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Topical Questions

Volume 536: debated on Thursday 1 December 2011

Since my Department’s last question time, I have published the annual energy statement and the green deal consultation, announced a comprehensive review of feed-in tariffs, launched the renewable heat incentive and confirmed £200 million additional funding for the green deal. Today I am publishing the carbon plan and the Government’s response to both Dr Mike Weightman’s final report and the consultation on the long-term management of the UK’s plutonium stock. Next week the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), and I will attend the 17th conference of the parties to the UN framework convention on climate change in Durban.

The Department says, “It’s the Treasury,” the Treasury says, “It’s the Office for National Statistics,” and the ONS says, “It’s not us.” So will the Secretary of State please publish the definitive advice on why the climate change levy fund for feed-in tariffs for solar has to be counted on the Government balance sheet? Is he aware that the European courts have recently ruled that a similar scheme in Germany need not do so?

One of the key issues is not whether something is on the Government’s balance sheet, but the effect on consumer bills. The hon. Gentleman cannot, sadly, wave away the question of whether this measure will add at least £26 to consumer bills in 2020, and possibly as much as £80. I will happily take this issue away and look into exactly which Department is meant to come forward, but I return to the point that what he needs to take into account is not whether something is on the balance sheet but what consumer costs are. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) is muttering at me from a sedentary position, but she claimed recently that she cared about consumer costs, and I do not seem to see that now.

T2. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Bentley Motors in my constituency on becoming the first plant in the UK car industry to achieve the new global energy management standard, snappily entitled the ISO 50001? What are the Government doing to ensure that businesses such as Bentley can continue to meet their renewable energy targets by investing in alternative energy sources? (83984)

I was delighted to have a chance to visit Bentley recently with my hon. Friend to see the work it is doing. I pay tribute to Bentley and to Volkswagen, the parent company, for the investment that they have put in place. There are systems in the CRC—carbon reduction commitment—energy efficiency scheme that help to encourage companies to improve their energy efficiency. Companies can qualify for climate change agreements through which they receive discount on the climate change levy in return for meeting energy efficiency targets. Many measures are already in place, but I congratulate the company my hon. Friend mentions on what it has already achieved.

T3. China is doing it and Germany is doing it—reducing their reliance on Russian gas and Arab oil—so when will this useless coalition start standing up for the long-term British national economic interest? (83985)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for eloquently making a point that I have made on many occasions. He will be pleased to see that the carbon plan contains a substantial discussion on exactly that issue. We are at a key turning point. Do we move forward to a position in 2050 where we will be reliant on imported energy for £9 out of £10 of our energy needs, or do we move forward to a position where we can be much more secure, much more energy independent and, indeed, make substantial improvements to our efforts on climate change?

T4. I recently took part in a conference, organised by Wandsworth Friends of the Earth and a number of local churches, which was focused on climate change and energy saving. One of the speakers, an architect, illustrated the enormous savings she had been able to make in a Victorian-era house through careful use of insulation and other methods. Does the Secretary of State share the encouragement this gave me that the green deal has much to offer constituents living in older houses? (83986)

It certainly does. My hon. Friend makes a very sensible point. It is precisely that sort of home, built before the first world war, for which we are going for the first time to be able to offer a substantial holistic refit, precisely because of the support given to solid wall insulation.

T5. The Secretary of State will be aware that in the last few days the National Grid Company has said it would welcome greater independent auditing of its contracting arrangements with STOR—short-term operating reserve—aggregators. Given that the National Grid admits that it buys 500 phantom MW a year, which it presumably passes on to consumers, will the Secretary of State now insist on independent auditing of this relationship with STOR aggregators so that consumers get a fairer deal? (83987)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. We have had discussions with the National Grid Company about this matter and we are glad that it recognises the scale of the problem. We will work with the National Grid to try to make sure that it is addressed.

