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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 7 January 2010

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Aircraft)

1. Whether his Department has made an assessment of the effects on greenhouse gas emissions of the temporary grounding of aircraft following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001. (308886)

The Department has not made an assessment of the effects on greenhouse gas emissions of the temporary grounding of aircraft following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001.

When all air traffic in the western world was grounded after the 9/11 incident, within three days the global temperature change was 1°, and when traffic resumed it went back by 1°. Is not that a very significant scientific statement? Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Department looks into why this happened, and the impact that it should have on our future policies? I asked this question of her predecessor five years ago, and I would appreciate an answer.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend—and it has not taken me five years to dream up an answer. First, this is not a question of greenhouse gases. The scientific interest that followed the grounding of the aircraft was do with the issue of contrails, which are the evaporation and condensation trails emitted by aircraft. We do not know the science of contrails very clearly, but there are two possible effects: first, that they reflect radiation back beyond the earth, and therefore have a cooling effect—or, secondly, that they become cirrus clouds and trap radiation, and therefore have a warming effect. The phenomenon that was observed was thought possibly to be due to the absence of contrails leading to a heating effect. However, the Department has followed subsequent studies, and we now believe that there is no evidence that contrails, or the lack of them, were responsible for the temperature rise observed at the time, and that it was a natural fluctuation.

Carbon Capture and Storage

2. What his most recent assessment is of progress in the competition to build a commercial scale carbon capture and storage power plant in the UK; and if he will make a statement. (308887)

We are currently evaluating two bids to select, which will receive funding from the £90 million set aside for the front-end engineering and design stage, with the result to be announced shortly. This is one of the four demonstration projects to which we are committed, funded by the levy for carbon capture and storage under the Energy Bill, which will ensure the largest investment in CCS of any country in the world.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. He recognises, as does the whole House, the importance of this work in creating jobs, apart from anything else. However, he will also know that we have fallen behind China, Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway and Belgium because we have been so late in developing this technology. When are we going to start doing something?

This is a line that the Opposition like to peddle, but it is absolutely untrue. One need only look at what has happened since 2007. We have had the pre-qualification phase and the application phase for these projects. Hundreds of pages of applications have come into our Department and are being scrutinised, as one would expect in any procurement project. We have a CCS levy before this House; we have agreement in Europe for up to 12 demonstration projects, pushed by the United Kingdom; we have a commitment in this country to four demonstration projects, which we have not had before; and we have legislation in the Energy Bill for the storage of carbon dioxide from CCS projects. We are making progress. Indeed, there is as yet no post-combustion project in the world on the scale that we are talking about in this country.

The Secretary of State will know that burning coal cleanly is important both in his constituency and in mine. He will also know that there are plans to extend that process at Harworth colliery, but a loan from the European Investment Bank cannot be made until a guarantee of clean coal technology is available for that coal. What can he do to help the men at Harworth?

As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have been in touch with the European Investment Bank and continue to have dialogue with it about these matters, including the specific issue that he mentions. As we look forward to carbon capture and storage in this country, it is important to say that there is also a role for indigenous coal. My Department is very clear about that, and we do all we can, working with others, to support that process.

The Secretary of State’s fellow Ministers have heard the evidence given to the Public Bill Committee on the Energy Bill this week, with people describing the need for regulatory certainty if we are going to get investment in this new technology. Industry and environmental groups all agree that the terms for investment must be set for decades, not just the next few years, so will the Secretary of State agree that the Government should now take powers to set an emissions performance standard for a maximum level of emissions for new fossil fuel plant, as proposed by ourselves, the Liberal Democrats, many of his own parliamentary colleagues and many outside, to provide that regulatory certainty and show a real commitment to a low-carbon economy?

Obviously, we will look at any proposals that come forward, but I say to the hon. Gentleman—perhaps he has not followed the matter as closely as he might have done—that we have unveiled the most environmentally stringent conditions for new coal-fired power stations of any country in the world. We consulted on them and we have now put them into national policy statements. The proposals have been widely welcomed, both by the green groups that he mentions and by energy companies, as striking the right balance. A plant-level emissions standard could also have a role. As I understand it, the Environment Agency already has powers to introduce one, but we will examine any proposals that come forward.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that pre-combustion carbon capture has the advantage of producing chemicals, especially hydrogen, and that we ought to encourage commercial interests in that area as well as in post-combustion carbon capture? Has he had any negotiations with BP, which pulled out of the Peterhead experiment?

I think I am right in saying that the Peterhead proposal was for a gas-fired power station. Our concentration in spending significant amounts of money has been on coal-fired power stations. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that pre-combustion has an important role. We have said that of the four demonstration projects up to two will be pre-combustion, precisely because we recognise the importance of that technology. It is important to say that as we spend a significant sum on carbon capture and storage—as I said, it is the largest sum spent by any country in the world—we need to test all the technologies to drive it forward, including pre-combustion.

In evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Energy Bill, some witnesses have suggested that the 2014 target of having a demonstrator up and working is just one of the conditions and may be allowed to slip. Can the Secretary of State assure us that it will be a principal condition that the demonstrator must be up and working by 2014?

