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Topical Questions

Volume 498: debated on Thursday 5 November 2009

In the summer, my Department set out the UK low carbon transition plan. Central to that is planning reform, and we will shortly publish the energy national policy statement, which, alongside the Infrastructure Planning Commission, is designed to speed up the planning process for the benefit of all citizens of Britain.

Further to the meeting of 100 legislators from large economies in Copenhagen two weeks ago, will the Secretary of State agree to meet the cross-party delegation and ensure that the principles agreed are shared with not only UK negotiators but European Union negotiators?

It will be my pleasure to do so. I was actually due to attend the conference, but family responsibilities took precedence, and that was right for a range of reasons. However, I will definitely meet the legislators to which the hon. Gentleman refers. GLOBE International plays a very important role and will be very important in the next month, too.

T2. What comments can my right hon. Friend offer in relation to solicitors overcharging on miners compensation schemes? (297773)

I had my most recent meeting with the Legal Complaints Service and the Solicitors Regulation Authority yesterday, and I was saddened and disappointed to hear of so many lawyers who have taken money from vulnerable mineworkers and their bereaved widows when the state has paid them for their services, too. The Legal Complaints Service tells me that it has pursued so many solicitors for overcharging and poor services that it has made them repay about £3 million to their clients. The Solicitors Regulation Authority has prosecuted a number of firms, and they have had to make repayments of more than £3 million to their customers. For such an ethical profession as law, and as a lawyer myself, I am very disappointed.

The Secretary of State earlier highlighted the importance of new investment to secure our electricity supplies. Will he ensure that people are not driven into fuel poverty just paying to keep the lights on?

The hon. Gentleman is right, and we need to be candid about the issue because it is a very big challenge. The pressures on energy prices will be upwards in the coming decade, and we need to do all we can to protect the fuel poor. That is why my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary rightly talked about compulsory price support. I know that the hon. Gentleman campaigns, in particular, on behalf of people who are off the gas grid and who face particular issues. We must ensure that they too receive proper protection as we make the low-carbon transition.

T3. Will the Government reject the siren appeals of the climate change deniers of the Opposition and those who challenge the Act on CO2 ads, and confirm that it will be their policy, as a responsible Government, to get across the message that individuals have to be responsible for turning back the days of climate change, and that only by shocking ads will we get that across to the British public? (297774)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. There is a balance to be struck between shocking people and enabling them to think about an issue and resolve to act on it. We have carefully researched how to advertise in a responsible way. We will continue to do that, because it is essential that the British people understand what we are trying to achieve, why we need to move to a low-carbon economy, and why they can be part of it, given that 42 per cent. of all emissions in this country are the result of our own individual actions.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the town of Kettering was recently chosen by the United Nations to be the United Kingdom’s representative on a pre-Copenhagen international consultation on climate change in which 93 per cent. of participants said that the Government should attach a high priority to signing up to any climate change deal at Copenhagen?

We are very keen for local people to be involved in any discussions. That is why we published the document entitled the “Road to Copenhagen”, why we have a website, and why we encourage people to be in contact with us. It is important that people understand these issues and that they have a sense of ownership, because this is a global problem where we can all feel that we can contribute and have our voices represented by our Governments in getting the most ambitious, effective and fair deal possible.

T4. Given that the UK is the No. 1 EU donor on reproductive health matters, what is the Government’s position at Copenhagen on population pressures in terms of climate change, adaptation and mitigation? (297775)

Population is definitely an issue in relation to climate change; my hon. Friend is absolutely right. Many people make that point to me at meetings that I attend. As she implies, the answers to this are the traditional answers that we know work, particularly in developing countries, in terms of women’s education and ensuring that development aid goes to women. The economic growth that the world will see over the next 50 years far outweighs, in terms of its impact on carbon emissions if we do nothing, the impact of population issues. The real challenge is to break the link between economic growth and carbon emissions.

In January, the UK was down to only a few days’ gas storage, while Germany typically has 99 days and France has 120 days. Current Government plans extend this only by a few hours. Does the Minister agree that it is time to secure our gas storage facilities?

We do need more gas storage in this country, and there are 18 projects under way. A new gas storage project at Aldburgh is coming on-stream this winter. This is not only about gas storage but about our import capacity, which is up by 25 per cent. since last winter; indeed, our import capacity now represents 125 per cent. of total demand. We need more gas storage—the hon. Gentleman is right about that—but we also need to have import capacity as North sea capacity declines, and to make the transition to other low-carbon fuels.

