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Commons Chamber

Volume 503: debated on Thursday 7 January 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 7 January 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

business before questions

Canterbury City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read the Third time.


Bill to be read the Third time on Thursday 14 January at Three o’clock.

Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read the Third time.


Bill to be read the Third time on Thursday 14 January at Three o’clock.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.


Bill to be considered on Thursday 14 January.

Manchester City Council Bill [Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.


Bill to be considered on Thursday 14 January.

Leeds City Council Bill (By Order)

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.


Bill to be considered on Thursday 14 January.

Reading Borough Council Bill (By Order)

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Oral Answers to Questions

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.

Salt Reserves

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the country’s salt reserves and any implications this may have on local government’s ability to maintain the road network.

During this period of exceptionally prolonged severe weather, staff across the transport industries and national and local highways authorities are working extremely hard to minimise the disruption caused. The Highways Agency has its fleet of 500 salt spreaders and snow ploughs out in force and has been successful in keeping the vast majority of the major road network running, helping to prevent the formation of ice and build-up of snow.

Following the severe weather in February 2009, the UKRLG—the UK Roads Liaison Group—recommended good practice of having at least six days of heavy salting capacity in the winter period, alongside a package of wider recommendations to improve resilience. The UKRLG noted that the Highways Agency was already holding a minimum of six days’ continuous heavy salting capacity in winter periods. The Highways Agency entered this winter period with 13 days’ capacity, and we regard this as the right response following last year’s events.

For the local road network, it is the responsibility of local authorities to decide how to respond to the UKRLG recommendations. We have kept in close contact with local authorities across the country to check how they are dealing with their own local road networks. Local authorities have told us that they increased their salt stocks at the start of the winter season compared with last year. The Local Government Association estimates that the equivalent of about 600,000 miles of road have been gritted by council gritting teams in the past 14 days, using about 38,500 tonnes of salt.

The Department for Transport and devolved Administrations have been regularly monitoring salt supplies and stock levels across the country with the help of their agencies, local authorities and the companies that supply salt. Alongside this, mutual aid arrangements between local authorities and the Highways Agency can help to relieve areas that are experiencing particularly tight stocks of salt. The Government and the devolved Administrations have also decided that owing to the exceptional weather affecting the country, they should work in partnership to advise salt suppliers on priorities for deliveries. The LGA will assist with that process. A group started the national prioritisation work this week. That will help to ensure that stocks of salt are supplied to where they are most needed.

We will continue to do everything possible to keep disruption to a minimum during this period of exceptionally prolonged severe weather.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr. Speaker. It is so topical that I think people would quite rightly have expected the Government to have made a statement on the subject by now, but we are grateful for this opportunity.

Councils reviewed their own contingency plans in the light of their very bad experience of the snow as recently as February last year, and sent the report I have here, “Weathering the Storm”, to the Minister’s Department in August. Why, then, did it take until 15 December for Ministers to respond to that vital report? Does the Minister accept that with only 48 hours to go before the first predicted heavy snowfall in the south-east, councils’ ability to implement the recommendations in full was compromised?

Does the Minister consider that the advice that he received to increase the stockholding capacity of six days’ worth of salt supplies is adequate, given the prospect of at least another week of sub-zero temperatures, or will he revise the guidance to take account of the figure that he gave in his first response, which was more like 13 days’ worth? If so, how soon will he change that guidance and when can councils expect to receive it? Does he accept that if the report’s recommendations had been accepted earlier than 15 December, it might have been possible to avoid the gridlock of lorries around the salt mine in Cheshire that are trying to collect salt on behalf of councils? As the Minister will know, in February of last year one of the learning experiences came from the difficulty to do with the flexibility of drivers’ hours. At what point did the Government act on the recommendation to provide for flexibility in drivers’ hours?

Finally, do the Government intend to revise any of the guidance they have given to councils? If so, when can councils expect to receive this and will a copy of the revised guidance be placed in the Library of the House of Commons so that Members from all parties, whose constituents are experiencing considerable difficulty, might be able to see those changes?

I am sure that all Members would like to pay tribute to the work being done by their councils to try to keep essential roads open. They are working around the clock to keep Britain moving.

I pay tribute to all those who are ensuring that this country does not grind to a halt, whether they work for councils, for airports, for the rail sector or for the emergency services. They are doing a tremendous job to keep our country moving.

The hon. Lady has asked a number of questions, which I shall try to answer in turn. If there is anything that I do not deal with, I am sure it will be taken up by other colleagues. I can also write to her or speak to her afterwards if I do not take up all her points in my short response.

The hon. Lady is right to refer to the report made by the UKRLG in July. It was open to local authorities to follow the report’s recommendations in July, rather than to wait for us to endorse it in December. She will be aware that many local authorities lived through the bad weather last February and March. I was surprised that she suggested that central Government should prescribe to local government and tell it what to do. Some might say that one of the reasons she is pointing the finger at central Government is that many of these local authorities are Conservative-run. Many constituents will want to ask questions about how their councils have performed in this difficult time.

The six days’ worth of supply is a recommendation of good practice. Some might decide to hold salt to cover much longer periods. We have examples of some local authorities that have salt for up to 69 days, so they have clearly not merely followed the good practice but decided that they should stock more. Indeed, we have stocked 13 days’ worth with the Highways Agency. I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is suggesting that I, as someone with no expertise, should give advice on this issue, or that we should rely on experts to give advice. The UKRLG is made up of experts and they advised that the best practice was to stockpile six days’ worth of salt.