As I think I have said in previous answers on this matter, that was set out as one of the conditions for the demonstration project and remains one of the conditions, and we are certainly considering that closely as we consider the bids that have been put forward.

Fuel Inefficiency

Fuel poverty is caused by three factors: incomes, prices and household energy efficiency. We are acting on all three, including through higher winter fuel and cold weather payments this winter, and through compulsory help with bills for the most vulnerable, which is being legislated for in the current Energy Bill. In the pre-Budget report, an extra £150 million was provided for the Warm Front programme next year, building on the 2 million households helped in the last decade.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but he will know that, especially in cold spells such as the recent one, it is those in the most energy-inefficient homes, which tend to be the hardest to treat, and those who use expensive sources of heating off the gas grid such as heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas, who suffer most. Despite the warm words about such homes and about the people who use those energy sources, precious little has been done to warm them up. They tend to come at the end of the queue. What can the right hon. Gentleman say to assure me that in future, people in hard-to-treat homes off the gas grid will come at the front of the queue?

I recognise that that is an issue to consider throughout the country, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency, and I shall try to explain our strategy to him. First, we have said that social price support will be focused on electricity bills, to ensure that everyone gets the benefit of it, not just those on the gas grid. Secondly, we have recently increased the amount that poor households off the gas grid can get under Warm Front to a £6,000 maximum grant for oil-based or renewable heating systems. Thirdly, the renewable heat incentive is being introduced, precisely to encourage the take-up of different forms of heating by those who are not on the gas grid, and fourthly, the community energy-saving programme will work in rural areas to see what can be done to provide whole-house efficiency. There is more that we can do, but we are trying to make a difference to the households that are difficult to reach.

Will my right hon. Friend say something about the current Warm Front funding, and how long it is taking individual households, particularly those that do not have central heating or whose boilers have been condemned, to get action? There seems to be some concern that it is taking up to six months. In this weather, that is six months too long.

My hon. Friend asks an important question. The amount of money allocated to the Warm Front programme was due to fall next year. Thanks to the Chancellor—in tough times—making the decision to allocate another £150 million to it, the amount of Warm Front money will be significantly enhanced next year. That should help with some of the queuing issues to which my hon. Friend refers. Warm Front is a very popular programme—lots of households want to take advantage of it—and it is good that the Chancellor recognises both its importance and its success, and has provided more resources for it.

Now that we have reached the 13th, and coldest, winter of this Labour Government, what excuse is there for the fact that according to Government figures, only one in 100 British households is properly insulated, when lack of insulation is the biggest contributor to fuel poverty in this country?

It is characteristic of the Liberal Democrats to blame the Government for the weather. On the hon. Gentleman’s serious question about energy efficiency and insulation, there is more to do, but it is important to point out that under our programmes, 1.5 million homes a year are being insulated and getting the help they need. The Warm Front programme, which did not exist before, has helped 2 million homes since its inception. There is more to do. That is why we are planning a decade-long improvement in energy efficiency, including a pay-as-you-save mechanism, to make it possible to do more.

The Secretary of State has given us a piecemeal answer to a much bigger question. Before his Government are frozen out by the electorate, is he willing to commit himself today to a national 10-year warm home programme and to support the amendment to the Energy Bill that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, which would mean that the programme could start this year?

I will look at the amendment—but the last Bill that came forward from the Liberal Democrats was an uncosted shopping list, with no basis for paying for it. That is a luxury of opposition but not a luxury of government. We are planning, and I can commit to, a national energy programme over the next 10 years. We are consulting on it, and will have more to say about it in the coming weeks.

Ofgem, the regulator, has a very important role in reducing fuel poverty, but the Public Bill Committee on the Energy Bill has just heard evidence that it does not necessarily have the confidence to know legally when it can intervene to force companies to do more. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that, and say how the Energy Bill will help to make it clear to Ofgem what responsibilities it has to help people?

I look forward to reading the report of proceedings in the Energy Bill Committee—it sounds as if many interesting things were said. One purpose of the Bill is precisely to strengthen Ofgem’s powers in a number of respects and to make it a more proactive regulator—a regulator that not only relies on competition to help consumers, but realises that it has a duty to be proactive on their behalf. It has done more of that in the past year, including taking action on prepayment meters and other issues, but I am sure there is more to do.

Has the Secretary of State read the report on fuel poverty published in 2008 by the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise? It said that to keep fuel affordable, increasing gas storage

“is now an issue of national importance and should be a high priority in domestic energy policy.”

What increase in storage capacity has there been since then?

More gas storage is coming on line, including the Aldbrough gas storage project, which recently completed its first phase. The hon. Gentleman is going around saying that gas storage is a big problem for the UK and citing figures, but National Grid is quoted in the papers this morning as saying that his figures are meaningless, because they ignore the role of the North sea, which provides 50 per cent. of our gas storage, and the role of UK import capacity.

