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Topical Questions

Volume 515: debated on Thursday 16 September 2010

My Department has responsibility for managing our energy liabilities, securing our energy supply, improving our energy efficiency, leading UK action on climate change, and moving to a low-carbon economy.

Since I last answered departmental questions, we have published the first annual energy statement, overturned the law banning councils from selling renewable electricity, and launched a new search for deep geothermal energy. Together with my French and German counterparts, I have argued in favour of greater ambition in raising the EU emissions target to achieve a 30% reduction in emissions by 2020.

The Secretary of State may be aware of some anaerobic digestion schemes that have secured planning permission but are struggling to secure finance from the banking sector, so will he conduct an emergency review of feed-in tariffs from farm-based, medium-sized anaerobic digestion units?

The coalition agreement commits the Government to a huge increase in energy from waste through anaerobic digestion, and to that end we brought the industry together in a meeting on 6 July, together with colleagues from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government, to drive the agenda forward. It is early days for the feed-in tariff scheme generally, and as we know it is a new scheme. I am fully aware of the specific problems with farm-based anaerobic digesters, which the hon. Gentleman raised, and I am commissioning further technical work in my Department to try to deal with them.

T2. The renewable heat incentive is a particular concern for Worcester Bosch, a boiler manufacturer, and for the benefit of the Minister I should say that Worcester Bosch is a private sector company, not a local authority. It is particularly concerned about the Government’s decision to scrap the low-carbon buildings programme and to offer no commitment to the renewable heat incentive. Does he appreciate how that indecision is affecting the green jobs that Worcester Bosch and other manufacturing companies that rely on the incentive could create in order to develop a greener future and jobs? (15519)

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am aware of the reputation of Worcester Bosch as a good provider in that area, and I am under no risk of confusing it with town-twinning arrangements involving Worcester. We have to ensure not only that there is clarity and certainty in our regulatory framework, but that we look at value for money. As has been pointed out, in the context of the comprehensive spending review we need to review some schemes that we have inherited from the previous Government, and we will come forward with as much detail as we conceivably can as soon as that review has been completed.

T4. I noted the Secretary of State’s earlier strong commitment to drive forward carbon capture and storage technology, and Opposition Members’ rather faux outrage about the lack of public finances—as a result of the mismanagement of the economy. What assurances can he give that the programme will be delivered, and does he believe that the involvement of institutions such as the green investment bank are key to ensuring that it is delivered? (15521)

As my hon. Friend knows, that commitment is in the coalition agreement, and I merely point out that the current Chancellor of the Exchequer was of course on the negotiating side for the Conservative party in the coalition agreement, so he is as aware as everyone else of the importance of such matters as carbon capture and storage and others in driving forward a low-carbon agenda. I should like particularly to pay tribute to the Chancellor, who was, I think, the first person to put forward specifically the ideas on the green investment bank. My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I am confident that the Government will come forward with a plan, when we have the results of the comprehensive spending review, which will make further and accelerated progress towards the low-carbon economy that we want to see.

T3. New green jobs will be crucial not just to securing our economic recovery, but to bringing growth to the economy. We are leading the way in Sunderland with the manufacture of the electric car at Nissan, but we need further support for low-carbon industries and jobs, so why are the Government cutting that support? (15520)

The hon. Lady knows that we have already made an announcement, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has announced support for electric vehicles, which I hope her constituents and Nissan employees at Sunderland will welcome. That was a very unusual exception to the general rule that we have to wait for the outcome of the comprehensive spending review before we are able to announce such matters, so on that issue we have bent over backwards.

T7. We all know that these are difficult times and Departments need to make spending reductions, but what action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that Departments, agencies and our many, many quangos continue to reduce their carbon emissions and use energy more efficiently? (15524)

I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that we are gripping that agenda, and that we have replaced the singular lack of ambition that radiated across Whitehall under the last Government with a commitment to 10% reductions in our energy consumption within our first year in Government. We were told when we came into office that it could not be done, but good progress is already being made. The matter is gripping the Prime Minister, and we will report to the Cabinet on it within weeks.