The hon. Lady also talked about what local authorities and the Government should have been doing. We are responsible for ensuring that the Highways Agency has motorways and trunk roads cleared and running smoothly—and, in broad terms, it has been doing that. It is for local authorities to ensure that local roads run smoothly. I have spoken to the LGA this week, and the Prime Minister spoke to it this morning. We are doing all we can to keep the country moving.

I thank the Minister for his detailed answer, and I pay tribute to the hard work that has been undertaken by many employees of local councils and other bodies to try to keep our transport networks running effectively.

Does the Minister think it sensible for us to rely on just one mine in Cheshire for 90 per cent. of our salt supplies, and will he consider whether we need to diversify further to ensure that we have guaranteed supplies for future events? Was it not unwise, last February, to recommend that councils hold only six days’ supply, given the current indication that there will be 10 days of extreme weather conditions, and will he consider revising that advice?

Is not one consequence of the current shortage of grit in many parts of the country that many side roads are not being treated in many areas? That leaves many elderly and vulnerable people effectively trapped in their homes, and is of great concern to them. Is not another consequence that pavements are not gritted at all in some areas? As far as I can tell, not a single pavement has been gritted by my Conservative council in East Sussex—not even those around doctors’ surgeries, bus stops, supermarkets or anything else. A consequence of that, now and in December, has been that people have had to negotiate sheets of ice to purchase basic commodities and to do their normal work.

Finally, will the Minister make an assessment of the cost to business and the health service of the failure of some councils to keep essential transport systems working? I am conscious that in my local primary care trust area, and in the acute trust in Brighton, which has done very well, about 1,500 people have been through the system with injuries such as broken wrists that might not have occurred had pavements been properly gritted. As a public policy point, we ought to assess the cost to the health service of the failure of some councils to use grit properly.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his sensible points and the questions that he has raised. Let me deal with each of them, starting with salt supplies. As he is aware, there are two main salt suppliers in this country, and the supply is governed by where salt can be mined or excavated. I am not sure whether he is suggesting that I should nationalise the industry or start procuring or producing salt. I can tell him that the Prime Minister has spoken to the chief executives of both those companies this morning to impress on them the importance of trying to excavate as much salt as possible and to get it out from the factories. The Highways Agency has procured salt from Spain and from companies in the USA, and some local authorities have been innovative in procuring it. There is a problem with salt storage. Some local authorities have problems with salt barns and with the amount of salt they can store for a long period of time, and so are governed by lack of storage space rather than not being sufficiently geared up to get as much salt as they can.

On the hon. Gentleman’s points about what has happened in his local communities, I must tell him that it is for local authorities and locally elected councils, which know their communities best, to decide where salt and grit should be laid down. The hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman) suggested that perhaps we in Whitehall should have a map and decide which roads should be gritted. If there are problems in some areas, it is important that councillors make sure that the right parts of their communities are gritted. Clearly, there is a problem with the amount of grit available in relation to the extreme weather that we are having, and so priority assessments will need to be made. Those areas of the community that are a priority will need to be gritted.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point is important. The cost to us of bad weather, not only in financial terms, to business, but in human terms, with operations being cancelled and school hours being lost by children, is immense. However, the weather is, on all objective assessments, the worst that we have had for almost 30 years, and so a sense of perspective is required.

Is it not the case that a small number of politicians are sitting in their warm offices e-mailing press releases to create despondency, when many tens of thousands of public sector workers are out there keeping the country moving? Should we not be praising those workers, rather than moaning?

I thank my hon. Friend who, as ever, makes a really important point. The number of public servants out there shovelling away at grit to make sure that our pavements are clear and our roads gritted is immense. He will be pleased to know that the Prime Minister got in touch with the Highways Agency this morning to put on record his personal thanks for the hard work done by its staff in making sure that our country does not grind to a halt.

The UK’s largest rock salt mine is at Winsford in my constituency. The Minister has notably failed to praise the work force there—

He did not. The work force at the Winsford rock salt mine are working 24/7 to produce 30,000 tonnes per week, but it is also most important to bear in mind the forbearance of the people of Winsford. The restrictions on HGV movements have quite rightly been relaxed, but people there are finding that their town is hemmed in by queues of lorries waiting to be resupplied. Does the Minister agree that it is important to recognise the need to get stockpiles right in the autumn, in advance of winter? At the moment, we rely on the salt unit to produce the salt in an emergency.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and there is not much in what he said that I disagree with. Not only do I pay tribute to the hard work done by the people at the Winsford rock salt mine, but the Prime Minister personally rang the chief executive to ask him to pass on his thanks for the great work they are doing. I should also like to thank the hon. Gentleman’s constituents, who are having to put up with lorries going through their communities literally 24 hours a day. He will be aware that there are conditions attached to lorries going through the town during working hours, but local residents have indulged the trucks. There are very good reasons for people to work around the clock, and many will have seen the photographs and images of the queue of lorries leaving the factory. Although it looks chaotic, staff are doing a very important job in ensuring that the right parts of the country are receiving much-needed grit.