The Secretary of State should listen to the Select Committee and note that North sea production is in decline, and he should listen to Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, his junior Minister, who said that the new storage capacity opened in the past year has been the equivalent of five hours’ worth—which is about as much time as it takes the Secretary of State to decide whether or not to back the Prime Minister. Gas storage helps to offset fuel poverty by allowing us to buy supplies when they are cheap in the summer, to be used in the winter. Is he aware that if we had had just half of France’s storage capacity, British consumers could be paying £1 billion less for their gas this winter? What is his policy on how much gas storage is needed?

We need more gas storage, and there are more projects planned. The hon. Gentleman has cited figures for gas storage, but The Independent this morning says that

“the National Grid dismissed the calculation as a ‘meaningless number’ because it ignored both the amount of gas imported and that nearly half of UK demand is met by North Sea production.”

We do need more gas storage, but it is worth saying that at the beginning of this week gas storage was 80 per cent. full in the UK. The hon. Gentleman claims that gas storage is somehow an issue in this cold weather, but he knows that that is complete nonsense.

Is it not clear that when fuel poverty is soaring, we have too little gas storage capacity, and the Government have said that they expect power cuts by 2017, they are—in this winter of discontent with, and within, the Government—taking us back, with every day that goes by, to a world that we thought we had left behind in the 1970s?

I do not know whether that was a question, a statement or something that the hon. Gentleman prepared in front of the mirror this morning. Frankly, he will have to do better. Playing politics with energy security and gas storage, and alarming people, is the wrong thing to do.

Fuel Poverty

The current exceptionally cold weather causes us all concern for the well-being of all households in fuel poverty. The Department for Work and Pensions makes cold weather payments as a contribution towards extra heating costs during a week of very cold weather in the area in which an eligible customer lives. This winter the number of cold weather payments made is estimated to be worth £185 million. Payments are made automatically, but if anyone has questions about the help available to them, they can access information on the directgov website—or if they do not have access to, or the inclination to use, the internet, they can always ask their Member of Parliament.

The estimated number of households in fuel poverty in the UK was around 2 million in 2003. The latest year for which figures are available is 2007, and they show that there were then around 4 million fuel-poor households in the UK.

I thank the Minister for that statement. My understanding is that last winter more than 5 million families were in fuel poverty. The Government have a statutory target to eradicate fuel poverty in vulnerable households by 2010. Will they meet that target?

It is very frustrating to me that the figures for fuel poverty are two-years-old, so the figure that the hon. Gentleman gives is an estimate. There is no doubt that rising fuel prices between 2004 and 2008 have caused us great difficulty in meeting that target, but I have not given up trying to meet it. All our efforts are directed towards eradicating fuel poverty, as we are indeed required to do.

Will the Minister accept that during one of the worst cold snaps for years, when vulnerable people such as pensioners in my constituency and elsewhere are struggling to keep their homes warm, it is especially important that consumers can switch to the cheapest available energy tariff offered by their supplier? Does he therefore agree that energy companies should be obliged to publish information on each customer’s bill showing whether they would be better off on an alternative scheme?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and it is the Government’s policy to encourage people to study the market and switch if possible. There is a new licence condition applying to every supplier from this month, requiring them to deliver to their customers an annual statement that includes information about their ability to switch and advice on how to do so. By the end of this year, every customer should have received the first of those statements.

May I draw the Minister’s attention to the needs, in this weather, of those who live in mobile homes, many of whom are on low incomes? They have a very limited choice of energy supply, and also lack options for additional insulation to improve the efficiency of their homes. I have raised this issue before, and the Government have so far done very little to assist that group of consumers to reduce the proportion of their income spent on energy bills. Is there anything that he can do now?

My hon. Friend has indeed been persistent in pursuing this issue, and I am pleased to say that in response to his pressure, the Department has agreed that it wants to pilot some schemes for delivering greater energy efficiency measures to park homes. I am not in a position to announce at the Dispatch Box today what the schemes will be, but I will be able to do so shortly.

Severn Barrage

6. What recent assessment he has made of progress on a decision on an option for the construction of a Severn barrage. (308892)

The Government are currently carrying out a feasibility study to decide whether we could support a Severn tidal scheme, and if so, on what terms. All the evidence gathered will be published alongside a second public consultation, which is expected to be held later this year.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that reply. This is an enormously exciting, but also enormously challenging, project: it has the potential to make a major contribution to the UK’s renewable energy needs, but is complex in both engineering and environmental terms. As well as providing the public information that he mentioned, will he agree to draw together Members of Parliament on both sides of the Severn estuary so that we can be involved in an interim process and understand how the Government are taking the project forward?

My right hon. Friend is right to say that there are great potential gains to be made from generating renewable energy from a barrier or similar scheme on the Severn. On the other hand, however, there are international and national nature conservation and biodiversity issues that also have to be considered. My noble Friend Lord Hunt, my fellow Energy Minister, recently wrote to all hon. Members updating them on the process and expressing a willingness to hold the sort of meeting that my right hon. Friend has just suggested. My noble Friend and I remain perfectly willing to meet Members of Parliament to update them on the scheme.

