House of Commons
Thursday 25 February 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Business before Questions
London Local Authorities Bill [Lords] (By Order)
Second Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 4 March (Standing Order No. 20).
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
The estimated number of households in fuel poverty in the UK was around 4 million in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available.
We have to recognise the additional challenge that has been set by rising energy prices over the past few years, but we still intend to work as hard as possible for those vulnerable households, giving help through the obligation on suppliers to insulate homes and through Warm Front, through which we directly fund home insulation. We are also giving help through people’s incomes by means of measures such as the winter fuel and cold weather payments, and through the control of prices, including the present voluntary agreement, which we are seeking to turn into a mandatory social price support scheme through the Energy Bill.
Does my hon. Friend accept that a large element of fuel poverty relates to the energy efficiency of the homes in which fuel-poor people live? Does he also accept that efforts to ensure that those homes are made properly energy efficient are a vital part of our attack on fuel poverty? What is his assessment of the likely impact of community energy response teams, community energy saving programmes, and other schemes, such as the Great British Refurb, on improving the energy efficiency of homes?
I agree that the most sustainable way of helping people to stay out of fuel poverty is to ensure that their homes are energy efficient. That is why we have concentrated so much on the energy companies’ obligation, under which more than 6 million homes have been insulated. Another 2 million have been insulated under Warm Front. The community energy saving programmes scheme is also important in guiding us towards choosing the best policy for sustainable energy programmes, which we intend to reveal shortly in our latest strategy.
As the promoter of the Bill that became the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, I am naturally disappointed that the targets that were set will not be reached this year. The Department is undertaking a review, so will the Minister tell the House when the results will be announced? What instructions will be given to officials to ensure that the strategy is put back on track?
I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has a long and distinguished record of campaigning on these issues in the House and outside it. He is right to say that we are undertaking a review of our present policies to see whether they can be made more effective, or whether we need new ones. I am giving evidence to the Select Committee in March, and I hope to be able to talk about the emerging findings of the review at that time.
In order to fight fuel poverty, Ofgem is now going to force energy supply companies to print on customers’ bills details of how their tariff compares with the company’s standard direct debit tariff. Why will that information be given out only on an annual statement? That will discriminate against active switchers who might not get such a statement because they have not been with a company for 12 months.
Again, I think that praise is called for. The hon. Gentleman knows that I wrote to him to praise his campaigning on the issue of supplying information to customers, and I am happy to take this opportunity publicly to do so again. The annual reports start this year, so it is perhaps a little early for us to say that it is not a good enough scheme. Every energy bill will contain information about consumption and costs to customers, and I am working with Consumer Focus, the watchdog and champion of all consumers, on improving the quality of such information so that we will be able to give better information to members of the public every day of the year.
Does my hon. Friend agree that there are three components of fuel poverty: dwelling energy efficiency, fuel prices, and household income? Should not Opposition Members recognise that, although things are harder because of fuel prices, a lot more people would be living in fuel poverty if it were not for the increases in child benefit, the working tax credit and the winter fuel allowance?
My right hon. Friend is right about those three issues, and this Government have been determined, even during the worst global recession of my lifetime, to maintain spending on measures such as the winter fuel payment and child tax credits. Such payments have helped vulnerable consumers to pay their bills.
My hon. Friend is right to say that general poverty is an important issue for the Government to address, which is why we have worked so hard to eradicate pensioner poverty. Now we are even legislating to eradicate child poverty in this country. We pay attention to helping council house tenants, through the payment of their rent and council tax through the benefits that we offer them.
It is nearly 13 years since the beginning of this Labour Government, and is it not a sign of the priority that they have given to dealing with the massive fuel bills that customers regularly receive—we still have no strategy to make every home a warm home—that within three months of the end of this Parliament there is still no coherent Labour policy on the issue?
Now come on. We have arranged, through the energy supply companies’ obligation, for insulation to more than 6 million homes. Through Warm Front, we have directly funded insulation for an additional 2 million homes. We have a policy that every home with a cavity wall or loft that is uninsulated will be insulated by 2015. Having dealt with those so-called easy wins, we recognise that the next issue for us to tackle is hard-to-treat properties, such as those requiring solid wall insulation. Our strategy, which we will unveil shortly, will show how we will address those matters too.
I thank the Minister for his kind words to my hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for their campaigning on fuel poverty issues. Has he seen the recent report by Ofgem showing that the number of customers falling into debt on their electricity bills has increased by 105 per cent. on the previous year, and by a shocking 147 per cent. in the case of gas customers, and that those figures are getting worse? Does he recall the Secretary of State brushing aside our calls in 2008 for a Competition Commission investigation into energy prices, saying that it would cause two years of uncertainty? Does he accept that such an investigation would have been completed by now, and we could have had real evidence about the level of electricity and gas prices rather than the understandable suspicion and anxiety?
No. The investigation by the Competition Commission of the domestic oil companies took five years from complaint until remedies. In fact, Ofgem conducted a probe, completed its conclusions and issued the new licence conditions, which are now all in force, in less than two years. I completely reject the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the profit results announced by British Gas today. Does he agree that now is the time for energy companies such as British Gas to cut their prices to consumers?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have just come through one of the most severe winters for decades, with customers struggling to pay their high energy bills. Any help that energy companies can give to those customers at this difficult time is welcome. As we can see from energy companies’ profit results, they can afford that help, so others should follow the lead that British Gas gave earlier this month and cut their prices now.
National Grid’s recent “Ten Year Statement 2009” expects just over 0.5 billion cubic metres of additional gas storage capacity to be commissioned by 2011-12, or an addition of more than 10 per cent. to capacity, including Aldbrough, which will be the second largest facility in the country. In addition, 20 other projects are planned for completion beyond that date, including the Gateway project, which will provide 1.5 billion cubic metres of extra capacity by 2014. That storage capacity is on top of the increase in import capacity in recent years, representing 125 per cent. of annual demand.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was present for the energy security debate in the House some weeks ago, but the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) discovered in that debate and through asking other questions that simply quoting storage numbers when we have the North sea, import capacity and liquefied natural gas facilities tells only a small part of the story. Indeed, the National Grid dismissed his statistics as a “meaningless number”. We do need more storage capacity, but the most important thing is changing the planning system. We are doing that through the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will now be responsible for onshore wind. The suggestions of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) would best be directed at those on his Front Bench, who oppose our reforms in relation to the Infrastructure Planning Commission.
The Secretary of State will be well aware of the major contribution, certainly over the past few months, of the two LNG import terminals in Pembrokeshire and the Isle Of Grain in Kent. Up to 27 per cent. of annual consumption is provided through those terminals. Bearing in mind the future reduction of North sea capacity, and the possible risks of the continental connection, will the Secretary of State talk to the Crown Estate, with which the UK gas storage association is having major difficulties in reaching agreement about offshore storage?
My hon. Friend has made two important points. The first was about LNG facilities. I can tell him that the LNG facility at Milford Haven, which was not in operation last year, currently meets about 10 per cent. of total UK gas demand. That is one of the ways we are meeting our gas needs as the supply of the North sea declines. As for my hon. Friend’s second point, although the Crown Estate is independent of Government, we continue to think about the issues involved. The recent licensing of the Gateway project suggests that they can be dealt with.
There are different estimates. It depends whether we take account of the North sea, LNG facilities, and the fact that medium-range storage can be refilled.
The hon. Gentleman tried this in January, when we experienced very cold weather. It was not me but National Grid that said he was producing a “meaningless number”. I can tell him that alarmism about energy security does him, and political debate, no good at all.
I should have thought that the Secretary of State would inform himself of the day-to-day storage levels. For 18 months the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), has been warning that we need more gas in storage. Let me give the Minister the answer that he was unable to give me. As of last night, we have three days’ worth of gas in storage. That is the lowest level for many years, despite the fact that as imports increase we need a greater security margin. Other countries have more storage, Ofgem says we need more storage, and the Select Committee says we need more storage. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time the Government had a policy on what our security margin should be?
The strange thing about the hon. Gentleman is that, although he talks a lot about gas storage, he has not one single policy in favour of having more of it. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks me, from a sedentary position, what my policy is. The single most important policy that we are pursuing relates to the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will deal with one of the biggest gas storage issues that we face by reforming planning. What is the hon. Gentleman’s policy on the Infrastructure Planning Commission? His policy is to abolish it, and that says all we need to know. Once again, the Conservative party’s policy has not been thought through, and they are not ready for government.
Greenhouse Gases (India and China)
I had many discussions with Indian and Chinese representatives at the Copenhagen negotiations which led to the Copenhagen accord, in which both China and India set targets in time for the 31 January deadline. Since Copenhagen I have also discussed climate issues with the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom—until she recently became China’s Vice Foreign Minister—and various issues, including those relating to climate and energy, with Anand Sharma, the Indian Minister for Commerce and Industry.