While I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the whole issue of distribution and access to salt supplies, may I add that there is a real issue with the nitty-gritty—if I dare say that—of all this? Local people cannot understand why their pavements are not being gritted. I urge him to see whether there is some way to make information available so that local people know what standard of service they can expect from their local council.

One of the things that I was keen to do when speaking to the LGA, the Prime Minister and some of my officials this morning was to make sure that local authorities use best practice and provide a sufficient standard of care for local residents. There are health and safety issues here, as we clearly do not want more people falling over and getting hurt than would be the case without this adverse weather.

I am reluctant to prescribe what local authorities should do, as clearly this is a matter of horses for courses. We need to make sure that the parts of communities most in need of having their pavements or roads cleared are having that done. I am happy to carry on working with the LGA and others to see whether lessons can be learned.

Will the Minister acknowledge the huge efforts being made at British Salt at Middlewich in my constituency, which produces salt from brine? Will he ensure that the LGA has better plans in future for getting roads in partially rural constituencies cleared more effectively than has been the case this time?

I appreciate that roads are essential lifelines in rural parts of the country, and I can understand why local authorities would want to ensure that they are cleared more swiftly in future. The hon. Lady is right to remind me that there is a company in Middlewich in her constituency that is doing a huge amount of work to provide salt and grit and to make sure that supplies reach the rest of the country. She also spoke about the need for the LGA to have better plans in future, but we have to be careful what we wish for. On the one hand, local communities elect councillors and local authorities do a very important job but, on the other, pressure is brought to bear on me, as a Minister in Whitehall, to tell local authorities what to do. I suspect that some of that could be because some of the local authorities doing a bad job are Tory councils.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people whinge at this time of year? As he said, this is the worst weather for 30 years, but the fact is that many local authorities are doing a very good job. The authority in Huddersfield and Kirklees is doing a very good job, even though we have had real problems with obtaining more supplies of salt and grit. Is it not the truth that the men and women who have been keeping our roads clear have the essential qualities of grit, determination and courage—something that some politicians could learn from?

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend’s comments and echo his tribute to the public servants, men and women, who have done a huge amount to ensure that our roads and pavements are cleared. Public servants and council workers in Huddersfield, Kirklees and elsewhere are doing a huge amount, and that is one reason why I am reluctant to stand here and criticise local authorities—when I know that so many are doing such a good job.

I commend the efforts of public sector workers in Hampshire and Basingstoke who, as the Minister knows, are doing the best they can to keep our roads open. He said that salt deliveries are already being prioritised so that they are sent where they are needed most. What criteria are used when those decisions are made? The lack of transparency in that process was a key criticism in the UKRLG recommendation, which the Minister said he accepted in full.

The hon. Lady has written to me because of the concerns in her constituency, and I am responding to the points she made in her letter, which highlighted a number of her worries. Several criteria are looked at: the amount of available stocks; whether there are mutual aid facilities, with different local authorities able to provide assistance; how recently deliveries were made to local authorities; and weather conditions. Importantly, we do not decide where the priorities lie; the LGA does, working with the Highways Agency, the devolved Administrations and the suppliers. What is important is that the regional resilience centres receive as much updated information as possible from local authorities, which can then determine which parts of the country receive the salt quickest.

My local authority, Durham county council, has been working around the clock to try to keep our major routes open, including all bus routes; and it has been doing so continuously since 16 December, putting down as much as 1,400 tonnes of grit each day. As a result, we have now had to put pressure on the mine in question, and I had to contact it myself to ensure that it delivers the necessary stocks to Durham. What pressure is being applied to mine owners? They are doing a really good job, but during this difficult period it would help if they opened at those weekends when it is necessary to make deliveries.

That point refers to a previous question about the stocks leaving mines, and I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that the mining companies will be working not only around the clock, but seven days a week, which is very important. She rightly refers to the fact that some councils—most of them, indeed—have been working around the clock since 16 December, and further bad weather is predicted over the next period, so we should bear that in mind. Alongside the pressure that I have brought on mining companies and my hon. Friend has brought on her local authority, the Prime Minister this morning also spoke to the two biggest salt procurers to ensure that we impress on them the need to try to excavate as much as is humanly possible.

In East Dunbartonshire a severe shortage of salt has left many roads and pavements in a treacherous condition, and earlier this week parts of Scotland ran out of salt completely. What specific requests have the Scottish Government made for assistance in securing additional salt; and what has been the result of those requests?

One reason why we are working with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales is that the same salt producers supply both countries. We would not want Scotland and Wales to lose out as an unintended consequence of our prioritising English local authorities. That is why both countries are very much inside the loop when it comes to the Salt Cell organisation to which we have referred. We are in regular contact with our colleagues, and that includes discussions about salt importation from overseas. We will continue to keep in touch with them over the next period.

In some parts of the country, supplies such as milk and fresh food are inevitably being compromised. Will the Minister pay tribute to those voluntary sector and community groups that organise people to be on the look out for the needs of vulnerable members of the community; and will he say a word about everybody being a good neighbour at this time and looking after vulnerable neighbours in their streets?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. I pay tribute not only to those people who, out of the goodness of their heart and common decency, check on their neighbours, whether they are elderly or not, and ensure that there is sufficient food for them, but to those who get the shovel from their shed, clear their front pathway and help the old person next door who may need assistance. Whether it is young children, helping old people to cross the roads and clearing their front paths, or us older citizens, I pay tribute to the resilience of the British public over the past three weeks, who have shown what is good about our society.