Could the study that the Minister mentioned cover the need for a grid connection for the Severn barrage project? At present, the National Grid wants to put in a new line of pylons across the Somerset levels, which will also affect the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose). That is controversial, and we oppose it. It would make sense to go for a submarine cable to take the energy away from Hinkley. That could be done as part of the study for the Severn barrage.

I have heard the right hon. Gentleman make that point on behalf of his constituents before, and I congratulate him on his persistence and ingenuity in working it into the question before us. I assure him that every aspect of the development is being considered in the feasibility study, so my answer to his question is yes.

Copenhagen Conference

7. What steps his Department is taking to tackle climate change following the outcome of the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen; and if he will make a statement. (308893)

Despite the disappointment that Copenhagen did not succeed in the way we had hoped, we are determined to work with our international partners to build on the achievements of the Copenhagen accord, agreed to by representatives of 49 developing and developed countries. In particular, we will work with others to ensure that the deepest possible cuts in emissions are made, that we deliver on the financial promises made to the developing world, and that we redouble our efforts to secure a comprehensive, legally binding framework.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, and congratulate him and the Prime Minister on the part that they played in getting as far in Copenhagen as was achieved. However, will he comment on the impression that the problems in Copenhagen were at least as much those of the decision-making process as they were matters of substance? Will he say what action the Government are taking to try to reform the decision-making process to ensure that the frustrations of Copenhagen are not repeated in the future?

My hon. Friend draws our attention to an important issue that I talked about a bit in my statement on Tuesday. The process was unsatisfactory. I have talked to the executive secretary of the UN framework convention about how we can reform that process, and I am pleased that the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, has said that he too will think about how the process can be reformed. We must ensure that we do not have a repeat of the process problems at Copenhagen, which obscured any differences over substance and prevented proper discussion of them. I think that the process needs to be reformed, and I think that that will happen.

Despite the disappointment of Copenhagen, there are still many practical things that we could and should be doing at home—on rain forests, for example. We will never halt their destruction if we do not choke off demand for illegal timber. Unlike the Prime Minister’s approach, an Act to halt the import of such timber by making it a criminal offence to sell it here in the UK would command widespread support on the Labour Benches, as well as on ours. So will the Secretary of State support an Act to make the sale of illegal timber a criminal offence? If he does not act, a new Conservative Government will.

We now see the Conservative party trying to play politics with international climate change—exactly what happened on Tuesday, in response to my statement—which is deeply regrettable. We are working in the European Union to deal with the problem of illegal logging, but we will also look at any other proposal that is put forward.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement this morning that we should redouble our efforts following Copenhagen and not throw our hands up in despair, even though the result was depressing. Will the Government be pressing to go ahead with the EU’s higher than intended carbon emissions savings budget, and will he ask the Committee on Climate Change to review as a matter of urgency the costs of doing so?

My hon. Friend draws attention to an important issue. Over the coming months we will need to work to use the EU’s commitment to move from 20 to 30 per cent., to lever in higher ambition from others. The commitment that the EU has made is an important one. I will be working intensively in the coming weeks, before the 31 January deadline for commitments to be lodged in the Copenhagen accord, to see how far we can get in Europe on that commitment. We have existing advice from the Climate Change Committee on the costs and benefits of moving to a higher figure—and in fact, as a result of the recession, the costs of doing so have fallen.

Tidal Energy

8. What recent progress has been made on developing tidal energy schemes; and if he will make a statement. (308894)

A lot of progress has been made on developing tidal energy schemes. The Crown Estate leasing round for the Pentland firth is on course, and we expect the Crown Estate to announce the successful bidders by the end of March. There are three feasibility studies for tidal range projects currently under way, for the Severn, the Mersey and the Solway firth. Officials have now received the final report on the screening study for marine energy development in English and Welsh waters, which will inform Ministers’ decisions on whether to proceed with a strategic environmental assessment for English and Welsh waters.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, given that something as modest as Peel Holdings’ proposal for a tidal lagoon in the Mersey would generate 650 GW of energy a year—much more than wind farms—is it not time the Government got solidly behind such schemes, given our dismal record on renewables? We have had plenty of studies. We now need some action.

I got sufficiently solidly behind that project by visiting it last year and giving it my personal support. Peel Holdings and the North West Development Agency are currently spending £3 million on the feasibility study to which the hon. Gentleman referred, which will conclude this year. I am enthusiastic about its prospects of leading to a suitable scheme that will be meaningful in producing renewable energy from the marine environment.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, any scheme has to be a reasonable one that works. Does he therefore recognise the work of the Energy Technologies Institute, which he visited in my constituency some time ago, in ensuring that the technologies that we introduce are the most efficient and best for the country, and will make a genuine economic impact? What steps is he taking to ensure that some of the private sector partners required to make that £1 billion Energy Technologies Institute work are being involved, and can he assist in ensuring that that happens?

I am solidly behind the Energy Technologies Institute too, having visited it. I congratulate the institute on its decision to invest in research and development, and deployment for marine technologies. My hon. Friend is so right that we are talking about an innovative collaboration between the public and private sectors. A number of key manufacturers in this country are subscribers to the ETI, and I would encourage more to join.

