House of Commons
Thursday 1 December 2011
The House met at half-past Ten o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
Green Investment Bank
I regularly discuss the Green investment bank with ministerial colleagues, including the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, and am confident that it can play a major role in capitalising private sector investment in renewable energy.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his answer and welcome the Chancellor’s announcement in his autumn statement earlier this week of £200 million in incentives to support the green deal. Will the Green investment bank be able to back up that important investment and provide low-cost loans to support the green deal?
Supporting energy efficiency projects is indeed part of the Green investment bank’s remit, and clearly that includes the green deal. We can certainly envisage a key role in the launch of the private finance, because after all the green deal is private finance, but at the very beginning it will be important that the markets gradually get used to the idea of that new type of instrument, and the Green investment bank could have an important role in facilitating that.
I am glad to hear that the Secretary of State is discussing the issue with colleagues. When will a decision on the location of the Green investment bank be made, and when will it be up and running for business?
The first investment should be made in the spring of next year. The location will be a matter first for the advisory board, whose advice I also anticipate will be available next year. The hon. Gentleman will bear it in mind that the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills is leading on this.
The coalition agreement emphasised anaerobic digestion as a technology to take forward, yet many people who are keen on it find obstacles in their way, including funding. Will the Green investment bank be able to provide funds for those people so that they can take their projects forward?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right that anaerobic digestion is one of the technologies that we want to encourage. Indeed, it falls broadly within the renewables remit of the Green investment bank, but my understanding of the problems with anaerobic digestion is that they relate principally to planning and objections, rather than funding. Funding is not the key issue with AD.
As we heard on Tuesday, because of the Government’s cuts, which are going too far and too fast, the economy is flatlining, unemployment is rising and the Government will miss their borrowing targets. In his autumn statement the Chancellor lauded the Green investment bank as proof of his green credentials, but on 9 September the Government confirmed in a written answer that the Green investment bank would have full borrowing powers only from April 2015, subject to public sector net debt falling as a percentage of GDP. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government’s policy is that we will not have a proper Green investment bank with borrowing powers until 2016 at the earliest?
I thank the right hon. Lady for her question. When the Green investment bank will be able to borrow has been set out clearly from the beginning. She wants to make the point that the borrowing powers of the Green investment bank are delayed, but the reality is that we are the only leading industrial country never to have had an infrastructure bank, despite the common experience of the 1930s and despite 13 years of Labour government. I very much hope that we will meet the net debt-to-GDP target as soon as possible, and when we do the GIB will be able to borrow.
I am sorry, Mr Speaker, but I do not have the answer to the question.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I was under the impression that the question had been withdrawn, but I am happy to answer my hon. Friend.
We have had a number of discussions with energy companies, most recently the energy summit, in which we discussed consumer pricing.
I thank the Secretary of State for his response. I am concerned about the extent of savings that are offered to the internet savvy and subsidised by offline customers. Given the digital divide, with many of the poorest households and older customers not having internet access, what action is he taking to ensure that everyone pays a reasonable price for their energy?
One of the key issues is that people who do not have online access should be able to get sources of advice that enable them to take advantage of cheaper tariffs. That may be people who are elderly or not necessarily able to get online, and one of the things that we are attempting to do is to encourage charities in the sector and organisations such as Citizens Advice to provide help when it is not forthcoming from family members. They are also a very important way of helping the elderly to move on to cheaper tariffs, however, and I know that a lot of family members do take the time to ensure that elderly members of the family get cheap tariffs.
Energy pricing affects our industrial competitiveness, so although I welcome the Government’s steps in the autumn statement on energy-intensive industries, I note the real concern in the ceramics sector that such steps will do nothing to assist it. Will we see further announcements in the coming weeks for industries such as ceramics, particularly on capital allowances?
One key thing with the energy-intensive industries is that it is crucial to help those that will be most affected because of electricity intensity and their competitive position in terms of trade. We will set out the full details of that in the consultation.
