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Topical Questions

Volume 512: debated on Thursday 1 July 2010

That is a very reassuring answer—[Laughter.] Every family in this country is paying extra on its electricity bill to subsidise non-nuclear wind and solar power. Will the Secretary of State ensure that in future each electricity bill spells out in terms the extent of the extra money that that household has to pay to meet this Government’s policies in relation to the renewables obligation?

There will be measures in the energy Bill that we will bring forward later in this Session to improve the transparency of electricity and gas bills. As part of the annual energy statement, we are also committed to ensuring that there is complete transparency about the levels of cross-subsidy for all forms of activity in which the Department is involved.

May I say to the Secretary of State that the free-market philosophy that he increasingly embraces has led to the announcement this week of the abolition of the regional development agencies? There is real dismay across the country about that. How does he think the abolition will help to promote balanced economic growth and green jobs?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that we are very committed to ensuring that there is growth across the UK, especially in those regions where unemployment is high. That has been a focus of our activity. I do not think that the regional development agencies in their entirety are necessarily the best way of ensuring that, but we are going ahead with local economic partnerships and a range of other measures to ensure jobs and growth in the regions.

T4. The Environment Agency has just failed to make a determination on a much delayed application for a 100 KW hydroelectric scheme on the weir at Avoncliff in my constituency. Will the Secretary of State meet me to discuss the energy potential of the River Avon and how we can prevent the Environment Agency from being an obstacle to making progress in the future? (4961)

I am happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss those issues. The Environment Agency has a statutory responsibility that it has to discharge in that case and I would not want to comment on its role.

T2. The Minister will, I hope, be aware that there is real uncertainty and nervousness in the energy industry about the decision to scrap the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which is based in Bristol. What reassurances can he give me that whatever replaces that body will not delay the approval of infrastructure projects and will provide certainty to the industry so that it can plan ahead? (4958)

I hope the hon. Lady will have seen the reaction from the major energy companies this week to the statement made by the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). It showed that there is absolute clarity. There will not be a delay and there will be a strict time scale for making decisions in these matters. However, we are determined to introduce greater democratic accountability and to ensure that the risk therefore of judicial review can be reduced.

T5. The loft insulation programme is most welcome from the point of view of saving money for households and for the environmental benefit. However, can the Secretary of State assure the House that there will be a particular focus on the vulnerable and those most susceptible to fuel poverty? (4962)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Loft insulation is key. It has a very short payback period—less than a year in many cases—and he is absolutely right that there must be a focus, particularly on the fuel-poor. One of the great difficulties in this area is that the energy use among the people in the bottom decile of income distribution is enormously varied—it varies by a factor of six—which makes it particularly difficult to reach them. Insulation and energy-efficiency measures are key to dealing with that problem.

T3. Does the Secretary of State accept one of the main recommendations of the independent Committee on Climate Change report this week, which is that the Government need to do more to support the development of electric-powered vehicles? If so, does he not agree that it would be a short-sighted cut were the subsidies for the purchase of such vehicles to be removed in the comprehensive spending review? (4960)

The Government are committed to bringing forward low-emission vehicles. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is an Office for Low Emission Vehicles, which is run jointly by the Department for Transport, my Department and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and we recently had a meeting on the subject to progress the agenda. He can be assured that we are completely committed to it.

I urge the Minister, when electricity smart meters are in place, to look strongly at insisting that new build houses have solar panel roofs, especially in social housing, which will help to reduce fuel poverty.

We are absolutely determined to move forward rather more quickly on smart metering. The position that we inherited—to roll out smart metering by 2020—was pathetically unambitious, and we are determined to bring it forward by some years. It will bring exactly the benefits that my hon. Friend talks about: encouraging microgeneration, helping with fuel poverty and really helping us to move towards a low-carbon economy.

T7. According to a recent Conservative party report, “Rebuilding Security”, the party advocates “policies designed for hunting” new UK oil reserves as well as offering “the right incentives to explore for and extract the remaining reserves of oil and gas”Does the Minister agree that a moratorium on all new deep-sea offshore drilling is essential, at least until a full investigation into the spill in the gulf of Mexico has been completed? (4965)

I do not agree with the hon. Lady on this issue. We have in place in the North sea the toughest environmental regime in the world. In the light of the tragedy in the gulf of Mexico, we have doubled the number of inspections and increased by half the number of inspectors. We have a very tough regime and we have a national interest in ensuring that we get the best possible return from the natural resources in the North sea.

Drax power station takes an enormous amount of natural material from constituencies such as Thirsk and Malton. It is also a renewable power supply and reduces CO2 emissions. How do the Government think we can increase and encourage expenditure in this exciting form of renewable energy?

