House of Commons
Wednesday 23 November 2011
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and the Welsh Government on a range of issues, including the effects of fuel prices in Wales. The Government are addressing the rising cost of fuel through the abolition of the fuel tax escalator, the introduction of the fair fuel stabiliser and a cut in fuel duty announced at the Budget earlier this year.
I thank the Minister for that response. Will he impress upon the Secretary of State the need to push the Government to introduce a true fuel duty stabiliser that would trigger an annual reduction in the pump price, as the so-called fair fuel stabiliser announced in the March Budget does not go anywhere near far enough? The volatility in petrol prices means businesses cannot budget, as was noted yesterday by the Federation of Small Businesses in its submission for the autumn statement.
I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I must point out to him that the tax measures we have taken have resulted in petrol prices being approximately 6p per litre lower than they would have been had that escalator not been scrapped. Even taking VAT into account, fuel prices are approximately 3p per litre lower than they would have been.
Further to that response, may I ask the Minister about a slightly different matter? What support are the UK Government providing for the use of electric cars? There are hardly any charging points all in Wales. There is not even one per constituency. What is being done to encourage that?
As the right hon. Gentleman suggests, this is the technology of the future. As he knows, provision is being rolled out in the urban areas, and I hope solutions will be found to ensure that rural users will also be able to have access to suitable charging points.
For commuters and businesses in my constituency, high fuel prices are painful enough without the exorbitant cost of the Severn bridge tolls. If price increases follow the normal pattern, tolls will hit almost £6 per car this year. What action is the Secretary of State taking to help my constituents?
The latest unemployment figures in Wales are disappointing and show that there is still much for both the UK Government and the Welsh Government to do. We have made it clear that while tackling the deficit remains our top priority, we are committed to creating the right conditions for the private sector to expand and grow in Wales, in order to create much-needed jobs.
Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating the Labour Welsh Government on the launch of Jobs Growth Wales, which I am told will create 4,000 jobs per year, and will she encourage her Cabinet colleagues to establish a similar scheme in this country, because our constituents are desperate for jobs?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I would congratulate any Government who tried to reduce unemployment, which blights so many families, particularly in Wales—and never more so than under the last Labour Government. However, I must say to him that the jury will be out until we see the results from that scheme.
As the Secretary of State will be aware, in my constituency hundreds of people cross the border both ways for employment. Constituents of mine work in Broughton, and people from Welsh constituencies travel the other way to Vauxhall, Essar and other major employers. Does the Secretary of State agree that there needs to be some joined-up thinking with her colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, in order to address the challenge my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) has just raised? There is a good scheme in Wales; why not replicate it in England?
The hon. Gentleman is wrong; this is a new scheme in Wales, being introduced by the Welsh Government. I agree that the £400 million investment in the Airbus factory will secure 6,000 Welsh jobs and many jobs in the supply chain to that factory. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister recently opened the new North factory, which will secure employment and development in that area for a long time to come.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding me of the fact that we started the enterprise zones in England at a much earlier stage than the Welsh Government, but I am pleased to welcome the fact that the Welsh Government have designated some areas in Wales as enterprise zones. I know, however, from my discussions with business and industry that they are keenly awaiting some more details on the enterprise zones, which have been very slow in coming forward.
Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the announcement by the BSW Timber sawmill in Newbridge-on-Wye in my constituency that it is about to create another 20 jobs, bringing Christmas cheer to those families who will benefit from that employment?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I know how hard he works in his constituency to secure jobs. I offer my congratulations and hope that the business goes from strength to strength. I think we forget in this day and age when unemployment figures are going in the wrong direction that plenty of companies are creating jobs and plenty of enterprising—
Does the Secretary of State not realise how out of touch she is? The unemployment figures in Wales are not “disappointing”, they are shocking. We have had a 20% rise in the number of women claiming jobseeker’s allowance since she came to power in May 2010, including an increase of a fifth in the number out of work for more than 12 months. Why, according to her parliamentary answers to me, has her Wales Office business advisory council not yet discussed the plight of jobless women in Wales?
The right hon. Gentleman is right to commiserate with those people who are looking for employment, but I am not going to take any lessons from him—he was part of a Labour Government under whom youth unemployment rose by more than 40% and female unemployment rose by more than 30%.
What world is she living in? We created a record number of jobs in Wales. There are 10 men on her business advisory council—why does she not appoint at least one woman to it? With the deficit rising and growth stalling, is it not also time that her Government adopted Labour’s five-point plan for growth and jobs in Wales, including a cut in VAT on home improvements to 5%, a tax break for every small firm that takes on extra workers and a £2 billion tax on bankers’ bonuses to create 100,000 new jobs? Unless she acts now, she will condemn tens of thousands of men and women in Wales to misery.
In Wales, there is an acid test of Labour’s policies. The fact is that a Labour Government are in power in Wales and, as the First Minister in Scotland said the other day:
“If Labour has the answer to economic problems and unemployment, why are unemployment and youth unemployment in Wales higher than they are in Scotland? If Labour has the magic solutions, why is it not implementing them in the one place in these islands where it is still in government?”—[Scottish Parliament Official Report, 17 November 2011; c. 3582.]
Current levels of youth unemployment in Wales and across the UK are, of course, disappointing. We are determined to tackle that and will announce additional measures as part of phase 2 of the growth review.
That is two Ministers now who have used the word “disappointing” about unemployment. Frankly, it is a tragedy and one of the worst things about it is that a previous Conservative Government consigned constituencies such as mine and whole communities like the Rhondda to long-term mass unemployment. They are doing exactly the same now to a generation of young people. Will the Minister suggest one single thing that he personally is doing in his Department to tackle youth unemployment in Wales and in the Rhondda?
Of course youth unemployment is too high and of course, sadly, that is not a new phenomenon. In the last Parliament, youth unemployment in Wales increased by 73% and we have not heard a word of apology from the hon. Gentleman for that. We recognise the importance of the problem and that is why we have introduced the Work programme, which provides properly targeted support to young jobseekers.
Is not export-led growth one route to addressing youth unemployment? In that regard, will my hon. Friend take this opportunity to congratulate private sector business in Wales, which since the last election has seen a 31% increase in Welsh exports—double the national average and the largest increase of any part of the United Kingdom?
Yes. My hon. Friend is entirely right. The export figures for Wales were extremely encouraging, led particularly as they were by the engineering sector. In that connection, we must commend Airbus for the wonderful work it is doing in the north-east of Wales.
I have regular discussions with the Chancellor and other ministerial colleagues on a range of issues affecting Wales. I welcome the latest fall in inflation, which was published by the Office for National Statistics last week.
On this Government’s watch, average food bills have increased by 5%, putting more pressure on hard-working families. I have listened to the Secretary of State’s responses, but can she give a guarantee that she is really fighting Wales’s corner and fighting for hard-working families in Cabinet?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for what I think was a question. There can be absolutely no doubt about whether I always fight Wales’s corner in Cabinet. I thought he would at least be encouraged that the Bank of England has forecast that inflation should fall rapidly over 2012. In the mean time, the Government are taking very strong action to help consumers with high costs. We all want to help households and the Government go to the last degree to do so.
Feed-in Tariff Review
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is meeting representatives from the Welsh solar industry next week along with the shadow Minister for Wales to discuss concerns that businesses have about the feed-in tariff review.
The Minister will know that confidence in the solar industry has been considerably damaged by the decision on feed-in tariffs. Will he and the Secretary of State now stand up for Wales and ask the Department of Energy and Climate Change to defer the decision date for implementation of 12 December so that the consultation, which finishes on 23 December, can at least have the views of the solar industry he is meeting next week?
Antur Nantlle community business group in my constituency has well developed plans for a hydroelectric scheme that will benefit the environment as well as provide an income stream for the venture, but it is concerned that any future change in the tariff will undermine the financial basis of the scheme. What can the Wales Office do to ensure that this example of the big society in action is not jeopardised by the Government’s actions?
The Government’s feed-in tariff fiasco risks shattering all investor confidence in manufacturing in Wales. What will the Minister do to influence ministerial colleagues to prevent imminent job losses in the Welsh solar industry and ensure that any change to the feed-in tariff is given a long lead-in time and is set at a rate that will encourage investment and not increase unemployment?
We fully understand the difficulties that companies involved in this sector of the economy face as a consequence, but if things had been left as they were, the feed-in tariff budget would have been eaten up. There is a consultation and I have no doubt that the hon. Lady will participate in it.
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and with the First Minister on various issues, including enterprise zones in Wales. It is vital that businesses investing in Wales are given the same or even better competitive advantages as businesses in places just across the border such as Bristol and Merseyside.
Given that enterprise zones not only create jobs but have a wider geographical impact on the supply chain with regard to the economy, does the Minister share my surprise at the procrastination of the Welsh Government in locating enterprise zones in Wales?
This is becoming a common theme. Although the enterprise zones have been declared by the Welsh Government, we have only a recent letter from the Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science of 22 November to Assembly Members, which says that the Department is currently working hard with colleagues in transport, planning and elsewhere to ensure that its enterprise zone policy can be delivered. We can only hope that it gets a wiggle on and gets those details out to businesses as fast as possible.
Blaenau Gwent, with high unemployment but great potential, includes an enterprise zone. I thank the Secretary of State for meeting developers who propose to build a £200 million race track there. She offered to speak to Ministers from the Treasury and from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about that infrastructure plan and capital allowances. Following those representations, will she meet me to feed back on progress?
