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Commons Chamber

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 8 April 2010

House of Commons

Thursday 8 April 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Housing (Energy Efficiency)

1. What recent steps his Department has taken to improve the energy efficiency of housing; and if he will make a statement. (325604)

Since 2002, the carbon emission reduction target has helped fund over 7 million insulation measures. We recently published a household energy management strategy for pay-as-you-save insulation, devolution of powers over energy efficiency to local authorities and new standards of regulation in the social and private rented sector that together will help reduce emissions from households by 29 per cent. by 2020.

Such a Government initiative has been of great benefit to New Addington in Croydon, a significant social housing estate that was excellent for the 1950s in terms of space and good design. What can be done to support the initiative of local people who want the area to become an eco-town? What prospects are there?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing recently announced the first wave of eco-towns and funding under that. We want to do more on this. There is great enthusiasm in local areas for this to happen, including in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. I hope that we can take this forward.

Mr. Greg Barker. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman had indicated that he wanted to come in on this question.

I had not expected to, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for my inattention, as I had been expecting to intervene on Question 2. However, at your direction, I shall intervene on Question 1 because what I want to say is still apposite.

After 13 years of Labour government, we still have the most energy-inefficient homes in Europe and many, many millions more homes require action. Will the Government now embrace our green deal, namely £6,500 of energy-efficiency improvements for every home? Or, given that B&Q, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and leading energy companies have all embraced our approach, is this another issue where Labour is at war with business?

I had expected a music hall atmosphere this morning and the hon. Gentleman did not disappoint. As we can see from the general election campaign, the difference between us and the Conservative party is that we published earlier this month clearly worked-out and costed plans on pay-as-you-save insulation, on regulating private sector landlords to improve energy efficiency and on local authorities. The Conservatives talk about the £6,500, but as with so many other things from them, they have no idea where the money is coming from.

Can I tell companies such as EA Technology and Energetix in the Capenhurst area that the work they are doing on energy-saving measures, load balancing and novel technology solutions will be supported by the next Labour Government? Will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the Science Minister to ensure that the good work of such companies is brought into production in the UK by UK companies by the next Labour Government?

Yes, I can give that assurance. I thank my hon. Friend for his championing of these issues. Over the past 18 months or two years, we have seen an increasing understanding of the reality of the connection between tackling climate change and green jobs in this country. We have seen that with announcements on the offshore wind industry, electric cars and a whole host of other matters. He is right that Government support for private sector business is essential in this area.

Fuel Poverty

2. When he expects figures to be available on the level of fuel poverty in the UK in 2008; and if he will make a statement. (325605)

The 2008 fuel poverty statistics report will be published on 14 October 2010. This will contain the 2008 fuel poverty numbers for England and the UK. Final figures can be produced only after analysis of the detailed housing survey results. However, to address this lag, we published projected levels of fuel poverty for 2008 and 2009 in England in the most recent annual report on fuel poverty statistics.

The Government’s own prediction, which the Minister mentioned, said that one in four homes will now be in fuel poverty. Given that domestic fuel prices have risen 80 per cent. since 2004, is it not time for a public inquiry into the discrepancy between wholesale and retail fuel prices?

The hon. Gentleman, who is my near neighbour in Staffordshire, is right that there were sustained price rises between 2004 and 2008 that have increased fuel poverty. That is a matter of concern to all hon. Members. We are adapting our policies to cope with that, not least, I hope, by obtaining the House’s final approval tonight for the Energy Bill, which will allow us to introduce social price support for the poorest households. What is not necessary is what I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about: referral of the whole energy market to the Competition Commission. This is a time when we need sustained investment in the future of our infrastructure, and that would only delay it.

As my hon. Friend knows, there are over 100 years of coal underground. Should we not look at a strategy for extracting that coal? That would make a major contribution to the eradication of fuel poverty.

I am sure it is right that a diverse energy supply will help us to keep control of energy prices, and clean fossil fuels such as coal will assist in that. That is why we are world leaders with our levy for supporting four commercial demonstration models of carbon capture and storage.

Given the customer confusion caused by more than 4,000 different tariffs, will the Minister congratulate Scottish and Southern Energy on putting its cheapest tariff information on all its energy bills—going beyond the Government’s wish of annual statements—and will he encourage other energy companies to follow suit?

In recent months I have seen good examples of energy companies trying to improve the clarity of their bill—plain English, the way the bills are set out and the information that they give. I applaud the example that the hon. Gentleman gives and encourage other energy companies to do the same. I would like to be returned to Government, in this Department, to do more on this subject after 6 May.

One of the best means of reducing fuel poverty is tough regulation of the energy marketplace. Has the Minister read with the same concern as I had the report by Consumer Focus into the performance of Ofgem in regulating npower’s price-sculpting mechanism and assure me that a future Government will take a more robust approach to the rather flaccid efforts of this regulator?

Again, I hope that later today the House will approve the Energy Bill, which contains measures to strengthen the powers of Ofgem and sharpen its act in terms of being more proactive in its support for consumers. I would love to be back in the next Parliament, taking action to ensure that Ofgem does its job properly.

Housing (Energy Efficiency)

3. What mechanisms he has put in place to increase the level of energy efficiency in rural homes classified as hard-to-treat. (325606)

The carbon emissions reduction target—CERT—obligates energy companies to install a variety of household energy efficiency measures, including those suitable for hard-to-treat homes. CERT is delivered throughout Great Britain including in rural areas.

Additionally, Warm Front fits energy-efficient measures in vulnerable households. Any rural household could be eligible for Warm Front assistance as long as the applicant is the home owner or tenant in the private sector, and is in receipt of a qualifying benefit.

Is the Minister aware that in areas such as Northumberland many of the poorest people live in stone-built properties with no cavity wall, no gas supply, no dual fuel tariff, dependence on bottled gas or solid fuel, and often difficulty in getting access to warm home schemes? Does she recognise that further targeted steps are needed and perhaps an easing of the rules to ensure that some of the people most in fuel poverty in rural areas are helped?

I acknowledge every point that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and we have been working on every aspect of those problems. Ofgem is encouraging connection to the gas grid, where that is possible and economic—with support, of course. In January this year it announced that all four gas networks will be linked in partnerships to enable new connections to be made, and we expect that up to 20,000 new households will be connected to the gas grid under that scheme. In a year’s time we shall have the renewable heat incentive, which will benefit particularly those who wish to switch from liquefied petroleum gas and other expensive fuels. We also have CERT, which is increasingly being incentivised to cope with hard-to-treat homes and solid wall insulation. Over 56,000 homes have already been insulated, so there is some progress.

I once lived in a 17th century stone cottage in a rural area, so I know how difficult it is to take those measures—[Interruption.] Hon. Members seem to be amused by the fact that I lived in a stone cottage. The Government have done such good things in terms of Warm Zone and Warm Front, and the Minister knows of the proud record of Kirklees and Huddersfield. Is it not about time that a useless organisation—the National House-Building Council, which, as every lawyer will tell you, issues certificates that are not worth the paper they are written on—stopped allowing any building that does not conform to a high level of sustainability?

My hon. Friend knows that we have made huge progress in increasing building regulation demands, not only for new build, which will be carbon-neutral by 2016, but for retrofitting of existing homes. There is already a huge Government undertaking on this subject. I shall not comment on the organisation named by my hon. Friend, but I intend to look into it when I return to this job.

Electricity Demand/Capacity

4. What assessment he has made of the balance of generating capacity and likely demand for electricity in the UK in the next 10 years; and if he will make a statement. (325607)

We are confident that we will meet demand for electricity over the next decade. About 18 GW of plant is due to close by 2020, but already 20 GW is either under construction or has planning consent. The most recent analysis in the “Energy Markets Outlook” in December 2009 suggested that the electricity capacity margin remains above 10 per cent. for the whole of the next decade.

I hope that the Secretary of State’s optimism is well founded. Does he understand that when the obituary of this Government is written in a few weeks’ time, one of the most critical passages will relate to the 2003 energy White Paper and those seven fateful words—

“We do not…propose…new nuclear build”—

words that undermined our nation’s nuclear skills base and which cost us vital years in the fight to avoid severe power shortages in the next decade. I genuinely fear that there will be such shortages.

The interesting thing is that three or four years later the Leader of the Opposition was saying that nuclear should remain a last resort. It is this Government who led the debate on nuclear power. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I have to tell him that we need all forms of low-carbon energy, including renewable power. He brought before the House an exclusion zone proposal on wind farms—a proposal with which I disagree. Let us have low-carbon energy; that is what we are driving towards with planning reform, nuclear power and renewables.

In the past two weeks we have seen the true cost of trying to run the world on cheap coal, with 150 Chinese miners trapped underground in a country where 6,000 miners die every year, and 25 miners killed in West Virginia—employees of a serial violator of mine legislation. Will the Government take on the role of leading the international debate on the ethics of putting miners’ safety before profits?

My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I have discussed with him. It is right that we take up these issues through organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and other international bodies and I have said to him that we will do so.

At the end of term, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his team for their energy and commitment. Do they realise that they would be wise as well as energetic if they gave up the new deception they now share with the Conservative party that nuclear power is what we need to have a safe, clean and secure energy future? Why is his party, like the Tories, willing to put the health, wealth and personal security of the people of Britain at such great risk in the future?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his question, but I profoundly disagree with the second part of his question. When we look at the scale of the task in terms of low-carbon energy, we have very ambitious targets on renewables—approximately a sixfold increase in renewable energy by 2020—and nuclear must be part of the energy mix. We need to move on all fronts—nuclear, renewables and clean coal—because the scale of the challenge of cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050 is so enormous that we need every form of low-carbon energy.

Are we looking at the Thames estuary, eastwards of Thurrock, for tidal power generation comparable to the wonderful innovative scheme in operation at Strangford lough in Northern Ireland? Would the Minister care to join me in my retirement at Strangford lough, where I can show him this wonderful technology?

Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. The House will sorely miss his character and the passionate way in which he took forward a whole range of issues.

We need tidal power in this country, and it can play an important role. I look forward to joining him after the election—I hope in my current post—with the newly elected Labour Member of Parliament for his constituency, to see what tidal power can do.