T6. The Secretary of State has mentioned the green investment bank, but what progress has been made in establishing it? (15523)

I was with my ministerial colleague with responsibility for climate change policy, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), at a meeting only yesterday, along with colleagues from other Departments that are directly interested in the green investment bank, to establish the scope for it, identify possible sources of funding for the capital base and ensure that we are making real progress, which I think we are.

T8. In recent years, extreme weather events have meant that Leeds city centre has been just one inch from being flooded. Given the potential threat that flooding poses to major company headquarters in the city and to the city’s economy, will my right hon. Friend agree to consider that danger when assessing the city’s proposed flood alleviation scheme? Should he wish, he would be more than welcome to see it for himself. (15526)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the increasing dangers of flash flooding in areas where, in some cases, there can actually be floods at the top of hills. Around the world over the past year there have been mudslides in China, floods in Pakistan and forest fires in Russia, and there is no doubt among the hard-nosed businesses that insure against risks that they have been attributable to climate change, which is a wake-up call. I am afraid that floods are a departmental matter for my colleague the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but I am sure that she will take my hon. Friend’s points into account. I know that she is very aware of the dangers of flooding and the importance of flood defence.

I was encouraged to hear the warm words earlier about reducing our energy use, but when I contacted my energy supplier recently to acquire a smart meter, I was told that it was no longer supplying them. That was a change made following the election, brought about partly because of a lack of direction from the Government about support for smart metering. Will the Minister write to me about what representations or discussions the Government have had with energy companies about providing consumers with smart meters, and about how they intend to encourage them, so that we can take ownership of reducing our energy usage?

I would be more than happy to write to the right hon. Lady to set that out in more detail. Speeding up the roll-out of smart meters has been one of our priorities. We felt that the ambition of 2020 roll-out across the nation that we inherited was pathetically unambitious, and we have already managed to bring the target forward by a couple of years. We are continuing to drive the roll-out forward and consulting industry on how to put it in place most quickly. Every day, 10,000 dumb meters are installed in our homes across the country. We want to ensure that the new meters installed in our properties are fit for purpose for the needs of the 21st century.

T9. I am sure that, like me, the Secretary of State will have welcomed the introduction of green energy certification, but he will also know the central role of utility broker websites in consumer decisions. Will he join me in urging those broker sites to incorporate green energy certification in the information that they provide to consumers? (15527)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. It is very important that consumers have the information that they need when assessing their energy use, and that is very much one of our departmental objectives. We are considering every possible way to ensure that consumers are fully informed so that we have a marketplace that drives energy saving and energy efficiency. As my ministerial colleague with responsibility for energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), has just pointed out, the smart metering programme is part of that, but it is also crucial that we have a commitment to the display of energy use details.

On the question of anaerobic digestion, does the Minister understand that when planning applications for plants are made in built-up areas such as Whitwell, in my constituency, those making them know that the contents of the lorries coming from the plant will not be clean and green but will be a different colour and stink to high heaven? Will he ensure that his Department examines such plans carefully?

I would have thought that the hon. Gentleman, above all, knew that where there’s muck, there’s brass. It just goes to show that the face of old Labour is not green—they do not understand new technology. The first whiff of any environmental problem and they want to go back to old coal—I guess that that is the hon. Gentleman’s solution. However, I assure him that we are committed to new, decentralised technologies, working with communities, and getting the technologies operational as soon as possible. He can live in the past, but we are fast-forwarding to the future.

Community organisations and charities that invested in renewable technologies have found themselves significantly disadvantaged through unexpected changes in the feed-in tariff. Will Ministers look into that and ascertain whether charities and community organisations that found themselves with a significant shortfall could be assisted?