I am always happy to meet the hon. Gentleman, and I was pleased to meet him and the business people who are thinking of investing in Blaenau Gwent. There is a lot of work to be done on the project, which is exceedingly ambitious, but as the area has been designated by the Welsh Government as an enterprise zone for the automotive industry, I hope that good progress will be made. If any help can be given, I am always happy to see what I can do, and I will certainly be pleased to feed back to the hon. Gentleman.
It is increasingly difficult when relying on another Government to implement a policy, but I remain optimistic because I want the message to go out that Wales is open for business. Enterprise zones will give an advantage to businesses going into these areas and create jobs, and there are good forecasts for the number of private sector jobs to be created by 2015, so I walk in hope. I encourage the Welsh Government to do everything that they can, and I stand ready to help them.
The funding available for the Bristol enterprise zone is nearly as much as the entire amount for enterprise zones for the whole of Wales. How can the Secretary of State justify supporting that alongside the tax on trade and investment in Wales that the Severn bridge toll represents? Will she resist this massive investment at the doorway of Wales that would stop inward investment into Wales?
The amount given to the Welsh Government as a consequence of what is being spent on enterprise zones in England is calculated in exactly the same way under our Government as under the previous Government. The Minister in Wales has received £10 million towards enterprise zones, but she also has a budget of nearly £15 billion at her disposal, and she can decide how she spends that. I encourage the hon. Gentleman to encourage her to look at what she can do in those enterprise zones to encourage businesses.
I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, UK Trade and Investment and others on promoting inward investment in Wales. I have met the new chief executive of UKTI in the last month and yesterday I met the senior investment adviser for Wales as part of continuing discussions better to promote Wales to potential investors.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Select Committee on Welsh Affairs recently heard from the chief executive of UKTI, but he, like our Committee, is still waiting in hope for his first meeting with the Welsh Minister for Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science. Given that surprising fact, and the fact that the Secretary of State herself has met the Committee and UKTI many times, what advice can she give the Welsh Business Minister on pushing the respect agenda and the interests of Welsh business?
My hon. Friend knows that I try to give encouragement to the Welsh Labour Minister for Business, rather than giving her advice, but I am pleased that the Welsh Affairs Committee is investigating trade and investment, and I look forward to giving evidence to the Committee next month. I continue to hold a series of meetings to see how we can assist and work with the Welsh Government to improve those figures.
But is not inward investment always a second best? Brace’s bakery, an indigenous Welsh firm with its headquarters in Crumlin, took over an inward investment company in my constituency that was about to close down. On Monday, Brace’s increased its work force by a third, so will the Secretary of State give her congratulations and support to indigenous Welsh companies, and ensure that the rest of the country enjoys the great merits of Brace’s breads and Welsh cakes?
Now the hon. Gentleman is tempting me; I always like a good Welsh cake. He should know how much I encourage indigenous Welsh companies, not least by my continuous support of the Fast Growth 50, which celebrates indigenous companies and the way they grow the economy, but he must not do down inward investment. In 2010-2011, 38 inward investment projects led to the creation of 2,444 new jobs and safeguarded another 1,100 jobs in Wales. I think that is pretty important and certainly not second best.
My right hon. Friend and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues, the Welsh Government and other organisations to discuss measures that would help to stimulate economic growth in Wales.
My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I agree with him, and so do the shadow Secretary of State and the Welsh First Minister. The Government’s plan for growth aims to create the most competitive tax system in the G20 and make the UK the best place in Europe to start, finance and grow a business. That applies to Wales as much as to the rest of the country.
Does the Minister agree that one of the best ways to incentivise good growth in difficult times is to invest in green jobs and the green economy? What would he say to my constituent Labour Councillor Phil White, ex-Tower colliery, who has put together proposals for investment in 1,500 homes in five of the most deprived areas of Wales using the feed-in tariff scheme by next March? This Government have cut the legs away from under that scheme, so what would the Minister say to my constituent?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues and Ministers in the Welsh Government to support Welsh businesses.
My hon. Friend is correct. SMEs are the backbone of the Welsh economy and have long been so. Through our programme of reduction of regulation, we are easing the burden on SMEs and setting up new businesses. It is hoped that that will cause the sector to flourish in Wales.
Does my hon. Friend agree that rises in interest rates would be catastrophic for the prospects of SMEs in Wales, and that maintaining our low interest rates could be at risk if we were to lose our triple A rating, making it more difficult for Wales to maintain its competitive edge when it comes to exports?
Yes, my hon. Friend is entirely correct. This Government have had to take tough decisions on the economy. The fruit of that is that we have maintained our triple A rating and, as a consequence, this country is in a far better position than many of our competitors.
Small businesses in my constituency have written to me this month saying that they are going to lay people off or may face closure because of the Government’s policy on the feed-in tariff for solar. Will the Minister give a categoric assurance to the House that he will lobby the Treasury and Ministers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change to ensure that the scheme is maintained to help businesses that are doing the right thing in Wales?
It is estimated that the SME sector accounts for 90% of employment in Wales. What discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh Government about promoting this vital sector?
I have had recent discussions with ministerial colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on a range of issues, including broadcasting in Wales. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales and I have also had recent discussions with the BBC Trust, the S4C Authority and independent Welsh television producers on the issue.
Will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on the head of the BBC to reconsider his savage cuts to BBC local radio so that people in Wales can continue to enjoy Welsh language broadcasting alongside people in Cornwall enjoying Cornish language broadcasting?
I think I got my hon. Friend’s drift. I congratulate her on being a champion of the Cornish language. Like me, she will want to recognise and congratulate the BBC and S4C on reaching an agreement on the funding governance and accountability of S4C until 2017, thereby securing Welsh language broadcasting in Wales?
Anyone watching the BBC’s excellent sporting coverage this weekend might like to know that the odds on the right hon. Lady remaining Secretary of State have dropped from 8:1 to 2:1. Would she recommend that they have a flutter on that?
The Prime Minister was asked—
I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Private Matthew Thornton from 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Lance Corporal Peter Eustace from 2nd Battalion The Rifles, Lieutenant David Boyce and Lance Corporal Richard Scanlon, both from The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and Private Thomas Lake from 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. They were all courageous soldiers held in the highest regard by their comrades. We owe them a great debt of gratitude for their service and sacrifice and send our condolences to their families and friends.
I am sure that the whole House will also wish to join me in paying tribute to Alan Keen, who sadly died after a courageous battle with cancer. He was a popular constituency MP who served Feltham and Heston for nearly 20 years. Before entering politics, Alan was a scout for Middlesbrough football club and continued to be a great advocate for sport, not least through his chairmanship of the all-party parliamentary football group, which grew to be one of the largest in the House under his stewardship. We send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Ann, who is a friend to many here, and to his family and all his constituents. He will be missed by Members on both sides of the House.
This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House I shall have further such meetings later today.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to our brave soldiers who this week gave their lives in service to our country. All our thoughts should go out to them and their families at this very difficult time. Similarly, I join the tribute paid to the late hon. Member for Feltham and Heston.
The mass strike proposed by the unions for this time next week will cause great upheaval for many of my constituents in High Peak. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is wholly irresponsible for the unions to bring their members out on strike based on such a small number of votes and when negotiations on pensions are still ongoing?
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It really is irresponsible, when negotiations are ongoing, to cause strikes that will lead to the closure of most of the classrooms in our country. It is the height of irresponsibility. What is on offer is an extremely reasonable deal: low and middle-income earners getting a larger pension at retirement than they do now; all existing accrued rights being fully protected; and any worker within 10 years of retirement seeing no change in either the age they can retire or the amount they can receive. It is also a tragedy that it is not just the union leaders who do not understand this; the Labour party refuses to condemn these strikes.
I join the Prime Minister in paying tribute to Private Matthew Thornton from 4th Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment, Lance Corporal Peter Eustace from 2nd Battalion The Rifles, Lieutenant David Boyce and Lance Corporal Richard Scanlon, both of 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards, and Private Thomas Lake from 1st Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment. All those men died serving our country with the utmost bravery and courage, and my deepest condolences, and those of the whole House, are with their families and friends.
I also want to pay tribute, as the Prime Minister rightly did, to Alan Keen, the former Member for Feltham and Heston. He was, as the Prime Minister said, somebody who had friends across the House. He was somebody who believed in young people, in opportunities for young people and, most of all, in the power of sport to change people’s lives—and, as I heard at his funeral yesterday, he certainly had an unusual idea for his first date. He took his future wife, Ann, to the Orient, which turned out not to be a Chinese restaurant but to be Leyton Orient, who were playing that day. He was a great and lovely man, and he will be missed by all of us, but most of all by Ann and by his family.
Can the Prime Minister tell us the increase in long-term youth unemployment since he scrapped the future jobs fund in March?
Youth unemployment is up since the last election, I accept that; and youth unemployment is unacceptably high in this country, as it is unacceptably high right across Europe. The problem is that youth unemployment in this country has been rising since 2004, and under the previous Labour Government it went up by 40%.
What we have to do to help young people back to work is to improve our school system so that they have proper qualifications; improve our welfare system so that it pays to work; and improve our employment system so that there are proper apprenticeships to help young people. We have 360,000 apprenticeships this year, helping young people to get work.
