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Topical Questions

Volume 493: debated on Thursday 4 June 2009

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.