I thank the public sector workers who have been putting in very long hours in the Aylesbury and, indeed, Buckingham constituencies to deal with the problems caused by snow and ice locally. However, many able-bodied local residents would be willing to clear the snow and ice on the pavement in front of their properties if they were not scared of being sued by somebody who subsequently fell over. Will the Minister look at the guidance and the law on that point to try to ensure that common sense and public spiritedness are given a fair wind?

I am sure that that did not escape your notice, Mr. Speaker—that sucking up to you! I too pay tribute to the public servants of Buckingham, who are doing a great job. However, the hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, and I would be thoroughly disappointed if people were reluctant to be a good neighbour and clear their pathways for fear of being prosecuted. I have seen evidence of good neighbours in my community, in Tooting and Wandsworth, and I have heard about it from stories around the country. I hope that that continues over the next period.

Notwithstanding the short-term impact of what needs to be done, I must say that there is a longer-term impact on the fabric of the roads. They were already breaking up after the most recent bout of poor weather, and they were not helped by gritting, either. Counties such as mine, West Sussex, have faced real-terms cuts in their highways grants over recent years, so will the Minister look at the situation and at how we can help authorities to repair roads in the longer term? If we do not, the problem will get worse and worse.

The hon. Gentleman will recognise that we have increased local authority capital investment for those matters two or three times in recent years. In fact we were criticised for doing so. The important thing is that local authorities take stock of the areas where adverse weather causes problems. He is right to say that gritting and adverse weather causes more potholes in, and problems with the fabric of, our roads, but it is for local authorities to know their communities best and to decide where their priorities lie when it comes to spending their moneys.

Many grit bins that local authorities provide for residents’ use on footpaths have been vandalised, leading to avoidable falls and injuries. Will the Minister join me in condemning the people who are responsible for that mindless vandalism; and will he discuss with his colleagues whether it is possible to source vandal-proof grit bins?

I unequivocally condemn those who vandalise such salt bins. I have also heard stories about them being stolen, and that beggars belief. On the one hand we are talking about the very best of British; on the other, we see examples such as that to which the hon. Lady refers. I am happy to look into any technical areas on which we can work to make salt bins vandal-proof.

I do not wish to diminish the seriousness or scale of the task that staff have had to undertake, and salt reserves certainly need replenishing in Cornwall, but I am not sure that the Minister has answered the questions about pavements from my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Joan Walley). Many people are walking on the roads and putting themselves in greater jeopardy. Have the Minister and his Department considered whether any guidance is required to ensure that accidents, which we know are happening throughout the country, are avoided?

Perhaps I can answer the hon. Gentleman’s question this way: we know that public safety demands that local authorities clear and grit certain roads; and we know that the Highways Agency is ensuring that motorways and trunk roads are gritted. However, local authorities are responsible for pavements, and it is for them to decide the priority areas in their communities. Some authorities may decide that pavements leading to and from a school or a GP’s surgery are a priority, but I am not sure that I should advise local authorities on which parts of their communities need to be gritted. I am certainly not keen on any politician in Whitehall telling me or the leader of Wandsworth borough council which parts of Wandsworth need to be gritted. Local council leaders and officers in town halls know which parts of their community deserve to be gritted. However, when there is a shortage of grit, priorities need to be established and decisions made about which areas are gritted, and some inevitably will not be.

Does the Minister accept that in the guidance given by central Government, the criteria mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs. Miller) must be complied with? It is no good suggesting that local authorities alone can make these decisions if national suppliers are involved, as the chairman of the Highways Agency in Staffordshire, Mike Maryon, has made clear. We had temperatures of minus 17° in Staffordshire, Moorlands. Rural areas have been severely affected. There is no point in the Minister trying to pass the buck to local authorities if the overall number of days’ supply has been got completely wrong.

I am not sure what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting we do. The salt suppliers are private companies who produce and sell salt, and local authorities decide what they need for their communities. The good practice advice given to local authorities is that there should be supplies of at least six days’ worth, and they can follow that advice or not do so. Some local authorities stockpiled many weeks’ worth of grit because they took the sensible course of action. The Highways Agency decided that there should be 13 days’ worth of grit in our stocks. If he wants us to consider the possibility of those private companies being taken over by a public company, and therefore local authorities being told how much supply they should keep, I would not recommend that. We should work with the Local Government Association, the Highways Agency, the devolved Administrations and the salt suppliers to ensure that those parts of the country that need salt the most get it the quickest.

Many of my rural villages have been badly affected by this exceptional dumping of snow. I assume, because we spend millions on the Met Office, that the Government were given several days’ advance notice of the exceptional weather conditions. Was not that the time to ensure that the grit got out to rural areas, in particular? The Minister says that there is a storage problem. Many farmers with spare capacity would be delighted to hold that exceptional storage on their farms, which would ensure that these villages could be passable.