Under 13 years of a Labour Government, youth unemployment never reached 1 million; it has taken the Prime Minister 18 months to get to that tragic figure. Given that he did not answer the question, let me tell the House the reality: since he scrapped the future jobs fund in March, long-term youth unemployment has risen by 77%. Now, can he tell us what has happened to long-term youth unemployment since he introduced his Work programme in June?
First, let me just repeat: youth unemployment went up by 40% under a Labour Government. Let me also remind the right hon. Gentleman of something that his brother, the right hon. Member for South Shields (David Miliband), said last week. He said very clearly that this Government did not
“invent the problem of youth unemployment”.
We should have that sort of candour from this brother.
The Leader of the Opposition asked me very specifically about the future jobs fund and the Work programme. Let me give him the answer. The Work programme is helping 50% more people than the future jobs fund: it will help 120,000 young people this year, where the future jobs fund helped only 80,000. The waiting time for the most needy young people will be half the waiting time under the future jobs fund; under the Work programme, those who are not in education, employment or training will get help—[Interruption.] I would have thought that Opposition Members would want to hear about what we are doing to help young people. They will get help within three months, rather than six, but the absolute key is that, because we are paying by results, the Work programme will actually help those who need the most help, whereas the future jobs fund put a lot of graduates into public sector jobs and was five times more expensive than the alternative. That is why we have scrapped it and replaced it with something better.
Classically, lots of bluster but no answer to the question I asked—[Interruption.] Government Members will be interested in the answer that the Prime Minister did not give, because in June, when the Work programme was introduced, 85,000 young people had been unemployed for more than six months; now, there are 133,000—a massive increase since he introduced the Work programme. If he is serious about tackling youth unemployment, he should get those on the highest incomes to help those with no income at all. Why does he not tax the bankers’ bonuses and use the money to create 100,000 jobs for our young people?
We have introduced the bank levy, which is going to raise more every year than the right hon. Gentleman’s bonus tax would raise in one year.
We have just heard a new use for the bonus tax—there have been nine already. Let me give the right hon. Gentleman the list. He has used his bonus tax for higher tax credits; giving child benefit to those on the highest rates of tax; cutting the deficit; spending on public services; more money for the regional growth fund—that is when he is defending it rather than attacking it; turning empty shops into cultural community centres; and higher capital spending. This is the bank tax that likes to say yes. No wonder the shadow Chancellor has stopped saluting and started crying. [Laughter.]
Order. I apologise for interrupting the right hon. Gentleman. Let me say it again: the Prime Minister will be heard, and the Leader of the Opposition will be heard. Laughing about the denial of a hearing is not to the credit of any hon. or right hon. Member.
The truth is, the Prime Minister is the one cutting taxes for the banks year on year in the course of this Parliament. That is the reality. He is creating a lost generation of young people, and he knows it. It is his responsibility; it is happening on his watch.
The Prime Minister said on Monday to the CBI that it was “harder than anyone envisaged” to get the deficit down, but he was warned that his strategy of cutting too far and too fast would not create jobs; he was warned that it would not create growth; and he was warned that he would find it harder to get the deficit down. Is that not exactly what has happened?
The right hon. Gentleman accuses us of cutting taxes. Let me tell him what we are cutting. We are cutting interest rates, which is giving the economy the best boost. We are cutting corporation tax, and we now have the lowest rates of corporation tax in the G7. We are cutting tax for the low-paid, because we have taken 1 million people out of income tax. We are freezing the council tax, cutting the petrol tax and scrapping Labour’s jobs tax. That is what this Government are doing.
Let me answer the right hon. Gentleman directly on the issues of growth and debt, because this is absolutely key. [Interruption.] The shadow Chancellor is at it again, I am afraid. All over Europe there is an interest rate storm, with high interest rates in Spain, Italy and even some of the countries at the heart of the eurozone. We must ensure that we keep this country safe with low interest rates. Let me just remind the Leader of the Opposition of this: if interest rates went up by 1% in this country, that would add £1,000 to the typical family mortgage. That is the risk that we would have with Labour’s plans for more spending, more borrowing and more debt.
There he goes again; when it goes wrong, it is nothing to do with the Prime Minister. It is his ABC—Anyone But Cameron to blame when things go wrong.
What did the Chancellor say at the time of the Budget last year? He said that his approach would deliver
“a steady and sustained economic recovery, with low inflation and falling unemployment.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 168.]
Three promises made; three promises broken. The Government’s plan is failing, and that is the truth. Does that not show why at the autumn statement, the Prime Minister should change course?
Let me just give the right hon. Gentleman the latest growth figures in Europe. Britain grew at 0.5% in the last quarter, which is the same as the US and Germany, faster than France, faster than Spain, faster than the EU average and faster than the eurozone average. That is the fact. Of course it is a difficult economic environment that we are in, but is there a single other mainstream party anywhere in Europe that thinks the answer to the debt problem is more spending and more borrowing? If he is worried about the level of debt, why is he proposing to add another £100 billion to it? It is the height of irresponsibility, and the reason why people will never trust Labour with the economy again.
How out of touch does this Prime Minister sound? Some 1 million young people and their families are worried about finding a job and all he offers is complacency and more of the same. Now we know it: however high youth unemployment goes and however bad it gets, it is a price worth paying to protect his failed plan. I tell him this: unless he changes course next week, 1 million young people will become the symbol of his failed economic plan and an out-of-touch Prime Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman asks for a change of course. Let me just say to him what the leading economic organisations in our country and, indeed, across the world say about that issue. The IMF says this:
“'Is there a justification for a shift in the policy mix', we think the answer is no.”
Let us listen to the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King:
“There has to be a Plan A”—
[Interruption.] The Leader of the Opposition says that he would not listen to him; it was Labour who appointed him.
“There has to be a Plan A…this country needs a fiscal consolidation starting from its largest peacetime budget…ever”.
Who was it who gave us that peacetime budget? The Labour party. Let us listen to the CBI, the leading business organisation in this country:
“Priorities for the next 12 months: Stick closely to the existing credible plan”.
That is what the experts say; that is what business says; that is what the Bank of England says. Would you listen to them or would you listen to the people who got us into this mess in the first place?
Q2. Returning to next week’s public sector strikes— [Interruption.] They don’t like it up 'em, do they? Is the Prime Minister aware that, of the three largest unions, the turnouts in the strike ballot were 32%, 31% and 25% respectively? Does my right hon. Friend agree that any striker has the right to strike if he so wishes, but he should not engage in mass action unless he has the support of the majority of those unions’ membership? (81731)
My hon. Friend makes a very important point. As I said, it is wrong that these strikes are going ahead when negotiations are under way. It is wrong to strike and to close so many classrooms and essential services, but it is being done on the basis of those turnouts. Just one quarter of Unison members voted to strike, and just 23% of those balloted at Unite voted in favour. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that Labour Members want to shout me down. We know why they will not condemn the strikes, because we got the figures today on where they get their money from. In the right hon. Gentleman's first year as leader of the party, 86% of Labour’s donations have come from the trade unions—86%! Under the previous Labour leader, it was 56%. That is about the only thing the Leader of the Opposition has improved since the time of Gordon Brown.
Q3. I understand that the Prime Minister is having trouble connecting with women and is seeking advice. Given that female unemployment has increased this year by 20%, that women have been the hardest hit by public sector cuts and the VAT rise, and that they have benefited the least from his tax give-aways, does he not agree that it is time for a plan B which reverses the VAT increase and ensures that benefits increase in line with inflation? (81732)
I do not agree with the hon. Lady. Of course, every family in Britain is facing a difficult time, with rising inflation, tight household budgets and a public sector pay freeze. But let us look at what we are doing in terms of trying to help women. Of the 1 million people we have lifted out of tax at the lowest end, many are women. What we are doing in terms of additional child care is helping women. The extra hours we are giving for two, three and four-year-olds—that is helping women. So I do not accept what she says. This is a difficult economic environment, but the changes we are making to public sector pensions, for instance, mean that low-paid people in the public sector will actually get a better pension, including many women. Because she, like everyone else on the other side, is in the pocket of the unions, they cannot see that or say it.
Q4. Given the Government’s intention to freeze council tax, is the Prime Minister as astounded as I am that Green-run Brighton and Hove council is planning to decline £3 million of council tax grant and is planning instead to raise council tax by 3.5%, so costing local tax payers £4 million? (81733)
That is a very important point. At a time of difficult household budgets, it is this Government who have cut the petrol tax, and we are freezing the council tax and have made that money available to councils up and down the country. It is a decision for individual councils. If they want the money to go ahead with the council tax freeze, the money is there, but if they reject it, as they plan to in Brighton, that is a huge mistake, because the council will be asking families in Brighton to pay more at a time when it should be on their side.
Earlier this year, the Prime Minister confirmed that he would meet members of the cross-party inquiry into stalking, which I chair. It is indeed welcome news that the Home Office will now be consulting with a view to legislating. Will he confirm that the inquiry’s evidence-based deliberations and conclusions will be fully taken into account in considering future legislation?
I can certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. It is important that we take forward the work that the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice have done in looking at a proper, separate offence for stalking and recognising that there is a gap in the current law that we should fill, because there are people who are not getting the protection and help from the police that they need.