The Minister will be aware that one recommendation of the billing stakeholder group was that energy suppliers should send a tailored communication to customers, detailing in pounds, shillings and pence how much they could save by transferring to that company’s cheapest standard direct debit tariff in time for this winter. Two suppliers, Scottish Power and npower, have complied; four have not. Will the Minister now look at bringing those four into line?
First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on the issue, because it is crucial that people are provided with clear and specific advice on what they can do. He is absolutely right to draw attention to the two large energy companies that have already complied, and yes, indeed, we are bringing pressure to bear to ensure that all the others follow.
Will not energy companies benefit from pricing at the expense of companies such as Energy Outlet, in Formby in my constituency, which has lost business due to the cuts in support for solar energy, and that consumers will also lose out due to the change that the Secretary of State has made at short notice?
I simply do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, who argues that consumers will lose out from the measure. If we had not acted quickly to deal with cost overruns in the sector, not only would we not have been able to provide a sustainable future for those who are employed and have businesses in it, but we would have added so substantially to consumer bills that the impact on many other businesses right across the country, through reduced consumer spending, would have been substantial.
Domestic Energy Costs
We expect the warm home discount scheme to help about 2 million low-income and vulnerable households per year. This winter, energy suppliers will be required to provide automatic rebates of £120 on energy bills to more than 600,000 pensioners on the pension credit guarantee. In future, the green deal and the energy company obligation will provide energy efficiency measures at no up-front cost.
The Minister will be aware that the Secretary of State, at the Liberal Democrat conference just a few weeks ago, said:
“None of us should have to save on warmth in a cold winter. Some of the most vulnerable and elderly will shiver—and worse—if we do not help.”
Why then does he believe that the Government should cut winter fuel payments to 12.7 million pensioners?
The hon. Gentleman will be completely aware that that policy was announced by the previous Government, who did not put the money into their budget for it to go forward. We have therefore continued the policy that was put in place, but we have introduced the most rigorous scheme of energy efficiency in our homes—rolling it out in a way not even dreamed of by the previous Administration—to bring lasting help and care to support such people.
Twenty-eight per cent. of households in the west midlands live in fuel poverty, and one of the key issues for them is the quality of the housing stock in which they live. Obviously, the poorer the housing stock, the more difficult it is to heat. What specific support are the Government giving to help those in private rented housing, which is often not invested in by landlords and often very fuel inefficient?
The hon. Gentleman makes a very important point. That is why the green deal has focused very strongly on those in the private rented sector and why we are considering introducing a legal obligation on private landlords to ensure that their homes are brought up to a reasonable standard. This sector has often been overlooked and has been harder hit than many others, and we are determined to make sure that it is now addressed properly.
My hon. Friend rightly draws attention to the warm home discount, which is up by two thirds as a result of the decisions we have made, whereby £120 million will be spent supporting 600,000 poorer pensioners. The energy companies are writing directly to many of their customers—and we, as a Government, are writing to millions of others—to make sure that they are aware of the extra energy efficiency support that they can have.
My hon. Friend raises the important issue of whether people should pay more for the additional units they use or whether the level should drop. Our concern about moving to a rising rate is that children, pensioners or people with disabilities who are at home more and need more warmth could be adversely hit by such a change. Not only the larger properties and the richer families would be affected; it could easily also affect those whom we are most keen to support and help.
Does the green deal Minister remember telling the Energy Bill Committee that he fully expected the energy company obligation to provide a far greater level of support to tackle fuel poverty than either the carbon emissions reduction target or Warm Front? In what way is ECO’s pitifully small £325 million a year for fuel-poor homes a far greater level of resource than the 2010-11 Warm Front spending of £370 million or CERT spending of about £600 million on priority groups?
I am sure that the hon. Lady is aware that this is funding that people can have in addition to the green deal support. It is designed to make sure that there is a comprehensive approach. We have sought to ensure that we have an holistic approach and that we do more on energy efficiency and on assisting poorer households. We are trying to make sure that we do this in the most effective way possible.
