House of Commons
Thursday 16 December 2010
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
BUSINESS BEFORE QUESTIONS
That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth in the room of Philip James Woolas Esq., whose election on 6 May 2010 has been declared to be void.—(Mr Alistair Carmichael.)
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Government believe that sustainable bioenergy, such as woody biomass, bioliquids and many other bioenergy forms, could contribute up to half the UK’s target of 15% renewable energy by 2020. That would deliver a greenhouse gas saving of 20 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2020. It would also improve the UK’s security of supply, as bioenergy is one of the few renewables that can generate energy on demand.
Convert2Green, a biodiesel producer in my constituency, produces sustainable transport fuels from waste cooking oil. Those fuels currently benefit from a 20p fuel duty differential which is due to be abolished in April 2012, just three months after the renewable transport fuels obligation comes into effect. Will the Secretary of State consider the merits of an extension of the differential until the RTFO has had a chance to prove itself as a suitable support mechanism for the sustainable biodiesel industry?
The Government are keen to secure a more rapid development of all bioenergies, and the use of chip fat or any other cooking oil is certainly one option. I am afraid that the specific measure that my hon. Friend wishes me to warm to falls within the responsibility of the Chancellor of the Exchequer rather than that of my Department, but I am sure that the Chancellor is as mindful as I am of our commitment to becoming the greenest Government ever.
My Department engages regularly with the deep geothermal sector, and believes that that exciting renewable energy source has considerable unexploited potential. I shall be meeting the key players in the sector in the new year.
I thank the Minister for his helpful response. Deep geothermal power could generate 10% of the United Kingdom’s energy needs. It is a tried and tested technology which provides energy in countries throughout Europe. The last Government did not support that type of power generation, and rejected calls for the introduction of a licensing structure similar to those of other European countries. What are the Government doing to provide support for this important energy sector?
My hon. Friend has fought a vigorous campaign on behalf of this exciting new form of energy. I am delighted to say that, at my direction, officials are actively examining the practical and legal aspects of an exploration licensing scheme covering geothermal heat and power projects, which will be vital to unlocking the true potential of this renewable energy source.
With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall answer Questions 11 and 12 with Question 3.
Department of Energy and Climate Change Ministers and officials meet both Ofgem representatives and suppliers regularly to discuss market issues. Ofgem monitors the market closely, and reports quarterly on retail prices. Its latest report shows large increases in estimated supplier margins—that is, profits—for the year ahead, which are mainly due to recent price increases. I am disappointed by that development, and I welcome the announcement of Ofgem’s review of the retail market. We are also taking other measures to encourage new market entrants to provide new competition.
We are told that there is a global glut of gas. Will the Secretary of State explain why energy suppliers are increasing consumer prices by two, three and, in some cases, four times the rate of inflation? What are the Government doing to protect the old and vulnerable during what seems likely to be one of the coldest winters on record?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. The first and most important point is that Ofgem, as the regulator, ought to have considerable influence over the margin above the wholesale price, and that is the subject of the inquiry launched by Ofgem. If I remember the figures correctly, that margin has risen from about £65 or £70 on a typical bill to about £90, and that is what triggered Ofgem’s interest in the matter and the review. I have encouraged Ofgem to be firm with all the suppliers as to whether such margins are necessary to bring forward the investment we require in the sector, and we await with interest Ofgem’s review.
The hon. Gentleman also asked about the vulnerable. He may have seen that we have announced support through the warm home discount scheme, which will run both for the next year and the year after—and subsequently, I hope. It will provide discounts for the vulnerable. We are also continuing to make sure that energy efficiency measures are available, such as by extending the carbon emissions reduction target, so we can help the vulnerable get through what I know can be a very difficult period, particularly if there is a hard winter.
According to the House of Commons Library, between 1996 and 2004 the number of households in fuel poverty fell from 6.5 million to less than 2 million, but now, in the face of massive increases in energy prices, it has nearly doubled again to more than 4 million. Does the Secretary of State agree that energy companies must cut prices now and reflect the reality when wholesale prices go down, and does he also agree that those companies should play a greater part in tackling fuel poverty?
This is a real problem, in part because fuel poverty reduction is an objective for which the Government are not solely in control. Clearly, as energy prices bounce around, people get brought into or leave fuel poverty. As part of the fuel poverty review, I want us to set clearly obtainable objectives to deal with the root causes of fuel poverty. One key issue is that those on the lowest incomes often have enormously variable energy bills—varying, in fact, by a factor of six. If they are in modern social housing they can have low energy bills, but they can have very high bills if they are in private rentals. We must deal with energy efficiency issues.
That is one element of the proposals we will be bringing forward later in the consultation document. Indeed, we will make a statement on it. The Treasury will consult on the carbon tax element today. It is one of four key instruments that we will suggest should play a part in reforming the electricity market, taken together with our price support measures and our very keen enthusiasm to encourage market entrants. As competition is the best guarantee to consumers, I believe we can ensure that we have the best possible deal for electricity and gas supply in future.
May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his success in Cancun? As energy and utility companies are not passing on falls in energy wholesale prices to consumers, is it not time we had a review of whether Ofgem has the powers to tackle those companies that seem to care very little about the poor and vulnerable, as the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) rightly pointed out?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks. There was an outstanding team effort at Cancun. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who is responsible for climate change, and the rest of the team played a tremendous part in making sure the outcome was much more successful than we might have hoped even as recently as early in that week.
My hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) is absolutely right to make the point he made. In my discussions with Ofgem, I have repeatedly raised the fact that we want it to be firm with energy suppliers and ensure our consumers are not being taken for a ride. Both the chairman, Lord Mogg, and the chief executive are very aware of that, and they are completely in line with our objective of making sure the energy suppliers are providing the best possible deal. The review is looking at precisely this issue. Ofgem does have substantial powers over suppliers and, of course, we can also trigger a competition review.
Labour Members are also pleased that Ofgem is looking into energy pricing. The Government seem to be in a funny place. They appear to accept that energy prices will increase and that that is a price the British public will have to pay, to a degree, for a greener future, but we know that prices rise for many reasons, as the Secretary of State acknowledged. Given the Government’s proposals to increase VAT from January, freeze pay, cut funding to public services and oversee huge job losses, increased energy bills will add to hardship. At the same time, the Government are abolishing Consumer Focus, which battles on behalf of consumers. We have heard lots today about the theory, but consumers are facing the challenges now. Even if energy market reform is successful, can the Secretary of State tell the House what plans he has to improve things for consumers now, as we approach a harsh winter and the measures that I mentioned?
The hon. Lady knows that the Ofgem review is a very real review into the margins being charged by suppliers and that Ofgem has considerable powers. If its review finds a real concern about the lack of competition in the sector—I believe that has been a widespread concern—we will move to ensure that behaviour is, in fact, pro-competitive in this area. One of the key objectives of Government policy is to bring more competition into this field, as that is the ultimate guarantee that consumers will get the best possible deal.
There has been an excellent response to the consultation, with more than 300 replies having been received from a wide range of stakeholders, which have broadly welcomed the key proposals in the prospectus. The Government expect to respond formally to the consultation early in the new year.
The Minister will be aware that smart meters, in themselves, are simply pieces of kit; on their own, they will not change behaviour or reduce energy consumption. What are the Government and the energy companies doing to educate consumers, because that is how we will reduce energy consumption?
The hon. Lady is right that the consumer experience is absolutely at the heart of the success of the smart meter roll-out. We are working very closely with Citizens Advice, Consumer Focus and other groups that represent consumers, including those representing older consumers, because the experience of consumers and making sure that they use smart meters most effectively to their advantage is at the core of what we are trying to achieve.