Q5. There is genuine concern in Crewe about over-development in respect of housing. How can my right hon. Friend ensure that my constituents get a greater say in planning decisions for new housing estates required for our housing shortage? (81734)
The great strength of the Localism Act is that we are giving local people a much greater say. In many parts of the country, that will be welcomed, because people can see the advantages of development going ahead, and recognise that if they build extra houses they will keep the council tax and that if they attract extra businesses they will keep the business taxes. That will help to end the problem that we have had for so long of communities not seeing any advantage in development taking place. But it should be a matter for them to decide, as in the case of Crewe.
Does the Prime Minister agree that the history of Northern Rock represents a kind of modern-day morality tale or play, in that here we have a decent, mutual and responsible building society, which is then privatised, then over-extends, then goes bust, is then bailed out by the taxpayer, and now, sadly, instead of returning to mutuality, is sold off dirt cheap to one of the brashest companies in England?
I was with the right hon. Gentleman for some of the way through his question, but let us look at the decision the Government have taken. First, we are selling a business that was costing the taxpayer money, and getting well over £700 million for that business. The second thing we are doing, which is in the interests of every single person in this House and everyone in this country, is to get another functioning bank and building society on our high street lending money. How many times do all of us go to our constituency surgeries and hear people say, “I can’t get a mortgage”, or small businesses say, “I can’t get a loan”? We need a good, new, healthy lending institution out there, and hon. Members should welcome the fact that it is going to be based in the north-east of England, as Northern Rock was.
Q6. At a time when the Government are taking steps to drive growth in the economy, will the Prime Minister update the House on what measures are being taken to attract high-quality inward investment to enterprise zones such as Warton in my constituency? (81735)
I do think the enterprise zones are going to be a success, because we are basing them, as in my hon. Friend’s constituency, in areas where there is already a successful cluster of businesses. Take, for instance, the enterprise zones at Daresbury science park or at Harwell in Oxfordshire, or the one in Wolverhampton, where Jaguar Land Rover has said that it is going to establish a new plant employing 1,000 people. Enterprise zones are being well applied, they are a good success story, and this Government are right behind them.
Q7. The personal damage caused by long-term unemployment can be phenomenal. On average, somebody who is unemployed for more than six months is six times more likely to contract a serious mental health problem. Does the Prime Minister not worry that we will have a generation of young people who will suffer many of the problems of lack of self-esteem and of never having a first job? Would it not make more sense to guarantee every under 24-year-old a job after six months' unemployment, thus paying them to work, not paying them benefits? (81736)
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the scarring effect of long-term youth unemployment. We are doing two important things to try to help with that. First, we are helping those not in employment, education or training within three months through the Work programme, rather than the six months under the future jobs fund. Secondly, one of the most successful schemes that there has been in recent years is giving people work experience placements. We will produce evidence on that soon. In many cases, it is leading to direct employment opportunities for young people. The Deputy Prime Minister will say more about that later this week, but we are doing everything that we can to help young people into work and to prevent the scarring effects that the hon. Gentleman talks about.
Q8. May I associate myself with the Prime Minister’s tribute to Alan Keen? He was our dear friend and colleague on the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport. Everybody who worked with him will miss him greatly. Will the Prime Minister acknowledge that one of most disruptive impacts of next week’s strikes will be on mums and dads with children in school? Will he join me in encouraging employers to allow parents to bring their children to work when it is safe to do so? (81737)
I am sure that everyone in the House will agree with the tribute that my hon. Friend paid to her colleague from the Select Committee and to the very good work that he did on that Committee.
My hon. Friend makes a good point about the strikes next week. Frankly, the strikes are going to go ahead and everybody should be very clear about where the responsibility lies: it lies with the union leaders and with the Labour party, which is taking their side and backing the strike. She makes the important point that when it is safe for people to take their children to work, organisations should allow them to do so.
Q9. The Prime Minister is probably aware that up to 20,000 individuals across the United Kingdom have lost considerable sums of money, often their pension savings, through the collapse of the Arch Cru investment fund. That fund was advertised and marketed as being cautious, and turned out to be anything but. Will he heed the calls from all parts of the House for the Government to use the powers of section 14 of the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 to institute an immediate inquiry so that this never happens again? (81738)
Like the hon. Gentleman, I have been contacted by constituents who have lost money because of that fund and who are very concerned about what is happening. There has been a Westminster Hall debate on this issue, where the Financial Secretary to the Treasury set out the position and the responsibility of the Financial Services Authority. I will look carefully at what the hon. Gentleman says and see whether we can do more.
Q10. I fully understand that savings have to be made in the defence budget, but I am very concerned by the proposals for significant cuts to the Ministry of Defence police budget and the possible implications for security at the nuclear bases at Faslane and Coulport in my constituency. Will the Prime Minister please look at those proposals carefully? (81739)
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The defence budget overall is £35 billion and it will continue at pretty much that cash figure throughout this Parliament. It will still be the fourth largest defence budget anywhere in the world. I assure him that there are no current plans to reduce the number of Ministry of Defence police at the Faslane or Coulport naval bases. Those are vital sites, as he knows, but obviously we have to look at all the costs at the Ministry of Defence and ensure that we are getting the safety that we need.
Some 1,600 people are employed by Thomas Cook at its headquarters in Peterborough. They are rightly concerned about the media coverage over the last two days of the company’s difficulties. Will my right hon. Friend join me in supporting this great British institution, which has been providing travel to British people for 170 years? People can support the company by booking their holidays through Thomas Cook, safe in the knowledge that it is part of the ATOL scheme, and they will have an excellent holiday to boot.
My hon. Friend speaks up for an iconic and important British business that has given people a lot of pleasure over the years. I have asked the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to give me a report on what is happening at Thomas Cook, because it is important to ensure that it is in a good, healthy state.
Q12. Recent research has shown that the NHS achieved the biggest drop in cancer deaths and the most efficient use of resources among 10 leading countries. Will the Prime Minister accept that he did not inherit an NHS in crisis, but one that was rapidly improving? Will he stop using dodgy 10-year-old statistics to justify his wasteful and destructive NHS privatisation? (81741)
I am a huge supporter and fan of the NHS. There are many things that are truly wonderful about our NHS. We should celebrate that, but under the last Government, the number of managers in the NHS doubled—the number of NHS managers was increasing six times faster than the number of nurses—and NHS productivity was falling. If a Government inherit a situation like that, it makes sense to make some changes. That is why we see, since we have come in, 14,000 fewer non-clinical staff, but more doctors and midwives, and more operations taking place. If the hon. Lady wants something to celebrate in the NHS—[Interruption.]
Q13. Is my right hon. Friend aware of research by the TaxPayers Alliance—[Interruption]—that shows that residents of the Maldon district are paying more in motoring taxes and receiving less in direct benefit than anyone else in the entire country? My constituents appreciate that they would be paying even more in motoring taxes under the plans of the previous Labour Government, but does my right hon. Friend accept that, for them and others in rural areas, such taxes are becoming an intolerable burden? (81742)
I do accept what my hon. Friend says. That is why in the Budget we took the decision not only to get rid of the tax increases on petrol that were coming down the track, but to make a cut in petrol duty. Effectively, that was 6p off a litre of diesel or petrol. It seems to me essential that, at a time of economic difficulty, we demonstrate that we are behind those people who want to work hard and do the right thing, by freezing their council tax, scrapping Labour’s jobs tax and helping them with their motoring expenses. This Government are absolutely committed to doing that. It is all very well Opposition Members shouting about the TaxPayers Alliance, but it does a good job of drawing attention to those things. Also, the difference is that the TaxPayers Alliance does not pay us to put down amendments.
Q14. The whole House will approve of the belated conversion of the Justice Secretary to the office of the chief coroner, but there are many concerns in the House about war memorials. The other week I brought a petition to the Prime Minister, which 3,000 people in Blackpool had signed. Will he now use his office and his weight to persuade the Justice Secretary and his Ministers to look urgently at new protections for war memorials and new penalties for those who attack them? (81743)
I think that the hon. Gentleman speaks for the whole House and the whole country in saying that what has been happening to our war memorials is completely unacceptable. I do not think there is a single answer. It may lie, as he said, in some new punishments and rules, but it also lies in looking at how the scrap metal market is currently regulated.
I hear very clearly what the hon. Gentleman says about the office of the chief coroner. I am delighted that we have been able to put forward an amendment and to accept some of those points. The one thing that we should try to avoid—this is really important, because all of us want to do the right thing for those soldiers and their families who have given so much to our country—is having an endless right of appeal. I do not think that that would be a good idea. I think it would actually damage the interests of families—
Over the last 30 years, thousands of vulnerable and disadvantaged children in the UK have been supported through projects funded by Children in Need. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Children in Need on raising more than £600 million over the years, and will he pay tribute to my constituents, who came together as a town, raised thousands of pounds and welcomed Pudsey bear home for the first time?
Q15. Last week, I visited Afghanistan through the armed forces parliamentary scheme and had the opportunity to meet the commanding officer in Helmand province. He stated that he needs two things before any British withdrawal in 2014: political help and influence with countries neighbouring Afghanistan to enable it to develop, and sufficient training and adequate equipment for the Afghan army. Can the Prime Minister assure the House today that those requests will be delivered prior to any 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan? (81744)
The hon. Gentleman is right to speak up on this issue and to repeat what he heard in Afghanistan. He is absolutely right that we need to help the neighbouring countries—and, as we speak, my national security adviser and other members of my team are in Pakistan speaking with the Pakistani Government. On the equipment, assistance and training given to the Afghan national army, we now publish a monthly report to the House so that everyone can see the progress that we are making in equipping and training the Afghan national police and army. In spite of all the difficulties in Afghanistan, that is broadly on track.