Whatever the future holds for us all, we have much enjoyed our exchanges with the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends across the Dispatch Box, but it is not over yet. Eight weeks ago, the energy regulator said:

“In 2017 we get to the really sweaty-palm moment in terms of possible shortages…It is the scale of collapse…that is profound and worrying.”

Is the energy regulator another of those who have been deceived?

Let me start by saying that I have also enjoyed our exchanges. The hon. Gentleman shadowed me when I was the Minister for the Third Sector and since then when I have been Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change. I look forward to him continuing to shadow me in his present post after the general election.

The energy regulator put forward a series of projections based on modelling in the Project Discovery document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The difference is that what I read out are actual plans that are being taken forward for 20 GW of new power. I am confident about security of supply, but the big question for Britain is whether it should be low-carbon or high-carbon security of supply. That is why it is so important that we move forward on nuclear and indeed renewables, on which the Conservative party has a bad record locally.

Of course, it is not just the regulator. The Government’s own chief scientist told the BBC that there is a worry that in 2016 there might not be enough electricity. In 13 years, we have had 11 Energy Ministers, from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) to Lord Truscott, eight Secretaries of State in charge of energy from the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) to Lord Mandelson, five energy White Papers, and more than 100 consultations. Is it despite all that or because of it that the Government officially expect blackouts during the decade ahead?

I feel like I am hearing the hon. Gentleman’s greatest hits this morning, but they are not that great. We are not predicting what he said would happen in 2017, and he knows from the “Energy Markets Outlook” that that is not so. The truth is that we have moved forward in a whole range of areas to provide the power that the country will need in the coming decade, but I return to the point that the big question is whether we take the difficult decisions on, for example, planning. We finally have a planning system in this country that business supports, but the Conservative party says that if it got into government it would overturn it on day one. That will not help the low-carbon transition in this country.

Ministerial Meetings

5. When he next expects to meet local authorities in East Anglia to discuss renewable energy initiatives in that area. (325608)

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I have no plans to meet local authorities in East Anglia at this time, but meetings continue at official level as appropriate.

Have the Government set renewable energy generation targets for counties? Is the Minister aware that Norfolk has many offshore wind turbines both in place and planned for the future? Will that offshore energy be part of the renewable target for coastal shire counties?

What I can tell the hon. Gentleman is that the Department has developed and published a methodology to help regional authorities to assess potential renewable and low-carbon energy in their areas. He is on record as having many objections to onshore wind energy, and arguing that offshore wind is preferable. The Government believe that we need both onshore and offshore wind energy. There is no question but that onshore wind is the most proven and most reliable of our renewable technologies, and we cannot set it aside, although we are developing offshore wind energy for which, as he knows, we are the leading country in the world. Offshore wind energy is two or three times more expensive than onshore wind, depending on location, which is why there is no question about it—we must have a mix.

Over a year ago, we called for the setting up of marine renewable energy parks to help make Britain the world leader in development of wave and tidal power. As the tide finally goes out on the Government and we wave them goodbye, does the Minister accept that she could and should have done more to bring together local authorities in East Anglia and other coastal areas to highlight the UK’s huge potential in those crucial technologies, and to ensure that the investment in green jobs that they can bring comes to Britain instead of, again, going to other countries?

The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that the Government have made great strides in developing marine technology. In the south-west, we already have a wave hub, to which we have made £60 million available. We have made it clear that, although it is not an immediate technology, which can be deployed at this moment, as wind can—the hon. Gentleman needs to get his party’s position on wind straight—[Interruption.] Yes, objection? There is a 60 per cent. refusal rate. We are working on marine technology, we are giving money, and we are developing the strategy, which will follow on naturally from all the other investment in renewables that the Government are making.

Electricity Demand/Capacity

Peak demand for electricity is expected to be broadly the same in 2025 as now, but we need to replace high-carbon sources of energy generation with low-carbon sources, including renewables and nuclear. To make this happen, we have reformed the planning system and are proposing reform of the electricity market, as set out in the energy market assessment published at the Budget.

Those may be the Secretary of State’s figures, but will he accept that just about every independent expert predicts a growth in demand of approximately 2 per cent. per annum? If one takes the growth in green energy in the past 13 years and projects it forward, it will not even keep up with the growth in demand. Coupled with that, I strongly suspect that his figures do not take into account the increased use of electric cars. Will he not, even at this late hour, admit that he has not planned for enough generating capacity in this country for the years to come?

No, I will not admit that. I do not know whether I am maligning the hon. Gentleman unfairly by saying that he is one of the wind power refuseniks on the Opposition Benches—

If the hon. Gentleman is not, that is very good. He should persuade the other people in his party because we need onshore and offshore wind and all those things to move forward. He is right that we need to up the pace—that is why we are reforming planning, for example. The worst thing that could happen for low-carbon transition in this country is a Government who came in and reversed all those planning reforms and slowed things down again. We need to speed up, and we will under this Government.

Renewable Heat Incentive

The renewable heat incentive is the first of its kind in the world and is on track to be introduced on 1 April 2011.

The Government launched their consultation on the proposed renewable heat incentive on 1 February. In the consultation document, we set out our proposals for the scheme and we are now seeking views from stakeholders. The consultation on the draft proposals closes on 26 April. We will continue to develop our proposals following the feedback and comments that we receive.

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer and look forward to the introduction of the renewable heat incentive from these Benches and to his announcing the day of implementation.

The consultation document states that an announcement on the funding of the renewable heat incentive will be made in the Budget. The announcement in the Budget was of a further review. Does my hon. Friend anticipate the results of that review arriving fairly shortly, and will he give me an assurance that that will not impact in any way on the date of introducing the renewable heat incentive?

My hon. Friend speaks with great authority on the subject, and I am grateful for his support for the policy. It is true that the Treasury statement at the time of the Budget was modest, but it confirmed that the scheme is still on track to begin on 1 April—I think that is the reassurance that my hon. Friend seeks.

Do the Government have any plans to assist the installation of renewable heat facilities in existing commercial buildings?

The intention is that we will support and encourage the deployment of renewable heat technologies of every scale and in every sector, so, yes, that includes businesses.

Carbon Capture and Storage

8. What progress has been made in the establishment of a carbon capture and storage demonstration plant in South Yorkshire. (325612)

The European Commission and Powerfuels Power Ltd have signed a contract awarding a grant of €180 million from the European energy programme for recovery for the first phase of the Hatfield integrated gasification combined cycle—IGCC—and carbon capture and storage project.

The Government have announced that the Yorkshire and Humber region will be the first low-carbon economic area for CCS with the aim of facilitating investment in CCS and promoting business opportunities in the region.

I thank the Minister for that very positive reply. The development of coal power stations with equipment to provide CCS is essential to the future of this country. Does my hon. Friend agree that, with its rich heritage in heavy engineering and innovation, South Yorkshire is well placed to lead the world in the development of CCS?

As I understand that my hon. Friend is standing down, may I first pay tribute to all the work he has done in the House, particularly on behalf of his communities and in the interests of miners? He is, of course, absolutely right that his area has historically been very dependent on mining industries, and it has a great future as there are so many skills and technology capabilities that can make it a world-leading centre for the very impressive carbon capture and storage technology, which is being pioneered in this country with Government support, and for which, if we pass the Energy Bill this afternoon, there will be a financial support system that will be the very best in the world.

Climate Change Conference (Cancun)

9. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on objectives for the UN climate change conference in Cancun. (325613)

I have frequent discussions with my EU counterparts, including with the Spanish presidency this week, and we recently published our post-Copenhagen prospectus, which sets out our strategy for Cancun and beyond. The most important thing the world needs to do is to forge the comprehensive legal framework that eluded us at Copenhagen.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. I encourage him in his continuing efforts to secure the binding agreements that will implement the Copenhagen accord. Does he agree that it would be an important show of good faith from the developed world if it was to indicate that it would be willing to extend its commitments under the Kyoto treaty beyond the initial 2012 deadline?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. That was a big point of contention at the Copenhagen talks, and we said in our post-Copenhagen document that we would enter into a second commitment period under Kyoto, provided that there was an acceptable legal framework alongside the Kyoto proposals. That is an important signal to developing countries who are reluctant to enter into a legal treaty and who are worried about the developed world’s commitment to Kyoto.

I presume that the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers will go to the meeting on climate issues in Bonn in the first week of May. If they do go, will they take the message that it is vital that we now have a 30 per cent. European emissions target and not a 20 per cent. target, and that we have a new structure at the United Nations—a climate security council or some such body that can ensure that there is momentum? Further, does he agree that in the election between now and then the British public would be very foolish to vote for any candidates who do not accept the overwhelming nature of the science showing that we have the worst climate crisis that anybody has ever known?

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. We do want to move to the 30 per cent. target for Europe as part of an ambitious global deal. I also agree with his remarks about the UN, and there is an opportunity to upgrade the UN post in charge of the UN framework convention on climate change. As for the hon. Gentleman’s other point, I was shocked to read in the Financial Times that only a handful of the 206 Conservative candidates who were contacted accepted the unequivocal reality of man-made climate change. That shows the stakes in respect of climate change at this election.

In congratulating my right hon. Friend and the Government on having led the world in combating climate change, may I ask what action he will be seeking in Bonn and Cancun and what action he will be taking in this country to ensure that at least 15 per cent. of all energy comes from renewable sources by 2020?

My right hon. Friend is completely right about these issues, and about the importance of showing that we here at home are moving forward as part of getting the ambitious global deal that we need. That commitment to the 15 per cent. renewable energy target is very important. It is also important that we transmit the learning here to other countries so that they can move forward. This is therefore about UK and European commitment as part of an ambitious global deal.

If we want to lead the world, we need policy, not just targets. Had it not been for Conservative leadership on the environment during this Parliament, Britain would have no feed-in tariffs, no renewable heat incentive, no ban on new unabated coal, no roll-out of smart meters and no Climate Change Act 2008. On every measure, Labour first opposed us and then adopted our policy. So will the Secretary of State say, “Thank you” to the Conservative party for achieving more in Opposition in five years than Labour’s 19 Ministers did in 13 years of dithering in office?

