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Topical Questions

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 7 January 2010

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.