Feasibility studies, consultations, reviews and glossy brochures cannot mask Labour’s total failure over the past decade to develop the huge potential of offshore renewable energy—not just tidal energy, but wind and wave energy, and other forms of harnessing the immense power of the sea. Will the Government now recognise that ambitious Conservative proposals for marine energy parks, supported by a green investment bank and new energy infrastructure offshore, is the way to realise the potential of our seas, rather than the piecemeal, short-term and ineffective approach that has characterised this out-of-touch Labour Government?

I just cannot understand how the hon. Gentleman can be so out of touch. This country leads the world in connected electricity energy from offshore wind, and the recent announcement of the round 3 leases by the Crown Estate makes us by far the largest contributor in the world to that technology. On marine technology—which is what this question was supposed to be about—I do not think the work we have done on the banded renewables obligation, the marine renewables proving fund or the strategic environmental assessment can be dismissed as lightly as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Wind Energy

9. What estimate he has made of the number of wind energy projects approved by local authorities in the last two years; and if he will make a statement. (308895)

Local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales have approved 76 onshore wind energy planning applications in the last two years. All planning applications for wind energy in Northern Ireland are determined by the Northern Ireland Planning Service. There is now over 3 GW of installed capacity of onshore wind operating in the UK.

Is the Minister concerned about the number of Conservative and Liberal councils that oppose onshore wind farms, and about the Conservative MPs who oppose offshore wind farming? Does he realise that their opposition is sabotaging the £1 billion investment in renewables by the Labour Government?

The leader of the Conservatives says that we can judge what a Conservative Government would do by looking at their record in local government. They have an abysmal record of holding up and rejecting applications for onshore wind farms.

Although wind power can make a contribution to Britain’s energy needs, does the Minister also accept that local authorities have an important role to play in listening to the desires of their local residents? [Interruption.] If wind farms are appropriately placed, yes, but if they are inappropriately placed, they do damage the future of the industry.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the planning laws are there to strike an important balance between nature conservation and biodiversity on the one hand, and, on the other, the vital need for more renewable energy.

Carbon Capture And Storage

10. What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of carbon capture and storage technology in reducing the level of carbon dioxide emissions; and if he will make a statement. (308896)

The International Energy Agency estimates that carbon capture and storage could contribute up to 20 per cent. of the cuts needed in greenhouse gases by 2050. Without CCS, the cost of emission reduction needed to meet climate change targets globally would increase by more than 70 per cent. The four demonstration projects we are planning and those around the world will provide more information on the effectiveness of the technology.

In evidence to the North-East Regional Committee’s report on industry and innovation in the north-east of England, Andrew Sugden, a director of the North East chamber of commerce said:

“The private sector can go so far in clean coal technology, but so much is experimental and this is being done on a scale that has never been tried before. There has to be a balance of risk.”

What more can the Government do in this regard, and what kind of job creation can this technology achieve in the north of England?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the private sector can play a role in this, but the risks relating to this new technology—and, indeed, the gains—do not justify one company making the kind of investment required. That is why we are introducing the carbon capture and storage levy, which will provide a stream of funding for CCS over the next two decades. It is the largest such investment in the world.

We have heard evidence in the Energy and Climate Change Committee of the great enthusiasm of some generators for connecting carbon capture and storage with extra production from the North sea to the tune of about 15 per cent. That has not been mentioned much, and I want to ask the enthusiastic Secretary of State whether he will get enthusiastic about this particular point. [Interruption.]

I am always enthusiastic, as one of my hon. Friends has just helpfully pointed out. We should look at all the technologies that exist. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, because he, among others in the House, is a great advocate of carbon capture and storage and the role that it can play. Britain is uniquely placed in relation to CCS because of the North sea.

11. What steps his Department is taking to encourage the use of carbon capture and storage technology; and if he will make a statement. (308897)

We are planning four demonstration projects funded by the CCS levy. We have also successfully argued for money to be set aside for up to 10 demonstration projects across Europe, and we are working with countries across the world on moving forward CCS technology.

What assessment has my right hon. Friend made of the overall job creation potential of CCS over the next five to 10 years? What will he do to ensure that such jobs are created right across the regions, and not just in the areas local to the plants?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right—across all regions there are opportunities relating to low carbon and, in a number of regions, relating to carbon capture and storage. We shall shortly look at where the CCS clusters can be, and how we can take proper industrial advantage of CCS. Estimates suggest that tens of thousands of jobs could be created in this area.

Nuclear Waste

12. What progress his Department has made on the proposal of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management for deep geological disposal of nuclear waste; and if he will make a statement. (308900)

The Government accepted in 2006 the recommendations of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management on geological disposal, coupled with safe and secure interim storage. Following public consultation, the Government published the White Paper, “Managing Radioactive Waste Safely: A Framework for Implementing Geological Disposal” in June 2008. The first step is an expression of interest from a community that may be interested in hosting a geological disposal facility. To date, we have received three expressions of interest relating to the Copeland and Allerdale districts in Cumbria. Officials are in discussion with these authorities, but it remains open for other local authorities to express an interest.