Many people in this country do their bit to cut carbon dioxide emissions—I, for instance, drive a biofuel car—but that will pale into insignificance unless we can persuade the Indian and Chinese Governments to do more. Why does the Secretary of State think so little progress has been made?
I think more progress has been made than would seem apparent from the disappointment of the Copenhagen negotiations. The Copenhagen accord covers about 80 per cent. of global emissions. This is the first time that we have secured an agreement that covers such a wide range of emissions across the world. We need to turn it into a legally binding document, which is, in a sense, the biggest challenge that we face. The reason the task is so difficult is that these are very big issues about the future of different economies across the world.
My right hon. Friend will be aware that not far from his constituency, in Brigg and Goole and other constituencies on the south Humber bank, are companies such as Corus, Singleton Birch and, in Goole, Guardian Glass, which are being expected—rightly—to reduce emissions as part of the Government’s overall strategy, but are competing against companies that are setting themselves up and building new plants in countries with fast-growing economies, such as India and China. They feel that is unfair and that there is no level playing field, because they are having to take action that the companies in those other countries are not. When will my right hon. Friend be able to make more progress, so that we can report to workers in this country that they are not being unfairly discriminated against?
My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is because of that situation that there are provisions in the EU emissions trading scheme to protect against so-called carbon leakage. We give out allowances free to the most exposed sectors, rather than auctioning them. The European Commission is currently examining the different criteria, and will make further announcements later this year.
The other point I would make is that there is also a first-mover advantage for us in getting ahead in this low-carbon technology, and it is important that we do that as well.
As you know, Mr. Speaker, the shadow Minister with responsibility for climate change, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), cannot be here today as he is in Beijing meeting Chinese Ministers responsible for those issues.
We admired the Secretary of State’s work in advance of Copenhagen—I think he knows that—but in the aftermath of Copenhagen, perhaps for reasons of understandable frustration, he accused China of trying to hijack the summit and of holding other countries to ransom. On reflection, does he regret that approach, and does he believe that as no global deal is possible without China, he should take steps to understand why China felt a global deal was not in its interests, with a view to persuasion rather than condemnation? Also, does he have a positive—
I do not regret being open and honest with people about why the Copenhagen negotiations did not achieve all that we had hoped, because I think that is a very important duty in politics. We went to the Copenhagen negotiations to try to secure a legal treaty and global targets, and it is right to explain to people why those ambitions were not achieved. It is also right to say, as I made clear in my discussions with the Chinese ambassador, that the task now is to move on and work with China, India and others to try to resolve the remaining differences.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in our discussions with the Chinese, we would be in a better position when talking about emissions from coal-fired power stations if the previous Tory Government had not been so short-sighted and closed down the clean coal technology research project and research into improving the thermal efficiency of coal-fired power stations? [Interruption.]
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right, and it is very clear from Conservative Members’ responses to that question that they do not like to be reminded of their past, and it is no wonder—although I know that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) was in a different party in the period referred to.
My right hon. Friend is right. I think there is an important future for clean coal in this country. That is why it is important that the Energy Bill makes the carbon capture and storage levy available to support that.
Ofgem’s consultation is one of a number of resources that my Department is taking into account in its ongoing work on maintaining secure and affordable energy supplies during the transition to a low-carbon economy.
Why have the Government done so little to prepare for the hon. Gentleman’s Department’s forecasts that up to 16 million households could be sitting in the dark by 2017, and is the fact that only three Labour MPs have questions on the Order Paper today indicative of his party’s lack of concern about this issue?
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes such a low view of policies that are delivering on investment, price and supply in this country. If he wants solid evidence of that, he need only look back one month to one of the severest winters in decades, when the system in this country coped extremely well.
My hon. Friend will recognise that Ofgem faces difficult problems. We, as the former owners of the generating facilities and energy companies, have suffered badly in that we were ripped off. We did not realise that the payment was only a down payment, and we have been ripped off every year by these companies ever since. When will my hon. Friend ask our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to provide a set of NHS gnashers to give to the toothless watchdog we have got—the regulator?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his robust expression of a dissatisfaction that is felt throughout the House with the performance of the regulator since privatisation of the energy sector. However, I can assure him that in the Energy Bill that this House voted in favour of last night there are measures to strengthen the powers of Ofgem.
As the Minister will be aware, it is estimated that about £200 billion will need to be invested in energy production in the next decade if the lights are not going to go off. In the light of that figure, does he think that the £800 million-plus profit that British Gas announced today should be used for further investment or cutting bills?
The hon. Lady invites me to answer one of the key questions. We want energy companies to invest £200 billion in infrastructure projects in this country over the next decade, so we should celebrate the fact that they are successful global companies that do make profits. However, when those profits are excessive and members of the public are struggling to pay high energy bills after four successive years of very big increases, we are entitled to say that as world prices fall the customers should share in that benefit.
Given that the big energy companies have made the highest ever profits over the past five years and that only today British Gas announced a profit of nearly £600 million, which is an increase of more than 50 per cent., why should anybody support a party that, as the hon. Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) indicated a moment ago, has so abysmally failed to take on the big energy companies, stand up for consumers and give us a regulator that does anything useful to justify its existence?
The hon. Gentleman clearly did not listen to the previous question and answer, nor the one before that. It is important that we have successful energy companies but, equally, because of the monopolistic elements of their industry, it is important to have a strong regulator. As I have just said, we are legislating in the Energy Bill to make that regulator stronger.
Last July, the Secretary of State told the House that
“gas imports…will be kept to 2010 levels for the whole of the following decade”.—[Official Report, 15 July 2009; Vol. 496, c. 293-94.]
Yet both Ofgem and the National Grid Company say that gas imports will rise substantially during the next eight years and that 70 per cent. of our gas will be imported. Who is right?
The Government stand by the UK low carbon transition plan, which we published last year and which contains our favoured scenario for what will happen by 2020. The hon. Gentleman asks who is right and who is wrong. There are a range of views on this and we are taking them all into account as we develop our energy market assessment, the first findings of which will be announced alongside this year’s Budget.
The Minister has just confirmed that the Government take a different view from the regulator. When it was disclosed that his Department expected power cuts in 2017, the Secretary of State dumped the data and changed the figures. Yet this month Ofgem, the regulator, has said:
“In 2017 we get to the really sweaty-palm moment in terms of possible shortages”.
It talked of the “profound” and “worrying” state of
“collapse in energy supply from 2013”.
Ofgem has rubbished the Secretary of State’s complacent assumptions on gas and electricity and has called for a different policy on security. Why has the energy regulator lost confidence in this Secretary of State?
I just mentioned the low carbon transition plan, which suggests a major investment in the trinity of clean coal, nuclear and renewables. It is unfortunate that in every one of those areas the hon. Gentleman’s party is obstructive—I am thinking of the approach it has taken on the planning system for nuclear power with the Infrastructure Planning Commission, on the proposed levy, and on the introduction yesterday of the proposal by some Opposition Members of an emissions performance standard. On renewables, he does not have to look far behind him to see the Members who do not agree with developing wind power in this country.
Coal-fired Power Stations
The Government’s “A framework for the development of clean coal”, which was published in November, delivers a comprehensive package of policy measures that will drive the transition to clean coal to 2020 and beyond. Our ambition is that any new coal plant constructed from 2020 will be fully carbon capture and storage from day one and that coal-fired power stations with demonstration projects will retrofit CCS to their full capacity by 2025.
The energy industry needs a stronger signal now that the Government are serious about getting carbon out of energy; otherwise it will not make the necessary investments. The emissions trading scheme is not working, and last night the Government blocked the introduction of an emissions performance standard. Why will they not take on the power giants, introduce legal limits on power stations and force them to cut their carbon emissions drastically?
I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that we have the most radical and most environmentally demanding coal policy in the world, and we have the greatest incentive to industry to invest with the CCS levy. Frankly, not a single company and not a single independent adviser such as the Committee on Climate Change would support him in saying that introducing an emissions performance standard at this point would be appropriate.
Why have the Government rejected the findings in the report they commissioned from Oxera, which recommended raising the cap on the amount of biomass that coal-fired power stations such as Drax can blend with coal from 12.5 to 17.5 per cent.?
I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. We are looking at the whole field and at the use of biomass. This is not a technology in which we can have total confidence at the moment. There are issues of sustainability in the production of the biomass, if it involves new crops, and the burning of biomass brings up air pollution issues, too. We have to take some time over this. We are in discussions with people at Drax and we will be considering the issues that they raise about investment, incentives and the cap.
