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Topical Questions

Volume 530: debated on Thursday 7 July 2011

Since the last departmental Question Time, the Energy Bill has completed its Committee stage. Yesterday, we announced that Whitehall carbon emissions have been cut by nearly 14% in one year: the Department of Energy and Climate Change achieved an impressive reduction of 21.3% and was only just pipped at the post by the Department for Education. We have also revealed the simplification proposals for the carbon reduction commitment and climate change agreements. We have responded to the Committee on Climate Change’s third annual progress report to Parliament, as required under the Climate Change Act 2008, and the fourth carbon budget, covering the period from 2023 to 2027, is now law.

There are many energy-intensive companies across the black country producing high-value items for export all over the world. Those companies, which I would not call old industry, are concerned about the carbon price floor and rising energy costs. Can my right hon. Friend advise whether the joint working group between the Treasury, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and his Department will meet representatives of the chemicals and aluminium industries to hear their concerns?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I met representatives of the aluminium industry very recently and that we have a regular programme of meeting companies from energy-intensive industries. Indeed, I have also had contact with trade union representatives from energy-intensive industries. We want to see a solution that will ensure those industries are able to thrive within the United Kingdom—she can have my absolute assurance on that. As my colleagues have pointed out, there are discussions under way between BIS, the Treasury and us on this.

The green economy road map is under way in the Green Economy Council. It is very important that we get that process of work right, and the hon. Lady will know that getting a cross-governmental road map right is not always the easiest process, but I can assure her that it is under way and that she will be put out of her misery shortly.

Whenever the right hon. Gentleman’s Department has to work with other Departments, progress on green issues stalls. We have now learned that the flagship Energy Bill, which the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), has spoken about a great deal today, has been shelved. When will we see the Bill back in the House, and will it delay the start of the green deal?

Obviously the timing of the final stages of the Energy Bill is a matter for the business managers, but we are determined to hold to the October 2012 deadline for the launch of the green deal and are working to ensure that we meet it, despite the congestion we have faced in the House of Commons. I am grateful to the hon. Lady for encouraging us to come forward with further details of our policy and note that she is about to offer what has been billed as the first detailed insight into the Opposition’s thinking on low-carbon policy at a green business event, which I am sure we all look forward to.

T2. As Ministers will know, Cornwall has ambitions to become the green peninsula in the UK through renewable energy and therefore warmly welcomes the Government’s proposed marine energy park. What progress has been made on that, what timetable has been set and will Ministers ensure that the park provides the vital stimulus so that the wave hub can get going off the north coast of my constituency? (64290)

My ministerial colleagues have had regular meetings on this with the green energy programme board and are making good progress. We will continue the workstream to try to accelerate our commitment to low-carbon goods and services in the UK economy. It is a high-growth opportunity, and obviously Cornwall will play an important future role in that.

T5. Will the Minister confirm his support for the pioneering plans for underground coal gasification off the Northumberland coast, as described earlier by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), and agree to meet representatives from the Opposition, from Newcastle university and from Five-Quarter to seek support on the issue? (64293)

That is exactly the offer I made to the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah). I am keen for that meeting to be as wide as possible, and indeed happy for it to include the entire parliamentary Labour party. This is an important technology and we are keen to understand the expertise that the university has.

T3. The Minister will be aware that farmers and parish councils across Suffolk are keen to contribute to reducing local carbon emissions and supporting renewable energy, but there is great concern about the divisiveness of onshore wind turbines in local communities. What other renewable energy measures is his Department keen to promote on a local level? (64291)

There is a whole range of technologies for renewable energy that are appropriate at local level, such as anaerobic digestion, which has already been discussed today. Furthermore, we have introduced £860 million to support a range of renewable heat technologies that will be significant for our future, including air source heat pumps and ground source heat pumps. However, I urge my hon. Friend not to take too jaundiced a view of onshore wind turbines. So far I am the only Member of the House who has been booed on “Any Questions” for pointing out that onshore wind turbines are beautiful, a view I hold to firmly and with which I hope other Members will agree.

T7. Many people in Wales are excited about the possibility of shale gas transforming the welsh economy, but equally many of my constituents are worried that the chemicals that are pushed down into the ground will end up in the watercourse and that the fracking process, which has possibly already led to problems in Blackpool, might lead to real problems across the whole of the south Wales coalfield. What will the Minister do to reassure my constituents? (64296)

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important issue. There is potential for shale gas in the United Kingdom, but only one application is going forward, in the north-west, and that is on hold to see whether there is any link between the recent minor earth tremors there and the drilling process. We need to understand fully any issues with that. It is a legitimate technology, but the fluid is 99% water and the majority of the remainder is an inert soapy-type compound—

Order. Ministers are rather testing the knee muscles of a number of right hon. and hon. Members who keep bouncing up and down.

T4. Leeds has a strong case to be considered for the green investment bank, and I look forward to discussing it next week with the Minister, but may I ask for some cross-departmental working? The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills announcement, which appeared to suggest that Leeds was no longer in the running, was not helpful, so can the Minister assure me that it is not a foregone conclusion that the bank will be in London ? (64292)

I can assure my hon. Friend that no decisions on the matter have been taken. He is absolutely right that BIS is the lead Department on it, but decisions are some way off and we have some work to do on scoping and on getting right the detail of the proposals before siting becomes salient.

In relation to the Humber ports, the Minister talked earlier about the £60 million that is available for the development of green energy on the portside, but that was an announcement by the previous Labour Government of course. In terms of the job opportunities for my constituents, can he explain the targeted assistance that will be available to Hull?