Feed-in Tariffs (Stoke-on-Trent)
The Department has received a significant number of telephone inquiries, responses to consultation exercises and other pieces of correspondence relating to the consultation on feed-in tariffs. These are very likely to have included representations from the people of Stoke-on-Trent. However, at this early stage I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Lady a detailed breakdown.
The Minister did in fact receive a letter from the chief executive and leader of Stoke-on-Trent council telling him that what is at stake with the Government’s review of the feed-in tariff is 100 jobs and 4,000 council homes that will lose their opportunity to reduce heating bills. What is going on in Stoke-on-Trent is echoed all around the country. Given that everybody agrees that the feed-in tariff needs to be reviewed, but in a phased way, does the Minister agree that, at the very least, the existing tariff levels should be honoured for aggregated solar photovoltaic schemes where there are existing contracts?
There is nothing retrospective about the proposals that we are consulting on. The hon. Lady must accept that demand for the scheme is overwhelming compared with the budget that is available, and way beyond that which was anticipated by her own Government. We have to make very difficult decisions in balancing one factor against the other, but at the centre of our decision-making process will be a concern to ensure that this is a viable scheme that keeps the industry alive for the long term and does not support a short-term bubble.
Domestic Energy Bills
I am delighted to say, Mr Speaker, that I do have the answer to this question.
On 23 November, DECC published its updated assessment of the impact of energy and climate change policies on energy prices and bills. The latest estimates show that the average household dual fuel bill is currently 2% higher than it would have been if energy and climate change policies were not introduced. By 2020, these policies will mean that the average household dual fuel bill will be 7% lower than it would have been in the same year in the absence of our policies.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Would he be prepared to work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how the benefits of the discount schemes for people on low incomes could be extended to park homes, where the site owner is likely to buy in bulk and then resell, perhaps at quite a high price? To help the very vulnerable people in park homes, could there be a specific campaign to tell park home owners that they are eligible for the green deal?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As a long-standing campaigner for people who live in park homes, she knows that they are far too often overlooked in schemes that benefit people who live in substantial and ordinary properties. It is crucial that we have the dialogue that she asks for to ensure that we help those people as far as we can. There are obviously practical issues that we need to address. We will try to get to the bottom of this.
The Minister may not know that Huddersfield has a twinning arrangement with Stoke-on-Trent and that we work very closely together. People in Huddersfield, like the people in Dorset and Stoke-on-Trent, are sick to death of the cost of energy. They want a more visible, muscular effort from this Government to take on the energy companies, many of which are foreign-owned, and make them do their job.
I am sure that Mr Speaker is aware of Yorkshire’s unilateral declaration of independence, which allows twinning arrangements to be entered into between towns in Yorkshire and towns elsewhere in the country.
The hon. Gentleman made a serious point about energy costs. I assure him that we are doing more than was done under the Government whom he supported for 13 years to make this market as competitive as possible. We have just had the Ofgem retail review and its proposals to simplify the tariffs dramatically to make things much easier for consumers. We have introduced a clear limit on the period in which the energy companies have to switch people over. We are doing everything we can to make this a competitive market, at both the retail end and the wholesale end. That is the best guarantee for every consumer in this country, be they in Huddersfield or Stoke-on-Trent, that they will get the best possible deal.
That is an interesting thought and I would certainly be interested to see more from the hon. Gentleman about this issue. I can see practical difficulties, given that warmth comes from so many different sources. For example, people who are off-gas grid and are reliant on heating oil may have substantially different problems from those who are on-gas grid and are able to avail themselves of a number of things. I would certainly be prepared to look at the idea if the hon. Gentleman put something on paper and sent it over.
Feed-in Tariffs (Consultation)
The Department has received a number of representations in response to our proposals to reduce feed-in tariffs for solar PV, including the length of time allocated to our consultation. The consultation closes on Friday 23 December. Detailed information on the representations will be provided in the Government’s response to the consultation in January.