Annual Energy Statement
It is important that when we discuss feed-in tariffs later today we understand the impact of our policies, and that is why we have brought forward the annual energy statement—so that the House can discuss the matter in its proper context during the debate later.
I am today publishing alongside the annual energy statement a consultation document on secondary legislation to provide for the green deal. It is important that we get this consultation under way as soon as possible because it will allow an expectant industry to begin planning for this vital energy saving policy.
The statement on our energy policy fulfils a commitment in the coalition agreement, and in describing the progress made and the policies under way, the statement also honours one of the coalition’s principles: our commitment to open and transparent government.
The consumer is at the heart of everything we do. Our decisions must ensure that the consumer is protected as far as possible from rising prices, and so we will secure our energy at the lowest cost. We will do so in the short term by promoting competition, in the medium term by insulating our homes and in the long term by steering us away from excessive reliance on fossil fuels and on to clean, green and secure energy.
The ultimate goals of the Department of Energy and Climate Change are to deliver clean energy for the future and to tackle dangerous climate change. Our vision is of a thriving and globally competitive low-carbon economy with cleaner energy, more efficient homes and lower bills. Over the past 12 months, we have taken significant steps to achieve just that. On both supply and demand, we have begun to deliver key coalition commitments, starting with energy efficiency.
Energy saving is now an equal priority with energy production. An economy that wastes energy cannot thrive in a high-demand, low-emissions world. Improving energy efficiency will save money and cut carbon, which is why we are creating a new energy efficiency deployment office within the Department. Our first task is to make our homes and businesses less leaky and wasteful. The Energy Act 2011, which received Royal Assent earlier this year, provides for the green deal—the pioneering programme under which businesses will install energy saving measures in our homes and recoup the costs over decades from the energy savings.
I am today launching the consultation on the secondary legislation that will allow green deals to begin next autumn, including the energy company obligation, which will support those who need the most help. Improving our buildings is vital but we must also change how we warm them in the first place. We are determined to help consumers heat their homes and businesses securely and affordably, and we will publish a heat strategy next year.
We are also making it easier for people to save energy. In March, we set out the strategy and timetable for introducing smart meters, which can help consumers to manage their energy use. Furthermore, we continue to push for ambitious EU vehicle emissions standards, and are providing £300 million in consumer incentives for ultra-low emissions vehicles and further support for research and development.
We are also working to secure Britain’s energy supplies. We need significant new investment in power plants and infrastructure to meet future demand. In July, we published the White Paper on electricity market reform, heralding the biggest change to the market since privatisation. We are also introducing a new system of long-term contracts, to remove uncertainty and attract investment, and a new mechanism for back-up electricity generation, to keep the lights on. We are setting new standards on emissions from power stations, to ensure that they are clean, and the Treasury is supporting low-carbon generation with a floor price for carbon, to help encourage low-carbon investment in the UK. Together, the reforms will deliver secure, affordable electricity from a diverse mix of sources, including renewables, new nuclear and fossil fuels, including carbon capture and storage.
Each of those energy sources will be important. They will work together in concert to deliver a reliable energy system, and over the past year we have introduced a range of policies to support them. We have published the first ever renewables road map, setting out the barriers to deployment and what must be done to deploy renewable energy at scale. We have also published a consultation on the right level of subsidy to support jobs, investment and growth. Professor Weightman’s report into nuclear safety after Fukushima reassures me that nuclear can be an important and safe part of the energy mix without public subsidy. In October, as part of our work to enable new nuclear build, I published the regulatory justifications for two reactor designs. Fossil fuels will remain important. That is why we are firmly committed to carbon capture and storage, with £1 billion still available for projects in the CCS programme, despite the disappointment of the Longannet project. Promising projects have been proposed, and we are developing a streamlined selection process, which we will set out shortly. Gas will continue to feature strongly in our energy mix, and our policies are designed to allow new gas plant to be built. I welcome Ofgem’s proposals to sharpen incentives for reliable gas supply.
We may need further measures to ensure that we are ready for low-probability, high-impact events. I am asking Ofgem to report to us by next spring on any such measures. We are improving the technical foundation of our energy security. Earlier this month, we laid the statutory security of supply report before Parliament, which sets out future supply and demand forecasts, and discusses risks and drivers. We are also making it easier for new nationally significant energy projects to be delivered. In July, this House approved the national policy statements for energy infrastructure, against which major energy projects will be assessed. Developers can now have greater certainty about how applications for consent will be considered and absolute certainty on when decisions will be made, with statutory time scales to ensure investor confidence.
Our actions will maintain the diversity and security of our energy supplies. We are working hard to ensure that they are delivered at the lowest possible cost. In a world of volatile fossil fuel prices—we all know about the events in the middle east and Libya—those objectives complement each other. We believe that the policies we have introduced will deliver the best value for consumers, as we move towards a cleaner energy future. However, as we embark on the transformation of our energy system, we must take people with us. That is why I am today publishing an assessment of prices and bills, and the impact of our policies.
Overall, we anticipate that rising world gas prices will push up bills for both gas and electricity, but our policies will moderate that rise. By 2020, we expect household bills to be 7%—or £94—lower than they would otherwise be without our policies. Moreover, bills will be lower during this Parliament. Britain’s homes will be cheaper to heat and to light than if we did nothing, in this Parliament and in the longer term. Those savings will result above all from our energy-saving policies and from market reform. In addition, we decided to fund the renewable heat incentive and carbon capture and storage commitments from general taxation, rather than from planned levies.
To sum up again, rising global fossil fuel prices and decades of under-investment will mean that prices for energy will rise in the UK, just as they will elsewhere. We cannot control global gas prices, but we can, as a Government, soften the blow. Prices and bills are forecast to rise, but we can ensure that they rise less than they would otherwise have done.
We want to leave a fairer energy legacy than those before us did. Between 2001 and 2009, fuel poverty doubled. The warm home discount and the affordable warmth part of the ECO, on which we are consulting, are targeted at the poorest and most vulnerable households. The warm home discount will support up to 2 million homes each year, helping more than 600,000 poorer pensioners, with £120 off their energy bills this winter. Other vulnerable people will also be eligible for a rebate. That discount scheme is worth two thirds more than the voluntary scheme that operated under the last Government. The Warm Front programme helped 130,000 households last year, providing advice and installing heating and insulation, with a further 90,000 set to benefit over the next two years. As it phases out, the affordable warmth part of the ECO subsidies will phase in to replace it.
We are also helping consumers more generally to take advantage of a competitive energy market. Consumers could save up to £200 by shopping around for the lowest online rate, but last year fewer than one in five households switched suppliers. We are making it easier and faster to switch, and we have launched a campaign to encourage consumers to check, switch and insulate to save.
We are also mindful of the impact on businesses. Earlier this year we published our proposals on the simplification of the CRC—carbon reduction commitment—energy efficiency scheme and for the new climate change agreements. We are committed to simplifying the regulatory burden on industry, while driving behaviour change to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.
Lower levels of energy efficiency savings mean that our policies will typically have a larger impact on energy bills for businesses. By 2020, policies are estimated to add 19% to the average energy bill of businesses that are medium-sized energy consumers. For large energy-intensive users, who are more exposed to fossil fuel price volatility, that figure is between 2% and 20%. It is important that these industries play their part in the transition to a low-carbon economy, but it is also important that they remain competitive. That is why we are working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury to announce measures before the end of the year to support those energy-intensive industries whose competitiveness is most at risk.
The energy sector is a vital part of our economy. Energy industries employ 173,000 people, contribute nearly 4% of our gross domestic product and provide more than half of our industrial investment. More than 51,000 companies in Britain provide low-carbon and environmental goods and services. Exports are now £11.3 billion a year—up 3.9%. Last year, nearly 4,500 new jobs were created in the sector, which grew by 4.3%.
We expect that our policies, like the renewable heat incentive, will strengthen supply chains across the country, bringing jobs and growth. The green deal alone will kick-start at least £14 billion of investment in the decade to 2022 and support at least 65,000 insulation and construction jobs by 2015. We want to ensure that young people today can play their part in the industries of tomorrow, so we are supporting green apprenticeships to build the skilled work force we need to deliver the green deal.
In conclusion, between now and 2030, our relationship with energy will change fundamentally. We have to build a new energy portfolio—one that is equal to our changing needs and our ambitious carbon targets. It has to be supported by a new consensus. Helping consumers to understand their energy costs, and how our policies affect them, is key. The decisions we take now will affect the way our energy is delivered for decades to come. I commend the statement to the House.
We are grateful to the Secretary of State, who has significantly exceeded his time. I gently remind him of the merits of the use of the blue pencil. So far as today is concerned, I must obviously make an allowance in respect of the response from the shadow Secretary of State.