National Grid (East Anglia)
The Secretary of State has no plans to meet the representatives of local authorities in East Anglia to discuss the operation of the national grid.
Is the Minister aware that Centrica is going to double the size of the King’s Lynn gas-fired power station, which will mean that it will need the national grid to connect the new power to its main power lines with new pylons, which will be extremely unsightly. What is his policy for burying such new pylons underground?
I think I am right to point out to the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) that this is one of the hon. Members who is against developing wind power in this country. We need £200 billion of investment in our energy infrastructure over the next decade, some of which will be for the cables that deliver the power from the place of generation to the place of consumption. On the whole, overhead power cables have been the most robust and cost-effective way of delivering that energy in the past.
We estimate that approximately 2 per cent. of the UK’s electricity supply will be generated by small-scale technologies in 2020.
Clearly not to follow the example of Conservative Members in opposing renewable energy developments, but rather to follow successful Labour policies, such as the one that makes us the lead in the world in offshore wind. The hon. Gentleman’s question was about microgeneration, so perhaps we can return to the subject of feed-in tariffs, which a Labour Government are introducing from this April and which will encourage these developments.
Carbon Emission Reduction (Local Government)
Local authorities have a key leadership role in reducing their emissions and those occurring within their areas. The Government have announced a pilot of local carbon frameworks, which aim to increase the contribution of local authorities to meeting the UK’s carbon emissions reduction targets.
Estimates of per capita CO2 emissions for 2007, and revised estimates for 2005 and 2006, for all UK local authorities and Government office regions were published on the DECC website on 17 September and were updated on 9 November.
DECC also collects statistics on the CO2 emissions of local authorities’ own estate and operations. The Department is analysing returns for the year ending 31 March 2009 and will publish the figures soon.
I thank the Minister of State for that answer. May I press her on what powers and resources the Government intend to give to local authorities to enable them to promote green technology and sustainable development and to meet their carbon reduction commitments?
I shall begin with the carbon reduction commitment, which is, of course, a national scheme being introduced this April. Within that, local authorities will have a duty to look to their energy efficiency, and their resulting emissions will have to be measured. They will have the opportunity, in the first year, simply to record that information. We will, of course, assist in that. In order to reduce their emissions and increase their energy efficiency, they get assistance from the Carbon Trust and Salix finance loans are available. We have a very good record of working with local government. The indicators are there through the local government performance framework, and local authorities have sufficient powers to make the necessary changes. Of course, they will make a vital contribution.
An appropriate planning regulatory regime is essential for local authorities to develop local emissions reduction projects in their areas. What assessment has been made of potential changes to planning regulations that impede such developments?
Some concerns have been expressed by local authorities, and, indeed, by individual households and businesses, about the ability to introduce new technologies in a way that is consistent with local needs and local views. We have given local authorities the right to determine their own planning policies to an extent, as well as, more recently, to agree permitted development so that we can make some progress with small-scale microgeneration.
Prepayment meters play an important role in helping some customers to control their energy expenditure and should remain an option for consumers. Smart meters will in due course replace current prepayment meters and we are committed to rolling out smart meters to all households. Meanwhile, the replacement of the older-style token prepayment meters was due to be nearly completed by the end of 2009. I await an update on the present position from Ofgem.
There is a lot of concern about energy prepayment meters because they are used mainly by those on lower incomes. Is it right that such people should pay more for their gas than those who are better off? When will prepayment meters be entirely phased out? Phasing them out would be a good thing, and that idea is warmly supported by Labour Members.
For the reasons that I have given, I do not, regretfully, agree with the hon. Gentleman about the presence and use of prepayment meters, but they will all be gone when we have smart meters by the end of 2020. In the mean time, one of the Ofgem licence conditions that I mentioned earlier was to rule out any unfair discrimination against users of prepayment meters. As a result, the differential between prepayment meter and standard credit rates has effectively been eliminated.
I refer the hon. Gentleman to the reply that I gave to the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) some moments ago.
I am obliged to the Secretary of State, but may I refer him to the answer that he gave to the hon. Member for Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire (Nick Ainger) regarding developments under the sea bed? Clearly, the Crown Estate holds the key to future developments under the sea bed, but the gas storage operators group accuses it of behaving it as a monopoly. What influence can the Secretary of State bring to bear on the Crown Estate to ensure that it behaves in a commercial manner?
It is fair to say that negotiations between the Crown Estate and gas storage operators are commercial negotiations, but we engage with that and we are in discussions with the Crown Estate. They make their own decisions about tariffs and fees, but we are due to talk to them about that. We can also help by making tax changes. For example, the tax change that we made in relation to cushion gas has helped to make storage more viable.
Boiler Scrappage Scheme
The boiler scrappage scheme commenced on 5 January this year and is proving to be highly successful. It has, to date, received more than 95,000 applications. The scheme contributes to DECC’s objectives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the UK through reduced energy consumption and to ensure that the UK benefits from the business and employment opportunities of a low-carbon future. We estimate that the scheme will reduce CO2 emissions by between 1.1 million and 1.4 million tonnes a year.
I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. I am not surprised, and I am encouraged to hear about the take-up, but is she aware that, when condensing boilers are retrofitted, the water run-off pipe is often fitted on the outside of a building? When those pipes freeze, as is happening in the current freezing conditions, the boilers break, with the result that households have no heat or hot water. What are the Government doing to stop that happening?
From what the hon. Gentleman has said, perhaps Ministers ought to be taking a course in plumbing, although I must tell him that I have no plans to do so. I have a condensing boiler myself, and my external run-off pipe has not frozen, but he may be correct about this being something that we need to look into. However, I hope that he will not want to detract in any way from the great success of the boiler scrappage scheme and the huge savings in CO2 emissions—and therefore the good effects on climate change—that it is achieving.
Climate Change Research
Last year, DECC and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs launched the AVOID research programme on avoiding dangerous climate change which assessed the scientific research published since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s fourth assessment report. The findings informed the UK delegation ahead of Copenhagen. The integrated climate programme at the Met Office Hadley centre is also providing new climate science research and expert advice on the findings of that research.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. In this country, there has been a broad consensus that the risk of dangerous climate change is real. It is based on broad and deep scientific evidence, with acknowledged uncertainties, that we cannot go on pumping billions of tonnes of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere without serious adverse effects. Does she agree that, if we are to continue to take the right decisions for the long term, it is important that that political consensus is maintained, and that we should not be distracted by the noise being made by those who claim that climate change is not a serious risk?
I agree absolutely with my hon. Friend. We have seen nothing that undermines the main body of climate research, which goes back many decades and has involved some of the best scientists in the world. Although it is clear that there have been some errors and possible misjudgments, we know that CO2 emissions in the atmosphere are growing at an unprecedented rate. We have every reason to accept that that is the result of human activities. I am pleased that the consensus that it is human activities that are leading to the excessive warming that we see, and to the other climatic effects that we associate with climate change, holds across this House.
The UK operates a market-based approach to the supply of refined products, and it is therefore a matter for individual companies to determine how best to meet their customer demand and what level of refining capacity is needed to do that. However, my Department has an ongoing dialogue with the UK downstream oil sector, including the oil refining industry as represented by the UK Petroleum Industry Association. As part of that dialogue, we recently commissioned and published a report by respected independent consultants on the UK downstream oil infrastructure.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and for making time before Christmas to meet me to discuss this issue. However, is he aware of the enormous concern among UK refiners about the renewable heat incentive? They believe that it will load them with an additional cost burden and place them at a severe competitive disadvantage, which will only raise and heighten fears about potential plant closures and enormous job losses as a result.
Yes, I am aware of the concern that the hon. Gentleman refers to, and I met members of the PIA this week to discuss that and other issues. The Government are listening to their point of view, and we have responded to their representations already. I know that the Treasury has certainly got in mind their point of view as it works toward this year’s Budget.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the sale of Grangemouth, and that Stanlow in my constituency is up for sale. Will he ensure that the Department keeps a close eye on the broader public interest and, specifically, that it helps at a local level to ensure that the work force are properly protected in such circumstances?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. There have been a number of reviews by participants in that market in recent years, and I agree that it is important that all members of the industry are engaged in such reviews, including the work force and their trade union representatives.
University of East Anglia Climatic Research Unit
The Secretary of State has not had any recent discussions with representatives of the university of East Anglia on the work of its climate research unit.
Does the Minister not agree, though, that it would be useful to have such conversations with that climate change unit in order to argue that, for the sake of belief and faith in climate change, those figures should be credible? Do you think that we should ask the university to conduct an independent inquiry, or, if it is unable to do so, that the Government themselves should initiate an independent inquiry?