I am seeing the chief executive of Drax almost immediately after Question Time today, so I will have the opportunity to explore that further with her. The co-firing of biomass can make an important contribution, but we have to be certain that it is done sustainably. There are questions about the great deal of shipping involved in the transportation of biomass, but it can certainly make a contribution to reducing our carbon emissions.

T8. I am sure the Secretary of State would agree that not only is he responsible for energy but that, as far as climate change goes, he has a duty to drive this policy through every aspect of Government. In that light, can he tell the House how many times this has been an agenda item before the Cabinet? (4966)

The hon. Gentleman is right that this is on the agenda across the Government. As I said earlier, we discussed this at, for example, the regional Cabinet meeting on Tuesday. We discussed the importance of green jobs and the impact that the growth of the green economy is likely to have, including outside the golden area of London and the south-east. That will remain a key focus in the Government’s work.

In my constituency there is a reapplication for a biofuel plant burning palm oil and jatropha. There is great fear that although they are renewable sources of energy, they are not sustainable. Can my hon. Friend please tell me what assessment he will be making of the eligibility of such fuels for renewables obligation certificates, which make such applications possible?

We are looking at the structure of ROCs at the moment. We are absolutely clear that biofuels have a role to play, but it must be sustainable. That point will be at the heart of the way in which we look forward on such issues.

The Minister said earlier that he objected to the idea of 150-foot turbines near villages, so is there a planning rule of thumb emerging, of, say, 1, 2 or 5 km away?

I did not say that I objected to them; I said that local communities had the right to object to them. That goes to the heart of local democracy. What we are saying is that local voices have to be heard in the process, and we are absolutely committed to making that happen. We have not set a rule for how far wind turbines should be from habitation—we share that position with the previous Government—because the one house that they are near could be the house of the person who wants to put them up. Therefore, having a rule would be to take a completely self-defeating approach.

The timber industry is a significant employer in Hexham. All of us support wood biomass, but there is currently a cross-party team, with Members from both the Labour Benches and our own, seeking to change the distorted energy subsidy for wood biomass. Would the ministerial team meet the cross-party team?

We are very clear that wood biomass has a key role to play, particularly in local energy economies, which we want to see developed to encourage a greater link between local communities and the energy that they consume—coppicing, for example, has great biodiversity as well as low-carbon advantages—so I would happily meet my hon. Friend and his team.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that no decision has yet been taken on the location of the headquarters of the proposed green investment bank? That being so, does he agree that Edinburgh would be an ideal location, particularly given what he just said about ensuring that green investment is not focused just in the south-east of England?

The hon. Gentleman knows that Edinburgh is an ideal location for many things, including a number of my hon. Friends. Decisions on the siting of the headquarters are perhaps a little way off, as we are still consulting on the exact shape of the investment bank, but I am sure that we will bear in mind the considerable advantages of his constituency when we come to make that judgment.

Is the Secretary of State aware that some extraordinary technological advances are being made by British private companies? One in particular—Marshall-Tufflex in my constituency—would like to come and see Ministers to show them the advances that it has made that could help with general carbon reduction.

As my hon. Friend knows, I have visited Marshall-Tufflex, which has some interesting and exciting products that could be a great help across the Government estate; indeed, I would be delighted to see the company while in office and in government.

What discussions has the Minister had with his colleagues in relation to oil or gas supplies from the Falkland Islands?

The answer to that is that we have had discussions in Cabinet about the situation in the Falklands and the possibilities, in the longer run, of there being oil and gas, but they are not at the stage where decisions need to be taken. However, no doubt when the time comes an announcement will be made.

Following on from the question by my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke), may I ask the Minister whether any steps are being taken to look into evening out the tariffs for electricity usage by card meter payments and by billing? I believe that there is a differential, so are there any plans to sort that out and make it easier for everyone to pay the same tariff, purely and simply because that would lead to energy conservation?

We have been very concerned indeed about the relatively higher tariffs that people on prepayment meters pay for the electricity and gas that they use. Addressing that will be one of the most significant gains of smart metering. If we look at the experience of Northern Ireland, where smart meters have already been largely rolled out, we see that people on prepayment meters pay less than people on standard tariffs. That is the sort of gain that we want to achieve for people right across the United Kingdom.

Can the ministerial team tell me what their assessment is of the effect of the 25% cut facing universities on research into energy efficiency and environmental research generally?

The hon. Gentleman asks an important question about the likely impact on research and development. We will obviously assess that when we know more fully the shape of what will be happening in the wake of the comprehensive spending review, but tough decisions will have to be taken. As I have said already, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury told us clearly: there is no money left.