I will not say, “Thank you.” The reality of the Conservative party’s record in this Parliament on climate change is that it began with the stunt with the huskies, initiated by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), and it ends with the Leader of the Opposition saying, “Here are 10 reasons to vote Conservative,” and not one of them is about climate change. We find out that Conservative candidates have not changed; they do not believe in man-made climate change. So the truth is that we have a whole range of stunts but an unchanged Conservative party, on this issue and every other issue at this general election.

Order. I fear that the shadow Secretary of State was seeking to divert the Secretary of State from the path of virtue, which involves focusing on the Government’s policies, as the right hon. Gentleman knows.

The trouble is that the Secretary of State is auditioning for the role of Leader of the Opposition, and we wish him very well in that effort.

The right hon. Gentleman’s most significant achievement is a mastery of the cut-and-paste function on Conservative policy, so will his manifesto match ours in establishing a floor price for carbon, a green deal for every home in the country, an offshore electricity grid, a network of marine energy parks, a security guarantee in the electricity market, a smart meter in homes by 2016 and no third runway at Heathrow? The Energy Networks Association has called that package

“the most comprehensive energy policy ever produced by an opposition.”

The hon. Gentleman has clearly learned nothing during his time as shadow Secretary of State. A list of policies does not make a strategy, and image does not make substance. That is the truth about the Conservative party. Why would the Conservatives put the green transition in this country at risk? For example, they oppose renewables the length and breadth of this country. They oppose the progress that is being made. The difference between the Labour party, and the Labour Government, and the Conservative party is that we have conviction about tackling climate change while it is all about image and detoxifying the brand.

Feeder Tariffs

We are introducing feed-in tariffs to encourage small-scale, low-carbon electricity generation by individuals, communities, businesses and organisations that have not traditionally engaged in the electricity market. The costs and benefits of the feed-in tariff scheme are explained in detail in the impact assessment that was published alongside the Government response to the feed-in tariffs consultation and is available from the Department of Energy and Climate Change website.

It is obviously desirable in principle to encourage people who generate their own electricity to feed the excess into the grid, as long as the costs do not exceed the benefits. Small wonder, then, that the Minister failed to answer the question and tell us that the costs of his new feeder tariffs are put by his experts at £8.6 billion, which is 20 times their assessment of the likely benefits. Given that even George Monbiot thinks that that is barking mad, will the Minister consider a more sensible and economically justifiable system of tariffs?

The cumulative cost to consumers is estimated at £3.1 billion to 2020, and the impact is an average increase of £8.50 annually to domestic bills over the period 2011 to 2030. If the right hon. Gentleman were followed by more people in this country, it would be difficult for the country, its Government and its citizens to tackle climate change effectively, but perhaps some people are following his views, most particularly Conservative candidates.

The introduction of the feed-in tariff will be very welcome to people such as the operators of the Torrs hydropower system in New Mills in my constituency—a community-owned hydropower station, of which I happen to be a shareholder. Is my hon. Friend aware that the big barrier is still the start-up costs of community hydro schemes? The Methodist church in Glossop is considering the possibility of having one on its ground, but what hope can he give those who are looking for help with those start-up costs before they can benefit from the feed-in tariff?

I have seen some of the community enthusiasm for small-scale hydro. For example, I visited a scheme at Tutbury in Staffordshire earlier this year. The feed-in tariff is intended to galvanise such communities by showing that they can make a commercial return on such schemes. I am afraid that I shall have to offer to meet my hon. Friend outside the Chamber to talk to him about possible sources of capital funding for such schemes, but there is interest, for example, from some commercial banks today.

Electricity Demand/Capacity

11. What recent estimate he has made of the level of additional electricity generating capacity that will be required by 2015. (325616)

It is estimated that around 16 GW of existing electricity generating capacity—coal, gas, oil and nuclear—will close by 2015. Some 2.3 GW of new generating capacity was commissioned last year, 10.1 GW is currently under construction, 11.3 GW has both planning permission and permission to connect to the grid, and a further 18.5 GW is in the planning process in England and Wales. This new capacity, as well as energy efficiency measures, means that there will be sufficient capacity in 2015.

I am interested in what the Minister says, because it seems to be at variance with what Ofgem and others say. The Secretary of State talked about the greatest hits of my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I would rather go back to Gold radio station, which I listen to because it plays music from the 1960s and 1970s, and that reminds me of when I sat by candlelight through the power cuts. Does the Minister think that Ofgem and others are wrong when they say that they expect power cuts within the next decade?

There is a difference between facts and projections for the future. I have just given the hon. Gentleman the facts as they are today. Project Discovery was all about stress-testing the system, using scenarios that would put it under stress. What the hon. Gentleman can see from the statistics that I have given him from the Dispatch Box is that there is more than sufficient capacity to 2015.

Can the Minister assure me that the production of aircraft carriers will not be threatened by a lack of generating capacity, given that the manufacture of the aircraft carriers is already threatened by the Opposition?

My hon. Friend’s chutzpah is remarkable, enabling him to get aircraft carriers into a question about capacity. I assure him that all reasonably foreseeable demands on the electricity system are catered for in the answer that I gave.


12. What his most recent estimate is of the proportion of electricity generated from renewable sources. (325619)

Provisional 2009 data on electricity generation were published in the March 2010 edition of Energy Trends. This showed that, after excluding an estimate for non-bio degradable waste use, 6.6 per cent. of electricity was generated from renewable sources in 2009. In 1997, the equivalent figure was 2 per cent.

From the answers earlier on renewables, it seems that the Government do not share the pessimism of a number of independent commentators who have said that not enough has been done by way of technology, and particularly by way of developing skills, to achieve the 2020 target. Will the Minister say by how much he estimates we will miss the 2020 target?

I certainly will not, because we will not miss the target for 2020. The hon. Gentleman should watch and learn as all the new renewable capacity, including the immense amounts of offshore wind generation that are already planned in this country, takes effect. On skills, I had the great pleasure last week of launching, on behalf of the Government, a consultation on the subject of skills for a low carbon economy, with the opportunity there to transform the economy of this country and create millions of new jobs in a clean, green and prosperous UK.

Wave Energy

14. What estimate he has made of the potential contribution of off shore wave energy to meeting energy needs in the next 10 years. (325621)

The Carbon Trust has estimated that between 1 and 2 GW of wave and tidal energy could be deployed in UK waters by 2020. This will be followed by large-scale deployment in the period beyond 2020.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his encouraging answer. Taking account of that larger scale deployment, what proportion of our energy needs does he estimate can eventually be produced in that way? Can the aim of reaching that target be accelerated, in order to increase our take from that form of renewable energy?

In the future, as depicted in the low- carbon transition plan last year, our energy will come from a diverse range of sources, including all kinds of renewables, new nuclear power, and clean fossil fuels such as coal and gas with carbon capture and storage. Within that, marine energy has a huge part to play, as was shown in the recent marine energy action plan, which was agreed between my Department and the industry, with the result that the Carbon Trust estimates that there should be about 16,000 jobs directly engaged in wave and tidal stream energy by 2040.

Climate Change

15. What his most recent assessment is of the progress in tackling climate change made since the Copenhagen climate change conference. (325622)

Since Copenhagen, we have seen support for the Copenhagen accord grow. Over 100 countries have now associated with the accord, and more than 70 have listed actions and targets to limit their greenhouse gas emissions. Those countries account for over 80 per cent. of global emissions. The willingness of many countries to take substantial domestic action demonstrates that—with ambition—the international community has the opportunity to come together to tackle dangerous climate change effectively.

A lot of progress has been made. We have seen China submit to the United Nations its proposals on the way in which it aims to reduce its emissions below business as usual and on how it aims to participate in international discussions. Indeed, we have also seen the constructive way in which China is approaching the progress towards Mexico.

Of course, some issues at Copenhagen disappointed us, and some of the actions of China were a disappointment, but I must say that we are delighted with the way in which China has responded to the accord, and look forward very much to working with it in future.

Fuel Poverty

16. When he expects figures to be available on the level of fuel poverty in the UK in 2008; and if he will make a statement. (325624)

I am most grateful, but the particular question to which I should like to draw the Minister’s attention is this: in rural parts of the north of England, where the cost of housing is high, the wages are below average, and the cost of energy is high, what special measures are the current Government proposing in the short time available to them to reduce fuel poverty?

The hon. Lady does better to ask me than Conservative Front Benchers, since their detailed policy document says nothing at all about fuel poverty or any policy to tackle it. In her constituency, more than 1,400 households have been helped with insulation measures by Warm Front. If the House passes the Energy Bill later today, that could help up to 2 million households with their energy bills.

Electricity Generating Capacity

In addition to the answer I gave to the hon. Member for Blaby (Mr. Robathan) some moments ago, taking into account planned closures of existing power plants and other factors such as the renewables targets, modelling suggests that we might need around 100 GW of total capacity in 2020. In a typical year now, peak consumption will be around 60 GW and total available supply around 80 GW.

I am clearly at one with my hon. Friend the Member for Blaby in my recollections of “Life on Mars”—I remember doing my public exams in the dark. The Minister has expressed confidence in his models, but will he at least recognise that those on the Treasury Bench are almost alone in believing in those models and that there will be sufficient capacity?

I am pleased that Opposition Members have such fond memories of a Conservative Government that brought the country to its knees as they tried to destroy the coal mining industry in this country. However, I have nothing to add to what I said earlier to the hon. Member for Blaby. Those are the facts, and the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) is talking about projections or perhaps his own wishes.

Topical Questions

Over the past 18 months, my Department has set a new plan to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050; published low carbon transition plan sector by sector for our country; produced a comprehensive plan to help households go green; introduced feed-in tariffs; as well as passing through this House a levy for clean coal. We look forward to continuing our work into the next Parliament.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has realised that his Department feels that climate change does not originate—in any shape or form—in the United Kingdom. I ought to have had a question on the Order Paper, but the Department withdrew it, because it did not want to the Secretary of State to answer it. That question referred to the effect of climate change brought about by the continued urbanisation of our countryside—in particular, I draw attention to a new township of 2,200 in the Mile End area of Colchester. This is the question that the Secretary of State’s officials did not want to answer: what recent discussions has he had with ministerial colleagues on the effect of climate change on the UK’s wildlife and habitat?