Crucial to obtaining the benefits of smart meters is ensuring that they are for everyone in this country, no matter where they live—no matter how remote and rural their location—and no matter what the construction of their house, even if it be with walls so thick that most signals will not get through. We need to be mindful that none of the early roll-outs of smart metering lock in a technology that will not be universal. Will the Minister ensure that his response to the consultation gives us a truly universal metering system?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on his tenacity on this issue and the way in which he continually pushes us to make sure that we keep it very much in our mind. We are involving Ofcom directly in our discussions and our approach to developing this area to ensure that exactly those issues are very much in our mind.
But what about smart meters that are being installed now which might be incompatible with the meters that will be installed in future? I thought that the Government were abolishing Consumer Focus, not working with it, as the Minister said in his earlier answer. What will he do to protect consumers now from those future costs?
One of the major operators is installing smart meters as we speak. It is installing many thousands every week, so we have to ensure that the regime we put in place for the longer term takes account of those issues. The operator is, to some extent, doing this at its own risk, because if the meters are not compatible with the longer-term solution they will, in time, have to be removed. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we need to ensure that in all these areas the consumer interest has to be right, because if we do not get that right, this is the sort of programme that could get stuck in its tracks.
Community Energy Schemes
The coalition wants local communities to share the business rates generated from large-scale renewable energy projects and to benefit from financial incentives for smaller renewables. DECC has also recently launched the community energy online website to provide advice and support for both communities and local authorities.
My hon. Friend will be aware of the greening campaign, which started in Petersfield in my East Hampshire constituency and has now spread to 200 towns and villages. What can he do to help such bottom-up community-based organisations as they go about providing facilitation and practical support to local groups that are looking to develop community energy schemes?
The greening campaign in my hon. Friend’s constituency is an excellent initiative. As he knows, community engagement in the energy sector will be vital to our vision of the development of energy in the UK in the coming decades. We are helping communities to access the planning system more effectively through the Localism Bill and giving them more information and advice with the new community energy online website. The finance mechanisms that we are putting in place with feed-in tariffs and the renewable heat incentive will be a great help.
In response to my question in the last DECC questions, the Minister suggested that all was light and joy in the photovoltaic sector and with the feed-in tariffs. Within days, however, he had called the sector in for an urgent meeting. Speculation is rife that he will rush forward a review, and the headlines shout, “Clouds gather over solar park gold rush”. If there is a genuine problem, why does not the Minister stop denying it, stop passing the buck and get on and fix it? After all, that is what he is paid for.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—we inherited a real mess from the last Government with ineffective legislation. Just as with the national debt, it falls to this coalition to clear it up. I took action—I did not dither—and I have called in the industry. We will put a stop to the gold rush that might have developed as a result of Labour’s lousy legislation. We will not allow large speculators in field solar to soak up available funds that are intended for community and household projects.
9. What plans he has for the future of the carbon reduction commitment; and if he will make a statement. (30972)
My right hon. Friend and I regularly meet businesses to discuss climate change and energy issues. My officials are also discussing how to simplify the policy landscape with a wide range of CRC and climate change agreement participants. This will inform the proposals the coalition will bring forward next year.
I thank the Minister for his response. On energy efficiency, will he assure me that the Government will include double glazing in their green deal? Will he meet me and Pilkington glass, from St Helens, to discuss the contribution that that company can make to energy conservation and the impact that VAT increases will have on future double glazing sales in the UK?
We want the green deal to be technology inclusive. Any technology or energy efficiency measure that can pass our golden rule of providing the savings needed will be considered very kindly. We want it to be inclusive and for it to drive innovation and technology.
Absolutely. We had to take a tough decision on the CRC to end revenue recycling, as a direct result of the state of the public finances we inherited. We are talking closely with business and will be having further discussions in the new year to ensure that it remains an efficient measure of driving forward energy efficiency in businesses. We believe that there are billions to be saved in the private sector in that way.
This week, the Secretary of State was quoted as saying that he does not mind being seen as the Tesco of energy policy, with more for less—being greener for less. Tesco, however, is one of the organisations that will be stung by the changes to the CRC that have, in effect, made it a crude stealth tax for the Chancellor rather than an intelligent driver of energy efficiency. How did Ministers surrender their green credentials to the Treasury so easily and what does this stealth tax—described politely as a “bit of a bombshell” by a local government spokesman—mean for the public sector as well as for the private sector?
The hon. Gentleman is in denial about the appalling state of public finances that we inherited from the previous Government. Yes, the coalition is taking action to reduce the deficit—absolutely. That is why we are not the basket case that we would have been had the Labour party remained in Government. The CRC will help to drive energy efficiency. We know that about £1.6 billion is still paid by large companies in the UK as a result of energy inefficiency and we hope that this measure, which will become more effective, will help to drive greater efficiency in UK plc.
We are committed to the establishment of a system of feed-in tariffs in electricity as well as to the maintenance of banded renewables obligation certificates. We have already brought forward the scheduled review of the renewable obligation by a year to give investors greater clarity and confidence. As part of the electricity market reforms, we will set out plans for support for marine and other renewables for the longer term.
The Minister will be aware that I represent not only the best constituency but one of the most tidal, with several major rivers including the Ayr, the Ouse, the Trent and parts of the Humber. Does he agree that the Humber area generally has huge potential in terms of marine and tidal energy, and will he commit to supporting the pan-Humber vision of making the Humber a centre for renewable energy?
My hon. Friend raises an issue that applies to many parts of this country. The United Kingdom has some of the highest tidal reaches of anywhere in the world and it is our determination that we should lead in marine technologies rather than follow others. Undoubtedly, the Humber has a significant contribution to make in that respect. Many areas could contribute to that process, which is why we are putting in place a marine energy programme with a view to leading to marine energy parks where those technologies can be taken forward.
Is the Minister aware that about two months ago, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), met company and trade representatives in my constituency to discuss support for the renewable heat initiative, which I know the Secretary of State has also personally supported? We were expecting a statement last month, this month and now, I hope, in January. Will the Minister look into that and bring forward the statement? A lot of new work in Coventry and throughout the private sector depends on it.
I am not quite sure how renewable heat ties into marine and tidal technologies, Mr Speaker, unless it is very hot water indeed. We are working to bring that to a conclusion; we understand the pressure across the House for that clarity and we will provide it in the very near future.
Now that the wave hub plug is in place off the north coast of my constituency—a very exciting project that scales up for the first time wave energy—what will the Minister do to ensure that it is a great success? In Scotland, ROCs provide a far better return for projects. Will he work with me to ensure that this project is a great success and adds to renewable energy?
The project in Cornwall is one of two beacon facilities in the country, the other being in Orkney. That is exactly the approach that we want to take forward for marine energy parks, bringing together the relevant technological, academic and engineering skills that can encourage companies to stay in this country. We have been concerned that some companies have looked overseas to take their technologies forward and we have to put in place the right mechanisms to keep them here in the United Kingdom. Cornwall has a fantastic opportunity in that regard.
Carbon Reporting (Private Companies)
8. What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on mandatory carbon reporting for private companies. (30970)
I met my noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in October to discuss this issue ahead of the coalition’s bringing forward further proposals in the new year.
Will my hon. Friend ensure that, through the carbon reporting mechanism, the good work that water companies and others are doing by creating carbon sinks in peat bogs and water storage upstream is more widely known so that we can support it? One example of that is the Pickering pilot project in North Yorkshire, which also brings flood alleviation benefits.
The Warm Front scheme is expected to assist approximately 170,000 households in 2010-11. While we transition to the more ambitious green deal framework, DECC will fund a more targeted Warm Front scheme helping approximately 57,000 households in 2011-12 and a further 50,000 households in 2012-13.
Warm Front has helped more than 2,000 households in my constituency of Hull North, with energy efficiency measures that have reduced fuel bills and started to fight fuel poverty, but many more households still need help from Warm Front. What guarantee can the Minister give me and my constituents that the help, especially now that we have such severe winter weather, will be available over the next couple of years?