Indeed, I do, Mr. Speaker. I do not think it appropriate for us to be in discussion with the university of East Anglia. It has announced that an independent review, chaired by Sir Muir Russell, will look into the data and the e-mail hacking incident. It will report later in the spring, and those findings will of course be made public. That is appropriate.
On our belief in the science, I have already said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) that the Government remain absolutely convinced. We believe that the data worldwide are robust, and we have no reason to question them. However, it is appropriate that the East Anglian incident be investigated thoroughly.
My Department works with others to ensure that Britain can take the lead in low-carbon manufacturing. Today we are announcing a new research and development facility for offshore wind blade testing in Blyth, following Government investment of £18.5 million. We also welcome Mitsubishi’s announcement that it will locate its offshore research and development facility in the UK, creating 200 skilled jobs, following last week’s announcement by Clipper Windpower about its factory in the north-east.
I obviously thank the Secretary of State for that detailed response, but it will not have anything to do with my question.
A 92-year-old, partially sighted, disabled constituent has written to me on the advice of Age Concern about her serious problems over two years with the Warm Front team, which installed a condenser boiler. The problem to which my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Dunne) referred but did not receive a sensible reply has caused a total breakdown of the boiler. Warm Front can do nothing about it, and my constituent has had to spend more than £200 herself on a private contractor to provide her with heat. Will the Government do something about it, and will the Secretary of State look into Warm Front’s ineffective and inefficient operations?
The hon. Gentleman raises a serious question about his constituent, and I assure him that if he passes the details to us my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will look into it urgently and talk to Warm Front about sorting out the problem. When the Department came into being, there were a number of complaints about Warm Front, and we took a whole series of actions to improve the value for money and operation of the scheme. I think that they are having an effect, but when things go wrong, we want to take action as quickly as possible, working with Warm Front, and we will do so in that case.
My hon. Friend will be aware that there have been 592,000 chronic obstructive pulmonary disease claims and 170,000 vibration white finger claims. In other words, 750,000 claims have gone through his Department, so a great deal of experience in them will have been gained. Will he ensure that in future, if there is a potential liability relating to a prescribed disease in the mining industry, it will be dealt with by a scheme, rather than by the courts at an enormous cost?
Yes, I acknowledge the huge scale of the two compensation schemes that my hon. Friend mentions, and more than £4 billion of taxpayers’ money has been paid out in compensation to miners who have suffered some horrendous injuries. I think that my hon. Friend alludes predominantly to the knee injury litigation that is ongoing, and I assure him that we have attempted to learn all the lessons of those earlier schemes in order to ensure that, if liability is established, we act in the way that he asks me to do. In the meantime, I credit my hon. Friend and others who have made representations to the Government about that knee condition for a new industrial injury benefit, which is now in place.
The recently announced feed-in tariff creates a two-tier structure for small generators that feed into the grid, leaving those who were prepared to take the initiative in the early stages, at their own financial risk, much worse off. How do the Government justify that unfairness?
I have sympathy with the point that the hon. Gentleman has raised. However, he needs to bear in mind the fact that all the schemes impact on everyone, and we all have to make a contribution if the issue is to be addressed. The whole point of setting the feed-in tariff now is to enable the generation of more renewable energy, and that is why it requires the best possible incentive. Those who have already taken the initiative on their own account will not be producing more generation, and the Government’s aim has to be to get more in place and to create the incentive to make that happen. If we were to equalise the payment, that would not create more generation or more CO2 savings.
In my home town of Dundee, tens of thousands of people have claimed the cold weather payment over the past year. I hope that the Minister agrees that there is still much to be done. Does he also agree that without the cold weather payment and the winter fuel allowance, many of the most vulnerable in our society would have to endure the unacceptable face of fuel poverty?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That is part of our strategy of addressing the problem of people’s incomes and ability to pay energy bills. He is right that even during this toughest of times and the recession that we have been through, a Labour Chancellor has maintained the higher amounts of both the winter fuel allowance and the cold weather payment this year, because he understands that that is the right thing to do for the vulnerable people involved.
We have eradicated the differential between prepayment meters and the standard credit, so the hon. Gentleman has now moved on to the differential between the prepayment meter and direct debit. At present, the licence condition is that a cost differential is permissible to reflect simply the extra cost of providing the means of payment. According to Ofgem, a prepayment meter costs about £88 a year more to administer than a direct debit. That would be the difficulty for me in acceding to the hon. Gentleman’s latest request.
On steel and energy, will the Secretary of State support the view of the Community union that the carbon credits for Tata’s Teesside plant should be held in trust until the company agrees to talk with the Government and the union on resuming work there? Will he also meet me and colleagues to look at an over-rigorous interpretation of an EU regulation that might seriously damage electric arc furnace steel making in the UK?
I am sure that we can arrange a meeting with my right hon. Friend on the second question that he raised. On his first question, I should say that the Teesside issue is important. My right hon. Friend Lord Mandelson continues to be in discussions about the serious matter of what can be done at the plant. We will continue to take those discussions forward.
As I have said before in the House, I am not in favour of referring these matters to the Competition Commission if we can avoid it, because that will tie the whole energy industry up in knots. What is our strategy as a Government? It is to give the regulators more power, as we are doing in the Energy Bill; to eliminate some of the worst unfairnesses—in respect of prepayment meters, for example; and, rightly, to say to companies that they have a responsibility not only to their shareholders but to customers. We are doing all those things.
Does the Minister understand that up to 40 per cent. of domestic energy bills can be accounted for by heating hot water, and that much of that can be wasted through inefficient installations? Is he talking to the Minister with responsibility for water at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the synergies between smart metering roll-out in water and electricity and other synergies between water efficiency and energy efficiency?
I clearly should be, and following my hon. Friend’s request I am sure that we will do so. She makes an important point about the heating of hot water and the role that can be played by the kind of technology that can both heat hot water and help to heat people’s homes—combined heat and power. There is a lot to be done in that area. We are introducing the renewable heat incentive, which will make an enormous difference to people in heating their homes, but we will also engage in the discussions that she suggests.
The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. While this is of course ultimately a matter for unions and management to resolve, we have engaged in discussions with both sides on these issues. I am pleased that the strike action that was due on Tuesday of this week did not go ahead, and I very much hope that a satisfactory resolution can be reached.
I am sure that my right hon. Friend shares my concern that we exploit every drop of gas and oil in and around our own waters. May I congratulate him on the introduction of the field allowance in the North sea, which is proving so successful? I put it to him, in the same terms, that the brownfield sites around the same area, but a bit further away from the existing production facilities, may have 80 per cent. of what is recoverable, and that we should introduce something that makes those equally viable.
My hon. Friend draws attention to an important decision made by the Chancellor about the field allowance, which I believe was initially introduced in the last Budget. He built on that in the pre-Budget report, and has since made further announcements on it. I will ensure that this is brought to his attention, and I am sure that he will be looking at the issues that my hon. Friend raises.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his just-in-time questioning. He raises an important issue. Clearly, mistakes have been made, and it is important that those are looked at and that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change looks at its procedures. I have written to Dr. Pachauri to emphasise our support for the organisation, but also our wish that it looks at its procedures to try to eliminate such errors. The overall picture is very clear: climate change is happening, it is real, and it is man-made. It is very important to say that.
I should like to press the Secretary of State on the answer that he gave earlier on Warm Front. Does he think that there is a potential conflict of interest while Eaga is effectively allowed to award itself contracts for Warm Front grants? What steps is he taking to put a stop to that practice?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who recently came to see me personally to talk about that issue. Among the changes that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State mentioned was ensuring that Eaga is put on the same footing as any other contractor in having to bid competitively for contracts under Warm Front, in the same way as anybody else.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point that is central to this debate. We need to be open about the fact that there are costs to acting on climate change, but we know that the costs of not acting would be greater. That central conclusion of the Stern report is important in shaping the climate change debate, and he is right that we should emphasise it.
Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State look closely at what is happening in terms of sustainability and progressive environmental policies in Kirklees council, in whose area my constituency sits? Will he particularly examine the warm zone initiative, which is so successful that many local authorities are coming to look at it? May I invite him to come and look at it himself?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will have to answer for himself on whether he can go and look at that, but many of us have had conversations with Kirklees council and visited it, because there is no question but that it has been exemplary and pioneered work involving local government, energy companies and community groups all working together to get community solutions. It was part of the inspiration behind the community energy saving programme, which the Government recently rolled out and which is going extremely well. The programme will provide £350 million of funding in order that we get such real community endeavours off the ground on the same basis as Kirklees’ pioneering warm zones.
No, we will not. Here we see what people worry about in relation to the Conservative party: an unchanged party, with people saying that climate change does not exist and that we should not go ahead with onshore wind. So no, Labour will not follow the hon. Lady’s advice.