I think that perhaps people were being over-protective; if I had known, I would have been happy to answer the question, and I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has had the opportunity to ask it now. He raises the important issue of the impact that climate change can have on our natural environment and biodiversity. Conservative Members complain about wind turbines, but the bigger threat to the countryside is climate change—that is what could have a real impact on our countryside. I am glad that the hon. Gentleman got to ask his question and I agree with the intention behind it.

Humankind is borrowing from the earth’s capital at a rate that threatens the very viability of our planet. Although we do not yet have an agreed currency for the environmental deficit, does the Secretary of State agree that tackling that deficit is as vital as tackling the fiscal deficit? How are we doing in this country in meeting Lord Stern’s recommendation that we should have a carbon constraint on the economy equivalent to 2 per cent. of GDP if costs are not to be even higher in the long run?

Let me pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is standing down. We did not always agree on every issue, but she pursued the issues that she cared about passionately and with great idealism. She asked about carbon constraint. We are living at the moment as if there were three planets on which to live, rather than one. That sums up our excessive use of carbon in this country. Carbon budgets are an important step forward in constraining what we do, Department by Department and sector by sector.

Order. If I am to accommodate everybody who wants to get in, there will need to be single, short questions and short answers.

T2. The Secretary of State is enthusiastic about wind power and other renewable energy sources. Will he address two concerns? The first is that wind energy can be connected to the grid only by non-environmentally friendly and wasteful overhead power lines. The second is that renewables can be achieved only by heavy subsidies from all energy users. (325630)

My answer is that, yes, there are costs to the low-carbon transition, but the costs of not acting are much greater than the costs of acting. That is the central finding of Lord Stern’s report, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Lynne Jones) referred some moments ago.

Will the Secretary of State say a few words about the impact of the proposed level of feed-in tariffs on the development of anaerobic digestion plants such as the proposed Selby renewable energy plant, which is set to power 10,000 homes in the town?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has campaigned tirelessly on a whole range of issues in the House. He will be sorely missed. He is right to say that the issue of anaerobic digestion and the feed-in tariff is important. After the consultation on the feed-in tariff, we made some changes to help anaerobic digestion projects. That will help the take-up of what my hon. Friend has talked about.

T4. Does the Secretary of State share my party’s concern that a number of active Conservatives, including parliamentary candidates, do not believe that climate change is happening or believe that if it is happening it cannot be changed by Government policy? What steps will he take over the next few weeks to assist us in challenging that? (325632)

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. As I recall, there were only five votes against the Climate Change Bill when it went through the House. If those Conservative candidates are successful, there will be less of a consensus on the issue in the House than we had at that time. That is why we need to maintain the consensus and convince everyone around the country that climate change is real, happening and man made.

There are now more than 250 climate change agreements with the chemical industry. Has my right hon. Friend calculated the impact of next year’s reduction in the subsidy on the climate change levy from 80 to 65 per cent. in respect of the energy-intensive industries?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who is standing down. He raises an important issue about energy-intensive industries and protection for them. A number of changes were made and there has been some consultation since then with those industries. We are convinced that we can make that change in a way that gives them proper protection against the things they are concerned about.

T5. Is the Secretary of State aware of the consensus between me and George Monbiot? Mr. Monbiot says that the Government’s introduction of feed-in tariffs will“shift £8.6bn from the poor to the middle classes. It expects a loss on this scheme of £8.2bn, or 95%.”How does the Secretary of State justify that loss and waste? (325633)

I do not consider it to be waste. [Laughter.] I am not sure why that is so funny. There is a cost to making the transition to low carbon. Part of the way in which we need to make it is by individuals having solar panels and wind turbines on their roofs. That is a way of engaging people and local communities. The right hon. Gentleman’s remarks would be better directed at his party’s Front Benchers, who want to make the feed-in tariffs even more generous.

Despite the Tories’ attempts to destroy the coal mining industry, the north-east of England still sits on massive coal reserves. What future does the Minister see for that coal?

My hon. Friend has a long-standing interest in supporting a UK domestic coal industry, and so do the Government. We see that a future for a strong domestic market will come from making a success of carbon capture and storage. That is why we have been prepared in the Energy Bill to make provision for funding to contribute towards four commercial-scale demonstration models of the full carbon capture and storage operation.

T6. May I ask the Secretary of State the question that the Under-Secretary failed to answer? Given the Government’s dithering about nuclear energy and other matters, are we going back to my youth, when I sat working by candlelight under both Labour and Conservative Governments? Will he categorically disagree with Ofgem and others who say that there will be power cuts in the next 10 years because of the Government’s dithering? (325634)

I disagree with the hon. Gentleman; we are not going back to the 1970s, although the Conservative party may be going back to the 1980s. I am confident about security of supply in this country.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, on 1 October 2008, we introduced a modified pneumoconiosis scheme. That allows a miner who was employed by British Coal to claim a compensation payment, either under the Pneumoconiosis etc. (Workers’ Compensation) Act 1979 or the 1974 scheme. However, is he aware that a man who has been employed in the private sector since 1994 can claim only under the 1974 scheme? Those payments tend to be lower than those made under the 1979 Act. Will the Secretary of State look at that anomaly and set in place a remedy when he comes back after the election?

That is a very fitting question from my hon. Friend at the end of this Parliament. Hundreds of thousands of families up and down the country have reason to thank him for his extraordinary campaigning on compensation for miners and their families. As with so many other issues that he has raised, I am sure that an important point is involved. We will take up the issue.

T7. Germany has gas storage capacity equivalent to a quarter of its annual average consumption. By comparison, ours is tiny. Why does the Treasury Bench think that we have enough? (325635)

It is called the North sea. Germany does not have its own indigenous supplies of gas and oil, but the North sea continues to provide more than half our gas supplies each year.

Has the former Conservative Government’s privatisation of many energy production facilities in this country made it easier for the Secretary of State to construct a sustainable energy policy?

The competitive market has brought benefits to Britain, but it needs to be properly managed and regulated. The document that we published at the time of the Budget sets out how the energy market needs to be reformed.

T8. When I walk home late at night following late sittings in the House, I often notice birds singing because of the light pollution. Does the Minister think that that is a potential issue, and could any action be taken to deal with that significant distortion to our climate and environment? (325636)

The hon. Gentleman has obviously not had the pleasure that I have had from a nightingale that I find singing in my garden. There can be joys in hearing birdsong in the early hours of the morning. Unfortunately, he is still awake at that time, like me and many other hon. Members. The demands of energy efficiency mean that the Government look increasingly at whether light levels could be reduced while being consistent with the safety of people, such as the hon. Gentleman and me, who are on their way home.

Can I say to the skilled work force at Urenco that, whatever happens to the future of Urenco, Britain will maintain its pre-eminent position in nuclear fuel enrichment?

My hon. Friend can say that. Urenco plays an important role in this country and is part of our nuclear asset, and we intend to keep it that way.

Will the Secretary of State finally accept that the Government have failed people in rural areas in terms of fuel poverty? In such areas, there is not a choice of suppliers and the use of a car is a necessity, not a luxury.

I think that in my earlier replies on rural homes, I suggested that there was a need to give more attention to rural areas and to make sure that people living there are able to make real savings and reduce their bills. That is clearly going to happen as a result of the types of measures that we are introducing, from extended carbon emissions reduction targets to the increase in CERT and adjustments in the warm homes programme, as part of which air source heat pumps are being trialled.

My final contribution to this House is quite fundamental. The northern half of this planet grew rich from 200 years of exploitation of carbon. Can the Minister assure us that everything is being done to ensure that the southern half of the planet can develop riches of its own without that dependence on carbon?

We will miss my hon. Friend, who raises an important issue. Last week, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister held the first meeting of the high-level panel set up under the Copenhagen accord and set out how we can find $100 billion a year by 2020 to help people in the developing world not just with adaptation to climate change but with mitigation. That speaks to the issues of justice that my hon. Friend asked about and has fought for in the House.

As one who remembers questions by candlelight in this House in the year that the Secretary of State was born, may I ask him whether he believes that we are truly honouring our historic debt to our mining communities and giving sufficient emphasis to coal technology?

Let me pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is also standing down from the House. He will be much missed, and is a respected figure on both sides of the House. He used to try to persuade me when I was Third Sector Minister not to call it the third sector, and he never quite succeeded, but we will miss him.

We should always think about the debts we owe to our mining communities. I represent a mining area. Work has been done on regeneration of our coal field areas and on reopening some pits, including in my constituency, but there is always more to be done on this issue.

I am most grateful to you, Mr. Speaker and I support the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Staffordshire (Sir Patrick Cormack). As a Conservative who in this House has consistently supported the mining industry, may I ask the Secretary of State how much he believes that clean coal technology can contribute to the security of energy supplies in this country? We have so much coal here that I believe that coal can continue to play a major role in energy generation.

The hon. Gentleman will be much missed from this House. He has been a fighter not just for coal but for manufacturing industry in general and he has distinguished himself and is known throughout the country for the work that he has done. He is right to say that clean coal technology is an important part of our future. We are shortly to pass the Energy Bill, which introduces a clean coal levy to fund carbon capture and storage demonstration. That could be a massive industry for the future for Britain and could benefit all our regions. I hope that the House will pass the Bill and that we can get on with the business of making that happen.

Points of Order

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I fully understand that when the Lords messages come back the competence of this House is to deal exclusively with those messages, but will you and your deputies allow one bit of licence and give Ministers the opportunity to explain why things have been omitted from legislation when they gave undertakings to the House that they would table amendments in the House of Lords?

If I may illustrate the point, the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan), seconded by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), tabled amendments in this House to extend the credit unions in Northern Ireland to come under the auspices of the Financial Services Authority. That would have allowed them to have a greater product range, guarantees and so on. We should bear it in mind that credit unions are very important in Northern Ireland; 26 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland use them as opposed to 1 per cent. in England.