Over the next couple of years, we will be transitioning to the green deal. The fact of the matter is that Warm Front per se was not up to the scale of the challenge of renewing and refurbishing our homes in Britain. If we were to rely on Warm Front, at that rate of progress it would take 82 years to refurbish the 14 million homes we need to refurbish. We are going for a much more ambitious scheme—the green deal. It will be a real game changer and we shall introduce measures in legislation in the other place before Christmas.
The last time I questioned the Minister, he said that we really have to attack fuel poverty. National Energy Action recently forecast that fuel poverty is set to rise to 5.5 million households next year, the highest level for 15 years. That is one in five homes, yet yesterday we learned that this year’s money for Warm Front—a key weapon in tackling fuel poverty—has run out. This morning, we have heard about reviews, but with the bitterly cold weather, rising energy bills and the warm homes discount not due to kick in until next year, what are the Government actually doing now to attack fuel poverty?
The hon. Lady raises a very important point, but as I just said to her hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), Warm Front—the key weapon under the previous Government—signally failed. Under the previous Government, we saw fuel poverty more than double; it rose from 2.5 million in 2005 to 4.5 million now. Warm Front signally failed; we need to be far more ambitious. The green deal will be the game changer, and it will bring in billions of pounds. As for now, we inherited a Warm Front waiting time for installations of between three and six months. Anyone requiring heating to cope with the cold weather now cannot rely on Warm Front, and I am afraid they never have been able to.
Onshore Wind Farms
The electricity output from a wind farm is a key factor in determining if and where it will be built. The assessment of a planning application includes, among other things, an analysis of visual, landscape and noise impacts. We are constantly looking at ways to ensure that the analysis remains robust and protects the quality of life of people living close to wind turbines. We have already taken action to ensure that the issue of noise is addressed in a standard way across the country.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Can he tell me what assessment he has made of the Danish state energy company’s recent decision to cease building further onshore wind farms, and a similar decision in France in the summer to restrict onshore wind farms, bearing in mind their impact on local communities versus their efficacy? Can he reassure me that in future we will take into account the impact on local communities, and that we will not force them to have wind farms where they do not fit the environment?
My hon. Friend will be aware that the United Kingdom is third from bottom in Europe on the electricity it gets from renewable sources, so the situation here is in no way comparable to that in most other European countries. We are absolutely committed to giving local communities greater say on the issues—that is at the heart of the Localism Bill. We are also determined that the host communities should realise real benefits.
Perhaps a solution to the question the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) has just raised is to put the wind farm offshore. Will the Minister join me in congratulating a project in Aberdeen that yesterday secured €40 million of EU funding to build a centre just off the coast of Aberdeen that will develop technologies that can be used to improve the offshore wind sector?
I am delighted to join the hon. Lady in congratulating the company on that development. It is one of the areas of the country where there is the greatest potential, because the skills are already there in the engineering side of the oil and gas sector and the people who work in the area. We hope to see significant gains for the north-east of Scotland from developing those technologies.
Onshore Wind Sources
The Government have not set a specific target for onshore wind energy generation. However, our lead scenario as set out in the national renewable energy action plan indicates that onshore wind capacity could be 15 GW by 2020. We are absolutely committed to deploying onshore wind in a way that takes into account the views of local communities and brings benefits to local people.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for the assiduity with which he advocates the interests of the Humber region and the role it can play in that regard. I was pleased to meet him and some of my hon. Friends and people representing the South Humber gateway last week to enable me to understand the case they are putting forward in that respect. We are delighted that such companies as Siemens, GE and Mitsubishi have committed themselves to major multi-million pound investments in the offshore wind sector, and we understand that some of those announcements are due to be forthcoming early in the new year.
Demand for electricity has been met in full by the normal functioning of the market during this cold period, when electricity demand has been approximately 5% to 10% higher than the seasonal norm. As is usual at this time of year, there have been a few localised disruptions. However, network operators have worked hard to ensure that those consumers affected were restored as soon as possible. We will continue to work with industry to monitor the situation over the rest of the winter.
We are not anticipating an energy gap over this winter in electricity generation. I was at National Grid last week, and we are in daily contact. We are looking at the margins of supply, which remain robust. We are looking at the import capacity for gas. We are looking at the role that all those technologies can play. During these very cold periods, all the energy companies understand the need to keep their plant ready to generate, to ensure that demand can be met by supply.
In order to maintain capacity margin over the longer period, what investigation is the Minister making of electricity storage as an additional way of ensuring that margins are maintained, and that supply that comes on stream at inconvenient hours is captured and restored at convenient hours?
We are looking at a whole range of different technologies. We are looking at the role of battery storage, hydrogen storage and pumped water storage which is already making an important contribution at Electric Mountain in Dinorwig in north Wales. We are also looking at the role that interconnectors can play, using perhaps pumped storage in countries such as Norway, to enhance our energy security. This is a way of ensuring that renewable energy can be used in such a way that it is there when the demand is there, and it will greatly enhance our energy security in the process.
The green deal will create a completely new market mechanism for driving energy efficiency installations in buildings, incorporating an entirely new obligation on energy suppliers. All 22 million homes, and within that all 35,699 homes in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Harlow, could potentially benefit from the green deal.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his reply. More than 850 households in my constituency are thought to be suffering from fuel poverty, and fuel prices are rising now. Will the Minister explain what the Government are doing specifically to warm up Harlow homes this Christmas and in the years ahead?
As my hon. Friend knows, the discount scheme available to people is a voluntary scheme. We are bringing forward the warm home discount bonus for next year, a scheme that will be clearly underpinned by legislation. In the short run, we are putting pressure on Ofgem, as I have previously described in the House, and Ofgem is putting pressure on the suppliers, to ensure that there are not excessive margins in the industry. In the longer term, which is the key if we are to deal with fuel poverty, we have to deal with its root causes. We cannot go on applying sticking-plasters, in the form of discounts or short-term help. The only long-term solution, as we have seen from the failure of the strategy to deal with fuel poverty over the last few years, when it has risen substantially, is to deal with the root causes by improving energy efficiency in the homes of those affected.
In order to inform myself of the effects of the green deal on Harlow, I researched a website this morning, which states:
“The nuclear industry’s key skill over the past half-century has not been generating electricity, but extracting lashings of taxpayers’ money.”
That was on the website of someone called Chris Huhne. Does this person have any connection with the Secretary of State? Has he sold his principles for a Red Box?
Domestic Fuel Prices
I declare an interest, as mine is as well. We are in regular contact with energy companies, including the trade associations that represent those who supply domestic oil. Heating oil is a seasonal product, and its prices vary over the course of the year. I have spoken to the Office of Fair Trading about the price of heating oil, as the enforcement of competition and consumer law is a matter for the OFT, and it assures me that it is keeping a very close eye on the situation and is keen to receive evidence from hon. Members about any market abuse that they experience.
I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Several constituents have contacted me about the price of oil. Mr Gander, in particular, relies on oil for his heating, but his supply is running low. A month ago the price was 39p a litre; it is now 71p a litre, and as a consequence he has switched off his heating system. Will my hon. Friend take up that issue throughout the Government to ensure that people are not frozen out of their homes this winter?
My hon. Friend raises an extremely important issue, which is about both pricing and the time that it takes to secure deliveries. People calling today who reckon they will be short of oil over the coming weeks are being told that they will not receive a delivery for three or four weeks. We are monitoring that situation day by day and are extremely aware that, if there is further snow ahead of Christmas, it could become very serious indeed. I ask my hon. Friend to provide evidence on those price increases to the OFT, so that it can investigate them.
Low-carbon Energy Products
Communities are where big society meets big energy, and the coalition intends to drive new community-led, low-carbon energy projects with strong financial incentives and better information and guidance. We have already acted to allow local authorities to sell the energy that they generate.