The hon. Gentleman’s final point is a very good one. Some local authorities in rural parts of the country use farm buildings such as barns to store salt. If there are to be further prolonged periods of bad weather over the coming years, the storage of salt will be a big issue and we will need to consider whether we can set up central depots or points where it is stored and can be reached. In October, we surveyed local authorities to find out how much salt each of them had. Those that responded told us that they had at least six days’ worth of salt supply. Some of the anecdotal evidence from the experience of colleagues around the country leads me to believe that that was not necessarily the case. We are looking into how much salt some local authorities had and whether they were inaccurate when they told us in October that they had six days’ worth, because some clearly did not. The hon. Gentleman raised another good point in relation to advice from the Met Office.

I am afraid that the Minister did not answer the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington), who raised a serious issue. Residents are frightened of being sued if they clear public pavements in front of their property, and shopkeepers are frightened of breaking their liability insurance if they do likewise. Will the Minister consider changing the law to protect residents and shopkeepers who clear pavements in front of their properties?

There is no criminal liability, as I understand it. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the possibility that somebody could sue for damages because of negligence. I am not sure if he is suggesting that I provide immunity from a civil action under the law of tort. As much as I like to empire-build, I am afraid that I do not have that power or gift at my disposal.

To bring the Minister back to the sensible things that he said about looking after elderly people, will he use his Department’s influence with social housing providers to impress on them their duty of care to elderly and infirm residents of sheltered accommodation to ensure that the common areas of such properties are kept safe? At the moment, they do not believe that they have that responsibility, but I think they do.

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. I know from my own experience that we can go and help our mum to clear her front pavement, but someone in sheltered accommodation or an older person living by themselves clearly needs some help. I will look into the situation and respond to him directly about what we can do.

There are clearly resource implications resulting from the extreme weather that we are experiencing at the moment. This has nothing to do with party politics; I am sure that whichever party controls a local authority, it will do its best to help local people and businesses. Is there any exceptional emergency fund to assist local authorities that will exceed any budget allocation that they made in respect of salt and grit? This is clearly important, as we need to keep the country running. My constituency has large rural areas, including the Peak District national park. Can any exceptional help be given to local authorities such as mine—Macclesfield and Cheshire East—so that we can keep the area running?

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. Bellwin funding is available, and local authorities know that the Department for Communities and Local Government can assist them in relation to that. There was a recent example of emergency funding being made available in Cumbria following the flooding. I suggest that his council leader speaks to the DCLG or the Department for Transport to see whether sufficient thresholds have been reached in his constituency to judge whether the Bellwin criteria apply.

On the first Monday of the cold snap, 25 people reported to Mayday’s accident and emergency department with fractures, compared with six at the same time in the previous year, when the weather was somewhat balmier. Will the Minister look positively at what is done by Durham primary care trust, which provides money to the local authority as a preventive measure to ensure that there is more gritting and therefore fewer people turning up at hospital injured?

I am happy to listen to good ideas. I would be keen to consider whether the Department of Health and the DFT can work better together and whether lessons can be learned from Durham that can be used in London and other parts of the country. I am happy to go away and look at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.

The Minister has referred to Salt Cell—the cross-departmental group of officials responsible for managing the supply chain with the salt suppliers. Is he aware that many councils across the country are concerned that this group is not coping with the situation in which we find ourselves and is not communicating properly with suppliers?

I take on board the hon. Gentleman’s comments. I can undertake to speak again to the LGA to see whether it has heard any grumblings from local authorities and try to rectify the situation. We do not want local authorities to feel that they have been harshly treated because of the way that Salt Cell operates. That group is there to help to prioritise supplies. I will reflect on his comments, and if there any issues for consideration, I will be happy to speak to him directly or report back to the House at a later date.

Business of the House

The business for the week commencing 11 January will be:

Monday 11 January—Second Reading of the Children, Schools and Families Bill.

Tuesday 12 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Personal Care at Home Bill.

Wednesday 13 January—Opposition day [2nd allotted day]. There will be a debate on education, skills and training opportunities for young people in the recession followed by a debate on energy security. Both debates will arise on an Opposition motion.

Thursday 14 January—Topical debate, subject to be announced. To follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed Private Business for consideration.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 January will include:

Monday 18 January—Second Reading of the Crime and Security Bill.

Tuesday 19 January—Consideration in Committee of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill (day 3).

Wednesday 20 January—Consideration in Committee and remaining stages of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill.

Thursday 21 January—If necessary, consideration of Lords Amendments to the Video Recordings Bill. To follow, the Chairman of Ways and Means will name opposed Private Business for consideration.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 14 and 21 January will be:

Thursday 14 January—A debate on supporting young people in the recession.

Thursday 21 January—A debate on violence against women.

You, Mr. Speaker, have paid tribute, on behalf of the House, to David Taylor, as did the Prime Minister and the leaders of the Opposition parties yesterday. I should like to add my tribute as Leader of the House. There is an empty space up on that Back Bench today. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] We will miss his contributions, not least at this time every Thursday. The good that he did as an MP will endure in the improved lives of the many, many constituents he personally helped. More widely, the good that he did in this House will endure—for example, his private Member’s Bill, the Management of Dementia in Care Homes Bill, laid the basis for, and lives on in, our national dementia strategy. He is a big loss to his family and also to the House.