I thank the Secretary of State for briefing the media about his statement today, before informing either the House or the Opposition. Is it any surprise that he is becoming increasingly rattled by growing opposition from his own Benches to the Government’s cuts in the solar power sector, and has chosen to bring his statement forward in order to squeeze time in our Opposition day debate this afternoon? Perhaps he is also trying to put a gloss on the Government’s energy policy before the energy statistics are published tomorrow—or perhaps advisers or lobbyists with “excellent contacts” with Ministers advised him to bring his statement forward. Whatever the reason, disrespect has been shown to the House today.
The Secretary of State said, “The consumer is at the heart of everything we do.” Will he start by telling us what the Government will actually do to deal with soaring energy prices? Energy bills are up by 20% this year, and standard tariffs rose by £175 between June and November alone, driving up inflation and squeezing household budgets. The Government, however, are so out of touch that their only answer is to tell people to shop around, and their only policy is to cut help to pensioners this winter. Can the Secretary of State explain why, with the end of the Warm Front scheme, for the first time since the 1970s a British Government are not offering grants to help to reduce fuel poverty?
The most effective and sustainable way of cutting bills is to reduce energy use, but the Government’s flagship energy efficiency programme, the green deal, has been delayed and is in chaos. We were expecting the green deal consultation back in September. More than two months later, it has finally appeared, but we are still not clear about what incentives households will be offered to take up the green deal, or what the Government will do to ensure that the 10p rate for a green deal package is low enough to secure the widest possible range of energy efficiency measures and the best deal for bill payers. Can the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s forecast of the number of jobs to be created by the green deal has been slashed from 100,000 to just 65,000 by 2015?
Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition set out bold plans to break the dominance of the big six by requiring energy companies to sell power into a pool, thus allowing new suppliers to enter the market, increasing competition, and driving up choice for consumers. Will the Secretary of State explain why he is so afraid of standing up to vested interests in the energy industry, and delivering the reform that our energy market needs?
The green economy currently employs 800,000 people. It is estimated that the global market for low-carbon goods and services will be worth £4 trillion by 2015, with the potential to create 400,000 new jobs, but as a direct result of the uncertainty that the Government have created, the UK is falling behind. Last year, when we left office, it was ranked third in the world for investment in green growth. We are now ranked 13th, behind Brazil and India. That is bad for our economy, bad for our energy security, and bad for the prices that consumers pay, because it makes us ever more reliant on events overseas that are beyond our control.
Just yesterday, the Science and Technology Committee in the House of Lords accused the Government of complacency over the skills required for the nuclear industry. Given that power stations in the UK already import staff from the southern hemisphere to run them, given that many of the firms currently providing solar power are about to go to the wall, and given that British Gas has just announced that 850 jobs are to go, will the Secretary of State tell the House how he plans to halt the worrying decline in investment in the UK?
We look forward to the Government’s forthcoming announcements on how they propose to support energy-intensive industries, and we hope that their proposals will extend to both gas and electricity, but will the Secretary of State tell us exactly how much of the proceeds of CRC are going back into Treasury coffers? Under Labour's scheme, the money was returned to the hands of businesses to be invested in energy efficiency.
We shall have time to deal with the Government’s cuts in feed-in tariffs later this afternoon, but what sort of message does this whole debacle send out? How can the Government encourage investors to support the renewable heat incentive, the green deal or any other green policies in the future, when a growing sector, built on a flagship policy that had cross-party support, has been cut off at the knees with just six weeks’ notice? How can anyone have enough confidence to make the investment that we need when the Government are so short-sighted and so short-term, and chop and change their policies at every turn?
Today’s statement is just more evidence that the Government are out of touch, are cutting too far and too fast, and have no plans for jobs and growth.
The right hon. Lady asked what we were doing to help those who face substantial increases in energy bills. Over the last year there has been a 38% increase in world gas prices for delivery this winter, and that will inevitably be reflected in both gas and electricity bills. We have tried to protect consumers by taking the renewable heat incentive off the levy system and into general public expenditure, and by taking similar action in relation to carbon capture and storage. We have capped the feed-in tariff, and we are helping the consumer as much as we possibly can.
Far from our being afraid to take on the big six, Ofgem has clamped down on mis-selling, and we have ensured that the big six must inform people before raising tariffs. We have reduced the period within which consumers can switch suppliers to three weeks, and we are considering giving Ofgem powers to require companies to provide redress. All those steps constitute clear evidence of the determination of the Government and Ofgem to make this a highly competitive retail and wholesale market, which is the best guarantee for consumers that they will be given the best possible deal now and in the future.
The right hon. Lady mentioned the Warm Front scheme. She gave us no credit for the fact that the consultation documents on the green deal that were published today clearly show that we are replacing that scheme with the affordable warmth obligation referred to in the ECO consultation, or for the fact that the warm homes discount scheme is now statutory—it is not a voluntary scheme like that operated by the Labour Government—and will make the discounts available to those experiencing fuel poverty two thirds higher than those provided by the old voluntary scheme.
The right hon. Lady asked about incentives. The Chancellor of the Exchequer could not have made it clearer in his Budget speech that he would consider them. I believe that if the right hon. Lady waits for a matter of weeks, all will be made clear in regard to the Chancellor’s commitment to ensuring that the green deal is a great success. She should also bear in mind that we have already provided incentives, in addition to those that the Chancellor is considering. For example, all F and G-rated homes in the private rented sector will have to be upgraded by 2018 so that tenants can enjoy the benefits of energy saving.
Finally, the right hon. Lady asked what we were doing to encourage investment. The whole purpose of the electricity market reform which will be the centrepiece of the energy Bill that we will present in the second Session in May, and which we have already announced in the White Paper, is to provide the certainty that will lead to investment which, for years, the last Labour Government failed to deliver. A quarter of our power stations are going offline in the next 10 years: a quarter of our capacity. What did the last Labour Government do? Nothing—absolutely nothing. Yet the right hon. Lady, seemingly arriving from Mars, has had the temerity to come here today and pretend that we are not taking action, as if the last Labour Government had. I have to hand it to her: for sheer brass neck, she gets the prize.
Order. There is notable interest in the statement, but I remind the House that today is an Opposition day, and that there are two well-subscribed debates to follow. I want the first of them to begin before too long. Brevity is essential from Members—led, I feel sure, by Mr Peter Lilley.
My right hon. Friend made the breathtaking claim that he intended to keep energy prices as low as possible. How does he square that with the Stern review, on which his policy to combat climate change is based, and which makes it clear that that policy can work only if energy prices are raised to include the external cost of global heating, and if the cost of hydrocarbon-based energy is also raised to make it more expensive than other forms of sustainable energy? In short, if his policy is not hurting, it is not working.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. If he is in any way unsatisfied with the explanations that we have given in the documents—explanations which are considerably more detailed than those provided by any previous Government—he should ask for a briefing, and we will ensure that he receives any additional answers that he may require.
The key point, however, is that a substantial part of what we need to do to tackle climate change involves measures included in our green deal legislation which pay for themselves and do not involve a cost, while those that do involve a cost—namely the raising of prices to enable us to move to a low-carbon economy when it comes to electricity generation—are offset by the reduction in energy volumes precisely because of our energy-saving measures.
I commend the document to the right hon. Gentleman. I am sure he will find is persuasive.
If the last Labour Government did nothing about energy policy, I cannot think why I was so busy all the time.
To raise the tone of this discussion, I welcome what the Secretary of State said about long-term contracts, and I would like to hear more. On carbon capture and storage, the Secretary of State knows that despite all the excitement about feed-in tariffs, renewables and nuclear, the world, including the United Kingdom, will mainly be using fossil fuels for the next few decades. What is happening in respect of CCS? There have been some disappointments in recent months. When does the Secretary of State think the first CCS plant in the UK will be operating and helping to clean up our planet?
I certainly did not want to imply that the right hon. Gentleman, who has considerable expertise in this area, was in any way slacking when he was an Energy Minister—although I think he might have had better support from his colleagues on certain occasions.
CCS is a key technology. The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that we are going to continue to be reliant on gas and other fossil fuels. If we move to unabated gas rather than coal, that in itself will save about half the carbon emissions. For the longer term however, CCS is essential if we are going to be able to use gas, especially if we find, as I hope we will, that we have considerable exploitable reserves of shale gas under Lancashire and elsewhere.
As I have said, Longannet was a disappointment—I made a statement to the House on that—but other projects are coming forward. Peterhead is nearer the reservoirs than Longannet, so the pipeline costs are likely to be lower, and less investment will be needed to upgrade the plant in line with the large combustion plant directive. All the parties who were involved in the Longannet negotiation are confident that we can deliver a commercial-scale CCS plant for within that £1 billion budget, and we intend to do so.
The Secretary of State highlighted the future role of gas in the economy, and producing our own gas is obviously the best option. To that end, will he stress to the European Union that its attempt to regulate the offshore oil and gas industry is in danger of creating regulatory confusion and more uncertainty, and that it would be far better to go down the directive route?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. He is absolutely right. If we are going to introduce minimum standards for offshore oil and gas—the Commission has been kind enough to say they should be modelled on those for the UK continental shelf—that should be on the basis of a directive, so that we can use our own legal means to enforce the standards, rather than a regulation. A regulation that would apply directly in all the member states would be inappropriate because countries’ circumstances are inevitably different.