Speaking to representatives of the excellent Settle hydro scheme in my constituency, I was struck by the amount of red tape that they have had to deal with to get the project off the ground, and the legal action that they have had to deal with from environmental groups. Will my hon. Friend make it as easy as possible for community energy projects to get off the ground in the coming 12 months?
The Settle micro-hydro scheme is exactly the sort of scheme that we want to see more of and encourage, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right: we need to make it easier for communities to take the initiative. That is why we are making it easier to get through the planning system and providing more financial incentives; and we have also launched a website to give people the information they need.
Nuclear Power Stations
The Government are committed to removing any unnecessary obstacles to investment in new nuclear, and we have made good progress. We are consulting on the revised draft energy national policy statements, including the nuclear NPS; I made a decision recently, on regulatory justification in respect of the AP1000 and EPR reactors, which was subsequently approved by both Houses, with an enormous majority in this House; we laid the Nuclear Decommissioning and Waste Handling (Designated Technical Matters) Order 2010, which was subsequently approved by both Houses and published last week; there have been consultations on funded decommissioning programme guidance, and an updated waste transfer pricing methodology for the disposal of higher activity wastes; and regulators are on track to complete their assessment of the reactors going through the generic design assessment process.
I am grateful for that answer. Given some of the comments from investors, can the Secretary of State confirm whether there is an appetite in the City to invest in new nuclear and whether we have the domestic skills to decommission our Magnox plants and build a new generation of new nuclear? Will he also confirm whether the planning regime is fit for purpose, so that we can ensure we meet our target of 16 GW of nuclear generating capacity?
From my contacts around the City, I believe that there certainly is an appetite to invest not just in new nuclear plant, but right across the range of low-carbon technologies. I hope that we will be able to describe that in greater detail in the statement later. On planning and other issues that could present obstacles, we are considering how to clear the way right across all the technologies we will need in a low-carbon future to ensure that that happens.
Achieving 16 GW of supply from nuclear, as the Secretary of State has demanded, would require one new reactor coming on stream every nine months from about 2018 onwards. The industry told the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change the other day that that simply would not happen because there was neither the investment capacity in the City to deliver it nor, indeed, the skills available to build what is required. How will he ensure the continuity of supply that he seeks?
The hon. Gentleman knows that the market has always been composed of different views. He is citing one particular institution’s view, but that is not the common view of other investors in the City. The funds will be forthcoming and we will describe the incentives that we are putting in place for the low-carbon future that we want in the statement later today.
I have recently met heating industry representatives and have invited the heating and hot water taskforce and the Heating and Hotwater Industry Council to be represented on the green deal stakeholder forums that I have established. I want the whole industry to be actively engaged with us on the green deal.
I am grateful to the Minister for his response. I was interested to hear his response to the question from the hon. Member for St Helens North (Mr Watts) on the consideration of glazing in the green deal. Will the Minister confirm that he will consider the replacement of old and inefficient heating systems in the green deal?
There will certainly be scope for heating systems to be included in the green deal. We want the green deal to be as technology-inclusive as possible, and we want to drive innovation. Any energy efficiency measure that costs less to install than it pays back over a specified period will be eligible. That includes heating measures.
Heating Bills (Newcastle upon Tyne Central)
Local area energy data are produced on an annual basis covering all homes in a local area. As such, it is not possible to assess short-term changes in energy consumption by specific household types. However, the latest information suggests that eligible households in the Newcastle upon Tyne Central constituency have received between one and three cold weather payments so far this winter.
This week, Eaga—the green energy company that is headquartered in Newcastle—placed 1,400 people on notice of redundancy as a direct result of the 70% cuts to the Warm Front programme that the Government have implemented. Considering 18% of Newcastle constituents live in fuel poverty, will Newcastle not suffer twice over as a result of the Government’s approach to fuel poverty?
I am very sorry to hear about the redundancies at Eaga. That is very regrettable. Eaga still has to fulfil about 70,000 jobs this winter, between now and the end of the financial year. However, we need to get more investment into the energy efficiency sector in the long term, which means opening it up to the private sector and getting in billions not hundreds of millions. The green deal is the way forward to achieve that.
Since the last departmental questions, we have helped to secure an agreement at the United Nations climate change conference in Cancun. We have published the Energy Bill, which includes measures to boost investment in low-carbon electricity generation, to improve energy security, and to give companies better access to upstream oil and gas. The Bill also sets out the infrastructure of how the green deal energy efficiency programme will work, with particular reference to those in fuel poverty.
There are limits to my powers. I think that the most popular legislation that this House could ever bring forward would be a short Bill requiring it to rain only between the hours of 2 o’clock and 4 o’clock in the morning. Sadly, the technological capability to deliver quite such meteorological results is not yet with us.
Given the list that the Secretary of State just read out, one would think that he sees himself as Action Man, but we heard this week that he describes himself as Tesco Man. Last time I questioned the Government about green investment, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), reassured the House that plans for the green investment bank would be unveiled in the spring. Yesterday, I read that the Secretary of State has lost out to the Treasury and that this much-vaunted green investment bank is to be a fund with nowhere near enough resources to generate the £200 billion necessary for investment in green technologies. The question is whether the country has lost out. Given the impact on British business, job creation and the climate, a properly functioning bank cannot wait, and this confusion is very unhelpful to British business. Will he tell the House what is happening?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question. I can assure her that this matter is still under review by Ministers on the time scale that we were anticipating. Much as I like and respect The Guardian, having worked for it for 10 years, I have to say that its report gave only a partial view of what I said. I said, among other things, that ducks quack and banks borrow and lend. The Chancellor of the Exchequer was the person who put forward the idea of the green investment bank when he was in opposition, and he knows very well what a bank is. I am absolutely convinced, therefore, that we will have an institution that does exactly what it says on the tin.
We still do not have certainty. We hear that the matter is “under review” but we believed that it was a Government commitment. I am proud to be the first Labour/Co-op shadow Secretary of State for climate change, and the Secretary of State has described himself as very happy to be the Tesco of the energy industry. Yet without the green investment bank, whichever model we choose, we will not see the benefits that we want to see. The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle, spoke earlier of the importance of community energy and smaller suppliers; we want energy to benefit all. We want to see this bank up and running, and the Secretary of State will have support from the Opposition if it gets going. Will he consider joining me, as the advocate of co-operative climate change, in working for the benefit of all, with the green dividend and green investment shared fairly through an up-and-running bank?
I agree that we have to look very carefully at the sources of finance for green investment. There are undoubted obstacles in the way of some of the technologies that are furthest away from the market, in particular, and that makes the very important case for the green investment bank. That—not the concept—is what is under review at the moment. The commitment to a green investment bank is clearly in the Government’s coalition agreement, and it was an idea of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Some of the reports suggesting that the Chancellor would want to murder his own baby seem a little far-fetched.
T7. Following on from that question, will the green investment bank include the proceeds of asset sales, as the Chancellor announced recently? Given the importance of green investment to the Tees valley, will the Secretary of State consider putting the administrative centre of the bank in the Tees valley? (30995)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question about the siting of the bank, but that is a little premature given where we are at the moment. I am afraid that quite a long list of hon. Friends and others are advocating the benefits of that to their constituencies.
Capital endowment of £1 billion for a green investment bank was allocated in the comprehensive spending review in 2013-14. I have made it clear that we are continuing to look for asset sales. In our Department, we are looking for asset sales from URENCO, for example, but there are other asset sales across Government that could also be used. We will attempt to use that process to ensure that the institution has the proper endowment of capital necessary for its task.