My hon. Friend will be aware that progress is being made in the administration of Bowater in my constituency. Energy is a huge component part of the problem, so will he assure me that his Department will work with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to help facilitate the recovery of the business on that site?
I expect better from the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.]Perhaps I should not expect better. The truth is that, as I said in our earlier discussion, the National Grid has clearly said that those numbers are meaningless, because they do not take account of our indigenous supplies. It is really important to emphasise the role that our indigenous supplies continue to play along with imports and storage.
Now that the Energy Bill, which relates particularly to carbon capture and storage, has passed all its stages in this House, will my right hon. Friend talk urgently to the Crown Estate and the energy companies operating in the North sea about the continuity of maintenance of pipelines between oil and gas extraction and carbon storage?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and we are in dialogue with the Crown Estate about a whole range of issues including the one to which he draws attention. I thank him for his role in the Bill, and the important thing now is to get it on the statute book as soon as possible.
Business of the House
The business for next week will be:
Monday 1 March—Opposition day (half-day) (4th allotted day—1st part). There will be a debate on the Government’s record on defence. This debate will arise on an Opposition motion, followed by a motion relating to the draft Prevention of Terrorism Act 2005 (Continuance in force of sections 1 to 9) Order 2010, followed by a motion relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2010.
Tuesday 2 March—Motion to approve a Money Resolution on the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, followed by remaining stages of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill.
Wednesday 3 March—Second Reading of the Bribery Bill [Lords].
Thursday 4 March—Motion to approve a statutory instrument, followed by consideration of a procedural motion, followed by proceedings on House business.
Friday 5 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The provisional business for the week commencing 8 March will include:
Monday 8 March—Remaining stages of the Crime and Security Bill.
Tuesday 9 March—Opposition day (5th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.
Wednesday 10 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on alcohol, followed by a debate on taxes and charges on road users. Details will be given in the Official Report.
[The details are as follows: Taxes and charges on road users: 6th Report from the Transport Committee of Session 2008-09, HC 103; and Government response—6th special report of Session 2008-09, HC 995; and Alcohol: 1st Report from the Health Committee, HC 151.]
At 7.00 pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.
Thursday 11 March—Topical debate: subject to be announced, followed by proceedings on the Consolidated Fund Bill, followed by Second Reading of the Northern Ireland Assembly Members Bill [Lords].
Friday 12 March—Private Members’ Bills.
The House is grateful for next week’s business.
On oral questions, how satisfied is the right hon. and learned Lady that the shuffle is entirely random? What are the odds, as happened in today’s Question Time, of no Labour Back Benchers being selected for one of the first 16 questions, nor a single topical question to the Energy Secretary? Have Government Back Benchers simply given up?
On the business for next Thursday, can the Leader of the House clarify today what the Deputy Leader of the House refused to clarify on Monday—namely, that all the recommendations in the Wright report that need a decision by the House will be tabled, and that she will do that by Monday at the latest, so that we can table the necessary amendments? Does she agree that it would be desirable for the Back-Bench business committee to be up and running at the beginning of the next Parliament? Would not a clear answer to those questions disperse the “climate of suspicion” to which she referred on Monday? Related to that, will she tell us how she intends to timetable Thursday between debates and votes? The House will want to know that there will be enough time to vote on the remaining resolutions and the selected amendments.
May we have a debate on the Procedure Committee’s final report on the election of the Speaker and Deputy Speakers? As the right hon. and learned Lady will appreciate, decisions on that need to be made before the beginning of the next Parliament.
On elections, may we have a debate on the by-elections process? This week, the Electoral Commission delivered a stinging report on the Government for their unnecessary delay in scheduling the election in Glasgow, North-East. Given that there is currently a similar delay for voters in North-West Leicestershire, is it not time for the House to consider a mandatory time limit within which by-elections are held, so that we can avoid the Government placing electoral advantage over the constitutional rights of citizens to be represented here?
Turning to next Thursday, may we have an extra day on the remaining stages of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? That is a huge piece of legislation, to which a great deal has been added—more Government amendments are expected—and 28 clauses, which is approximately one third of the Bill, have not been debated at all. Given the right hon. and learned Lady’s commitment to ensure that the House has better powers of scrutiny, would not that be a good place to start?
Where is the annual debate on international development? I raised that with the right hon. and learned Lady at the last business questions and she said there would be one “as soon as possible”. That debate is still not on the radar, and we need it not least so that we can debate the lessons to be learned from the tragedy in Haiti.
Related to that, may we have a debate in Government time on Afghanistan and our overseas commitments? The right hon. and learned Lady has consistently said that the House should have opportunities to debate defence, but we have not had one of the four defence debates to which we are entitled in each Session. Next Monday, the Opposition are having to give up one of their Opposition days to debate defence, at a time when the country is at war. When are the Government going to make time to debate such issues?
What has happened to the debate on international women’s day? Although that falls on 8 March and a debate is scheduled in another place, there is no sign of it in our provisional business. I cannot believe that the Leader of the House plans to overlook that important event.
Finally, it will come as no surprise if I ask again for the dates of the Easter recess. We keep being told that this will be announced in the usual way, but it is rather unusual—with just 26 working days until Good Friday—for us to be kept in the dark. May I repeat my assumption that the House rises on 1 April and does not return, having listened to the Chancellor’s final Budget on 24 March? Or can the right hon. and learned Lady tell us otherwise?
The shuffle for oral questions is of course completely random, and I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman was not suggesting otherwise. He can see the figures: Labour Members tabled questions, but they did not get called up first and that is the way that these things sometimes work. I am sure he would not wish to cast any aspersions on those who do the selections.
This afternoon, I hope that the Government will re-table the remaining motions on the Wright Committee recommendations that did not get passed on Monday. They will all be on the Order Paper as substantive motions for hon. Members to vote on next Thursday 4 March. Hon. Members will also be able to table amendments to those motions. I have looked at the proposals in the Committee’s report and I am satisfied that should Members wish to table amendments to any of the remaining recommendations, they will be able to vote on them next Thursday. It does not matter how an issue comes to the House for a vote, whether it is through Government motion or an amendment tabled by an hon. Member that is selected by Mr. Speaker. The issue is whether, if hon. Members wish to vote on a Wright Committee proposal, they will have the opportunity to do so. I am satisfied that if hon. Members wish to vote on any recommendation from the Wright Committee, all that they have to do is table an amendment to the motions that we will table this afternoon and they will have that vote. I hope that that lays hon. Members’ fears to rest.
I mentioned the climate of suspicion in order to say that it was unwarranted. Sometimes, people like to prove their struggle by struggling against something. If they have to feel that they are struggling against me to make these changes, they can go ahead, but that is not the reality of the situation. I can assure hon. Members that the reality is that all the recommendations by the Wright Committee will be available to be voted on, if hon. Members wish to do so, because all that they have to do is table amendments to them—[Interruption.] I can hear hon. Members muttering, and I understand their concern, because they are worried that the amendments will not be selected. There will be an opportunity for Mr. Speaker to reassure the House on that basis, so that hon. Members know what will be selected and that they will have the opportunity to vote. Am I really likely to say this week in and week out and then suddenly discover, on 4 March, that—[Interruption.] Well, as I have asked that question and got the wrong answer, I shall answer it myself. I would not be standing here saying what will happen if I thought that there was any chance that it would not. It is all going to be fine, and hon. Members just need to turn up and vote for it—[Interruption.] The position is clear.
On the question of the Back-Bench business committee, the shadow Leader of the House said that he would like it to be ready to be up and running after the general election. In fact, the Wright Committee proposes that we should agree in principle and refer it to the Procedure Committee, so that it can work out all the Standing Orders, so that the committee is ready to be implemented immediately by the new Parliament. Indeed, we picked up that Wright Committee proposal—it forms the basis of our substantive motion—and the committee will be ready to be up and running if, next Thursday, we pass the resolution that I have tabled. It will then go to the Procedure Committee, which will no doubt do its work in its admirable and prompt way.
On the timetabling of business next Thursday, we have had many hours of debate on the substance of the Wright Committee report: we had a full day’s debate on Monday; we have had two Adjournment debates; I have spoken about it often; and we have discussed it at business questions. We have had more than eight hours in debating time alone. In my view, we have debated the Wright Committee report enough—what we need is some voting and decision making. As I set out, we debated it on Monday, and the voting will be next Thursday.