The Minister at the Dispatch Box gave an undertaking that the Government would table amendments in the House of Lords. If they have been deleted—

Order. Well, I want to be helpful to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay). First, as a general principle and a matter of practice, debate is restricted in these circumstances to the Lords amendments themselves. It is not an occasion for wider ruminations. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman’s attempted point of order—I am not sure that it was a point of order—raised a hypothetical question, and I think that my best answer is that we will deal with these matters as they develop.

I conclude by saying to the hon. Gentleman that I think he was being argumentative, and he would not be the hon. Member for Thurrock if he was not being argumentative. I will miss him, and I am sure that the House will miss him.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. A parliamentary written answer has revealed that Charlie Whelan has been given a House of Commons pass by the Labour party, yet you will recall that the Prime Minister asserted in previous Prime Minister’s questions that Mr. Whelan is in no way connected with the Labour party. Has any indication been given to you that the Prime Minister now wishes to correct his original assertion, which was untrue?

The hon. Gentleman is a very experienced Member. He has served in the House without interruption since 1992. He knows that I have absolutely no responsibility for the content of ministerial answers, including Prime Ministerial answers. The issue of passes is a matter that is handled in the normal way. The hon. Gentleman is a perspicacious fellow, and he knows perfectly well that what he has raised with me is an intriguing point of debate, but not a point of order.

Further to the points of order, Mr. Speaker. The issue that I think was raised was one about lobbying. A political director of an outside organisation with a parliamentary pass is a lobbyist. That is the issue that needs to be considered by the House authorities.

Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), is it not clear that Ministers need to be reminded that they may rise on a point of order to say something that they cannot say as part of the debate? I hope that Ministers will have heard that.

Again, that is a hypothetical point, and perhaps the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Peter Bottomley) excels at those. He has made his point. It is on the record, and Ministers who might not have been aware of the opportunities available to them have helpfully been made aware of them by the hon. Member.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have two points of order on the same subject. First, you will be aware that on 4 March the House voted to reform its procedures by an overwhelming majority, and essentially instructed the Government to bring forward the Standing Orders for that purpose in this Parliament. Those were the terms of the motion. The Government have not done that. Have you heard of a precedent for the Government defying the will of the House in that way? If they can do that, what is the point of our being here if we can pass a motion instructing the Government to do something and the Government just ignore it?

My second point of order is that it emerged yesterday that one of the excuses that the Government gave for not introducing the Standing Orders was that they had tabled them for approval without objection. They said that because objections had been made against their will, they could not bring forward those Standing Orders by that method. I am glad that the Deputy Chief Whip is in his place. It turned out yesterday that when one of the people—the right hon. Member for North-West Durham (Hilary Armstrong)—who had put down objections responded to an e-mail from the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) asking her to remove her amendments, which counted as objections, her office referred the matter to the Government Whip’s Office. That means that the Government were objecting to their own motion, by proxy. Is it acceptable for the Government, first, to do that and, secondly, to attempt to mislead the House—apparently inadvertently—by saying that these were individuals acting freely?

The hon. Gentleman is indefatigable in his efforts. He said that he wanted to raise with me two points of order. In respect of the first, I think that he is seeking to inveigle me into debate. I think that I should resist any such temptation. The wider point that I would make in relation both to his first and second points of order is that all of these matters have been very thoroughly ventilated. The last observation that it is sensible for me to make to the hon. Gentleman is that a Committee was established under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). It produced its recommendations, which were, as the hon. Gentleman said, debated and voted upon on 4 March. I have absolutely no doubt whatever that the House will return to these matters. If I were in any doubt, the hon. Gentleman could assure me that they will arise again. I cannot go further than that. These matters will not go away, but I cannot be drawn into debate upon them today.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I would be grateful for your assistance. I understand that the House will dissolve by royal proclamation on Monday and that our last sitting will be Prorogation later today. For the sake of those of us who will be leaving and who will wish to attend that ceremony, could you ensure that adequate notice be given on the monitors of its timing?

Certainly notice will be given on the screen and the hon. Gentleman is right to draw our attention to that. I am very glad that he and others will wish to attend the ceremony. Knowing that the hon. Gentleman has served in the House without interruption, I think, since 18 June 1970, I would like to echo the tributes that have been paid to him. I wish him a long, happy and healthy retirement. I say exactly the same to his hon. Friend sitting to his right, the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Sir Nicholas Winterton), who entered the House in 1971 and has served without interruption since. I am sure that both of them will be at the ceremony and I look forward to seeing them there. Of that ceremony they will get decent notice.

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On the issue of Charlie Whelan’s pass, is it in order for a lobbyist to have a pass for this place?

I have already ruled on that matter—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman must calm himself. He has raised a point of order and I am answering it. I simply said that I have ruled on that matter. What I have said is all that I have to say at this stage and we should not pursue it. There is important business that the House has to consider. I am always very open to points of order and I try to deal with them in a way that is helpful and comprehensive, but I do not think that the patience of the Chair should be unduly stretched.

Sustainable Communities Act 2007 (Amendment) Bill

Consideration of Bill, as amended in the Public Bill Committee

Clause 1

Amendment of existing procedure in Sustainable Communities Act 2007

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: amendment 5, clause 2, page 2, line 15, at end insert

‘within six months of receiving such a proposal.’.

Amendment 6, page 2, leave out lines 28 to 32.

Amendment 7, page 2, leave out lines 33 and 34.

Amendment 8, page 2, leave out lines 35 and 36.

Amendment 9, in page 2, leave out lines 37 and 38.

Amendment 10, page 2, leave out lines 46 to 49.

Amendment 11, page 3, leave out lines 3 to 5.

Amendment 12, page 3, leave out lines 13 to 16.

Amendment 13, page 3, leave out lines 17 to 27.

Amendment 14, page 3, line 29, leave out ‘or an order under section 5C’.

Amendment 15, page 3, line 39, leave out ‘or an order under section 5C’.

I much regret that I never got a response from the Leader of the House to my offer yesterday to forgo this one-hour debate so that we could deal with the business committee. The Government said that the shortage of time meant that they were not prepared to bring the matter forward. It is incredibly impolite of the Government not even to respond to my offer to allow this debate to go short to allow time to discuss that all-important business issue.

In facing the reality that the Government do not listen and are not interested in Back-Bench opportunities, I suppose it is something to be given an hour to discuss this important Bill. It is a pity that it has to be discussed on the day we are expecting Prorogation because there were many earlier opportunities to discuss it had the Government been willing to put the matter on the Order Paper for those several days before Easter when the House rose far earlier than it needed to under the normal arrangements.

The amendment relates to measures that I and my hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Mr. Jackson) expressed concerns about on Second Reading. From the Front Bench, my hon. Friend expressed concern on behalf of the Local Government Association about the proposed measures to allow the Secretary of State to publish regulations on the procedure for making proposals. He said that such regulations were likely to lead to increased prescription governing consultation and engagement with parish councils and petitioners, as well as confusion over the form, content and timing of the proposals. According to the LGA, the resource implications for local authorities of participating under the Act were considerable and should not be underestimated.

My hon. Friend cautioned against being too prescriptive on establishing a national template for what is best for everyone in terms of consultation and engagement with local community groups. He said that we should trust local authorities to be responsive and not to prescribe too much for them. Nothing was done to table an amendment along those lines to reflect my hon. Friend’s concerns in the short time—

Further to my earlier point of order, Mr. Speaker. Am I right in thinking that it is for the Serjeant to look into the issue that I raised earlier?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. I said that passes were issued in the usual way. The ultimate responsibility for the issue of those passes lies with the Serjeant at Arms, as the hon. Gentleman rightly says. She will look into the circumstances of the issue of the pass. I hope that that is helpful both to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.

It is certainly helpful to me and I hope that the Serjeant at Arms will do so with great expedition. Obviously time is running short for a further ruling that might come as a result of those inquiries.

I have tried to articulate our concerns in the form of a group of amendments to which I shall refer shortly. I tabled amendment 1 because clause 1 is effectively a retrospective provision. It changes the rules of the game after the event. Local authorities, with community groups, were encouraged to participate in a bidding process under the Sustainable Communities Act 2007. That process was always being delayed by the Government. For example, the Act came into law in October 2007. Under its terms, the Government had to invite bids within one year. Instead of inviting bids over a short period, they invited them over a nine-month period, so that the bids had to be in by the end of July last year. Those bids—there were more than 300 from 100 different local authorities—had then to be considered extensively by a panel, which had as its chairman Councillor Keith Mitchell of the LGA. The panel worked extremely hard to go through all the bids and assess them by using the criteria set down in the original Bill. It then presented them to the Secretary of State, whom I saw fleetingly for about a minute on the Front Bench just now, but he has obviously decided that this matter is beneath his dignity, which is a great pity. I know from experience how marginal the seat of Southampton, Itchen is, so I imagine he is heading off there to participate in a closely fought general election campaign.

Order. Before the hon. Lady intervenes, I will helpfully say—I know the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) always likes to be helped—that we are focusing on the narrow terms of the amendment. Consideration of election campaigns either in Southampton, Itchen or elsewhere is quite out of the scope of the amendments. Being the very fastidious and committed parliamentarian that he is, I know he would want to be in order.

I certainly would like to be in order, Mr. Speaker. I was expressing my disappointment that the Secretary of State, who is responsible for the Bill and the activities under it, was in his place momentarily but did not stay. Indeed, he was the person to whom the open letter to which I referred from Councillor Keith Mitchell was addressed. I admit that I went beyond the bounds by speculating about the reason why the Secretary of State may have left so soon.

I would just like to explain on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that he came in to check progress and, having already heard the hon. Gentleman’s contribution several times, he decided to come back later.

I do not know whether the Minister is familiar with the long sparring game that I have had with the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham). It goes back to when he was selected for Southampton, Itchen for the Labour party, before I was even selected as a Conservative parliamentary candidate back in 1983. So I would not be surprised if he is fed up of listening to my voice. The hon. Lady is retiring at the general election and I have always regarded her as one of the more courteous Members of the House, but I am disappointed with the explanation she has given.