We intend to put the industry back on a sustainable path to growth, far more in line with the projections that were made by the former Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change who is now the Leader of the Opposition. We need a scheme that supports the industry but does not impose burdens unnecessarily on hard-pressed consumers.
Will my hon. Friend explain why the cut-off date of 12 December for new projects to be accepted at the current feed-in tariff is different from the consultation end date of 23 December? Why the two-week gap?
The reference date of 12 December is what we are consulting on, but the changes that we are proposing would not actually kick in until the beginning of April. We had to choose a date that we thought fair to allow people who had contracts in the pipeline to complete those contracts, but without allowing sufficient time for people to enter the market who were not already engaged in the process, and we chose April.
We all know that the Government’s consultation, which will last half the normal length of time and close after the cuts have already come into effect, is a sham. Because of the Government’s rushed changes to the feed-in tariff, which go too far, too fast, thousands of jobs are at risk. Last night, 4,500 staff at Carillion were warned that their jobs could go, but this morning the Secretary of State told the “Today” programme that he did not recognise that estimate, and that the cuts and job losses that he will cause were just a “sensible course correction”. Does the Minister believe that causing unemployment on that scale is a price worth paying?
It is so interesting how the right hon. Lady comes to the House with such inconsistent messages. One moment she wants to protect the consumer, the next she wants to push high costs on to consumer bills without a thought for the fuel-poor. The fact is that we are doing our best to contain a bubble caused by the ineffective scheme that her Government set up. We will put the industry back on a sustainable footing and do the right thing by the consumers whom she has conveniently forgotten.
Sorry excuses for a disastrous policy. I think it is 60p on an annual bill—in fact, in answer to a parliamentary question last week we were told that it was only 21p on the annual bill from 2010 to 2011. The fact is that the Minister’s cuts will hit families trying to protect themselves from soaring energy bills, put thousands of jobs and businesses in jeopardy and give the lie to the Government’s promise to be the greenest Government ever.
Last week, we read reports in the press about a meeting in the Minister’s Department between officials and the solar industry, in which officials said that the cuts to feed-in tariffs were part of a deliberate policy to kill off the solar industry. Will he come clean today and say that that is not his policy? If not, even at the eleventh hour and despite the damage that has been done, will he change course to enable solar to be put on a real sustainable footing for the future?
I think this ridiculous scaremongering is quite disgraceful. The right hon. Lady wants to talk up the problem and talk down the industry, and this pathetic attempt to smear my officials is frankly repugnant. It is her scheme that we are trying to fix—it was put in place by the last Labour Government. We will fix it and put the industry on a sustainable footing, but we should not take any lessons on budgetary control from the party that left us with a catastrophic deficit and drove this country to the brink of ruin. Shame on you!
Renewable Heat Incentive
8. What assessment he has made of the potential benefits of the renewable heat incentive for rural and remote households. (83969)
The renewable heat premium payment, the initial heat support scheme launched on 1 August, is targeted at off-gas-grid homes, particularly those in rural and remote areas. It is too early to make an accurate assessment of the benefits, but we intend to evaluate them fully next year to feed into developing future support for renewable heat.
The Minister will be aware that 8% of UK households rely on oil for their central heating, many of which are in rural and remote communities, and that many people who use oil central heating are the frail elderly and people on fixed incomes. When he consults on the feed-in tariffs, will he look into the advantages of biofuels as a means of both driving down carbon emissions and supporting lower energy bills in rural communities?
My hon. Friend makes some excellent points. Sustainably sourced biofuels for electricity, including bioliquids, are already supported under the renewables obligation, but they are not currently supported by the feed-in tariffs. We will launch phase 2 of the feed-in tariff comprehensive review, which will consider their potential expansion to new technologies such as bioliquids. I certainly take his points on board.
Does the Minister consider that the renewable heat incentive makes sufficient provision for the encouragement of domestic and small-scale combined heat and power boilers, which are particularly appropriate to off-grid households but may not be fully covered by the provisions of the RHI because they are not necessarily supplied by fully biogas-based sources? Is he willing to investigate that and consider whether the RHI could support such devices to a better extent?