We will have a procedural motion. When I table it, Members will see that they can spend their time either debating it or having a further discussion on the Wright Committee proposals—I am not bothered either way. [Interruption.] No, I think that we have had enough debate. I am not bothered, but I am concerned that we actually get to the voting. About 90 minutes after we start the debate on the procedural motion, we shall start voting, so that we conclude all the votes on the Wright Committee substantive motions and the amendments at a reasonable time on Thursday. Then hon. Members can return to their constituencies knowing—I hope—that they have improved how the House works.
It is very likely that we will be tabling motions arising out of the Wright Committee proposals for the election of Deputy Speakers—that issue has been in the pipeline for some time.
On the question of by-elections, I think that we have an excellent new Member for Glasgow, North-East. He is very often in his place in the House—he is not in it today, but he is an active Member of the House, as well as an active constituency MP. I think, therefore, that we had a really excellent result in that by-election. We also had the tragic loss of the Member for North-West Leicestershire. Let us bear in mind that there will be a general election shortly. [Interruption.] Surely the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) is not suggesting that we go through the expense of a by-election immediately in advance of a general election—[Interruption.] Well, if he is, I do not agree with him. If that is what he really believes, why does he not come forward with an amendment to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill? He has not tabled any amendments at any stage of that Bill to give effect to what he says he is so passionate about. Suddenly he has discovered that he is passionately in favour of it, but he has never done anything about it in the past, so I take that to be hot air.
On an international women’s day debate, I welcome the commitment that the shadow Leader of the House has expressed to such a day, and I think that he will find that it might be topical come next week. [Interruption.] That was a hint, but I shall leave hon. Members to work it out.
On international development, there will be a debate shortly on that—I have not overlooked it. We have had many days’ debate on defence—they run throughout the year—and if Conservative Members choose to table an additional day’s debate on that for their Opposition day, that is entirely a matter for them.
On my announcements for House business, I announced the firm business today for next week and the provisional business for the week after, and that is the usual way of doing things.
I have a terrible memory, so I am sure that I have simply forgotten the point in the Wright Committee report suggesting that the Back-Bench business committee should be referred first to the Procedure Committee for consideration. However, given that the Leader of the House has asserted that it is the case, she will be able to remind me of exactly where that suggestion comes in the report.
May we have a statement from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on Equitable Life? We had an extraordinarily well attended meeting on the subject yesterday, at which we learned some things to the benefit of Equitable Life policyholders—that there would be no means test and that it is likely that estates will benefit—but we failed to get any sense of a clear timetable on the Government finally resolving this important issue. What is more, we also heard from the current chief executive of Equitable Life, Chris Wiscarson, that he has repeatedly sought a meeting with the Treasury, but has received no response. That really is an extraordinary state of affairs, so I hope that the Chief Secretary will come to the House and explain himself.
While the Chief Secretary is here, I wonder whether we might have, not so much a statement or a debate, but probably more of a seminar, for those of us who are rather slow on such matters, because I simply cannot understand how the Royal Bank of Scotland, which is 84 per cent. owned by the UK taxpayer, can announce, simultaneously, losses of £3.6 billion and bonuses to its staff of £1.3 billion. That is the sort of arithmetic that I simply cannot understand. Perhaps we can have it explained why the Government are such a poor safeguarder of the national interest as not to force a wholly owned subsidiary—the Royal Bank of Scotland—to do what we want it to do, which is to be fair to people across the country.
May we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on our relations with Latin America? We are also concerned about the heightening of tension with Argentina and the support for the Argentine position expressed by many south American countries. We ought to be made aware of the Government’s current view.
The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young), the shadow Leader of the House, mentioned the Report stage of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill. Every time we point out the difficulties of Report stages, the Leader of the House tells us that everything is fine. We have had two Report stages of Bills this week—on the Children, Schools and Families Bill and the Energy Bill—when 18 new clauses and 49 amendments, of which 29 were Government amendments, went completely undebated in the Chamber and were passed, unheard and unseen, to another place. That is not how we should be doing business. How many times do we have to say that?
Lastly, let me refer the Leader of the House to that seminal document “The Governance of Britain”, the Green Paper that was going to introduce substantial reforms to how this House works. Let me take her back to the recommendation in paragraph 35:
“The Government believes that the convention should be changed so that the Prime Minister is required to seek the approval of the House of Commons before asking the Monarch for a dissolution.”
Can we know when that motion will be tabled, and will she confirm that we shall have a debate before a request for a dissolution is passed by the Commons?
As for the Back-Bench business committee, let me remind the House that our motion, which has been on the Order Paper for some weeks and which will be voted on next Thursday, says that
“this House approves recommendation 17 of the First Report of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons…and looks forward to the House being offered the opportunity within 10 sitting weeks of the beginning of the next session of Parliament”—
so it is not time unlimited—
“to establish a backbench business committee and a new category of backbench business, in the light of further consideration by the Procedure Committee.”
We have tabled—[Interruption.] Indeed, it is our motion. We have therefore tabled a motion for the approval of recommendation 17, on setting up the committee, as well as for a timetable for that, so it is not as though the proposal is being kicked into the long grass.
If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is not the right way to frame the proposal, he can table an amendment. He does not need to look to me for any further progress; he can do something himself. That is the whole point about House business. We have tabled a substantive motion. I think that it is a good substantive motion, but if he wants to amend it, he can amend it however he likes. He does not need to worry about what my view is: there is a free vote, and, whatever he tables, hon. Members will look at it and decide whether they support it.
On the second point, I think that the hon. Gentleman is right: what I said was wrong, but I am still right as to the general—[Interruption.] There was a technical error in what I said, but overall I am still right. However, he might well be right that the House wants to firm it up; and if it does, he can go ahead.
Equitable Life remains an important issue—there was a meeting in the House yesterday—and work on it is ongoing.
As for the RBS bonuses, the hon. Gentleman will know that, following the international credit crisis, we are concerned to ensure, first, that all the public money that we put in—and that had to be put in—to shore up the banks and stop them collapsing, as well as stopping the disastrous effect that that would have had on depositors and wider confidence in the economy, should be paid back. Ultimately, of course, the money should all be paid back, which is why we are opposed to selling off discount shares. Secondly, those institutions should ensure that they lend to businesses and approve mortgages—that is a priority, as well as paying back—and that they have a remuneration scheme that discourages short-termism and risk.
That is why we have worked through the Financial Services Authority regime and, internationally, through the G20 and the European Union, for an international system that ensures a more long-termist approach, rather than a short-term, risk-taking approach, as well as to help with the deficit, which has been caused by the financial crisis. The deficit is not the cause of the financial problems in the economy; it is the result of them. In order to help pay that back, we have had to increase taxes, which we have done in two ways. First, all income over £150,000 will be subject to a 50 per cent. tax rate. Secondly, all banks thinking of paying bonuses will have to pay a 50 per cent. tax on that bonus pool before they pay out a single penny on bonuses. That is our approach, and it has been set out by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.
As for the Report stages of Bills, again I say to the hon. Gentleman that he has been concerned—he has expressed those concerns consistently over the months and years—but he and his hon. Friends are in a position to table amendments to our resolutions; and, if the House approves a different way of dealing with things, that will be how we deal with them in future.
As for the Falkland Islands, we are absolutely clear: there is self-determination for the people of the Falklands. Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions are next week, when the hon. Gentleman can ask more questions about the issue of the Foreign Secretary, if he would like to.
Returning to the mundane, will the Leader of the House consider setting time aside for a debate on the gritting performance of local authorities? Lancashire county council, which failed to grit bus routes, contrasts with Westminster council, which I understand wants to know from its residents whether their pavements were gritted quickly enough. People throughout the country are bemused that, in the 21st century, snow should bring their communities to a standstill and that their lives should be put at risk on roads that are ungritted.
As the weather is still bad, there is concern not only about what happened in the depth of the winter, but about what might continue to happen to businesses and to all road users. I will raise the matter with the Department for Communities and Local Government and the Department for Transport, which are working together on this, and get my hon. Friend an answer to what is no doubt a frustrating issue for all the constituents whom she so excellently represents—namely, the really poor performance of Lancashire county council.
Will the Leader of the House be prepared to tell us whether she would support an amendment that would prevent the programming of amendments and new clauses debated on Report? Also, as chairman of the United Kingdom-Falkland Islands all-party parliamentary group, may I request that a Minister appear before the House next week to update us on the tensions in the south Atlantic?
There will be Foreign Office questions next week, and I suggest that the hon. Gentleman put his question about the Falkland Islands to the Foreign Secretary at that time. As far as the—oh God! I can’t remember what his first question was. [Interruption.] Oh, yes; amendments. Some hon. Members want more programming because they want to be sure that the House will reach—[Interruption.] Well, if hon. Members have a solution to this, they need do no more than table amendments to the resolutions that will be before the House next Thursday.