I thank my hon. Friend for his extensive answer. The Secretary of State said in an evidence session in the late summer that by late autumn we would have a statement on how to deal with nuclear waste and how to store it geologically. May we have this statement as soon as possible and why has there been a delay?

My hon. Friend has great knowledge of, and speaks with great authority on, this subject, so I take to heart his request that we hurry up and make the statement he seeks. I cannot answer him today regarding the reason for the delay, but I can assure him that the work I described in my answer to him will go on, and that we are looking forward to the construction and operation of a facility that will be a multi-million pound project, providing skilled employment for hundreds of people over many decades.

Does the Minister accept that even those of us who are sceptical about the more exaggerated theories of global warming want to see rapid moves towards greater diversity of supply, less reliance on imported hydrocarbons and therefore the rapid development of nuclear energy? Is it not a disgrace that it has taken so long to get to any kind of resolution to this problem of the disposal of nuclear waste?

No, this is the first Government who have got a grip on the decision about the long-term future disposal of nuclear waste. It is good, however, that there is common ground between us on the security of energy supply and its coming from diverse sources; on that we can agree. There has certainly not been any delay in planning or policy for new nuclear, as we have seen three consortiums coming forward with plans for about 16 GW of new power from nuclear.

Copenhagen Conference

13. What steps his Department is taking to tackle climate change following the outcome of the United Nations climate change conference in Copenhagen; and if he will make a statement. (308901)

The Copenhagen accord sets out a framework for international action to tackle climate change, in which the UK will play its full part. The UK has so far committed to cutting emissions by 34 per cent. by 2020; our low carbon transition plan sets out the pathway for achieving this.

I thank the Minister for her reply. Everybody will have noticed the splendid efforts of her Department at Copenhagen, but there was some disappointment at the United Nations framework. If these disappointments continue, will the Department consider pursuing separate bilateral negotiations with the biggest polluters, namely the US and China?

I think we would not specifically do that; we would not seek to undermine the UN process. We have not lost our hopes that we can proceed from the Copenhagen agreement. This was a kind of success—not as much as we wanted, but the fact is that there is so much on the table and we need to get on with it. The most important thing the UK can do at this point is to push forward on what we have got. We must ensure, for example, that the fast-track financing for developing countries comes on stream and we are going to make our own contribution of up to £1.5 billion on that. We also need to establish the high-level panel to look at the $100 billion financing proposals for 2020 and beyond, and we need to support the Danes in getting a critical mass of countries to support the accord. Furthermore, we have just a short time to get the most ambitious commitments put into the document by the end of this month. We will do our utmost, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, to ensure that that happens so that we do not lose the dynamic that exists, despite the disappointments of Copenhagen.

On the subject of the Government’s leadership, will the Minister ask her colleague the Secretary of State to work in close association with his close friend at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to persuade our embassies to ask the United States Congress to support the initiative, and also to persuade the European Union not to be divided on the issue?

Indeed. I pay tribute to the Foreign Office and all its staff for their enormous efforts in the run-up to Copenhagen, and we can be assured that they will continue those efforts. Our bilateral discussions are critical to progress, not least in the EU, where we continue to strive for the most ambitious possible target: a 30 per cent. reduction in emissions by 2020.

I welcome the $100 billion fund and the United Kingdom Government’s leadership in that context, particularly given that part of the fund relates to adaptation to climate change. Will those moneys be in addition to, or a substitution for, development moneys that already go to developing countries?

We have made it absolutely clear that there should be no question of countries’ saying, “Because we give overseas aid, we do not need to make additional moneys available.” We have suggested that no more than 10 per cent. of existing and promised official development assistance should be provided for adaptation or other climate-related purposes. We consider that limit very important. There are legitimate overlaps between development and adaptation to climate change, but they are limited, and we must make them so.

Topical Questions

One of my Department’s responsibilities is helping people to cut their bills and their use of carbon. That is why this week, following the allocation of £50 million in the pre-Budget report, the Government launched the boiler scrappage scheme, which will give 125,000 households a £400 reduction in the cost of replacing a G-rated boiler with a much more efficient A-rated one. Further details can be obtained from the Energy Saving Trust.

Can the Secretary of State give us an insight into what happens to his Department, and what delays are incurred, in the event of one of these coups—a Prime Minister scrappage scheme, if you will? How much time is diverted from the running of his Department? Conservative Members find the position very difficult to understand, because we are all united behind our leader.

That is a ridiculous question. It is clear from the launch of initiatives such as the boiler scrappage scheme that the Government are getting on with the business of government and helping people in these difficult times.

T4. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of the electric car trials in Coventry and elsewhere in the west midlands, and how does he intend to support those schemes? (308914)

I am glad that my hon. Friend has asked that question. This is a very exciting trial involving 100 electric vehicles in Birmingham and Coventry. We are observing the results keenly as we clearly need to move away from fossil fuels, given the volume of road traffic in this country.

