Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 508: debated on Thursday 8 April 2010

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.