I am very happy to deal with any specific cases that my hon. Friend raises. I ask him to write to me, please, and I shall ensure that officials advise and that we come back to him. As a ministerial team, one of the things that we are determined to do is try to ensure that we have a framework, so that when we make an offer to provide an incentive for renewable energy, investors can rely on it. We are determined to avoid some of the criticism that has been made of our EU partners, who have changed the arrangements with retrospective effect.

Will the Government backdate the clean energy cashback scheme and any future renewable heat incentive to ensure that those who pioneer the technology are properly rewarded and supported?

The hon. Lady makes a point that is dear to my heart, not only in the context that she raises, but in that of, for example, the feed-in tariff for wind. Unfortunately, I do not benefit from that tariff as a pioneer. I considered the issue carefully on a value-for-money basis, and I am afraid that the advice from my officials was clearly that we cannot introduce retrospection in such cases because it does not represent value for money. We are trying to introduce new schemes in future, and therefore, sadly, the only incentive and payback that people such as the hon. Lady and I will get is the warm glow of being pioneers.

As the Secretary of State has been good enough in the past to speak encouragingly about the potential of the Kishorn and the Nigg former oil fabrication sites in the Scottish highlands for future offshore renewable manufacturing, and given recent developments at both, may I extend him a warm invitation on behalf of all involved to visit either or both? He is guaranteed a warm welcome.

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s kind invitation. I would love an opportunity to visit his constituency. Indeed, I will visit the north of Scotland and Orkney and Shetland in the next few weeks, and I intend to inform myself about the important pioneering energy developments, particularly in renewables, that are under way in the area.

A moment ago, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) suggested that the difference between the previous Labour Government and this Government is that the latter want to get government out of the way and let the private sector create the jobs in the green economy. Does the Secretary of the State believe that that is the appropriate approach to developing the green economy?

The hon. Gentleman knows from previous answers that I have given on the matter that any sensible Government policy has to have a balance between providing a strategic framework, which gives incentives for us to move towards the green economy, and avoiding unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on business. We prefer the approach of simplifying signals and providing market and price signals to the bureaucratic entanglement, on which, I am afraid, some of the friends of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) were particularly keen when the Labour party was in government.

May I encourage the Minister to visit EDF Energy, formerly British Energy, in my constituency, to hear what it is doing to manage our existing nuclear power stations, particularly the issues at Sizewell?

I have already visited several nuclear power stations in recent years and I am keen to visit others and see the work that is being done there. It is critical to understand the work that is involved in decommissioning old power plants—a key part of our Government’s programme—as well as the sort of measures that need to be put in place to encourage new investment in those important facilities.

In view of reports that the ambition of the green deal is shrinking to the extent of residual interventions in loft and wall insulation, does the Secretary of State agree that now would be a good time to review the idea that microgeneration should be outside the green deal? In view of the programmes that have already introduced stuff without cost to the taxpayer, will he now think again about putting those arrangements inside the green deal?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question, especially given his impressive track record in this area. I can assure him that the premise of his question is incorrect. There is no scaling back of ambition on the green deal. Far from it, we are proceeding with what I believe will be a model of how to have comprehensive retrofitting of energy efficiency measures. On whether microgeneration should be incorporated in the green deal, I anticipate that providers of the green deal will want to provide microgeneration as well, precisely because of the substantial price incentives that we have introduced in order to make that happen. I do not think that it is necessary to incorporate microgeneration into the green deal, because it is an insulation package, but I have no doubt that householders—

The House has heard much this morning about the Government’s laudable plans to give energy users more information and more detail about the energy that they are using. What progress has been made to ensure that domestic energy bills provide further detail for electricity users on the cost breakdown of the electricity that they have used?

That is a matter for Ofgem, rather than directly for the Department. We have certain powers that we can use to ensure that that is happening, but as I said earlier, it is crucial that consumers are fully informed about their options and what their bills are likely to be. We need to encourage as much informed competition as we can. In this market, as in banking, consumers are often very reluctant to switch suppliers, but if they do, it is likely to have a demonstrable impact on improving competitive pressures.