May I just say to my hon. Friend that I was sitting in the Tea Room just now and as soon as his name appeared on the annunciator, people immediately started rushing back to the Chamber to hear him? He is one of our finest commentators and this is a gross slur on the part of the Minister.

Order. The hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) was trying to make an orderly intervention, but unfortunately he failed in the attempt. I know that when the hon. Member for Christchurch gets to his feet, he will not spend time dilating on those matters, but will focus his remarks very narrowly on the specific terms of the amendment, because time is being taken that might otherwise be taken by other hon. or right hon. Members.

I have never been one for dilating. On subject of time, it is important to recognise that it is only because some of us have insisted on having the matter debated, rather than letting it go through on the nod, that we are discussing it at all. I am conscious of the fact that it is important that we have a chance to explain the amendments and get a response about them from my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the promoter of the Bill. I am not sure that the way things are timed out means that we will have long for a discussion on Third Reading. We will have to rest the matter there.

Amendment 1 relates to the primary Act—the Sustainable Communities Act 2007—under which local authorities were invited to submit bids. I have gone through the process that the local authorities went through and I know that they are expecting to get a decision from the Government on those bids. Indeed, the open letter that Mr. Mitchell sent to the Secretary of State at the turn of the year, when the short list was put forward, states:

“We hope that the process”—

of discussing the proposals—

“will be completed before the Easter recess so that councils can get on with the job of delivering for their local residents.”

He asked the Secretary of State to set up a series of meetings in January and February to that end. On Second Reading on 26 February, the Minister expressed lots of hope and expectation that progress was going to be made on delivering a response to the bids by this time—the last day of this Session. However, nothing has happened. In a sense, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire is giving an excuse to the Government for further delay because clause 1 changes the applicable rules. By doing so, officialdom is given an excuse to say, “Well, we’ve now got to go back and look at the bids again using different criteria.” The Secretary of State previously had to say whether a proposal should be implemented, but now if clause 1 remains unamended, he can decide whether it should be implemented in whole or in part. That is a completely different concept. It is one thing to say that future bids should be assessed on that basis—indeed, that is covered in clause 2—but it is wrong in principle to change the rules at this stage of the game because such an alteration is retrospective and will be counter-productive. That change will cause a lot of disappointment to local authorities and those who are engaged in the bidding process with good will, as they had hoped something would be achieved.

If my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd), who drove through the original Bill—I am pleased to see him in his place—were being frank, I think he would have expected to see some results from his efforts by the end of this Parliament. However, there have been no results. As with all these things, I suppose there may be a silver lining, which is that an incoming Conservative Government will be able to assess the bids de novo and come up with more sensible conclusions that might otherwise have not been reached. That does not alter my concern about the retrospective nature of clause 1, which is why I have tabled my amendment.

Amendments 5 to 15 relate to regulations. Amendment 5 states that if we are going to be prescriptive, we should be prescriptive in respect of the Secretary of State’s timetable. That amendment, which applies to page 2, line 15 of the Bill, would require the Secretary of State to consider each proposal and to decide

“within six months of receiving such a proposal.”

That seems to be a sensible element of prescription, because it puts the pressure on the Secretary of State to respond in a timely fashion. At the moment, the proposals are sitting on desks in the Department and nothing much is happening to them. We should at least learn from the past and ensure that, when we have future rounds of bidding, the Secretary of State has to respond quicker to the proposals.

We should pay tribute to the LGA for working so hard to go through all the original proposals and come up with a short list that sets out in detail the merits and demerits of each proposal and links them together in convenient categories—in other words, for doing a lot of the Secretary of State’s work. It is a pity that the Secretary of State did not respond in a timely fashion to such a proposal, but amendment 5 would ensure that in future the Secretary of State would have to so respond.

Amendment 6 would remove the provision—albeit a permissive provision—in subsection (3)(a) of proposed new section 5B that would require

“a local authority to take specified steps before making a proposal (which may, in particular, include a requirement to consult or otherwise involve the council of any parish which is wholly or partly within the local authority’s area, or to consult local persons”.

Surely we should trust local authorities to decide such matters. Obviously, if they do not consult and they do not demonstrate quite a lot of local support for their proposals, those proposals are less likely to succeed. Why do we need regulations to require them to consult? It just seems to be bureaucracy going too far.

Amendment 7 would remove from the regulations the requirement to specify

“the way in which consultation…is to be carried out.”

Surely we should allow local authorities to decide for themselves how to carry out a consultation. Why do we need regulations? This is bureaucracy and centralisation of the very worst sort.

Amendment 8 would remove the regulations that require

“a local authority to try to reach agreement with persons consulted under the regulations.”

It is far from clear to me what that means. As we know from dealings in this House, it is possible to get agreement between people with good will, but it is not always so. If local authorities want to put forward a proposal that has a lot of consensus, they should be able to do so. How can we require them to reach a particular type of agreement with people who have been consulted under the regulations?

Amendment 9 refers to the regulation that would require

“the local authority to have regard to guidance issued by the Secretary of State”—

Would my hon. Friend agree that the best regulator of local authorities is the people voting in local council elections?

Absolutely. The great thing about local authorities is that they are elected and, therefore, accountable. Later, we will come to my amendment that relates to the proposal by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire to widen the definition of a local authority to beyond that of a local authority with elected members. If we wish to empower local authorities and democracy, we should ensure that we trust local authorities to get on and do the job for which they have a statutory duty. Subsection (3)(d) of proposed new section 5B, which would be removed by amendment 9, is, in any event, contradictory. Local authorities should either have regard to the guidance, or they should be required to comply with the guidance. I do not think that we can have it both ways. In any event, the provision is far too prescriptive.

Amendment 10 would delete paragraph (h), which, at the moment requires

“the Secretary of State to specify one or more persons who must be consulted, and with whom the Secretary of State must try to reach agreement, before making a decision in relation to a proposal”.

In other words, we are talking about the Secretary of State requiring himself to consult with somebody to try to reach an agreement, which is not at all clear. I know that this is, essentially, a Government handout Bill that my hon. Friend has been promoting with Government support.

If I am wrong about that, my hon. Friend should accept responsibility for the wording of paragraph (h) and explain it to us. I was trying to be generous to him. Given that this Bill has been given Government time today, I assumed that the Government were supporting it. Perhaps they are supporting it because they are embarrassed about their own failure to deliver on the original Act, and think that this will allow them to paper over the cracks.

Amendment 11 would remove paragraph (j), which currently requires

“the Secretary of State to publish and lay before Parliament a report describing the progress which has been made in relation to implementation of the proposals.”

That is redundant because it is open to any Member of this House to put down a question to the Secretary of State and obtain an answer. We know from the way in which the Secretary of State and his Ministers have been responding that they have not been exactly precise in setting out the progress, but that will not be remedied by putting into regulations a requirement that they must publish a report describing progress. It would be much better to set a deadline, which is what amendment 5 proposes, of six months to sort everything out.

Amendment 12 would leave out subsection (6) of proposed new section 5B, which extends the definition of a local authority. It says:

“A reference in this section to a local authority is to be treated, where an order has been made under section 5C specifying persons or classes of person who may make proposals under this Act, as including a reference to those persons or classes of person.”

In other words, we are extending the definition of a local authority to include people who are not elected. My time in local government began in an era in which there were people called aldermen. I won my first election on Wandsworth council in 1974, and the first thing that happened was that the person whom I defeated was appointed alderman, which was not very good for democracy. I congratulated him and said that it was because of me that he was an alderman rather than a mere councillor. What we are doing in this Bill is extending the definition of a local authority, thereby effectively undermining the elected local authority members because we are, by implication, giving an equal or similar status to people who are not elected or accountable through the ballot box. That is a most unfortunate part of this Bill. It follows, therefore, that I am very much against proposed new section 5C, so my amendment 13 would leave it out. That brings me on to consequential amendments 14 and 15, which would follow as a result of removing proposed new section 5C. I know that you take a keen interest in such matters, Mr. Speaker, so I hope that you will appreciate that, in my submission, this Bill falls far short of the ideal. It is a pity that it is now being pushed through at the last minute without the chance of proper considered debate. I suppose that we still have time to divide the House on one or more of these amendments.

I look forward to the contribution of my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). It may be that such Divisions would be a sensible way to proceed. In any event, if this Bill goes through and gets its Third Reading today, are we expecting the other place to allow this Bill to have a Second Reading, a Committee stage, a Report stage and Third Reading all before the end of this Sitting?

If debating the amendments today achieves nothing else, I hope that it will draw their lordships’ attention to the fact that the Bill is far from perfect. If it has the support of those on both Front Benches, there is no reason why its contents could not be brought forward in a fresh piece of legislation in the next Parliament, if indeed anything is needed. All it really needs is an expression of intent. The Bill is really asking the Government to express an intent of good will towards the original Act. In all such respects, actions speak louder than words. We have seen the delaying tactics that the Government adopted in the implementation of the original Act and the proposals put forward under it.

I do not think that the world will be a better place for having the Bill on the statute book, but I will not go so far as to say that the ceiling would fall in as a result, because in the context of what we have to do in the House this is all relatively trivial. However, underlying it all is the fact that we have raised the expectations of hundreds, if not thousands, of people and organisations up and down the country who have put in bids under the original Act. Those bids have been shortlisted and the people are waiting for them to be resolved. Why do not we wait for those bids to be resolved before deciding on further legislation?

I am pleased to be here today because I thought that after the events of a couple of weeks ago we would not get the Bill before the House again. It is thanks to the actions of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that we have once again returned to this most welcome Bill.

Amendment 1 would remove the useful flexibility that the Bill introduces. In other words, instead of being able to make decisions on each of the 242 distinct requests contained in the 199 separate proposals that we have received under the Sustainable Communities Act, the Secretary of State would be obliged to decide on all requests contained in each proposal. Given that Oxford city council, for instance, submitted a proposal with 25 individual requests for action, amendment 1 would require us to take a blanket approach to all of them, which would mean that we could lose some good proposals. Also, instead of being able to introduce some proposals immediately and some a little later, we would not have the flexibility that the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) gives us. Clause 1 is a common-sense clause. It will speed up and enable decisions rather than slow them down.