I am very willing to do so indeed. The RHI has not been launched in full for domestic appliances—we are currently trialling it with the RHPP—but I am keen to support micro-CHP in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. He is an expert on this area and I would be happy to work with him to see what further support we need to drive forward this exciting technology.
Durban Climate Change Conference
9. What steps he is taking to secure agreement on climate finance in advance of the Durban climate change conference. (83970)
There are three main elements. On fast-start finance to developing countries, I am proud to say that the Government are on track to deliver our £1.5 billion pledge. We want other donors to do the same. On long-term sources of climate finance, we are at the forefront of pushing for new sources of public and private finance and we want others to join us there too. Lastly, we will push for the green climate fund to be operationalised in Durban as part of a balanced outcome to the negotiations.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, but recent press reports suggest that countries might not be able to reach an agreement at Durban even on the green climate fund, which had been the only realistic expected outcome prior to the summit. What steps are the UK Government taking to ensure that countries reach an agreement on the structure, operation and finance of the fund?
My officials are working diligently on that. We want as many outcomes at Durban to operationalise the agreements at Cancun as we can get. I do not agree with the hon. Lady that that is the only potential outcome. One of the most important things we can hope to get out of Durban if the talks go well is a commitment from all parties to ensure that we have an overarching legal framework. We can negotiate that and we could also respect the science by ensuring that we peak global emissions by 2020.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that financing for climate change measures is absolutely vital and that we have a very short period of time if we are not to feel the adverse affects of climate change. Does he agree with many groups, including the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the shipping industry, that a global tax on shipping is one way in which we could achieve a fair and sustainable way of financing climate change measures?
I certainly believe that a levy—a bunker fuels duty or whatever—is one potential way of raising the finance necessary. That was a recommendation in the report of the advisory group on finance, which was set up by the UN Secretary-General and in which I was honoured to participate. That is one of the most likely ways forward in breaking the back of that particular problem.
The green deal is a coalition agreement and a priority for this Government. We established the legal underpinning for green deal through the Energy Act 2011 and recently launched our consultation on secondary legislation, which will guide the detailed operation of the scheme. I am encouraged by the support we have had in developing this policy and the interest shown by a broad range of organisations in playing a role.
The green deal consultation sets out the Government’s plan to give three times as much subsidy to able-to-pay households than to fuel-poor households that take up the green deal. Why are Ministers giving three times more help to home owners who can afford to pay for improvements than to people living in fuel poverty?
The hon. Lady should be aware that the eco-subsidy is replacing two elements that we inherited from the previous Government: the Warm Front scheme, which was aimed at helping those in fuel poverty, and the carbon emissions reduction target and community energy saving programme schemes, which were aimed generally at householders. The proportions are broadly similar, so I do not accept that this is a departure in policy in terms of prioritisation. She will be aware that the warm home discount is aimed at those in fuel poverty—it will give two thirds more support to those in fuel poverty and will be targeted on the 600,000 most needy pensioners. That is a statutory scheme, which compares with the voluntary one under the previous Labour Government.
In answer to earlier questions, Ministers said that the green deal is with us and working here and now, but it is not. The Government are scrapping Warm Front and delays with the green deal mean that they will be the first Government since the 1970s who have not had a fuel efficiency programme. At the same time, they are downgrading the number of jobs that will be created by the green deal by 35,000. The question is simple: why?
The eco-consultation and that jobs estimate obviously came out before the Chancellor’s announcement in the autumn statement of £200 million of incentives for the uptake of the green deal. Those introductory incentives have been warmly welcomed across the industry and will ensure that we have substantial uptake of the green deal. On the point about funding, the whole model of providing energy efficiency changes with the green deal. That was supported across the House, including by the last Labour Government. It will, I believe, unlock substantially more money that was ever available from publicly funded, Exchequer-funded sources.