May I thank the right hon. and learned Lady for next week’s business, and also for what she said about David Taylor, which I strongly endorse? In an age in which the standing of the Chamber has diminished, and in which the Chamber lies empty for much of the day, he was often assiduous in his attendance and he was an independent contributor to our debates, including, of course, in his regular appearance at business questions. He was a good parliamentarian and will be much missed.

May I thank the staff of the House for ensuring that this place has continued to run smoothly despite the bad weather that is continuing to disrupt the whole country?

Now, when will the right hon. and learned Lady give us the dates of the Easter recess? Those who work in the Palace of Westminster can take a holiday only when we are not sitting, and they need to make their plans for the months ahead. I have been asking for the dates almost every week since October. When will she announce them?

Can the Leader of the House untangle the Government’s muddle about the Budget? In a television interview on Sunday morning, the Prime Minister said:

“I believe there’ll be a Budget this spring”.

Given yesterday’s devastating report from the Treasury Committee, which eviscerates the Government’s current plans to reduce the deficit, will she confirm that there will be a Labour Budget in March, and that it will spell out the details of how the Government intend to deal with the financial crisis? Hopefully that will generate more interest among Government Back Benchers than the Second Reading of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill on Tuesday, during which not one Labour MP spoke in support.

When will the House debate the report from the Commons reform Committee? As we saw yesterday during the debate on private Members’ Bills, the House is impatient to discuss these issues. During the recent debate in Westminster Hall both main Opposition parties set out their position, but we had no such transparency from the Government. When will the Leader of the House set out the Government’s position, and will she now confirm that the debate will be held on a substantive motion ending in a vote?

If the Government intend to amend the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which is due to be debated next week, to implement proposals from the Kelly report, and, as some newspapers have suggested, to include a provision for a referendum on voting reform, will the right hon. and learned Lady give the House an extra day in Committee to consider what is already a large and sprawling piece of legislation?

May I repeat my call, and that of many colleagues throughout the House, for a proper debate in Government time on Afghanistan? The conference on the future of Afghanistan has been scheduled for the end of the month in London. Does the right hon. and learned Lady agree that Members should have their chance to debate the matter in full before that conference, so that they can bring to Ministers the thoughts of their constituents ahead of it?

Finally, looking at the weeks ahead, does the Leader of the House agree with me, and indeed with some of her right hon. Friends, that we cannot go on like this? The right hon. and learned Lady, who is the deputy leader of the Labour party, finally issued a statement of support for the Prime Minister at 6 o’clock last night, saying that Ministers were getting on with the business of government. She was so involved in her own business that she could not even vote yesterday afternoon for a House motion that was tabled in her own name. Is not the truth that instead of a secret ballot of Labour MPs for a new leader, what the country really needs is a ballot of the whole country for a new Government?

I would like to add to the right hon. Gentleman’s comments thanking the staff of the House. The House did not rise until about 11 o’clock on Tuesday, which left it very late for Officers and staff of the House to get home. We ought to pay tribute to them for the fact that the House has continued to operate, not least so that we could hear the urgent question answered today about the efforts that need to be taken to help people carry on with their work as usual during the cold weather.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the announcements about the recess, which will be made in the usual way. He also asked about the management of the economy. There will be a pre-Budget report debate after business questions, and there will be further stages of the Fiscal Responsibility Bill, allowing all such issues to be debated. We heard the Prime Minister reassure the country again at Prime Minister’s Question Time yesterday that we would ensure that we have a secure recovery, that we do not pull the plugs on the recovery, that we tackle the deficit by having fair tax measures and that we make sensible and fair choices about public spending. The public can be reassured that that is the Government’s position, even though there is something of a muddle about the matter on the Tory Benches.

As far as the Wright Committee report is concerned, the Prime Minister said yesterday that he welcomed it and that there would be an opportunity for the House to debate and decide on the issues in question. As the right hon. Gentleman reminded the House, we have already had a 90-minute debate in Westminster Hall on 15 December, in which 17 colleagues participated. We made some progress in the motion that the House adopted last night, which he mentioned. We have not stood still, and the direction of travel is clear. It was I who tabled the motion to take the matter forward on behalf of the Government. It is a complex matter on which the Government will have to take views, but it is not for us to dictate to the House on it. It is for us to facilitate progress on a consensual basis, which is what we will do. We want further progress to be made.

As far as the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill is concerned, we will have to consider whether extra measures should be brought forward to ensure that the House has enough time to debate it on the Floor of the House.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the important issue of Afghanistan. I said before Christmas, and reiterate today, that we want to be absolutely sure that the House can hold Ministers to account and that there can be debates so that views can be put forward. A lot of concern was raised in business questions in December about the need to have a substantive debate on Afghanistan in January. Although I have not been able to announce it today, I am aware of the time scale that the shadow Leader of the House pointed out. I reassure colleagues that I am determined that we will have a substantive debate on Afghanistan before the end of the month.

One of the Members of Parliament who participated in the debate in Westminster Hall that the Leader of the House mentioned was David Taylor. He intervened when I was making my comments, and within a few moments of having made his intervention he passed me a note thanking me for allowing him to contribute. That was typical of the courtesy of the man and his ever-presence and value to the House. He will be very much missed.