Amendment 5 would get in the way of flexibility in the process for inviting, considering and deciding upon proposals. It would remove the flexibility that the Bill gives us and make the process for deciding upon proposals much less flexible. The amendment and a deadline fixed by primary legislation would give less opportunity for organisations such as the Local Government Association to influence the Secretary of State’s decision, and it could result in him deciding not to implement a complex proposal because he did not have the time to consider it in detail.

The hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) mentioned extending invitations to unelected bodies. Parish councils might be on the lowest rung of local democracy, but in the areas I know well they are by no means the least important. We wish to see them included.

Parish councils are probably the perfect example of democracy in local government because they have to raise all the money they spend from local people and account for it. Would the Minister accept that the proposed new section 5C goes much wider than giving a power to include parish councils? It states that any

“other persons who represent the interests of local authorities as the Secretary of State thinks fit”

could be defined as local authorities, but it does not state that they have to be elected.

No, but it does exactly what we hope it will do: involve local people far more in local democratic processes.

No, I must make some progress. Given the lack of knowledge of the number and complexity of proposals, it is not reasonable to set a deadline, because it would mean that the Secretary of State could go into default or would have to decide on proposals, which are extraordinary complex and affect many Departments, in a very short time.

We hope to issue the next invitation for proposals by the summer of 2011. Placing a date in primary legislation now would unduly restrict the Government and all those who want a say in how we move forward. The Secretary of State will inform the House by the end of the year of the latest date by which the invitation can be made.

The provisions within the proposed regulations, which would be affected by amendments 6 to 11, were the result of submissions of many of those who took part in the consultation on the first round. The provisions in the Bill are not prescriptive. They are a reminder to the Government of what local authorities and parishes feel are important in that process.

Amendments 12 to 15, and especially amendments 13 to 15, would deny the Government the opportunity to listen to the wishes of parish councils, which, as I have said, are an important part of local democracy. Denying the Government the power to invite anyone other than local authorities in any situation imaginable is neither an appropriate way forward, nor in the spirit of the Bill. With that in mind, I urge the hon. Member for Christchurch not to push his amendments.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak today and, I hope, to see the Bill through to a conclusion. I hope that you will allow me, Mr. Speaker, to deal briefly with the amendments in detail and say one or two words of thanks.

I am grateful to the Minister and her colleagues for finding time to bring the Bill back at this late stage. However, I know, as she does, that that is no Government handout. The time and effort that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) puts into scrutiny is much appreciated by the House. Although it is not always the easiest thing to listen to, the House would be much the poorer without colleagues like him, as what he tries to do is important. However, he rather unkindly suggested that the Bill was a handout and I am sure he is aware of the grass-roots movement that inspired the original Sustainable Communities Act. The Bill has been inspired by the same movement, rather than the Government. The Government were not happy with the original Act and had to be persuaded that it was the right thing to do by colleagues from across the House and in a series of public meetings. The Government then embraced the idea and took it on. The idea for an amendment to the Act has come from the same grass-roots movement, as it saw one or two deficiencies in the original Act, which is what this small, amending Bill is designed to put right. It is not a handout.

My hon. Friend might well be correct that an element of embarrassment, perhaps about the time it has taken for the proposals to come through, has enabled the Government to be more generous in their interactions with me and with those Members supporting the Bill so that the current amendments could be brought forward today, but there is a distinction between that and a handout.

I apologise to my hon. Friend for having inadvertently slurred him by suggesting that the Bill is a Government handout. However, I am concerned about clause 1. The Government are already charged with reaching a decision on the proposals before them, and clause 1 would introduce more flexibility, as the Minister said. Are the Government themselves asking for this flexibility, or is it something that has come from my hon. Friend and his friends?

I shall come back to clause 1 and deal with that point in a second, if I may.

The Bill and the amendments reflect interest outside the House in trying to do something different in terms of local activity. I briefly pay tribute to those who have put so much work into the Bill: Local Works, which is so often represented in the Palace establishment by Ron Bailey, who made considerable efforts to move this project forward; the LGA, which has worked so hard on it; the Minister and her officials; and, in particular, colleagues in the House, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd) who introduced the original Bill, and friends such as the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew) and for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy), who put so much into this Bill. Its success is shown in the 100 local authorities who submitted proposals. There were 301 proposals submitted to the Government for consideration, 199 ultimately by the LGA.

The Bill has a sweep of support both in the House and beyond. If we can believe that, in these times, this kind of grass-roots activity can make an impression on Government, we are acknowledging that times are indeed moving on and that the new politics has a place.

One thing I share firmly with my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is the wish that, in a few weeks’ time, it will be our colleagues on the Front Bench who will be charged with the onerous responsibility of dealing with delivery of the proposals that are currently with the Department—a wish that he and I share most fervently. I believe that at that time I will be able to encourage my colleagues on the Front Bench to take forward some of the ideas contained in the amendments. I shall return to that in a moment.

I am not universally hostile to the proposals by any means, but I am concerned about the definition of “local authorities”. Could my hon. Friend explain, as I believe he more or less did just now, the reference to those who

“represent the interests of local authorities as the Secretary of State thinks fit”?

Does that refer exclusively to local government associations? If not, it raises all kinds of difficult problems.

I do not think that the reference is exclusively to local government representative associations. The definition can be taken quite widely, and there are several representative bodies, not least the LGA and others, which might be covered by it.

I shall run briefly through the amendments. On the amendments to clause 1, I take the Minister’s view that the clause gives necessary flexibility in respect of decisions on proposals already submitted. I would like as many of those proposals as possible to be given the opportunity to come to pass. If that means that by being able to look at them in detail and decide that parts of some proposals are simply unworkable but other parts are workable, I do not think that it is a bad thing to have the flexibility that is in the Bill. That would have been wished for if the issue had been thought through when we considered the original Sustainable Communities Act. I am perfectly content that the clause gives that flexibility.

I am not completely hostile to the idea of a timetable. It is not in the Bill because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch knows, we have to take what we can get in the wash-up. I heard what the Minister said about including a timetable in the Bill possibly constraining the flexibility of the Department, but I am not so sure that it would not be helpful to have some final deadline. Otherwise, there is a risk that it could take a long time for proposals to come through, and there could be much frustration outside. I would have been quite amenable to a timetable clause being added to the Bill to provide a final stop line to ensure that things come forward. In the meantime, I accept the assurances given by the Minister that there is a sensible timetable.

One thing I would like to urge on my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) is that when he sits in a different office in a few weeks’ time, one of the first things he should do is look at the proposals that are being submitted to the Department, and produce an early timetable so that the public may know when decisions will be made, and so that friends in Local Works and others will know that an answer has been arrived at.

It would have been nice to have seen a timetable in the Bill, but I am not prepared to press the amendment, bearing in mind the circumstances today. I am not hostile to the idea and I understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is cautious about allowing the Government too much leeway: they have used the present leeway to allow things to pile up and have not yet produced any answers, despite their good intent.

The rest of my hon. Friend’s amendments were, I fear, designed to unseat the Bill, and I agree and support the arguments made by the Minister. There are aspects of the guidelines on how local authorities might consult that are not too onerous on them, and one or two are very important.

A specific aim of those who brought the idea of the Bill to me, when I was drawn sufficiently high up in the Members’ ballot, was to include a reference to parish councils in the Bill, and, through that definition of parish councils, a reference to town councils. I have five town councils in my constituency, and some 54 parish councils. They are of immense importance in rural or semi-rural constituencies such as mine, and, as my hon. Friend was generous enough to acknowledge, parish councils are a firm part of the bedrock of our democracy. They very much wanted to be included formally in the Bill because, although we would like to think that local authorities always work as we would want them to—another regulation deals with how consultation might be carried out—it is not always the case.

My hon. Friend made a fair point about over-regulation. It is a point that he makes often, and his concerns are shared by many colleagues on this side of the House. However, at one and the same time, he wants a regulation to ensure that the Minister and the Department deal with things by a particular time, yet seeks to deny a regulation that would encourage authorities to consult in a particular way. My argument is that, occasionally, one wants regulation to do a particular job. In this case, encouraging active involvement with parish and town councils is exceptionally important, and I am pleased to see it in the Bill. Another regulation that is very important is getting authorities to try to find agreement with those who make proposals.

My final point on the amendments as a whole and on the Bill, in case there is no time for Third Reading, is that we have learned much in the past few years about the sense of unease and dissatisfaction outside this House with how the process of governance occasionally works. I believe that we in this place have all learned that we need to be as flexible as possible in responding to an ever better informed public. The inspiration for the original Act was the sense of frustration that people felt as they saw their immediate environment change around them. They felt that they had no say over what was happening. Their concerns included worries about a ghost-town Britain in which the high street would change and local and rural facilities would be lost. It seemed that no one in power would accept responsibility, and that nothing could be done.

The Sustainable Communities Act arose out of that sense of frustration. Now that it has been passed, that sense of frustration has eased. People see that the different ways in which to engage the Government, their local authority and the community around them are good things that will not go away. Those of us on both sides of the House will have to learn to engage with that kind of community involvement far more than we used to in the past.

Yes, the bottom line for local authorities is a good, well-run Conservative local authority that will deliver better for the people than anything else. However, under the auspices of such authorities, close working with communities and the inspiration that has been triggered by the Sustainable Communities Act and by this little amendment Bill will do the process no harm.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch will withdraw the amendment. His concerns are legitimate, but perhaps they have been eased by what the Minister and I have said. I hope that the amendment are either withdrawn or rejected by the House, because I believe that the Bill as it stands will do its job and be effective for communities for many years to come.

I echo that concluding passage because it encapsulates why the official Opposition support the Bill and hope that it will pass today. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), having given the matter his usual, diligent scrutiny, will withdraw the amendment. I endorse the support for the outside bodies that gave rise to the Bill and for Ron Bailey and his colleagues in particular.