T2. The green deal is based on loans, which many of my constituents cannot afford, and it places the responsibility for tackling fuel poverty in the hands of the energy companies that have created a national rise in fuel bills of 139% since 2003. Will the Secretary of State explain how the green deal will help the poorest and most vulnerable in my constituency? (30989)
I am happy to answer the hon. Lady, because her question is based on a misunderstanding of the green deal. There is no requirement for anybody to take out personal finance to fund the green deal. The whole point is that finance will be provided for the householder. The company that provides the finance will recoup its return from the householder’s savings on their energy bills. In addition, we will reshape the carbon emissions reduction target and community energy saving programme obligations on energy suppliers into an eco-obligation, one of the key objectives of which will be to provide additional support to those in fuel poverty. Such people will therefore be able to go ahead with the green deal, even if the anticipated savings on their bills are not adequate to pay for the installation.
The coalition agreement anticipated that we might extend green deal finance to microgeneration. We are working on the assumption that green deal finance will be available for insulation measures, because we have secured outstanding incentives for microgeneration through the feed-in tariffs, as was confirmed in the comprehensive spending review. Green deal providers will offer microgeneration proposals precisely because the incentives are so good.
T3. Like the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey), who is no longer in her place, many of my constituents who live in rural areas rely on heating oil, the price of which has more than doubled in the past two months. Companies are now refusing to deliver less than 1,000 litres, which is having a massive impact on families and on schools, colleges and hospitals. What will the Minister do now to deal with that exploitation? (30990)
I would be very grateful if the hon. Lady could give me more details, because we have also heard that some companies are asking people to take lower amounts so that the delivery lorries can get to more homes and more people before Christmas. That is obviously the sensible approach. I would be very concerned if companies were artificially raising the amounts that they expected people to buy at this time.
As we speak, severe weather is sweeping through the north of the country and heading south. Referring back to the Secretary of State’s remarks about Ofgem, will he stress in all his dealings with that body that for those living in the coldest parts of the country, such as the highlands of Scotland, a fair set of tariffs must be applied that are relevant to their circumstances? There is a real feeling of social injustice, which I believe is entirely justified.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that question. As he knows, Ofgem is reviewing competitiveness in the market and the scale of the margins. In addition, a discount scheme is in place for those in fuel poverty, and we will underpin that. The Government are committed to preserving winter fuel payments, and to ensuring that cold weather payment schemes continue. Whatever the weather brings for us over the next few weeks, I hope that we will be in a position to help those who are most hard-pressed. I return to the fundamental point, which is that we have this problem every winter, again and again, and it is time that we dealt with its root causes through energy efficiency measures for those in rural poverty, rather than attempting constantly to put sticking-plasters on it.
T4. Today the Secretary of State told the House that energy bills in private rented housing can be as much as six times higher than in modern social housing. Why do the Government not use the Energy Bill to require all private landlords to comply with minimum energy efficiency standards, and not just when a tenant requests it? (30992)
Referring again to Ofgem, in the past month crude oil prices have risen by 17% but consumers are paying 70% more. Is it not time that the Government took on the oil companies to ensure that my constituents get a fair deal on oil prices? Many of them have no choice but to have oil.
There are two aspects to the matter. Clearly it is seasonal, with demand going up at this time of year, which inevitably pushes prices up, as with turkeys, Christmas trees and so on. However, there is a fundamental problem in the oil market, because people are not getting deliveries when they need them, even when they order well ahead. We are therefore asking colleagues to give evidence to the Office of Fair Trading so that it can see whether there is evidence of collusion or inappropriate practices.
T5. Recent satellite photographic evidence shows that thousands of homes in my constituency are still not properly insulated and are pouring heat into the atmosphere. Given that the Government’s plan A for the economy is clearly already failing, would it not be sensible to have a national crash programme of home insulation as part of the Cabinet Secretary’s plan B? (30993)
The hon. Gentleman may have read recently about the crash programme to do exactly that in Australia. It resulted in large numbers of builders who were not properly trained putting nails through wires in people’s lofts and setting fire to houses. People died, and it was all over the front pages of the Australian tabloids. The result was that energy efficiency got the most appalling name. I intend that the green deal programme will avoid all those pitfalls and deal with the problem genuinely and thoroughly.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the news of National Grid’s announcement yesterday that it will consult residents in the levels and moors in Somerset, Suffolk’s Stour valley and other parts of the country on undergrounding electricity power cables rather than using pylons? Will he congratulate residents on their peaceful and persistent campaign, which will ensure that residents in rural areas benefit from the technology that is taken for granted in urban areas, where undergrounding is standard practice?
I do indeed congratulate National Grid on undertaking a public consultation on whether the cost of undergrounding is acceptable to the public. I also welcome the research being carried out by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, because people in areas affected by new pylons need to be absolutely convinced of the relative pricing of overgrounding and undergrounding.
T6. My constituents have faced an incredibly difficult winter, and they want to know what action the Government will take now, not in the future, to make energy companies bring down their prices. (30994)
The action that Ofgem is taking is now, not in the future. It is reviewing the matter and making it very clear to the energy companies that margins that are not justified by the economics will incur its wrath, the use of its powers and potentially a competition inquiry. I merely refer to my earlier answer about all the action that the Government are undertaking to try to ensure that people are protected in these difficult times through cold weather payments, winter fuel payments and the voluntary discount scheme. We want to ensure that the people are who most adversely affected are protected.
Palm oil plantations are now seen as a new cash crop in various parts of the world, but they cause mass deforestation and a huge loss of wildlife habitats. What can the Secretary of State do to ensure that we have a global deal on palm oil plantation that is sustainable for wildlife and the world’s natural resources?
One of the real steps forward at Cancun was progress on rainforests and forestry in general. Within the package of measures that was agreed was clear text making it absolutely crystal clear that preserving biodiversity and preventing perverse consequences of supporting palm oil plantations would be a key part of rainforest protection and funding.
On energy security, will Ministers examine critically the supply obligation that we place on companies, given that the tendency to buy short term rather than long term, and sometimes on the spot market, means that there can be no absolute guarantee that the supply will be in place in critical and extreme times for the world?
That is an element of the Energy Bill. We will increase the supplier obligation to ensure that suppliers can meet demand at times of greatest demand. I have also spoken with other Governments—Qatar this week and Norway more recently—about how to secure more long-term contracts to provide greater security of supply and greater price predictability.
I am very concerned about what I have heard in the Chamber this morning. Hon. Members have said that there is a shortage in the supply of oil, that their constituents are going cold, and that schools and hospitals are losing out. We obviously have an oil supply crisis. The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), says that he wants suppliers to ration their oil, but will the Secretary of State take personal command of this situation, call in the oil supply companies and sort this out?
I have complete confidence in the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), who has responsibility for energy. He has been absolutely hands on in dealing with that matter and has kept me informed. I believe that the measures he is taking are absolutely appropriate, but we are watching the situation day by day to ensure that the heating oil supplies are there.
In the light of the role that the World Bank could play in establishing and managing the new green climate fund, which was set up following the Cancun agreements, will the Secretary of State comment on the current level of fossil fuel lending undertaken by the World Bank group, and will he support a major shift to lending for renewables instead?
The Government have repeatedly said, and I entirely agree, that the lending practices of the World Bank and other institutions must reflect the overwhelming need that we have as a globe to move towards a low-carbon economy. It is certainly dispiriting to find that that need was not reflected in some of the loans that were approved recently by the World Bank.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 20 December will be:
Monday 20 December—General debate on firearms control. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister plans to make a statement on the European Council.
Tuesday 21 December—Pre-recess Adjournment debate, the format of which has been specified by the Backbench Business Committee.
The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent. The House will meet at 11.30 am and be subject to Wednesday timings should it agree to the motion at the end of today’s business.
The provisional business for the week commencing 10 January will include:
Monday 10 January—Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill.
Tuesday 11 January—Consideration in Committee of the European Union Bill (day 1).
Wednesday 12 January—Remaining stages of the Postal Services Bill.
Thursday 13 January—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill.
