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Topical Questions

Volume 506: debated on Thursday 25 February 2010

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.

T2. Ofgem’s latest figures show that prepayment meter customers, who are often from the poorest households, are still paying up to £60 a year more for their electricity and up to £107 a year more for their gas. Given the profits being made by the energy companies, will the Secretary of State ask them to eliminate that differential completely? (318566)

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.

T3. The disparity between wholesale and retail energy prices is woefully lacking in transparency. Even Consumer Focus, the Government’s own watchdog, has said that households could be paying as much as £74 a year too much. The Government seem to have dithered over the issue. Will Ministers follow our advice and take some decisive action by referring the matter to an independent inquiry? (318567)

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.

On transparency, it is only because the Government have got Ofgem to publish a quarterly report on the relationship between wholesale and retail prices that we now know what that relationship is.

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.

T5. Will the Secretary of State speak to Unite in the strongest terms about its proposed industrial action at the port of Milford Haven, which, although temporarily postponed, would risk cutting off access to vital supplies of crude oil and liquefied natural gas? Our energy situation is too fragile for security of supply to be used as a tool in industrial disputes, no matter how legitimate the grievances of the employees concerned. (318569)

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.

T7. Thank you, Mr. Speaker. [Interruption.] I come hot-foot from a meeting at your office, Sir. Does the Secretary of State agree that despite the controversy over the university of East Anglia e-mails, the science is very clear, not least from other data sets, that global warming is real, and that we should not be distracted by this controversy from insisting on our policies? (318571)

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.

T8. Will the Secretary of State make every effort to republish and promulgate the conclusions of the Stern review, which make very clear the huge cost to our children and grandchildren if we do not take action now to tackle climate change? The costs will be huge and fall heavily on future generations. (318573)

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.

T9. Recent polls show that the British public have had a dramatic change of mind about whether climate change is man-made. Will the Government change their mind about the huge subsidies for land-based wind farms, which are not only ineffective but despoil the countryside? (318574)

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?

As my hon. Friend knows, I take a keen interest in this issue, and I stand ready to help him in any way I possibly can.

As Britain is now a net importer of gas, is the Secretary of State happy with the fact that we have only 16 days of gas storage, compared with 99 days in Germany and 122 days in France?

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.