T2. In the context of tackling climate change, the Minister is doubtless aware of the key report produced in the 1990s by the Standing Advisory Committee on Trunk Road Assessment for the Department for Transport, which demonstrated that providing extra capacity generates journeys that would otherwise not be made. Why are the Government bumping up carbon emissions unnecessarily by promoting a third runway at Heathrow and widening motorways for hard-shoulder running? (308912)

On the question of the third runway, I hope that the hon. Gentleman has seen the report from the Committee on Climate Change, which shows that we have a clear target for carbon emissions from aviation and explains how it can be accommodated within constrained demand from aviation. Our policy is not one of unconstrained demand, but nor does it assume that we will somehow freeze the amount of flying that people do. That is not realistic, and it would not be good for our economy. It would not be good for our society either, because many more people are emigrating to this country and will want to travel for business and other purposes.

T5. I have pointed out on a number of occasions that, while wind farm applications are often passionately opposed when they are seen to be imposed on the local community by big business, applications owned and promoted by the local community are often supported with equal passion. Will my right hon. Friend commit himself to making community ownership the norm for wind energy in the United Kingdom? (308916)

My right hon. Friend, who has been a great fighter for the co-operative movement, is entirely right. Community ownership plays a very important role. The feed-in tariff will also help to encourage communities to come forward with their own proposals for renewable energy.

T3. Will the Government stand by their pledge last year and include micro-combined heat and power in the forthcoming statutory instrument on feed-in tariffs? (308913)

We are in the middle of a consultation on that and the hon. Gentleman will have to wait for the results. The micro-CHP industry—we were looking at a micro-CHP boiler recently during the launch of the boiler scrappage scheme—is important and needs to be supported.

T8. Now that clean-coal technology looks to be a certainty, how many coal mines does my right hon. Friend envisage will be opened shortly? (308919)

It is hard to estimate how many will be reopened but it is important to say that that will provide important support for our indigenous coal industry, and that carbon capture and storage can make coal a fuel of the future and will provide the certainty that our indigenous industry needs.

T6. Recently released figures show that just over one in eight households in Crewe and Nantwich are living in fuel poverty. In attempting to tackle that growing problem, energy suppliers have committed collective social assistance spending of about £150 million in 2010-11, but what commitment have they made beyond 2011? (308917)

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to help such households in his constituency by referring them to assistance such as Warm Front and other energy efficiency measures, and to the energy supplier obligation. I also encourage him to seek to ensure that they have the benefits to which they are entitled and that they receive social tariff support from their energy supplier, if possible. The answer to his question lies yet again in the deliberations of the Committee that is considering the Energy Bill, about which we have heard so much today. We do indeed intend to put the voluntary agreement for social price support on to a statutory basis, and we propose to double the amount of support under that scheme.

I am encouraged by what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said about feed-in tariffs. Will he confirm that, if feed-in tariffs are not sufficiently high to encourage community-owned, small-scale green power schemes, they will not succeed in that respect? In the light of that, will he redouble his efforts to find a space in his diary to visit the Torrs hydropower scheme in New Mills, the country’s first 70 kW community-owned hydropower scheme?

I am looking forward to visiting the scheme my hon. Friend mentions. Such schemes can benefit from the feed-in tariff and other measures that we are taking. It is important that in April, when the feed-in tariff comes in, many communities and indeed individuals take advantage of it.

T7. As has been mentioned, those households that do not have the benefit of mains gas are more liable to suffer fuel poverty because of the cost of alternative fuel. Historically, the liquefied petroleum gas market has been very uncompetitive, but the Office of Fair Trading has now introduced regulations to bring more competition into the market. Unfortunately many consumers do not realise the opportunities that they now have to reduce the cost of fuel. Will the Secretary of State consider a publicity programme so that those consumers can understand the opportunities they have and reduce their fuel costs? (308918)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his suggestions. He is absolutely right. There is continuing concern about that matter and about people who are off the gas grid and do not have options. We are looking at ways of dealing with that, particularly through the Energy Bill and mandated tariffs, which could be of some help but not sufficient—I agree with him on that. He suggests publicising what is available to people, which is a good idea and we will certainly look at that.

Will the Secretary of State reassure domestic gas consumers that, even in extreme cold weather, good management of the grid, the use of North sea reserves and the interconnector mean that there is no prospect of their supplies being cut off?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We have seen, on successive days this week, record demand on the grid. Obviously, I am in regular touch with the National Grid about that. It assures me that supply can meet the demand out there, despite the quite extreme weather conditions we are facing. I maintain vigilance on that and talk regularly to the National Grid.

Given the confusion caused by energy companies having more than 4,000 different tariffs, many Opposition Members believe that in order to help people who are paying too much for their energy, and particularly those living in fuel poverty, energy companies should be obliged to publish on all domestic bills whether their customers are on their cheapest tariff. When I raised this issue with the Secretary of State last year—

Order. For the avoidance of doubt, let me say that we do need brief questions. May we have a question now, please?

When I put this idea to the Secretary of State last year, he initially welcomed it, then backed away from it, and then said it would be included in Ofgem’s annual statement. What—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, but I did give him a chance to ask his question.