Now that Commander Ali Dizaei has been convicted and jailed, may we have a statement as soon as possible on how senior police officers in the Met are selected and appointed, and on whether the commissioner should not have a much greater role in that?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. We want to ensure that the Metropolitan Police Commissioner has a team in which he has full confidence, and the whole team needs to be properly accountable to the people of London. I want to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the team of police and prosecutors who made sure that justice was done in the case of Ali Dizaei.
The Leader of the House will know that the schools funding formula discriminates seriously against counties such as Worcestershire. May we have an urgent statement on the reasons for the delay in the publication of the consultation document on the funding formula review, which was expected last month?
May I urge my right hon. and learned Friend, in her role as Leader of the House, to take a close look at the mptweets website, which has been set up by a group called The Year of Collaboration? It has set up an individual Twitter account in the names of every MP in the north-west, so our constituents now believe that they are twittering with us when, in fact, we have nothing whatever to do with the site.
I thank my hon. Friend for bringing this matter to public attention. This is a real problem, and I will see what Ministers might be able to do about it. In fact, my own Twitter account was hacked into this week—my hon. Friend did not know this; hers was not a planted question—and a tweet purportedly sent by me was widely circulated. I can assure everyone that it was not from me. I got a response to that bogus tweet from the former shadow Leader of the House, the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who is now the shadow Prisons Minister. I need to get back to him and tell him that the tweet was not from me. I would never send a tweet like that. There is a real issue here, and we need to sort it out.
We already know what too many twitters make, don’t we? Moving swiftly on, may we have a debate on the future of community hospitals? At the end of 2008, the East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust promised a new hospital for Clitheroe and, last May, found £15.5 million to spend on it. I am therefore baffled as to why it announced in November that the project was frozen because it did not have the money. Community hospitals are vital to this country, and Clitheroe deserves its hospital. Please may we have a debate on this issue?
The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we remain committed to improving health care, because we believe that investment in public services is not a millstone round the neck of the economy, and that it actually provides vital public services such as health care. We will ensure that we pay down the deficit, halving it over the next four years, without harming vital front-line services such as his community hospital. I do not think that he could be reassured in that way by the position taken by his own Front Benchers.
In 2004, Robin Singh applied for asylum, and I made vigorous representations on his behalf. However, he was deported. He has now been kidnapped by people in Pakistan associated with the Taliban, and they are demanding a ransom of £100,000. What can the Government do to help?
I will ask the Foreign Secretary to look into this matter right away, and to contact my right hon. Friend. May I also express every sympathy to the Singh family, who must be beside themselves with anxiety? I will ask the Foreign Office to do everything that it can to help.
Will the Leader of the House urge her ministerial colleagues in the Department for Transport to bring forward the statement on rolling stock provision? Northern Rail was originally promised up to 200 new carriages, but there is now great uncertainty about how many it will get and when it will get them.
In April this year, there will be elections in Sudan if all goes according to plan. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on Sudan as those elections lead up to the referendum in 2011 on whether the south should secede? The all-party parliamentary group on Sudan has just conducted an inquiry into how the elections are going, and into all the possible repercussions involved, and the subject would be well worth a debate, given all the time, effort and money that the British Government have invested in Sudan.
Before Parliament is dissolved for the general election, will the Leader of the House find Government time in which we can debate the embarrassing infringement procedures being taken against the Government of the United Kingdom by the European Commission in respect of the Government’s failure to pay sick and elderly UK citizens the disability living allowance to which the European Court of Justice says they are entitled?
My right hon. and learned Friend might well have heard of the recent tragic murder of a Sikh shopkeeper in my constituency. He was a much-loved and respected member of our community and of the Sikh community. Would it be appropriate to have a debate in the House on the value of small shops and shopkeepers, and of small shopping centres? Is it not about time we stood up for small shops and shopkeepers against the Tescos and the Asdas that want to drive them all out of business?
First, may I express my sincere condolences to the family on that tragic loss of life? I know that it has been felt not only by the man’s immediate family but by the whole neighbourhood. I pay tribute to the people from the local pub who went to his aid. This is obviously a matter for the police authorities to investigate, but on the question of support for small shopkeepers, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Communities and Local Government take every possible step to support the amenity provided by small corner shops in local communities and neighbourhoods.
May we have a debate on housing provision for the disabled? Last week, I opened an excellent house that had been retrofitted by the charity Aspire. Two important points were made to me at the time. First, there is a shortfall of 300,000 homes for the disabled in the UK at the moment. Secondly, most of the considerable cost of retrofitting could be avoided if only developers were more mindful of the disabled when designing houses.
Indeed. The Equality Bill, which is currently being considered by the House of Lords, includes a legal duty, as part of the public sector’s combined legal duty, to ensure that it tackles discrimination against, and promotes equality of opportunity for, disabled people. Therefore, when making planning decisions and giving planning approval, that must be at the forefront of the minds of those concerned. I hope I can count on the hon. Gentleman’s support the next time I am criticised for political correctness because of my support for the Equality Bill. I also hope I can count on his support in relation to public spending, because provision for disabled people and for their housing costs money. Although we must get the deficit down, we must keep ensuring that we make progress towards equality of opportunity for disabled people.
May we have an early debate on parliamentary staff? If I hired someone who had worked with an ex-convict to carry out criminal activities, including bribing police officers, breaking into bank accounts and obtaining secret telephone conversations, any such gentleman would quickly have his pass taken off him, yet Mr. Andy Coulson stands accused in The Guardian today of all those activities. Surely it is time to remove the parliamentary pass from that gentleman, so that he cannot roam around the Westminster precincts.
All hon. Members, on both sides of the House, ought to be very concerned about the issues raised in the report of the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, to which I assume my right hon. Friend refers. The issues raised certainly reflect quite sharply on those involved, including Andy Coulson, the Leader of the Opposition’s press secretary.
As the Leader of the House has made the extraordinary proposition that Members should be urged to table amendments, which she herself has decided will not be debated, will she explain the extraordinary logic of wanting to remove the title of Chairman but keep the title of Chairman of Ways and Means, as well as, presumably, her own name?
Contrary to popular myth, the issue of the change from Chairman to Chair came out of the Wright Committee, of which I was not a member. It was not my proposal, but made in the Wright Committee report. We have tabled it for the House to vote on, and I would certainly vote for it. As for recommendations that the hon. Gentleman says I have decided will not be available to be voted on, there are none. I have explained the process: we have tabled the motion; he can table an amendment, as can any other Member, and if it relates to the Wright Committee report, it will no doubt be selectable and able to be voted on. Come next Thursday, we will all be able to vote on the matter.
Many jobs have been created and protected in my constituency, with a great deal of partnership working. One of the key partners has been the Northwest Regional Development Agency, which is working with me on a project to rescue Bowater from administration. Can we have a debate on the future of regional development agencies and their importance in helping to create and develop jobs in our communities?
My hon. Friend will be able to raise the issue of the Northwest Regional Development Agency in Business, Innovation and Skills questions next week, and he will no doubt receive the answer from the Minister concerned that we greatly value the work of regional development agencies, particularly in the north-west. We remain strongly committed to them, and are determined that they will be protected from the Opposition’s threat of abolition.
May we have a statement next week on the security situation in Northern Ireland, in view of the very serious recent incident in Newry and other incidents that demonstrate the growing threat from so-called dissident republican terrorists? Such a statement would allow us to explore what the Government are doing to meet what is a threat not only to life and limb but to political stability in the Province.
We all understand the concern felt across all political parties in Northern Ireland, and above all in all parts of every community in Northern Ireland, where people want a continuation of peace and prosperity and of more control over their own affairs. They do not want that to be derailed by a small number of criminals through terrorism. I pay tribute to all those who worked hard to protect people and to ensure the minimum loss of life. However, we cannot be complacent, and I know that the hon. Gentleman, all colleagues in the House and those in the Northern Ireland authorities will play their part to ensure that peace and prosperity continue.
My right hon. and learned Friend is a supporter of the music industry, so she may share concerns about the slow progress of the Digital Economy Bill in the other place. Will she use her good offices to ensure that the House gets the opportunity to debate the matter, and that the Bill is given every opportunity to get on to the statute book before the election? I am only too aware that I must again declare my interest as a member of MP4, the world’s only parliamentary rock band. I know that you are aware, Mr. Speaker, that the excellent charity Help for Heroes will be the beneficiaries of proceeds from our album “Cross Party”, which will be released on 18 March.
I think MP4 is a fantastic group with a great future, and I agree with my hon. Friend that the Digital Economy Bill is very important. The Prime Minister has spoken about the great prospects for our digital and creative industries, green technologies, advanced manufacturing and new information technology. We must invest in those new industries and jobs, so we will provide every support. He can raise the matter at Culture, Media and Sport questions next week, and, if he wants, in Business, Innovation and Skills questions, too.