T5. It is possible that this question has been asked, and answered, but it is so important that it is worth repeating. How will the poorest people in my constituency and, indeed, in the city of Dundee generally, benefit from the community energy saving programme? (297776)

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. CESP, a new programme that began in September, is designed to apply to areas that have the very lowest decile income groups. His constituency certainly meets that criterion. A total of £350 million will be invested in energy-saving measures over the next three years, coming from suppliers and generators in 100 low-income communities. I can tell him that British Gas has already announced agreement in principle to work with local authorities in 10 areas: Dundee, Glasgow, Swansea, Preston, Knowsley, Birmingham, Walsall, Blacon in Cheshire, Southwark and Haringey. We hope that they will undertake measures such as solid wall, which we have long pressed for as a means of helping those with the most difficult homes to insulate.

With the introduction of climate change measures, what is the average additional levy that gas and electricity users pay on their bills each quarter?

We said in the low carbon transition plan, which is getting a lot of airtime today, that the impact of the climate change measures that we announced in it would be about 6 per cent. on bills by 2020, or about 8 per cent. including previous measures.

It is important to say that we do not believe there is a low-cost, high-carbon future out there, even if we wanted to pursue it. As we import more gas and as demand from China, India and other countries goes up, if we do not transition to other fuels we will be subject to more volatile prices as a result of growing demand from those countries.

T6. Why are expensive new nuclear developments advancing at the speed of a striking cobra while good value, clean marine developments are moving at the pace of an arthritic sloth? (297777)

I will draw on the compliment paid to us by my hon. Friend that we are advancing with the speed of a striking cobra as far as the nuclear industry is concerned. I am sure that Opposition Front Benchers agree with that point.

On the sloth issue, in the marine industry part of the challenge has been proving the marine technology. I think there was some recent good news on that from a company called Marine Current Turbines. We set up the marine renewables deployment fund of £50 million, and the condition agreed with the industry was that the technology had to work for three months. The problem has been that it has not been able to work so far, which is why we have set up an intermediate fund to help companies over that barrier.

Order. The House needs to proceed with the speed of a striking cobra if we are to maximise the number of colleagues who get in.

The Secretary of State wants to speed up the planning process for public planning inquiries. Will he therefore go out and educate the public on energy from waste plants? If he truly believes that they are not harmful, why is he not explaining that to the Great British public?

The hon. Lady makes an important point. I am not promising adverts, but we will take up her suggestion.

T7. It is clear that most people are much more positive and objective about wind energy if they own the project, whereas problems arise when they see outside companies coming in to do something to the local area. Will my right hon. Friend look again at the case that I outlined in Westminster Hall on 12 July 2006 and get his Department to act to promote community ownership of wind energy? (297778)

My right hon. Friend, who has a proud history of work in the co-operative movement, makes an important point. I was not aware of the debate of 12 July 2006, but I can look forward to it as bedtime reading.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. The experience of Sizewell B in the 1980s is a very good reason for changing the planning system. The Opposition Front Benchers are nodding, and I hope that their nods will be translated into support for our Infrastructure Planning Commission.

T10. The Secretary of State has spoken today about the dual role of renewables in providing additional generating capacity and tackling climate change. How happy is he with the equity and effectiveness of the proposed new feed-in tariffs? It is envisaged that there will be payments of 31p per unit for new houses and 36.5p for retrofitted houses, but a miserly 9p for existing systems installed by community pioneers. (297781)

We are in the midst of a consultation on this question, but I say to my hon. Friend—this goes back to the question that the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton) asked—that we always have to remember not just the people who want to have wind turbines and solar panels, important though that is, but those who pay the bills, who are the consumers. There is a balance to be struck, but we are in the middle of a consultation and will of course listen, as we always do.

Are Ministers aware of the reception held in the House yesterday by National Energy Action, which among other things drew attention to the health through warmth programme? Will they congratulate npower and all those involved in the programme? How can the Department help that programme to continue and grow?

I am delighted to congratulate my hon. Friend on raising this issue and the health through warmth programme, which also exists in my constituency. I have visited schemes in the past and I offer to draw attention to the successes of the programme soon, because it is one of the ways in which organisations such as local authorities, the health service and energy companies come together to identify people in need of help to insulate their homes, improve their health, save on their budgets and cut carbon emissions at the same time.

What opportunities are presented by the likely signing of the Lisbon treaty for Europe to work together to tackle climate change?

My hon. Friend asks a very important question. It is important that Europe speaks with one voice—we have seen that in relation to the finance proposals—but we should also be careful about the company we keep in relation to Europe and the issue of climate change. We should be in the mainstream, not on the fringes. Frankly, I think hanging around with climate change deniers is a very big mistake.