The difference we have made is that that funding is linked specifically to manufacturing projects, rather than to speculative improvements in ports. In addition, £70 million has been brought forward in Scotland, and there will be perhaps more in Wales, so we are very keen to see specific projects. Siemens is looking at the opportunities on the north side of the Humber in Hull, where very good progress is being made, and there will be a fixed formula for establishing exactly how much Government support is going to be available for private sector investment.

T6. What is my right hon. Friend doing to encourage the Danish company Vestas to build a wind turbine factory in my constituency? (64294)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. I am very keen to see Vestas come back to the UK market as a manufacturer. I remember visiting its plant on the Isle of Wight some years ago, and it had a manufacturing facility in Woolston close to my constituency. The fact that it is looking at re-establishing itself in the UK is enormously encouraging, and we are in conversations with the company. Clearly, Sheerness as a site is not an assisted area and therefore would not benefit from the subsidies that have been found for assisted areas, but it has other advantages, of which I am sure Vestas is well aware from its discussions with my hon. Friend, and I very much hope that it takes that decision to go forward.

The Secretary of State, in one of his lengthy answers to his interviewer on the “Today” programme, waxed lyrical about the potential of wave and tidal energy. Will he therefore explain why the earmarked amount from the development fund has been reduced from £50 million to £20 million, which green energy specialists have described as a drop in the ocean and completely inadequate?

The hon. Gentleman should be aware that that is new money, which will be spent—unlike some allocations that were made under the previous Government. We are very committed to bringing forward such early-stage technologies, which are going to be part of our future, and I have been very keen to see for myself the progress that has been made, particularly on wave projects.

T8. By 2012, Bentley Motors in Crewe in my constituency will have made 100% of its range compatible with renewable fuels, reducing its CO2 emissions by at least 15%. Will my hon. Friend visit the Bentley site to see how that and other investment is helping to reduce the impact on the environment, and to discuss what further support his Department may be able to offer? (64297)

I was very pleased to have the chance earlier this week to talk about those issues with Bentley, which is of course a world-class engineering company based in my hon. Friend’s constituency. I shall be in touch with his office later today to fix a visit in the coming weeks.

Will the Secretary of State reflect further on the anaerobic digester plants that are close to and in built-up areas? Is he aware that the stuff being carried by lorries trundling through the village of Whitwell in my constituency is not the green deal but brown and stinks to high heaven? What does he have to say to the people there?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. The more I do this job, the more I realise that there is not a single energy source, whether it is anaerobic digesters, wind turbines or nuclear power, or indeed fracking with shale gas, that does not involve concerns and worries. It is our job to make sure that those are minimised, and we want to ensure that his constituents suffer the minimum disruption to their lives in built-up areas.

T9. I thank the Minister for giving his time earlier this week to meet the GreenWin organisation from my constituency. He will have noticed that it stands well prepared for green deal roll-out in my part of the world. Will he keep at the forefront of his mind at all times the fact that it is not only these big society organisations that will make the green deal a success, but the small value-added services that can be offered to make energy efficiency possible for many of our constituents—services such as basic loft clearance, which he knows could be a deal breaker? (64298)

I was delighted to meet my hon. Friend and GreenWin, which is an excellent organisation whose expertise is now radiating beyond his constituency. He is absolutely right. Many of the barriers to the green deal and take-up of energy efficiency are not just financial but involve practical measures such as clearing the loft. A community response to overcoming those barriers is often the very best way. My officials will be working to see how we can spread the expertise of GreenWin right across the country.

An observant constituent of mine noticed on a very sunny day that he was getting nothing back for the electricity he was generating from his solar panels. Luckily the problem—it was a grid problem—has now been resolved by Western Power. What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the infrastructure across the country is adequate to take on all the electricity, especially in areas where solar panels have become very popular, and to make absolutely sure that those people are able to get the feed-in tariff that they are generating?

Part of the solution to this is the rolling out of smart grids, which will measure two-way flows of electricity and therefore give an absolutely precise reading of what is being put into the grid. We are taking forward that programme, and we have already shaved a year off the time scale that we inherited from the previous Administration because of the many benefits that it will bring.

Will my hon. Friend update the House on what recent actions he has taken to ensure that the problems encountered last winter by constituents of mine who heat their homes with fuel oil will not be repeated this year?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that at this time of the year, because this is when we need to be planning for the winter. The Office of Fair Trading is investigating the matter. I have asked for its report to be completed by the early autumn so that we can decide exactly what measures need to be introduced to make sure that the problems of last winter are not repeated.

I am sure that a Minister as progressive and forward thinking as the Secretary of State is convinced by the arguments put forward by those who advocate double summer time. What efforts is he making to reduce carbon emissions by following this approach and speaking to his Cabinet colleagues about the issue?

I was quite intrigued by the whole issue of double summer time because I, perhaps like the hon. Gentleman, thought that it was a bit of a silver bullet and an easy solution. Unfortunately, it turns out that there are more complications, not only north of the border but certainly there, and that the extent of the carbon reductions is not as clear cut as it may appear. However, it is a matter not for my Department but for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Sir Michael Pitt from the Infrastructure Planning Commission, supported by the Department, requested a fair, independent and transparent report on the cost of undergrounding and any alternative to cables and pylons. Now that KEMA has been sacked, the Institution of Engineering and Technology cannot endorse a report because there is not one. National Grid is implicated for not providing the figures that are necessary for whole-life costs. The public are left with buried figures rather than buried cables. What can the Minister do to get information on costs available to people before the development consent applications have been received by the IPC?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. She is a particularly doughty campaigner on this issue, and I am aware of how significant it is in Somerset. All I can say is that we will try to be as open as possible about all the information. If we have in any way failed to be open, I ask her to get in touch and we will make sure that we are being so. My understanding is that the costs of undergrounding are roughly 10 times as high as the costs of pylons, and that pylons are going to be quite important.