The provisional business for the week commencing 17 January will include:
Monday 17 January—Second Reading of the Localism Bill.
I should also like to remind the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 13 January and 20 January 2011 will now be:
Thursday 13 January 2011—A debate on the impact of the comprehensive spending review on the Department for Communities and Local Government.
Thursday 20 January 2011—A general debate on anti-Semitism.
May I take this opportunity to wish you, Mr Speaker, and all right hon. and hon. Members a very happy Christmas and new year, and to thank all those who have kept the House running smoothly this year, particularly the security staff, the police, the Serjeant at Arms and the team who have kept the House running without interruption? I should also like to thank the staff involved in providing services and a welcome to new Members following the general election, including the Clerks, the Officers and staff of the House, the Doorkeepers and the cleaners. A merry Christmas to all.
I thank the Leader of the House for his statement. Following the decision of the deputy Chief Whip this morning to break the convention that the party holding a seat moves the by-election writ in the case of seats declared void after an election, which is what happened in Winchester in 1997, can the Leader of the House confirm that nearly 1,000 students in Oldham East and Saddleworth are likely to be disfranchised in this by-election because they will not have returned to university by 13 January, which is the date that the coalition has picked, whereas they would have returned by 3 February, which is the date that we would have moved? Does this not show that the coalition is running scared of the judgment of students at the ballot box?
Does the Leader of the House have any news on when the Prime Minister will come to the House to explain why, week after week, he is breaking promise after promise? When he does appear, will he also explain something else? All summer long, he and the Chancellor have been telling us triumphantly that everyone supports their economic policy. Well, not any more they don’t! What are we to make of the leak of a memo from the country’s top civil servant, Sir Gus O’Donnell, telling the Prime Minister that in case plan A on the economy does not work, he needs to have a plan B? May we have a debate, therefore, on what plan there is to stop unemployment continuing to rise next year, as people in the public sector—including, as the people of Oldham will see, the 1,387 uniformed police officers in Greater Manchester who are to go—are thrown out of their jobs by the very Government they loyally serve?
Last week, the Justice Secretary, having told us he wants prisoners to have the vote, said that prison is not succeeding. A few days later, the Home Secretary flatly contradicted him when she said that prison works. When will the Prime Minister sort out this squabble? Perhaps he could set up a court—assuming he can find one that is still open—summon them both, hear the evidence and deliver a verdict. I suppose, technically, that would mean making a statement on which of these warring Cabinet Ministers is speaking for the Government.
Last week, the ConservativeHome website reported that there was a pretty difficult meeting of the 1922 committee, with a lot of cross MPs, on the subject of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority—I have to say that we all know the feeling. Following last night’s meeting, may we have a statement on what the Government plan to do about IPSA? The grumpiness on the Tory Benches shows that it is not so much the season of good will as seething ill will and loathing. One Tory MP said last night:
“The coalition is an imperial clique”.
I am open to suggestions on who on the Government Benches is Caligula and who is Nero.
The former head of the Prime Minister’s social mobility taskforce, the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis), talked of sheer hostility towards the coalition leadership. Apparently, he went on to say that it was about a lot of things, including fees and being taken for granted, but especially about the Liberal Democrats being allowed
“to say what they like and do what they like”.
I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, but has he only just noticed that about the Lib Dems? They have been doing it for years. Will the Leader of the House therefore assure his Back Benchers that there will now be a debate on how to stop Lib Dem Members getting in the way of Tory Members’ upward ministerial mobility?
With all this unhappiness, Mr Speaker, may I join the Leader of the House in wishing you, the Deputy Leader of the House, all hon. Members and all the staff, who serve us so well, a merry Christmas and a happy new year? As for Christmas presents, I hope that everyone gets what they wish for, although I am sorry to say that, for Lib Dem voters, even though their stockings were hung by the chimney with care in hope that St Nicholas would soon be there, they will not be receiving that shiny new tuition fees pledge they were promised, because St Nick has let them down.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response, his Christmas wishes and indeed his Christmas card. Of course, for the Labour party this is always a time of giving. I have been looking through what he has been giving over the past few business questions—he digs deep into his sack each time. He has promised higher spending on child benefit and housing benefit, lower VAT in the new year and more university funding. We all applaud him on his festive generosity, but until the Labour party comes up with a credible way of paying for it all, it will have no more credibility than Santa Claus. I ask him—[Interruption.]People will not believe in the Labour party any more than they believe in Santa Claus unless the Opposition come up with some decent answers.
The right hon. Gentleman could have had a debate on the writ for the by-election. However, the Labour party chose not to do so, so it is a little rich of him to ask me for one now. The Opposition could have had a debate if they had objected an hour ago to the writ being moved. It is astonishing that they do not want the by-election to be held, when their own candidate has said:
“I can’t wait until polling day,”
so what is all the fuss about? The precedent from Winchester quoted by the right hon. Gentleman is simply not accurate. There is a collective loss of memory on the Opposition Benches about what happened in Winchester. The seat was previously held by a Conservative Member of Parliament, and the Liberal Democrat Chief Whip moved the writ. Therefore, in the most recent precedent of a seat being declared void, the Chief Whip of the party previously holding the seat did not move the writ.
Moving quickly through the other issues that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, let me say that the Prime Minister is here every week to answer questions, and he will continue to do so.
On the Sentencing (Reform) Bill, the right hon. Gentleman will know that the Green Paper published last week was a collective document, published by the Cabinet and the Administration as a whole. In the robust evidence that my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor gave to the Select Committee on Justice, he made it clear that there was not a cigarette paper between him and the Home Secretary.
On plan A and plan B, at least we have a plan A. The Labour party does not even have one coherent strategy on the economy. Indeed, yesterday the shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), criticised the Leader of the Opposition for his performance at Prime Minister’s questions, saying that
“we have a huge responsibility to take these arguments to the country but we can’t do that if we are dividing amongst ourselves.”
On unemployment, the shadow Leader of the House will have seen the forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, which stated that unemployment is set to fall next year and every year thereafter, and that the fall in employment in the public sector is more than counterbalanced by the rise in employment in the private sector.
Finally, on IPSA, the position is absolutely clear. We had a useful debate on IPSA—I think on 2 December—and the Government abide by the resolution, passed without Division by the House at that time, that IPSA should be given an opportunity to review the regime and come up with an alternative by 1 April.
My right hon. Friend is aware—I have banged on about this enough times—of problems with flooding in my constituency, but we now have a new precedent. The Environment Agency has decided to spend £28 million flooding farmland in order to tick a box for Europe. It is nothing to do with this country; it comes from a European directive. There is now an entire village of people worried that they will be cut off and will have to be removed if the plan fails. This is not the first such case, but things are now getting extremely serious, so may I ask for Government time in which to debate what the Environment Agency is doing?
Of course I understand the seriousness to which my hon. Friend refers and the anxiety in the village concerned. He will have an opportunity on Tuesday to raise the matter in the last debate of the year, but in the meantime, I will draw the matter to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and see whether any action can be taken at ministerial level to allay the concerns that he has expressed.
These being the last business questions before Christmas, may I again urge the Leader of the House to allocate more time to Back-Bench business, to compensate for the fact that the Session has been extended to April 2012? While he is working out how many more days to allocate to Back Benchers, can he also look at what days he allocates? The Government are still predominantly giving Back Benchers Thursdays on which to hold their debates, when really we would like a much clearer spread across the parliamentary week.
Finally, may I join the Leader of the House in wishing everybody a very happy Christmas? I would particularly like to wish the Doorkeepers well in the darts world championship, in which our very own House of Commons darts team is taking part. Will he join me in wishing them well on Sunday?