The Green Alliance has conducted three constituency pilot workshops in my constituency of Hexham, in Bristol North West and in Redcar today. Will the Minister meet the Green Alliance and me before Christmas to discuss the outcomes for the green deal that we studied for some considerable time only last month?
It is a very interesting idea and one that certainly merits further consideration. I am delighted to say that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), will be very happy to meet my hon. Friend to take that matter further.
We have heard a lot about interest rates this week. Affordable interest rates for green deal finance will be crucial if consumers are to take up the green deal at the scale and level the Government anticipate. A report by E3G says that relying on commercial loans could mean interest rates as high as 8%, 9% or even 10%. Polling has found that only 7% of the British public and homeowners would be interested in taking up the green deal if interest rates were as high as that. Given that, what specifically are the Government doing to get green deal interest rates down?
We are working closely with a group of interested parties to provide a finance aggregator for the green deal, which is exciting and will bring forward finance that is substantially cheaper than that estimated by E3G. We will announce the details of the scheme when we have them.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The aggregator to which he refers is the Green Deal Finance Company, which is working very hard to try to lower interest rates. It estimates that it will need hundreds of millions of pounds from the Green investment bank properly to fund the initial capitalisation of green deal loans and to act as the catalyst that the green deal market needs. Without such funding, interest rates will be higher than 10% and the green deal will, therefore, surely fail. A moment ago, the Secretary of State said that he envisaged that the Green investment bank would provide some support for the green deal and that it could play a very important role. Will he tell us definitively today whether the Green Deal Finance Company will receive that scale of funding from the Green investment bank?
Obviously, it is up to the Green investment bank board to make its decisions, but it is clear that it is interested in helping energy efficiency and ensuring that green deal finance gets off to a good start. Let me make it clear how this particular market is structured. Green deal receivables—please excuse me, Mr Speaker, for reverting to financial market jargon—are very similar to utility receivables. As soon as the market is established and we secure a couple of deals, the Green investment bank’s support will become important. The market will then be happy to finance this on terms similar to utility receivables. If it does that, we will be looking at substantially lower interest rates than the ones the hon. Lady has been citing.
I have been fully engaged with the development of the infrastructure theme of the growth review, embodied in the accompanying national infrastructure plan 2011 and announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement. I welcome the inclusion of measures relating to energy infrastructure, including onshore wind. These will help to deliver our ambition for a secure, low carbon and affordable energy system.
This was supposed to be the greenest Government ever. The Secretary of State has already undermined solar energy and torpedoed carbon capture and storage. His attempts on the “Today” programme to distance himself from the Chancellor’s autumn statement cannot conceal the fact that his green credentials lie in tatters. Can he explain to the House why he has been so singularly unsuccessful in securing the investment that we so desperately need for a low carbon economy?
I think we must have been living in different worlds. The Government’s achievements on the green agenda since the election include electricity market reform, the green deal in the Energy Act 2011 and the pioneering renewable heat incentive. Furthermore, we have brought forward the subsidy review for renewables, which was widely welcomed by the sector, and secured £1 billion for the carbon capture and storage programme. Indeed, yesterday I visited a CCS pilot partially funded by Government money. I think that the hon. Gentleman is overlooking many achievements on the green agenda that do indeed mean that we are on course to be the greenest Government ever.
In interviews at the time of the autumn statement, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury announced casually that the money for the CCS project was being reallocated and would not be required until well into the next Parliament. Given that the Secretary of State has already pulled the rug from under Longannet, is this not clear evidence that he has abandoned any hope of developing CCS as a potential export industry?
Absolutely not. By the way, the hon. Gentleman did not quote the Chief Secretary precisely. The Chief Secretary pointed out that money was absolutely available for a CCS project. Indeed, all the negotiators involved in the Longannet project recognised that although the money was not enough to make Longannet work, it would be enough to make a CCS project work elsewhere. The reality is that there will be some slippage. The profiling of that £1 billion in the comprehensive spending review was heavily weighted towards the last year of the CSR, and if there is slippage it is bound to be in the next CSR. However, we will make profiling decisions on expenditure for CCS when the projects come forward following the competition next year, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the money is available to fund them.