On the Wright Committee report, this simply will not do. There is only one thing that the Government have to do: take the page of the report that contains the draft motion and put it on the Order Paper. Nothing else is needed. The Leader of the House says that she is facilitating matters, but she is doing so exceedingly slowly. I ask her to hurry up and simply put that motion before the House, and then I hope we can make progress.

When can we expect a debate on the special report from the Information Commissioner following the veto by the Secretary of State for Justice of the release of Government papers, in contravention of the Information Commissioner’s decision and prior to a tribunal hearing? That is unprecedented, and it is necessary for that report, which is to the House, not the Government, to be debated, and for the Secretary of State to justify his actions. When will that happen?

May we have a statement from the Health Secretary on the intention from the beginning of the next financial year to consolidate the assets of hospital charities into the general NHS budget? That is very much resented by those who work tirelessly to raise funds in support of their local hospital. It cannot be right that it is going to happen, and I hope that the House will have the opportunity to express an opinion on it.

May we have a statement from the Chancellor of the Exchequer in due course on the supervisory review of the failed banks by the Financial Services Authority? There is some suggestion that it will not even published, which I hope is not the case. I hope that the Government can assure the House that it will be published and that a statement will be made in the House about its contents, because it is of absolute importance that we understand why the banks got this country into the mess that it is in and that we can assign responsibility appropriately.

Lastly, may we have a statement in due course on bilateral relations between the United Kingdom and Iceland, because there is clearly a full-scale constitutional crisis in that country as well as an economic one? That has huge ramifications for the United Kingdom, not least for the £830 million of taxpayers’ money from local authorities that is still to be recovered from that small country with its enormous debts. May we have a clarification from the Government as to what the position is at the earliest opportunity and an opportunity to debate the matter?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman, as I have the shadow Leader of the House, that we intend to make progress on the Wright Committee’s report. I reiterate that that Committee’s work was not foisted on us: we actually welcomed the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) to set up the Committee and swiftly brought forward the resolution to establish it. We are grateful for the work that it did, including over the summer recess, and we want to ensure that it is built upon and taken forward.

As far as the freedom of information request and the veto is concerned, there was a full statement on that by the Justice Secretary on—I think—10 December.

I beg the hon. Gentleman’s pardon—he is right that it was a written ministerial statement. I think I remember that that statement contained the information that there were something like 16,000 routine FOI requests, of which only two have been vetoed, so it was a very exceptional occurrence, which is why things were spelt out in a written ministerial statement. The framework that is set down by the Freedom of Information Act 2000 was followed as part of that process.[Official Report, 13 January 2010, Vol. 503, c. 7-8MC.]

As for charities, resources and the health service, there are Health questions next week, so the hon. Gentleman could look for an opportunity to raise that issue. If his question goes wider to include the funding of charities as part of the contribution to our health services, he might find an opportunity to catch Mr. Speaker’s eye in the debate on the pre-Budget report, which will happen immediately after business questions.

On financial regulation, the hon. Gentleman will know that the House has devoted a considerable amount of time—and rightly so—to the question of the regulation of financial services since the global credit crisis was precipitated in the United States. That has meant more work to toughen up the regime of the Financial Services Authority, the Financial Services Bill and international action so that we can work with other countries to ensure that this contagion of a lack of confidence in financial services does not spread with such devastating consequences as it did before. He will know that such things are constantly on the Treasury’s agenda, the business Department’s agenda and the House’s agenda.

On the UK and Iceland—as it happens, the Netherlands is also involved—the UK Government stepped in. That was part of the action that we have taken so that people have not been left to sink or swim during the recession. Just as we have taken action to protect people who are at risk of losing their jobs, protected small businesses and protected people from losing their homes, we have taken action to protect people with deposits in Icelandic banks. That is all part of the action that has necessarily resulted in an increase in the deficit. Who would say that it was not worth increasing the deficit to make sure that we protect not only people’s deposits in Icelandic banks, but confidence in financial services by the action that this Government have taken? All those things are part of what has built up the deficit. The next time anybody says that we should not have allowed public debt to rise, they should say where they think we should not have taken the action that has been so important. We will carry on with our bilateral work between not only ourselves and Iceland, but our European colleagues, to make sure that Iceland plays its part in paying back what it owes to the Government and people in this country.

Order. Twenty-five right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As always, I should like to be able to accommodate everybody, but short questions and short answers will be required if there is any chance of doing so.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend seen early-day motion 72, on A1 Techsol Ltd, Stockport Road, Manchester, standing in my name and the names of a number of other hon. Gentlemen?

[That this House condemns A1 Techsol Ltd, Stockport Road, Manchester, for having failed to return to a constituent of the right hon. Member for Gorton his UK passport, driving licence, bank statements, security officer's badge and photographs, which they required from him on taking up employment with them, and for ignoring repeated requests from the right hon. Member to return this material to his constituent; regards A1 Techsol's retention of this material as both theft and a breach of employment legislation; calls on the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and the police to investigate; and meanwhile calls on the public to have nothing whatever to do with A1 Techsol, either as employees or in any other way.]

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ask the Work and Pensions Secretary to investigate the employment practices of that rogue company, and the police to investigate it for possible larceny?

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising this issue, which is obviously of importance in his constituency. I will do as he suggests and raise the matter with the Work and Pensions Secretary, but he will no doubt have the opportunity to refer it to the police.

