by such a transaction.