In spite of the warm words about the importance of tackling fuel poverty, next year will be the first year in three decades when there has not been a Treasury-funded scheme to do precisely that. Instead, we have a regressive scheme that will fund the energy company obligation through a levy on fuel bills. As the ECO will be split into two pots—the hard to treat and the fuel poor—will the Secretary of State ensure that the latter group does not end up in effect subsidising the former, by making sure he focuses on the fuel poor, the 1.9 million households in fuel poverty who happen to live in hard-to-treat homes?
The hon. Lady will know that I am passionately committed to helping the fuel poor. That is why we have increased the amount of warm home discount compared with the voluntary schemes. I disagree with her that the ECO subsidy is an ineffective way of reaching such people or that it is more regressive than other schemes. The fact that the previous scheme was Exchequer-funded was by the bye. What is important is achieving the key outcome of tackling the root causes of fuel poverty, and that we will do.
I understand that France has persuaded the European Commission to accept nuclear power as a renewable. Will the Secretary of State negotiate a similar deal for this country, and will he also make sure that the information on our energy bills is transparently clear, so we know how much of what we pay is subsidy for renewable energy?
I can do better than that, because the document published today contains precisely that information on the impacts on prices and bills. We want to be as transparent as possible, because it is important that people understand that although there will be price increases, we can, particularly as a result of our energy saving measures, also get volumes down, which is crucial to getting bills down. There is no point in our having unsubsidised energy and merely heating the atmosphere; we want to heat our homes, not merely push the heat out of leaky and draughty homes into the atmosphere.
I heard the Secretary of State’s comments about the potential of the Peterhead CCS project, and I would welcome investment there. However, is it not true that the Longannet project was much more important to the country because it is a coal-powered station, as opposed to the gas-powered station at Peterhead, and coal is the main export market for CCS? Is it not also the case that Shell and Scottish Power have got their sums right, and that their assessment of the investment required for the CCS power we need is much more realistic than the Government’s? We have thrown away the great potential of a large export market.
CCS is a catch-all for a substantial number of different types of technology designed to do the same thing: take the carbon out of the process of the combustion of fossil fuels. I disagree about gas versus coal, as I think gas, along with coal, will play a very important part in world supply for a long time, and there will be substantial CCS markets in both of them. It is important that the UK is in the lead in that.
The Government support the three recommendations of the billing stakeholder group, which I chaired at the Government’s behest, but there is strong evidence that one of those key recommendations is being ignored by the energy suppliers: the requirement that they contact each of their customers informing them on whether they are on the company’s cheapest standard direct-debit tariff. What are the Government going to do to put this right?
First, I want to pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts in this area. We raised this point with the big six at the consumer energy summit, and my understanding is that they are in the process of notifying their customers. Perhaps not all those letters have gone out yet, but one of the commitments was that customers were going to be notified when there was a cheaper tariff they could move to online.
In what was a lengthy statement, the Secretary of State made no mention of either the long-standing problem of transmission charging, which affects green energy, or Ofgem’s Project TransmiT. What progress is being made, and will he finally take action to tackle this problem?
I have had continued discussions with Ofgem and, indeed, with the First Minister of Scotland. He and I think absolutely alike on the importance of moving to a regime that does not penalise energy sources for being further away from the market, precisely because renewable sources will inevitably be located where the renewables are. Also, nuclear is generally not welcome in the middle of our cities. For those reasons transmission charging should be amended. Ofgem is looking at that at present, but it is up to it to do so as an independent regulator.
The majority of consumers seek to shop around when their tariff rises, only then to run the danger that their new tariff will rise even further only days later. What measures are being considered to protect consumers on new tariffs for either six or 12 months?
The hon. Gentleman is right. Consumers have the option to choose a fixed rate of course, which will be for a specified period. At the time of the recent consumer energy summit, we made the key point that the big six, which supply 99% of our households, had announced their tariff changes and that some of them had committed to keeping them all the way through the winter. Right now is therefore a rather good time to compare prices and switch to the cheapest tariff.
I understand that it is important to get money into the Treasury, but is that more important than people’s lives? The Hills report found that thousands of people will die as a result of this Government’s policies. What is more important: money to the Exchequer or people’s lives?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not giving credit where it is due, although I cannot say that it is terribly surprising. I commissioned John Hills to produce that report precisely because I wanted a really good and authoritative review of how we can best tackle fuel poverty. I am determined that we shall do that. One conclusion of the interim report from Professor Hills was that there are 25,000 excess winter deaths and that perhaps 10% of them—a similar figure to those killed on the roads—are due to fuel poverty. We are determined to tackle that issue—[Interruption.] That is after 13 years of Labour government; let us please have a little cross-party consensus on trying to tackle the problem while recognising that it needs to be dealt with in the long run and that we have the means to tackle it at source as well as in the short-term through the warm home discount.
The Secretary of State will be aware that in the last year of the previous Government, less than 3% of our energy came from renewables and we were 25th out of 27 in the EU. By what extent does he expect to improve on that by the end of this Parliament?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. We are determined to be the fastest-improving pupil in the class. At the moment, as the hon. Gentleman has pointed out, the inheritance from the previous Government puts us firmly in the dunces corner on renewables, but we are working our way out.
The right hon. Gentleman will be very much aware of the situation at Rio Tinto Alcan in my constituency, where 650 jobs are likely to be lost as a result of green taxes and high energy costs. What assurances can he give the work force at Rio Tinto Alcan that the package of measures that have been promised and promised again for energy intensive industries will be sufficient to keep the plant in operation and maintain the jobs, plus 3,000 jobs in the supply chain?
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern, which I have shared. I met the executives from Rio Tinto Alcan who deal with that plant and I put to them a simple question: if we were able to provide support for electricity generation through, for example, conversion to biomass, would they guarantee that they would keep the plant open? They did not give me an answer and one executive is quoted as saying that the 40-year-old plant was beyond Government subsidy. I do not think that, and I very much hope that we can work on finding a solution, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the energy intensive package is under serious and urgent consideration. It is on course to be announced by the end of the year, which is what we were committed to doing, and it is also a matter of regret to me that the announcement was made about the Rio Tinto Alcan plant before the managers had the opportunity to read what we were able to say, which suggests to me that they had previously made up their mind.
Of course, energy bill payers contribute a few quid towards the support of renewables, but the big six help themselves to £150 per annum per household. Does my right hon. Friend believe that that is a reasonable balance, and how can we achieve a reasonable balance?
The key in any market is to ensure that it is properly competitive. I am absolutely in favour of shareholders, particularly since they are usually our pension funds and our insurance companies, making the best possible return in a competitive market. That is why we are stressing the key competitiveness requirements of the wholesale market and the retail market. When we get that right, we will have the assurance that the rates of return in the marketplace for the big six and, I hope, for the new entrants to the market will be fair, precisely because they have been earned fair and square in a competitive market.
The Secretary of State referred to the green deal in his statement. What is he doing to ensure that VAT on products used in the green deal is set at the same level as for the energy it is designed to save—that is, at 5% and not 20%?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. There are substantial anomalies—and not just that one—in the VAT regime. It is not always possible, because of the commitments in the EU legislation, for member states to make unilateral changes to that regime but he certainly makes a sensible point and I am sure that the powers that be at the Treasury will listen carefully to it.
Does the Secretary of State understand the concerns of those who have “prepared their homes”, to use his words, and fitted solar panels about the pace of the reduction in feed-in tariffs, especially when they see the onshore wind industry being rewarded for inefficiency and destroying the UK countryside?
My hon. Friend raises an interesting point. We have cut the subsidies for the offshore and onshore wind industry, too, and we have done so because this Government are firmly committed to making sure that we deliver what we intend to deliver—that is, the shift to a low-carbon economy—at the lowest possible cost to British consumers. I am sure that we will have a greater opportunity to debate this subject later today, but I merely point out that the subsidies for solar feed-in tariffs now reflect a substantial fall in the costs of the underlying technology. That fall in costs, caused by the global changes in circumstances over the past year, means that those subsidies are providing a very similar real rate of return to that which was planned when the scheme was launched in April 2010.
During the winter months, the poorest members of our society will face soaring electricity bills and many in Northern Ireland have no alternative to heating oil. What action will the Secretary of State take to make home heating oil affordable to the most vulnerable in our society?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of home heating oil because, as he knows, last winter that issue caused us a lot of concern. We referred the matter to the Office of Fair Trading and I was surprised with its conclusion but we must accept that it followed a full investigation. The longer-run solution will be to ensure that people are less reliant on the heat from heating oil through energy insulation and the green deal. We are determined that those who are off the gas grid will be able to take every opportunity to enjoy the benefits of the green deal, too.
Small solar panel companies about which I have written to the Secretary of State’s Department are having a particularly hard experience following the change in the tariff. They will lose jobs over it and they are asking whether the domestic 4 kW rate can be considered as a taper for a longer period so that they can recover from the shock of the quick cut in the tariff rate when they cannot deliver as quickly as the big boys.
Energy companies often cite investment in generating power as the reason for the price rises. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the amount of money made on the price rises compared with the companies’ investment in generating power?
The hon. Lady raises an interesting point. The need for new investment is clearly factored into the price projections in the documentation. It is not just about the rise in the overall world price in gas that is driving what is happening to our bills but the need to build a quarter of the capacity that is coming offline. That is factored into the calculations.