Over the Christmas recess, the Yorkshire Post reported that the chief constable of West Yorkshire police, Sir Norman Bettison, criticised the fact that burglars were being released from prison early owing to the lack of prison places. May we have an urgent debate about sentencing for burglars and prison places, given that it is causing West Yorkshire police lots of trouble that they otherwise would not have had, and completely unnecessarily creating extra victims of crime, owing to the incompetence of this Government?

There has actually been a fall in the level of crime since this Government came to office and an increase in the number of offenders brought to justice. No one is released from prison on the basis of a lack of prison places. We have increased the number of prison places—[Interruption.] Actually, we have done that with finance that the party to which the hon. Gentleman belongs would have opposed. I will not raise his points with the Home Secretary or the Justice Secretary because I think they are ill-founded.

Returning to the Wright Committee, do we take it that when the Leader of House says that the House will have the opportunity to decide on its report, she is saying that there will definitely be a substantive motion on which the House will have the opportunity to vote? I hope that that substantive motion will be, as the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said, on the draft resolution in the back of that excellent report. My right hon. and learned Friend is quite right that the Government can take credit for introducing the Committee, but we now want to see its report put into action.

Yesterday in the House of Commons, the Prime Minister said:

“We are now discussing these issues and they will form the subject of a debate and decisions by this House.”—[Official Report, 6 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 170.]

He was obviously right to talk in the plural because, as the Committee itself acknowledges, a number of decisions will need to be taken by the House. Some proposals require further work before they can be brought to the House, but there will be a number of decisions, and we expect to make progress on them and, indeed, the work that came within the remit of the Wright Committee, which arose originally from the work of the Procedure Committee on the election of Deputy Speakers and the introduction of term limits for Mr. Speaker and Deputy Speakers. Those were passed by a resolution of the House yesterday. We will make progress on this matter—not in one big bang, but we will establish the direction of travel on a consensus within this House. Steps will be taken, and the House will vote to see them put into action.

Will the right hon. and learned Lady ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to come to the House to make a statement on “Food 2030”, which was published by the Government on Tuesday morning? It is not available even in the Vote Office, let alone to Members by a statement. Quite apart from that discourtesy to the House, surely we should have a discussion in this Chamber about the document, which talks about the future of farming, food production and the food chain. When so many of our farmers are clearly in real difficulty with the current weather, perhaps we should use the topical debate next Thursday to discuss the document, and the Environment Secretary can answer some questions on it.

I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s interest in what is a very important report. I will discuss with the Secretary of State whether he thinks there should be an opportunity to bring it to the House to debate. I certainly think it raises some very important issues that probably could benefit from wider debate in the House.

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the prime area in which Ministers are held to account is here, in the House of Commons? Does she therefore agree that the failure by the Department for Communities and Local Government to field a Minister for last night’s Adjournment debate was a basic failure in accountability? As the debate was about discrimination against minority faiths, the lack of a departmental Minister made the point forcefully. What steps will she take to ensure that Departments understand that private discussions in meetings are no substitute for proper parliamentary accountability here on the Floor of the House?

I agree: if something has gone wrong, Ministers should offer a meeting with the hon. Member concerned—and I understand that that has happened in this case—but that is not sufficient. There is something unique about accountability on the Floor of the House, and that is what a Back Bencher seeks when initiating an Adjournment debate. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Deputy Leader of the House for taking that debate so ably on behalf of the Government. She is committed to those issues, but she is not the accountable Minister, and that is why I will take this up with the Secretary of State. It should not have happened and we need to ensure that it does not happen again.

May I thank the Leader of the House for what she said about David Taylor, who was such an outstanding Back Bencher?

In the light of Sir Ian Kennedy’s comments yesterday, would it not be sensible for the House to make its views known on his proposals so that we do not put the cart before the horse and vote on some Kelly recommendations that Sir Ian may not wish to endorse, bearing in mind that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is now in control?

There are some residual issues from Sir Christopher Kelly’s report that require legislation to fix them firmly in place. We have agreed to bring those forward in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. As for Sir Ian Kennedy’s document on establishing the new scheme for Members’ allowances, the framework for it was laid down in the Parliamentary Standards Act 2009, which requires consultation with the Speaker and Members of the House, and I understand that Sir Ian has announced a wider five-week consultation with the public on the document through a website. It is now the responsibility of IPSA to take that forward independently. Individual Members can respond to the consultation and we can put forward our views, but Professor Sir Ian Kennedy is responsible for proposing the scheme as chairman of IPSA, and that is what he will do under the framework that has been laid down.

Will the Government table their own amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill to ban non-doms from serving in Parliament, or will Ministers rely on my amendment?

That is an important issue, although I was not aware that my hon. Friend had tabled such an amendment. It sounds like a very good idea and I thank him for bringing it to the attention of the House. If he gets the chance to move his amendment, perhaps it will provide an opportunity for those on the Opposition Benches to say whether the deputy chair of the Tory party is actually resident for tax purposes.

I very much welcome the Leader of the House’s warm words about the Wright Committee proposals for reform of the House of Commons, and in particular her suggestion that we will need to go even further and build on them. That is an excellent and necessary idea. As a first step, will she place the Committee’s draft motion on the Order Paper for a free vote in this House—yes or no?