The Secretary of State has just reiterated his claim last month that the £1 billion for CCS is safe. If so, will projects, including at Peterhead and elsewhere, aiming to be up and running before the end of this Parliament still have access to that £1 billion? If so, how does that square with the comments from his Cabinet colleague, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury?
The 2016 date is the end date for the competition run by the EU Commission. We hope to be able to support those projects in the UK that the Commission decides it is sensible to support, but there will be other projects too. The £1 billion is not necessarily available to fund the up-front capital costs entirely. If we can get private money into a scheme—such as the one I saw yesterday at Ferrybridge, where we invested £6 million despite the total cost being about £250 million—that is the right way to go. The Government are about using public money as effectively as possible to bring in private sector money as well.
Exploration for shale gas in the UK has only recently started, and it will be some years before the prospects for production in our geological, regulatory and economic conditions, and the economic prospects for the industry, can be fully assessed. However, a British Geological Survey study last year estimated that UK shales might yield some 150 billion cubic metres of gas—equivalent to roughly two years’ demand. Work is in hand to update these geological estimates in the light of more recent information, including Cuadrilla’s estimate of gas in place under its licences in Lancashire.
Media reports in the US state that shale gas discoveries have reinvigorated US oil and gas production. There have been substantial discoveries of shale gas in the UK, as the Minister mentioned, so does he agree that the UK could learn lessons from the US experience with a view to developing shale gas in the UK?
My hon. Friend is right to point to the lessons from the United States. Shale gas has transformed the energy outlook there and potentially turned the US from a gas importer to a gas exporter. There might be lessons to learn, but there are very different rules here on land ownership that will make things much more complicated. We are a much more densely populated area, and other countries such as Poland and elsewhere are clearly attracting interest in this connection, but we will explore the matter. There are no barriers to doing so but nevertheless we recognise the limitations.
I have had many recent discussions with the Chancellor and others on jobs and skills in the green economy. Green growth has been considered across all strands of the growth review, and I welcome recent announcements in this area, including on the green deal, which could support at least 65,000 insulation and construction jobs by 2015.
I previously asked the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker). the same question, but he made such a mess of it that I am pleased that the Secretary of State is having a go. Why in the past year has Britain slipped from third in the world to 13th for investment in green technology?
Clearly the hon. Gentleman understands that investment in these terms is often a lagging indicator, and the last Government were sadly remiss in coming forward with adequate incentives—for renewables investment, for example. I am delighted to say that we have brought forward the renewables review and provided the certainty that the industry required, and I am sure that our position will improve in future rankings.
But how does the Secretary of State square the changes to feed-in tariffs with promoting a green economy? In just one small scheme by the Peabody housing association in my constituency, the four jobs at the association are at risk, the eight apprenticeships are at risk and the 100 jobs at Breyer, which is installing the scheme, are also at risk. The Secretary of State is killing the solar industry and he must know it.
That is absolutely not the case. The right hon. Lady knows very well the importance of sustainability, because—if I may pay tribute to her—she has a long track record in this House of standing up for sustainability. However, sustainability does not apply merely to environmental matters; it applies also to budgets and the growth of industry, and we are putting the solar industry on a sustainable basis for growth.
17. What recent discussions he has had with energy suppliers on the provision of credit for energy supply to new businesses; and what assessment he has made of the effect on growth of the level of deposit currently required. (83979)
The level of security deposits is a matter of negotiation between individual businesses and energy suppliers. If the terms of an energy supply contract are felt to be unreasonable, businesses should seek to obtain a supply from an alternative provider or seek independent advice from Consumer Direct.
I thank the Minister for that reply, but requests from energy companies for large deposits up front is an increasing issue for new businesses in Calder Valley, as well as those being taken over by new owners. Will he reassure Calder Valley business people that the heavy-armed tactics that energy companies are using will be looked at and pressure brought to bear?