My hon. Friend raised legitimate points, but it is not necessary that the regulations under the Bill be interpreted by the Government in a prescriptive or onerous way. The Local Government Association’s warning against that is legitimate. I assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) that a Conservative Government would ensure that the regulations were interpreted in a proportionate and light-touch way and would put in place the timetable that he sought—whether it is in the Bill or not—because the principle behind it is important.

As an eminent lawyer, does my hon. Friend have doubts about the attempt to exclude the jurisdiction of the courts in judicial review with respect to the definition of who represents the interests of local authorities? It is very broad. Furthermore, apart from the exclusion point, proposed new section 5D provides extraordinarily wide powers for the Secretary of State or anybody else to add, subtract, alter and

“make different provision for different cases or for different purposes.”

The width of those provisions is rather over the top. Does he agree that we should be careful about that?

Like my hon. Friend, I might have drafted those provisions slightly differently, and I will make two points about that. First, my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire is right that one must be pragmatic about what can be achieved in the wash-up. My principal objective on behalf of the official Opposition is to see the Bill on the statute book. Secondly, even if that risk stands in the Bill, sensible approaches by Ministers can alleviate it. Were I and my hon. Friends in the shadow Communities and Local Government team in Government, we would listen carefully to the legitimate warning of my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) about how the legislation should be interpreted. It may be that there will be further legislative opportunities in due course to tighten areas of ambiguity. In that spirit, I hope he accepts that I would prefer to have the Bill on the statute book as it stands so that we have something to work with and can think about those details.

Time is short so I will trespass no longer on the details of the amendments. They have raised issues that have been responded to sensibly and pragmatically by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire. I share his view that it is regrettable that the Government did not seize as fully as they might have done the opportunities in the original Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). None the less, this Bill is a step in the right direction and I am grateful that the Government have recognised that and supported it.

Lest we do not have time for a Third Reading debate, perhaps I can trespass upon your time, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to wish the Minister, as I did in Committee, every good fortune for the future. I am delighted to have the opportunity to do so on the Floor of the House. I have enjoyed being her shadow and hope that I am able to enjoy being a substance in due course. Whatever happens, we wish her well for the future because she has dealt with this and other matters with unfailing courtesy.

The Liberal Democrats fully support this modest but important Bill, as we supported the original Act. Twenty-six years ago, I was elected to a district council. We would not have needed such proposals then, but times have changed. In the intervening 26 years, not only has the way in which the electorate engages changed, but there has been over-centralisation of this place under both Labour and Conservative Administrations. That must now be addressed and the Bill does so partially.

I am leaving the House today but hope that, whatever Administration are elected, they take local government issues seriously. The life of people’s towns and parishes in urban and rural areas is one of the most important things to them. The way in which they can engage will be assisted considerably by the original Act and the Bill. We want them to engage in the process and should not put up barriers to that by passing these amendments. There is a great deal of licence and flexibility, but the more that people can engage in the process and shape their own communities, and the more they recognise that they have a part to play and that things will not be directed by Government and Parliament, the more sustainable will be the communities in which we all live. I fully support the Bill and hope that the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope) will withdraw the amendment.

I support at least one of the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Chope), namely amendment 5, which would require the Secretary of State to take action on each proposal within six months.

I mean no criticism of my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), the movement or the Bill because it is no doubt entirely worthy. However, there is a regrettable tendency with legislation, particularly Back-Bench legislation, for grandstanding to take place and for worthy causes to be trumpeted by the Government when they could take action by other means. We already have an Act that was passed in 2007. The Government could have taken action, had they wanted to. We are now told that another Bill is necessary to make things more flexible so that action may be taken.

The House owes my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch a service. But for him, such Bills would go through on the nod and with no proper scrutiny in the wash-up. The House listened carefully to his remarks on a series of amendments relating to proposed new section 5B(3). We are told that we have to make things more flexible, but subsection (3) will introduce all sorts of regulations that put more onerous burdens on local government. In a powerful point, my hon. Friend referred to the extraordinary paragraph (h), which states:

“Regulations under this section may, in particular, include provision…enabling the Secretary of State to specify one or more persons who must be consulted, and with whom the Secretary of State must try to reach agreement, before making a decision in relation to a proposal”.

When I spoke on the Debt Relief (Developing Countries) Bill yesterday, I drew the House’s attention to a clause that was gobbledegook and paragraph (h) is another example of that. It means nothing. The Secretary of State, in one of the most centralised states in the western world, can do what he or she wishes.

We are, willy-nilly, on a quiet Thursday morning, passing meaningless legislation that gives the Secretary of State powers that he already has. Why are we doing that? We are supporting a Bill not to achieve something, but to make a point. We all believe in sustainable communities and want local councillors to be given the powers and individual responsibility that they had many years ago. If the Bill will achieve that, I wish it well. In the meantime, I hope that my hon. Friend will at least press amendment 5, as it will put the Government on the spot. It says to the Government, “If you really believe in this, when you receive this proposal you should take action within six months.” I hope that my hon. Friend will press the amendment to a Division so that we can make that powerful point.

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Minister has already spoken once. These are my amendments. Do I not have the right to reply before the Minister speaks again?

I apologise to the House. I took the Chair during the debate and had not been able to appreciate the batting order that had been followed. I called the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) without being aware that the Minister had spoken earlier or that, although there had been Front-Bench contributions, she had asked to make further comments. I hope that within the three minutes that are left the Minister will, with the leave of the House, make a brief comment so that the hon. Member for Christchurch can conclude. I am sorry about that, but if the Minister will co-operate, I would appreciate it.

I understand, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

With the leave of the House, I would like to reiterate the flexibility that the Bill gives us to carry out this important work, and the fact that the amendments would reduce that flexibility and make that work more difficult.

May I thank everyone who has participated in this debate? I thank my hon. Friends the Members for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) and for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) for their generous comments. I am not sure that they are well deserved, but there is something to be said for looking at these Bills in some detail, which is what we have been trying to do today.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough for what he said about amendment 5. Whether we trust the Government is a topical question at the moment. Yesterday we debated why we are not going to have the Back-Bench business committee. We trusted the Government and were let down. I propose to divide the House on amendment 5 because it will put pressure on the Government to come forward within six months with answers to the bids made, often with tremendous effort and time, by members of local communities. I beg to ask leave to withdraw amendment 1.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2

New procedure for proposals under Sustainable Communities Act 2007

Amendment proposed: 5, in page 2, line 15, at end insert

‘within six months of receiving such a proposal.’.—(Mr. Chope.)

Question put, that the amendment be made.

More than one hour having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on consideration, the proceedings were interrupted (Order, 7 April).

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Question necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83E).

Question, That the Bill be read the Third time, put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.

Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill

Consideration of Lords amendments

We come to Lords amendments to the Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill, which have been received and printed. A grouping is also available. Under the order of the House of yesterday they may be considered forthwith without any Question put. I draw the attention of the House to the fact that financial privileges are involved in Lords amendments 37, 41, 42, 44, 46, 48 and 67 to 69. If the House agrees to any of the amendments, I shall ensure that the appropriate entry is made in the Journal.

The Secretary of State has tabled a manuscript amendment that is consequential to Lords amendment 20, which leaves out clause 57. Copies are available in the Vote Office. The amendment has been selected and placed in the group led by Lords amendment 16.

Clause 3

Management of the Civil Service

With this, it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments 2 to 5, 34 to 38, 58, 67 to 70, 73 and 80.

It might be helpful if I begin by explaining to the House the conclusion that was reached in the other place last night. As colleagues of some antiquity will appreciate, the wash-up, by definition, inevitably involves a compression of the legislative process, and business can get through only by agreement. In their lordships’ House, that agreement requires not only a majority vote but widespread consent across the Chamber. We were faced with a situation where a number of Back-Bench Members had tabled amendments to delete every single clause. As a consequence, we were faced with difficult but inevitable choices that involved discussions with those Members, party leaders and the leader of the Cross-Bench group to arrive at an accommodation.

It would have been better if the Secretary of State had initiated discussions with all those parties, rather than launching into an agreement with one party alone, which then came unstuck yesterday in the Lords.

The right hon. Gentleman is of even greater antiquity than me and he will know that there is a great deal of inter-party discussion all the time. For as long as he and I have been in the House, formal negotiations during the wash-up have taken place between the official Opposition and the Government of the day, but there was no suggestion whatsoever that the Liberal Democrats should be excluded from that process, and I do not believe that the conclusion would have been any different. We will come in due course to the removal of clauses in part 3 relating to a referendum on the voting system, and of clause 53 relating to the ending of by-elections for hereditary peers. We were in exactly the same place as the Liberal Democrats, but the official Opposition were not. The simple truth, which would have been the case had all three parties been formally in the room, is that during the wash-up, the Opposition have a veto. That is always the case—I was party to wash-ups when in opposition. It is straightforward. That is the reality and there is nothing one can do about it.

The choice we faced, which would have been the same for the hon. and learned Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) had he been in my seat, was that we should not make the best the enemy of the good. We would not have got any part of the Bill through had we not been able to reach an accommodation, and, because of external realities, I do not believe that the result would have been any different had there been earlier discussions. As hon. Members will know, we offered the Conservatives what I thought was a good way of squaring the circle in their opposition to the alternative vote and to Liberal Democrat and Government support for it. We said that we would introduce measures and were ready to table amendments that would subject that part of the Bill to an automatic sunset clause. The clause would have stayed on the statute book and, if within six months the Government of the day had taken no action, it would have fallen. If the Government had introduced affirmative resolutions in each House, the legislation would have come into force. We offered that to the Conservative party, but it decided for its own reasons that that was unacceptable.

I will give way in a moment. We therefore had no alternative but to withdraw the provision, and I am not giving anything away if I say that we will undertake to reintroduce it as soon as we are re-elected, as I hope we shall be.

On referendums on reform, does the Minister for Justice accept that, historically, the Liberal Democrats—Lloyd George, for example—or indeed any other party were in favour of proportional representation when it suited them and went into reverse when it did not? At its heart, that has little to do with the sense of fairness that they try to generate and much more to do with whether they can secure political advantage at any given time.