We could debate for a long time whether this morning’s clarification of the guidelines on assisted suicide amount to a change in the law—in my opinion, they do. None the less, if they are to command widespread respect and confidence, would it not be appropriate to table a substantive motion on the guidelines to ascertain the will of the House on that change in the law?
It is not appropriate for the will of the House to be stated on that matter, because we have an independent prosecutorial system. It is for the Crown Prosecution Service, not the House, to decide who is to be prosecuted, on the basis of the evidence in each individual case. To assist the prosecutorial decision whether to bring a charge and whether the case passes the threshold for prosecution—sufficiency of evidence and whether it is in the public interest—there are guidelines, which the Director of Public Prosecutions and the CPS draw up, having engaged in the necessary consultation. The DPP and the CPS have done the consultation and are drawing up the guidelines, and a copy will no doubt be laid in the House of Commons Library. It is not for us to investigate crime or to decide whom to prosecute. It is for us to decide the law. We have decided the law, and the law has not changed.
Arising from that point, is it not the case that the DPP has been acting on instructions from the court, which has had a number of cases before it and has therefore decided that guidelines should be drawn up. Although I take a somewhat different position from the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), would it not be useful to have a debate on the subject nevertheless? The last one was in Westminster Hall on 11 November 2008. In view of the controversy about assisted suicide, we should have a debate in the Chamber in the near future.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the DPP took the action to draw up the guidelines because he was instructed to do so by a judicial decision. There has been recent extensive debate in the House of Lords on the matter. It is some time since we debated the matter in this House. We have no plans to change the law, but it is open to hon. Members to seek opportunities to debate the matter further, either on the Adjournment in Westminster Hall or on Opposition days.
I am glad that the Leader of the House has urged people who care about whether our legislation is properly scrutinised to vote next Thursday for the amendment calling for the establishment of a House business committee, which would provide for such scrutiny. That, however, does not help us in respect of business that is before us now. What assurance can the Leader of the House give that all new clauses tabled to the Constitutional Renewal and Governance Bill will be debated next week, and would I be right to suspect—although she always says that we should not be suspicious—that the new clause that I have tabled to end discrimination against women in the royal succession, which I thought she supported, might not see the light of debate?
We have said on a number of occasions that the ending of discrimination in the succession is being discussed with other Commonwealth countries. The Queen is, of course, not only the Head of State of this country, but Queen of the Commonwealth countries.
I suggest that the hon. Gentleman discuss the timing of clauses and new proposals in relation to the remaining stages of the Constitutional Renewal and Governance Bill with the ministerial team at the Ministry of Justice.
May we have an early debate on the failure of the regulators in the health service to pick up serious failings in hospitals? That has happened on a number of occasions in the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust, for instance. It is plain that the system is not sufficiently sensitive to detect problems. The statement was not enough; we now need a full debate.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman says, a statement was made about the matter on Wednesday, and the Prime Minister responded to questions about it during Prime Minister’s Question Time. A great deal of action is being taken as a result of the lessons learned from the tragic Staffordshire hospital case. I add my sympathy to all who have suffered as a result of bad treatment at the hospital, and send my condolences to the families of those who have died as a result of bad treatment. It is hard enough to face a family tragedy, without feeling that it was unnecessary. Nothing can bring back the loved ones of all the people who have suffered so badly, but it may be of some comfort to them if they can be absolutely confident that lessons have really been learned so that this can never happen again.
The Leader of the House may be aware of a petition presented at No. 10 yesterday by myself and others, entitled “Homeopathy worked for me” and signed by 25,000 people. Given that, and given the controversial report published this week by the Select Committee on Science and Technology—which had failed to call as witnesses members of the Society of Homeopaths, doctors who practise homeopathy, and primary care trusts which commission it—may we have an urgent debate on the subject?
May I return the Leader of the House to the issue of the growing tensions in the south Atlantic? Surely it is not sufficient to depend on the vagaries of Foreign Office questions next week in order to hear what Ministers have to say. Will the Leader of the House think again, and agree that the Foreign Secretary should make a statement to the House? She knows as well as anyone else what can happen when a desperate leader who is likely to lose the next election—such as President Kirchner—can do in desperate circumstances.
I shall leave aside the rather stupid ending to the right hon. Gentleman’s question. The UK Government’s position in relation to the Falklands has remained that of successive UK Governments, and I am sure that it will not change in the future. Our view is that the sovereignty of the Falklands is simply not an issue. How many times does that have to be said? The Foreign Secretary has made the position absolutely clear, and I cannot imagine that any further light would be shed on the matter if he made an oral or written statement. I shall look through the statements that have been made recently and send copies to the right hon. Gentleman, but he should not do anyone a disservice by implying that there will be some sort of change of approach, because there will not be.
Notwithstanding her earlier protestations, will the Leader of the House arrange an urgent debate on assisted dying? It is Parliament that writes laws, and it is for the Director of Public Prosecutions and the courts to interpret those laws. There is real concern out in the community that the House is not having a say about the change in the law. People are very concerned about the possibility that it represents a new back door to euthanasia in the United Kingdom.
It is clearly our view that there has been no change in the law, and the Government have no proposals to introduce a change in the law. I will look into when the House last had an opportunity to debate the issue, and will consider, with my colleagues, whether there is an opportunity for a further debate on it. Even if such a debate takes place, however, I do not think that there will be any question of the Government’s proposing legislation. We have new guidelines under an order of the court issued by the DPP, and I think that the position is clear. Nevertheless, the House may well wish to debate the issue, and I shall have another look at it.
May we have an urgent statement on the financial fiasco surrounding the Learning and Skills Council before it is wound up and replaced next month by the Skills Funding Agency? It is of great concern throughout the House—not least to the Leader of the House’s Cabinet colleague, the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), and to me—that there is to be the first “hard” federation between Exeter college and Bicton college in my constituency. The LSC has been told that it will have to borrow £3 million and make a loan of £1 million, and it will withdraw its support for Bicton by the end of March unless that happens. May we have an urgent statement to clarify what is going on?
May we have a debate on tertiary and sixth-form colleges? The Government recently cut the support grant for capital projects, which was roughly 15 per cent. That means that the colleges cannot reclaim VAT, and it is affecting capital programmes at all sixth-form and tertiary colleges throughout the United Kingdom. If the situation continues, the training of younger people will be stymied, because the colleges cannot spend the capital.
Can the Leader of the House tell me where it would be best to raise the issue of the report published this week by members of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, headed by Dr. Adrienne Key? Dr. Key claims that there is a real link between anorexia and the size of models depicted in the media, and has suggested the establishment of a body consisting of the Government, physicians, media representatives and advertisers to consider possible guidelines on this important issue.
We take an interest in the matter, because it involves serious public health issues. It chiefly concerns the Department of Health, but it is covered to some extent by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The hon. Gentleman is right to raise it, and it has also been raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Julie Morgan) and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). I will let the hon. Gentleman know whether it will be possible for him to make any further progress, in collaboration with other Members and the Government.
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. In relation to next week’s business, will the even-tempered and tranquil Deputy Prime Minister recommend to the Prime Minister that he attend an important meeting of an all-party parliamentary group entitled “Preventing workplace harassment and violence”, or might that just ruin her life?
Unfortunately, Mr. Speaker, the hon. Gentleman’s question was not worth waiting for. He is such a disappointment sometimes. I still have not given up hope: I am sure that somewhere inside him is what we all want to hear. However, I am afraid we were not able to hear it today.
I want to acquaint the House with some information that I have received. I have received a report from the Tellers for the Ayes in the Division at 7 o’clock last night on alternative investment fund managers, the hon. Members for West Ham (Lyn Brown) and for Bristol, East (Kerry McCarthy). The number of Aye votes was erroneously reported as 272, instead of 271. I will direct the Clerk to correct the numbers in the Journal accordingly—Ayes 271; Noes 63.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you will recognise, the Wright Committee report is going to affect how Parliament develops for some years to come, so the votes next week are of considerable importance. I was, therefore, very disturbed when the Leader of House suggested that, although she was urging Members to table amendments, there would not be adequate time to debate any of those amendments. The whole purpose of an amendment is to allow the Member who has tabled it to explain why he or she does or does not want a particular thing to happen, and for that matter then to be discussed. I therefore submit that it is a travesty of parliamentary procedure if there is not a reasonable amount of time to debate amendments, especially amendments urged by the Leader of the House and selected by you, Mr. Speaker. Is there anything that you can do in your role as protector of the interests and procedure of this House to ensure that there is sufficient—not inordinately long, but at least some—time to debate substantive amendments?