On the first point, the hon. Lady is quite right to say that, because the Session is longer than it would normally be, there are implications for days allocated to private Members’ Bills, Opposition days and Back-Bench business days. Early in the new year, discussions will commence through the usual channels, and also involving the hon. Lady, to allocate more days because the Session is to run until spring 2012. On her point about Thursdays, roughly a third of the days allocated to her Committee have not been Thursdays, but I take her point. So far as the Doorkeepers are concerned, I hope they are as accurate with their arrows as they are in forecasting the time at which the House will rise.
I note my hon. Friend’s interest in this matter. My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) had a debate on this important subject in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, and the Sentencing (Reform) Bill is going through the House, which will give Members ample opportunity to debate the Government’s proposals. The Green Paper makes it clear that, despite record spending, we are not delivering what really matters, and society has the right to expect the criminal justice system to protect it.
I welcome the written statement this morning about the detention of asylum seekers’ children, but may I express my disappointment that it was a written statement rather than an oral statement? May we have an oral statement or a debate on this matter in the new year? My fear is that, although we are transferring children from the large detention centres, we might simply be transferring them to smaller detention units.
I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the written ministerial statement. Any Government have to strike a balance between written ministerial statements and oral statements, given the impact that a number of oral statements can have on the business of the House. He makes a strong case for that matter being debated, however. The alternative to Yarl’s Wood, whose closure I am sure he will welcome, has been piloted, and he might have heard Martin Narey of Barnado’s on the “Today” programme welcoming this initiative while recognising that there needs to be some secure accommodation available in the days before deportation. Also, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, might have heard his bid for a debate on the policy.
Can my right hon. Friend tell me whether he had any say, as Leader of the House and on behalf of the House, on the routing of the recent demonstrations outside the House? Given that it is possible that Parliament square will be restored under the provisions of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, does he agree that it would be unwise to put large numbers of demonstrators into the restored square?
The answer to the first question is no; that was an operational matter for the police, and I did not have any say. My view is that it would be wrong to allow encampments in Parliament square, and the whole point of the clauses in the Bill is to restore the square to the position it was in when my hon. Friend first joined the House—namely, a square in the middle of an historical capital city surrounded by Westminster abbey, this building and other significant buildings—rather than being despoiled by a shanty town.
I thank the Leader of the House on behalf of all Members for his support throughout the year on a number of issues. He will be aware of the great anxiety surrounding Tuesday’s pre-Adjournment debate, as it is fast approaching becoming a car crash. Will he now, even at this late stage, speak to the Backbench Business Committee to ensure that all Members get genuine answers from the Deputy Leader of the House in that debate, and that it does not become a shambles?
At this moment, the hon. Gentleman is a lot closer, physically, to the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee than I am, and she will have heard his question. What is proposed is a pilot, and the Committee is anxious to hear hon. Members’ views on the proposed format, which will give the Government more certainty about the issues that are being raised, and therefore a better opportunity to respond, although it is slightly less flexible. I very much hope that the Parliamentary Secretary, Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, my hon. Friend the Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), who will be replying to the debate, will have adequate time at the end of the debate to respond to all the issues that have been raised, but that will depend on discipline being exercised during the debate to give him adequate time to address the House at the end.
The 2012 Olympics will be a significant sporting event and, on the back of that, there will undoubtedly be a significant boost to tourism. Will the Leader of the House make a statement telling us how the Government will ensure that the boost to tourism will also benefit the tourism industry in constituencies such as Carlisle?
This Government are very anxious, as were the previous Government, that the benefits of the Olympics should filter out to all parts of the country. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games has established the nations and regions group to ensure UK-wide engagement and to maximise the legacy from London 2012. The group is working directly with representatives from each of the nations—and, indeed, the regions—to realise the sporting, economic and cultural benefits of the 2012 games. My hon. Friend’s constituency and the wider north-west stand to gain from the wide range of opportunities created by the games.
Female genital mutilation affects more than 20,000 women and girls in this country, some of them as young as 12 months old. A brilliant midwife, Alison Burns, has set up a clinic in the west midlands on her own initiative to deal with this matter. May we have an urgent debate on why there has not been a single prosecution, despite the fact that the Female Genital Mutilation Act 2003 makes this practice illegal?
The hon. Lady has raised a valid issue, and of course I will raise the matter with the appropriate Secretary of State. I think I am right in saying that she has one of the debates on Tuesday, on women and human rights, at which time she might have an opportunity to touch on that matter, but I will certainly ensure that she gets a reply on that specific issue from whichever Minister replies to that section of the debate.
May we have a debate on the Department for Work and Pensions contract for cashing benefit cheques? The contract is currently held by the Post Office and, whereas other competitors might be able to put in cheaper bids, they cannot possibly match the Post Office on quality. Paypoint, for example, has no outlets on many of the islands or anywhere in rural north Argyll. In the recent terrible weather, the Post Office made a big extra effort to keep its branches supplied with cash, and it deserves to keep this contract.
I commend my hon. Friend on raising this issue, and I have seen his early-day motion on the subject. As he probably knows, the Government have yet to announce the contract, but I shall draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.
May we have a debate as soon as possible on the conventions of this House? Conflict is inevitable in Parliament—even the geography of the Chamber reflects that—but we have rules and conventions to keep it within manageable limits. If, however, political parties gratuitously break those conventions for short-term party political advantage, as the Lib Dems have done today, that has serious implications for Parliament, and that matter needs to be examined in greater detail, rather than in the cavalier manner that it was dealt with today.
I reject the accusation that anything has been done in a cavalier manner. As I said in response to the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn), the convention that has been followed in this case exactly replicates the convention that was followed the last time a seat was declared void, which was in the constituency of Winchester.
Following the recession, many over-50s in my constituency are, regrettably, finding it very difficult to get back into work, and I know that that issue extends across the country. I would be grateful if time could be found for a debate on encouraging employers to look kindly on re-employing those who find themselves out of work over the age of 50.
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will know that we are introducing a new Work programme from early next year, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions is anxious to ensure that job seekers of all ages get the tailored and personalised support that they need to get back to work. I will draw my hon. Friend’s remarks to the attention of the Secretary of State.
Last week, during the tuition fees debate, the Minister for Universities and Science, the right hon. Member for Havant (Mr Willetts) probably inadvertently misled the House when he said that there were more Scottish university students studying in England than there were English university students studying in Scotland. According to the latest figures, 11,805 Scottish students were studying in English universities, while in the same academic year, some 22,510 English students were studying in Scottish universities. I know that the Leader of the House takes these matters very seriously. Can we now expect a statement from the Minister to put that right?
It is certainly the case that, if a Minister has inadvertently given inaccurate information to the House, the appropriate action should be taken and the record should be set straight. If one of my hon. Friends did indeed give the wrong information, that will happen, and I will draw the hon. Gentleman’s remarks to the attention of the appropriate Minister.
Will the Leader of the House allow us a debate on the local government finance settlement, which was announced earlier this week, now that councils have had time to digest the news? There is real concern in my constituency about the way in which the transitional grant has been calculated. The calculation of Pendle’s revenue spending power for 2010-11 is significantly understated. It does not include several amounts that were included in revenue grants received last year. If those amounts were included, the transitional grant would be boosted by more than £1 million.
As a former local government Minister, I know that there is no way of coming up with a draft settlement that satisfies every single local authority. As my hon. Friend will know, we are consulting on the proposals announced on Monday, and if he or members of his local authority have comments to make about the settlement, they should make them. There will be an opportunity to debate the final settlement when it is laid before the House next year.
Will the Leader of the House invite the Home Secretary to come to the House again to correct comments that she made about public order policing in her statement last Monday? She informed the House then that protesters
“who remained peaceful and wished to leave via Whitehall were able to do so.”—[Official Report, 13 December 2010; Vol. 643, c. 665.]
When I pressed her on that, she confirmed it. Since then an e-mail has been passed to me by, among others, my right hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Mr Smith), which reports that peaceful protesters spent hours trying to leave and being prevented from doing so by police. Although the police told them that they could leave, they actually prevented that from happening. Will the Home Secretary come and tell us the truth about the policing of the demonstration?