My hon. Friend will know that my esteemed colleague, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), was there in September. We have done considerable work to look at the experience of other countries, which is a theme that we might come back to in the debate on the solar feed-in tariff. This Government do not believe that it is sensible to sit in a room and try to develop things from scratch and a priori if other countries have already done so and we can learn the lessons from them.
How can the policy change on the tariff possibly be a consultation when it is already set to change on 6 December? My constituent, Keith Bonner, wanted to install solar panels and he tells me that the £12,000 investment is no longer viable because of the change in policy. How does the change in policy fit with the requirements set out in the Secretary of State’s statement of increasing renewable energy, tackling climate change and reducing emissions?
The hon. Gentleman should know that there will not be a change in tariff before April. The key point is that the old tariff is applicable to any scheme that is installed either before or after 12 December, but any scheme that is installed after 12 December will have a lower tariff from April. We will have plenty of opportunity to debate this later today and I am sure he will want to contribute to that debate.
Will my right hon. Friend encourage Ofgem to deal with the tariff anomaly whereby household energy bills fall when households use more energy? Surely, that places a burden on single and less well-off households and flies in the face of our desire to encourage greater energy efficiency in households.
There are many anomalies that Ofgem is looking at in this area. A key part of that will involve looking at any unfairness in the system and making sure particularly that we simplify tariffs. There are far too many tariffs and that is confusing for consumers. If we can get a dramatic simplification, that will make the market work much more effectively. Currently, only 15% of consumers switch, whereas with car insurance about half do so through online sites. We need to get up to that figure and we will then find that the market works much more effectively.
Constituents have informed me not only that they are angry about the drop in the tariff and the potential loss of jobs in my area—these are people who have invested in the solar energy industry—but that the arbitrary deadline of 12 December means that there has been a rush for installation of solar energy in people’s homes, which is producing a sharp increase in the price of the components in panels. Does this not show that the Secretary of State has thought very little about the impact of this policy on the energy industry?
I disagree with the hon. Lady. When a policy is clearly going off the rails, it is important to grip it as quickly as possible. The problem with the industry was that it was massively exceeding its budget. If we had not acted, we would have been adding anything between £26 and £55 to the average household bill by the end of this Parliament, which would simply have been too much. We have had to take account of the cost to the consumer and I very much regret that the Opposition do not seem to remember that.
Twelve months ago today, after last year’s statement, I put forward a proposal about topping up card meters online, as I have them at home. I have gas and electricity from British Gas, and I am pleased to report to the House that that has happened with British Gas. Hon. Members can take it from me that electricity is far cheaper than gas, and I urge the Secretary of State to take that into consideration. Is not now the time to put more money into nuclear power and push that industry forward for jobs and in my constituency?
Nuclear is one of the three key pillars on the supply side, with the fourth pillar being energy saving. Those are the key parts of our policy. We have been meeting all our deadlines except those that arose immediately after the Fukushima disaster when I thought it was important to ask Dr Weightman to come up with a report that answered people’s concerns about making sure that the same thing could not happen here. With that one exception, we have been meeting our deadlines and we are on course for new nuclear without public subsidy.
The Secretary of State has referred to the carbon floor price and the carbon reduction commitment simplification proposals, both of which give rise to concerns in Northern Ireland that they will have a perverse impact given our market and geographical realities. Those impacts would be counter to the very policy goals that he has enunciated. Is he receptive to those concerns and will he and his colleagues be responsive?
The hon. Gentleman raises some interesting issues. We are in constant touch with the Northern Ireland Executive and others on these matters and of course we are receptive to concerns and to amending anything that would have a perverse effect of the type he describes.
The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who speaks for the Opposition, made the serious charge that the Minister had briefed journalists before coming to the House. In answering her question, it slipped his mind to answer that point. Can he tell us that that did not take place and confirm it by publishing and putting in the Library a copy of the media grid showing which journalists were spoken to before the statement?
The Secretary of State has set out the future energy supply and demand forecasts within the security of supply report. Is he confident that if those forecasts prove to be inaccurate, we will be able to keep the lights on in this country?
Because of the disappointing economic situation, the margin of capacity has been rising. I am confident that we can do that, but we should not be complacent. We need to keep the matter under review and we are certainly doing that, but I am confident that we can keep the lights on.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would like to make a point about the scheduling of this annual energy statement on an Opposition day when we have two extremely important debates with very short time limits for speakers. The statement was not a time-sensitive one and I hope that you will agree with me and deplore the fact that it was scheduled in Opposition time. Secondly, the timing of the statement was tweeted to the world by The Guardian environment correspondent at 9.37 this morning, 32 minutes before Opposition Front Benchers were informed that there would be a statement. Thirdly, the contents of the statement were extensively leaked to the same tweeting Guardian correspondent and appeared on its website at 10.35 this morning. Mr Speaker, I seek your rulings on these issues, which show grave discourtesy to the House.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her point of order, and I shall seek to the best of my ability to respond to each of her three points in turn. First, the timing of Government statements is a matter for the Government and I do not want to get into the merits or demerits of choosing a particular day, but the point will have been heard by the Deputy Leader of the House and, at a distance from the Chamber, by the Leader of the House. Secondly, let me emphasise that notification of an intended statement should first and foremost be to other hon. and right hon. Members and the shadow team. It should not be to members of the press. That is disorderly and discourteous. Thirdly, I listened intently to the Secretary of State, as I always do, when he responded to the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). He assured the House that he had not spoken to journalists about the contents of the statement, and of course I accept without hesitation what he says on that point. However, I would just gently—or perhaps not so gently—remind the Secretary of State that it is not just a question of Ministers not talking to the media. Ministers must not encourage, facilitate or permit any of their team, officials or advisers to do so either. This is the second time this week that there has been an instance of substantial information in a statement being conveyed first to the media. It will be a pity if further measures have to be contemplated and adopted for dealing with situations of this kind. I hope that the Secretary of State will take what I have said as a deterrent against any future such occurrence.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. On 2 November the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made a statement to the House regarding the Government’s latest offer to unions on the public sector pensions issue. In the statement and in the document he published, he included examples of the pensions that public sector workers would obtain under his proposal. Later that day, the Prime Minister told the House—he has repeated this today—that on that basis, low and middle earners would get more from their pensions. The Cabinet Office subsequently published on its website a pension calculator on which people could check what pension they would receive under the Chief Secretary’s latest announced offer. As was revealed on “Channel 4 News” last night, the calculator demonstrated that the Chief Secretary’s original examples were simply wrong, and that his statement and the Prime Minister’s comments were simply incorrect. The calculator showed that low and middle earners would get less at comparable retirement rates. The calculator has since been taken down from the website.
Three million public sector workers may go on strike on 30 November unless the dispute is resolved, so it is vital that accurate information be provided to the House and to the general public. The Chief Secretary has unwittingly conveyed inaccurate information to the House and, through you, Mr Speaker, I would ask that he be requested to return to the House to correct the error and provide an accurate assessment of the Government’s pension proposals.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, both for his point of order and for providing advance notice of it. All hon. and right hon. Members, including Ministers, are responsible for the content and accuracy of the statements that they make. If a mistake has been made, a Minister should correct it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, who is an exceptionally clever chap, will understand if I am reluctant to trespass beyond that, because the detail and minutiae of these matters are probably well beyond my limited competence.
Well, he is certainly a modest fellow, although not with much to be modest about. We will not discuss that any further, but what I would say is that disputes about the impact of the Government’s most recent offer on pension levels are an appropriate matter for debate, and arguments over calculations and hypothetical examples are not tantamount to any deliberate misleading of the House. The hon. Gentleman is an experienced—not an old—hand who has put his concerns forcefully on the record.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received an approach from the Health Secretary to say that he may have misled the House yesterday in Health questions when answering a question from me about the risk register for his NHS reorganisation? He told the House:
“I have been very clear and published all…risk information relating to the modernisation of the NHS”.—[Official Report, 22 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 149.]
He has made the same argument to the Information Commissioner who, in a legal decision, said that
“he does not accept the argument and considers that disclosure would go somewhat further in helping the public to better understand the risks associated with the modernisation of the NHS than any information that has previously been published.”
Will you advise the House, Mr Speaker, on how we can correct the record and get to the truth about the risks that the Government’s policies on NHS reorganisation pose to our NHS?
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his point of order, but there is not much that I can offer by way of encouragement or comfort. He is an experienced Member of Parliament, and he has put his interpretation of those matters on the record. I said a moment ago that the contents of answers are a matter for Ministers, but answers to parliamentary questions are not themselves covered by the statutory provisions of the Freedom of Information Act. If he thinks either that the Minister has erred or that I have erred in my exegesis of his point of order—or, indeed, both—no doubt he will return to these matters and will require no encouragement from me to do so.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful if you could advise me how I can put on the record the fact that following the Deputy Prime Minister’s reply to me on 15 November, recorded at column 679 of Hansard, in questions on changes to the law on the succession to the throne, the right hon. Gentleman helpfully wrote to me to clarify that he was in fact referring to his conversation with the Scottish First Minister, not the Northern Ireland First Minister. He further advised me—again, very helpfully—that he has placed a copy of his letter in the Library. I am grateful to his office and to other Ministries for the way in which the matter has been handled.
The hon. Gentleman wanted to put that matter on the record, and he has done so with his customary courtesy. If there are no further points of order, we come to the ten-minute rule Bill, which the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) has been waiting patiently to introduce.