The hon. Gentleman has been a doughty fighter on this issue. My understanding is that Ofgem is introducing, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary mentioned in an earlier answer, an annual statement that must be provided to customers, and which gives the information the hon. Gentleman wants. I am sure that if that is not the case, the hon. Gentleman will take the matter up with my hon. Friend or myself.

The village of St. Margaret’s in my constituency is working hard to become a low-carbon community. Can the Secretary of State assure us that the funding for the challenge scheme will continue, and will he join me in paying a visit to St. Margaret’s to see the excellent work the community is doing?

I pay tribute to the community my hon. Friend represents and to the people of St. Margaret’s for what they are doing. The low-carbon communities challenge has been a great success in terms of the number of applications received, and we want to help as many communities as possible to be trailblazers for low carbon, showing how the transition to it can make a difference to people’s lives through the introduction of smart meters, insulation, renewable energy and a whole range of other measures. All this is part of the positive vision that we must offer for tackling climate change.

The Under-Secretary made an important announcement earlier in respect of residents of park homes. When can he provide more detail on that, and will he consider using one of the parks in my constituency as one of the pilot projects, because we have more than 1,000 park homes in Christchurch?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. This issue has been under consideration for some time, so we are close to being able to give the detail he wants. I note his interest in his constituency being one of the pilot areas, and I shall take that on board as a representation.

What support and encouragement are the Government giving to sub-aquatic marine energy generation—I am thinking of the plant off Northern Ireland, and we also had a United Kingdom plant off the coast of Portugal? This is the way forward for the future. What support is being given to it?

Our country has the best testing facilities in the world: we have the New and Renewable Energy Centre—NaREC—as well as a facility in the Orkneys and the forthcoming wave hub in Cornwall. The specific technology to which my hon. Friend refers is either in place at, or being built at, the Orkneys facility, with some further testing and accreditation, and it is hoped that it will be the first applicant for assistance from the marine renewables deployment fund.

Amid the general failure at Copenhagen, there was at least positive discussion about mechanisms to reduce deforestation. Is the Secretary of State content that, among the mechanisms envisaged, there is sufficient protection for the rights of forest peoples, who are probably the best guardians of the rain forest? Could not the British Government set a very important precedent and make a valuable contribution to this process by ratifying International Labour Organisation convention 169 on the rights of tribal peoples, as other European countries have done?

Okay, I shall endeavour to look up ILO convention 169. The hon. Gentleman’s general point about the importance of protecting the rights of forest people as we tackle deforestation is very important. One of the areas in which more progress was made at Copenhagen was the so-called RED—reducing emissions from deforestation—negotiations. Some important commitments were made by developed countries, and we need to move that forward.

This House needs to be concerned about fuel poverty. Can the Secretary of State say how much the average electricity user is paying because of the subsidy relating to this Government’s climate change policies being included in their bills?

From memory, I think we have said that by 2020 the climate change policies will add about 8 per cent. as a whole to energy bills. I say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that there is no high-carbon, low-cost future out there, because the truth is that if we want to have secure energy, we also need low-carbon energy—renewable and nuclear energy. So, yes, there are upward pressures on energy bills, and that makes life difficult for people, including those in fuel poverty, but it is right that we go down the low-carbon energy route. However, it is also right that we take measures to protect the most vulnerable.

Has the Secretary of State read “Sustainable Energy—without the hot air”, the widely acclaimed and freely available book by Professor David MacKay? Is he aware of the following statement within that book:

“if we covered the windiest 10 per cent. of the country with windmills…we would be able to generate…half of the power used by driving an average fossil-fuel car 50 kilometres per day.”?

Does that not behove us to consider very carefully the viability of onshore wind power?

Our chief scientist is a very distinguished person and his book has been by my bedside for some time. I have certainly read parts of it, although I cannot promise that I have read it from cover to cover. It is a good and illuminating read.

On the hon. Gentleman’s question about wind power, I am clear that offshore and onshore wind power are part of our energy mix, alongside nuclear power and carbon capture and storage clean coal. All those things are necessary to provide us with secure and low-carbon energy.

Will the Government press the United Nations to undertake an assessment of the extra carbon emissions caused by the failed Copenhagen summit, not least in terms of the number of flights from places throughout the world and all those gas-guzzling limousines that had their engines idling while they waited to pick up distinguished delegates?

I do not think that that would be a good use of United Nations or, indeed, taxpayers’ money, and I dread to think what doing the UN conference by video conference would have produced. The serious answer to the hon. Lady’s question is that progress was made during the past year, partly as a result of the Copenhagen deadline, and we need to build on that in the years ahead.

Kettering has a very successful wind farm, which has planning permission to expand by two thirds, but there are proposals for six further wind farms in my constituency. What mechanism can the Secretary of State give far-sighted local authorities so that they can zone areas for wind farm development while protecting other parts of the countryside?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. One of the things we are doing is a mapping exercise across the country to see which are the most appropriate areas for wind farms; that will help local authorities. I applaud local authorities that embrace renewable energy—those that say no to it everywhere are doing the wrong thing—but of course, local authorities need to be able to take decisions about the most appropriate places for wind energy facilities, and indeed they do.