The hon. Lady will have an opportunity to raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary during the next session of Home Office questions. In the meantime, I will of course draw her remarks to my right hon. Friend’s attention and establish whether she wishes to respond to them.
I commend the work that my hon. Friend has been doing on this issue for many years. The Government believe that the most vulnerable children deserve the highest quality of care. We expect a Green Paper on special educational needs to be published very soon, and we would welcome his comments on it.
May we have a debate on the Olympic legacy? It has become clear that one of the bids involves a complete dismantling of the legacy to athletics, and that is important to the House. Moreover, much that Legacy Trust UK is doing is being done behind closed doors, in secrecy. It is of grave concern that one bid involves the building of a supermarket on the Olympic site: that cannot be right. We need a debate to discuss the legacy for the young people of this country.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. Of course we need a legacy for young people after the Olympics. I cannot promise an early debate, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. The matter might also be a worthy subject for an Adjournment debate.
Many of us look forward not only to the royal wedding, but to finding out what title will be bestowed on Prince William. Will the Leader of the House remind the Privy Council that the dukedom of Monmouth has been vacant since 1685, for reasons best glossed over? I am sure that the residents of that county would be delighted to be associated with the royal wedding in any way possible.
May we have another early debate on the funding of universities? As the Leader of the House will know, in Wales—my area—the Welsh Assembly Government are not applying fees. Next week the Scottish Government will probably decide not to do so either, as will the Northern Ireland Government. Why are the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government picking on English students?
I honestly think that the House has had adequate opportunities to debate tuition fees this month. There has been an Opposition day debate on the subject, as well as a full day’s debate on the order and the regulation last week. The discrepancy between what happens to English students and what happens to other students flows from the devolution settlement.
Ghana, one of the most stable democracies in Africa, is about to pump its first commercial oil, worth $400 million a year. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that wealth needs to be passed to the whole country, and that the Parliament of Ghana needs to work together to ensure that legislation and regulation are in place to ensure that that happens?
I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not wish to disfranchise students in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election. Will he join me in encouraging the relevant Secretary of State to make a statement to the House today, so that, before the Christmas holidays, students are made aware that they can register for postal votes in that by-election?
If the hon. Gentleman was worried about the timing of the by-election, he could have registered his objection an hour ago when he had an opportunity to do so. He did not, and we heard earlier that Labour Members wanted to “bring it on”. No one has been disfranchised.
I am very concerned about the possible impact on service personnel at RAF Marham in my constituency. Given the level of speculation about air bases this week, given that the economic and military case has been made in favour of RAF Marham and given that that appears to be the view of the Ministry of Defence, may we have a statement so that we can have some certainty on the issue?
I understand my hon. Friend’s anxiety. She says that something may be “the view of the Ministry of Defence”, but my understanding is that no decision has been made. Some consequences of the strategic defence and security review, which was published in October, have implications for a number of bases, including the one in my hon. Friend’s constituency, but I understand that no decision will be made until the spring, when of course the House will be informed. However, the strong case that my hon. Friend has made repeatedly in the Chamber on behalf of RAF Marham will have been heard.
May we have an urgent statement from the Business Secretary on the disgraceful situation in Scotland, where TNT, DHL and other delivery companies are currently refusing to make deliveries? RL Engineering Services in my constituency contacted me this morning because it needs a part in order to rescue a Ministry of Defence tug stuck in the Kyle of Lochalsh, but the companies are refusing to deliver it. Can the Business Secretary take some action to ensure that the situation does not continue?
If the matter is indeed not devolved but retained, I will of course draw it to the attention of the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey), who is responsible for postal affairs, and establish whether he can take any action to ensure that deliveries get through.
The Leader of the House may be aware that hauliers are to be penalised by the European Union, which is considering introducing a 4-metre height limit on new trailers. I have been lobbied by several hauliers in my constituency, not least Mr Robin Allen, who fears that that is much lower than the current limit and that hauliers will not be able to carry the same amount of goods, which means that there will be more lorries. The bridges do not need to be made any higher, because the trailers are already being driven under them. Will the Leader of the House refer the matter to the relevant Minister?
I am all in favour of fewer lorries on our roads. I think that it would be best for the Secretary of State for Transport to have a dialogue with the Road Haulage Association, establish whether those anxieties are reflected more broadly throughout the industry, and then establish whether we can take action to minimise any loss of trade carried on the larger trailers.
Given that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is on record as having said in the House that this year’s grant settlement would not hit the poorest communities hardest, and given that that is exactly what it has done, may we have an urgent debate on the matter?
There will indeed be an urgent debate on the matter, because the settlement must be approved by the House before the local authorities get their money. As the Secretary of State said on Monday, it is a progressive settlement that reflects the requirements of the parts of the country that need the resources most.
Will my right hon. Friend ensure that time is found between now and the end of the consultation period for a debate on the Floor of the House about the legal aid Green Paper? We had a stimulating debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday, when Members on both sides of the House made suggestions about what needed to be done in this vital regard, but a debate on the Floor of the House would allow more Members more time in which to amplify their concerns.
As my hon. Friend said, there was a well-attended debate on legal aid in Westminster Hall earlier this week. Any change to legal aid will require legislation of course, and I anticipate that there will be a Bill on that this Session. Our proposals represent a radical, wide-ranging and ambitious programme of reform that reflects our commitment to ensuring that legal aid is available to those who need it most. We estimate that it will deliver savings of about £350 million by 2014-15, but the exact figure will be subject to what final package of proposals we decide to implement following the consultation to which my hon. Friend referred.
To return to an issue I raised at a previous business questions, the Government have announced that they will change the way in which the police’s use of stop-and-search and stop-and-account powers are recorded, and I think that change will make it impossible to check properly whether their use is proportionate and non-discriminatory. In a Westminster Hall debate on 1 December, the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice said this change would save 450,000 hours of police time, but that figure is strongly disputed by the StopWatch action group and others. May we have a debate to discuss the reality of the situation?
It is important that we seek a consensus on what the impact of the changes will be. I cannot promise an early debate, but a meeting between the relevant Home Office Minister and the organisation to which the hon. Gentleman refers might represent the right way forward.
Christmas is just around the corner, and many people will receive a gift of a personalised number plate for their car. That provides valuable income to the Exchequer—about £1.3 billion since 1989. However, many of these plates are illegal by virtue of their character, position and appearance and by the addition of bolts in order to create a name or word. That has serious implications for the identification of vehicles used in criminal activity, particularly where the police are using automatic number plate recognition systems. Will the Leader of the House make time for this matter to be considered?
My hon. Friend must move in very important circles given that he says that many people will receive this gift. As a cyclist, I do not, of course, need such a number plate myself. He refers to number plate recognition, and I will draw that aspect of his remarks to the attention of Home Office Ministers.
I am grateful for the Leader of the House’s remark that the Prime Minister is likely on Monday afternoon to make a statement on the outcome of the European Council meeting. We did not have a debate ahead of that meeting even though that would have given the House an opportunity to express its views on some treaty changes that may well have been debated at the weekend. In an earlier answer, it seemed to be suggested that the Backbench Business Committee and the Leader of the House will negotiate about extra days for debates, so will the two sides come to an agreement in order to restore, in whatever shape or form, a pre-Council debate in this House, because it is vital that we have that?
I think the hon. Lady knows what I am about to say to her: in setting up its Backbench Business Committee, the House gave that Committee responsibility for deciding whether there is to be a fisheries debate, for instance, a European Council debate or four days of debate on defence, or whether debates should be held on other subjects. The responsibility for deciding whether there is to be a pre-Christmas European Council debate now rests with the Backbench Business Committee, so the hon. Lady should address her question to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), not the Leader of the House.