T6. In my constituency, there are plenty of small businesses, co-operatives and charities that wish to play their part in building a greener economy. Many are concerned about some of the changes to feed-in tariffs but are hopeful that other measures such as the green deal will enable them to grow. Will the Minister give an assurance that the Government will make it as easy as possible for small businesses to get involved in the delivery of the green deal? (83988)

I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance. In fact, he may like to join me on 12 December when I host a round table specifically for small and medium-sized enterprises to work out how they can become key delivery partners in the green deal, which will provide a huge opportunity for local partnerships in exactly the way my hon. Friend suggests.

Can the Secretary of State deny the outrageous claims that his own personal consumption of energy is about to be similar to that of a small town? Can he confirm for the House that he believes in leading the energy green crusade by example rather than just by exhortation?

I certainly can. I shall have to ask whether it is Huddersfield or Stoke-on-Trent whose energy I am meant to be consuming. I must admit I am not sighted on that issue, but if the hon. Gentleman would like to write to me, I will be happy to give him a full reply. I can assure him that I am not a small town and that my personal energy consumption is nothing like one!

May I return the Minister to the subject of shale gas? Given the figures that have been announced for gas in place in the Bowland field, is it not important for the Government to form an early view on what can be economically and safely extracted?

A great deal of work needs to be done to assess the role that shale gas can play. We are aware of the gas-in-place estimate, but it is very different from an estimate of the amount of gas that may be recoverable. Much more research is needed, but we are satisfied that if the extraction goes ahead, it can take place under the existing legislative requirements relating to safety and environmental protection.

T8. An early-day motion tabled today, signed by me and the hon. Members for St Ives (Andrew George), for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), calls on Ofgem to raise the level of debt for which pre-payment meter customers can switch suppliers from £200 to £350. According to the House of Commons Library, that would help more than 200,000 people immediately. Can we rely on the Secretary of State’s support? (83990)

We are working on a number of issues to try to ensure that those with pre-payment meters are given the best possible deal—that they can switch easily, and can opt for credit rather than pre-payment meters when that will help them. And yes, the hon. Gentleman can be assured that we will continue to pursue that agenda as vigorously as possible.

When considering the green deal and energy efficiency measures generally, does the Minister take into account the potential damage caused to property by condensation, which outweighs some of the advantages of some of those measures? Will he meet me and one of my constituents to discuss that growing problem, which compromises so much of what the Government are trying to achieve?

I should be happy to do so. It is true that older properties without damp courses, many of which were built before the first world war, are more difficult to treat, and much more research and development is needed to ensure that we do not unintentionally cause more problems than we solve.

T9. I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State and the Minister are going to the climate change conference in Durban next week, but has the Secretary of State not left it too late? Is there not a danger that the conference will not produce the outcome that we want? What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that we secure an international agreement, especially in the light of reports that have appeared over the past few days of a lack of progress in the negotiations? (83991)

The hon. Gentleman has a long-standing interest and expertise in this matter, and I am delighted to answer his question.

I could not have gone to Durban any earlier than Sunday, because that is the beginning of the ministerial segment, but the hon. Gentleman can be assured that I have been involved in talks with a number of other ministerial participants ahead of the conference, including Chinese, Colombian and South African Ministers. I believe that we have a real chance of making progress. Some of the gloomiest reporting tends to appear just before the talks begin in earnest, and I have not given up yet.

I know that our splendid Liberal Democrat Secretary of State believes passionately in localism. Can he explain why, having been rejected, the proposed Nun Wood wind farm development, which covers three parliamentary constituencies and is opposed by the three Members of Parliament and the three local authorities concerned, has suddenly been granted approval on appeal? That cannot be localism at work.

My hon. Friend has made an important point. In future, as a result of one of the changes that we are making to the planning system, it will not be possible to overrule such decisions on appeal simply because the developments involved meet a regional renewable energy target. That target has been removed, and we are giving much more authority and many more decision-making powers to local bodies. Applications involving more than 50 MW will be submitted to the Infrastructure Planning Commission and then to Ministers for approval, but we are determined to strike the right balance between local and national interests.

Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) to discuss the announcement of redundancies by Carillion Energy Services, which employs people in both our constituencies, and the fact that he is putting thousands of real people’s jobs at risk by slashing feed-in tariffs? The Minister accused my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) of scaremongering earlier, but redundancy notices have been served to 4,500 employees.

The hon. Gentleman makes a legitimate point. Obviously, we are concerned about any job losses anywhere in the economy, and I will, of course, be very happy to meet him and his hon. Friend.

As Leeds, Yorkshire is the second largest financial centre in the UK and a leader in green energy investment, does the ministerial team agree that it is the ideal location for the Green investment bank?

The ministerial team is acutely aware that it must represent all parts of the United Kingdom and that many places have a substantial and impressive claim to be the home of the Green investment bank. We await with interest the advice of the advisory board.

I was very pleased to hear Ministers recognise the problems of people on prepayment arrangements for electricity. Will the Secretary of State say what specific action he will take to ensure that those who cannot switch to credit arrangements do not end up on higher tariffs than those who can afford to pay by direct debit?

We will continue to investigate this matter with the energy companies. Some people on prepayment meters used to pay higher tariffs than even the standard rate, but that is no longer the case and they now pay less. That is a substantial step forward, but it is not the end of the story. We will continue to work on this, as I am aware—as is the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)—that it is a key area of vulnerability.

The planned roll-out of smart meters across the UK will entail millions of homes being fitted with new devices. Will steps be taken to ensure that such devices are interoperable so that they do not act as a disincentive to consumers switching suppliers in order to get a better deal?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is fundamental to our approach. Smart meters are designed to give consumers more control over the energy they use in their homes, and allowing people to switch and take advantage of different tariffs will be a fundamental part of their success.

I would have called Mr Sammy Wilson if he were standing, but I won’t because he isn’t. Instead, I call Mr Nigel Dodds.

I am very grateful for the advantage given to me by my colleague. What action has been taken to deal with Northern Ireland’s especially high dependence on home heating oil, given that a number of the current initiatives to tackle fuel poverty do not apply to Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an issue that is of even greater importance in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the country. I recently met Bord Gáis to talk about some of its plans for extending the gas grid in Northern Ireland. I welcome those investments, and in addition the Office of Fair Trading has taken measures to ensure that the market operates fairly and properly in the interests of consumers. The OFT has committed to continuing to investigate any examples of market abuse.

Does the Secretary of State share my pleasure in the fact that the Daylight Savings Bill will finally reach its Committee stage next week, and does he agree that it makes sense for us to align our lives more with daylight hours? That will support tourism, help business and reduce carbon emissions.

I am certainly interested to see the Bill’s progress, and I look forward to the full consultations with all interested parties, including the devolved Administrations, which might allow us to come to a satisfactory conclusion.

Will the Government, along with Ofgem, urgently look again at standing charges? In my constituency, Scottish Power has recently raised the daily standing charge from 15p to 31p, thus at a stroke adding £50 to my constituents’ bills.

I urge the right hon. Gentleman to consider the announcements Ofgem has made today, dramatically simplifying the range of tariffs. Ofgem states that there must be a standard tariff that every company must apply in a similar way, and also that the variable tariffs must meet certain conditions. This is all part of trying to ensure that charging is much more straightforward and clearer for consumers, so they can see whether they are getting a good deal and switch if necessary.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns) said, many of our constituents face unemployment as a direct consequence of the inept and unfair way this Government have introduced the changes to the feed-in tariffs. What are the Government doing to give them security in their jobs and to give some certainty to the industry?

None of us wants to see anybody facing uncertainty about their employment prospects. The reality is that we must ensure a sustainable future for the solar industry that is based on a budget that will last rather than one that runs out so quickly that the industry comes to a grinding halt. The key thing for us is to ensure that we are on-track to deliver our goals for the low-carbon economy, including all the employment opportunities, and we will do that.