My hon. Friend raises an important issue, and I am grateful to him for raising it with me previously in a meeting. I understand the concerns facing businesses in Calder Valley and elsewhere. There are issues that Ofgem should be looking into, and I am happy to write and draw its attention to them. Indeed, Ofgem has recently said that it is doing more to try to ensure that businesses get a fair deal in this regard.
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.
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 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 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 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.
Business of the House
The business for the week commencing 5 December is as follows:
Monday 5 December—Motion relating to ministerial statements, followed by motion relating to UK extradition arrangements.
The subjects for these debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 6 December—General debate on the economy.
Wednesday 7 December—Motion relating to the appointment of the chairman of the National Audit Office, followed by motion relating to the membership of the Speaker’s Committee on the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, followed by motion to approve a European document relating to European sales law. In addition, the Chairman of Ways and Means has named the London Local Authorities Bill as opposed private business for consideration.
Thursday 8 December—Opposition day [un-allotted day] [half-day]. There will be a debate on a Scottish National party-Plaid Cymru motion, subject to be announced, followed by a money resolution relating to the Local Government Ombudsman (Amendment) Bill.
The provisional business for the week commencing 12 December will include:
Monday 12 December—General debate on immigration.
Tuesday 13 December—Motion to approve the appointment of the chairman of the Statistics Board, followed by motion to approve a statutory instrument relating to financial restrictions (Iran), followed by Opposition day [un-allotted day] [half-day]. There will be a debate on a Democratic Unionist party motion, subject to be announced.
Wednesday 14 December—Opposition day [un-allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.
Thursday 15 December—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 8 December will be a debate on the EU Council.
May I start by placing on the record an apology from my hon. Friend the shadow Leader of the House, who is attending an engagement in her constituency today and is therefore unable to be with us? In fact, she is welcoming the Queen officially to open a new development. I suggested that she might also want to use the opportunity to ask Her Majesty to look in her diary to check when her Gracious Speech is likely to take place, so we can finally clear the matter up—unless, of course, the Leader of the House would like to tell us first this morning?
Will the Leader of the House tell us when the Government will bring to the House business of any substance? For some time now, we have seen a distinct absence of Government-sponsored business and the schedule just announced, which takes us to almost the very end of the session, is no different. Perhaps the Government are responding to the dark days of winter and the even darker days of the economic crisis they have helped to create by going into hibernation. After just 18 months in government, they have run out of ideas while their economic policy has run into the sand. At a time when millions of families are desperately worried about what the future holds, the Government are showing how desperately out of touch they are by offering no new legislation and not a single debate of any substance.
Mr Speaker, on Monday you heard a point of order from the shadow Leader of the House that raised concerns about the Government’s deliberate and selective leaking of the autumn statement to the media and you responded by expressing your grave concern about those matters. Since then, of course, we have enjoyed the rather dubious pleasure of listening to the Chancellor deliver his statement on the Floor of the House and, indeed, it was an illuminating experience, if only in the sense that it revealed the very few details of the statement that had not already been leaked to the media. How important those small details are, however. We learned, for instance, that the Government are unable to meet the deficit reduction target that they set themselves only 18 months ago and that growth forecasts have been slashed to 0.9% this year, down from the 1.7% forecast in March, and 0.7% next year, down from 2.5%, the fourth downgrade since this Government came to power. We also learned that the Government’s squeeze on living standards will be not only severe but prolonged. It will be extended to six years or longer—a situation not seen in the UK since the last war.
Despite all the spin in advance of Tuesday, the very measures that the Chancellor chose to highlight in his leaks have unravelled under close scrutiny. Borrowing is set to spiral by £158 billion, despite promises to balance the deficit by 2015. Unemployment is expected to continue to rise for the next two years and £1.3 billion a year will be snatched from children and families after cuts to the child tax credit and the freezing of the working tax credit. Meanwhile, the bankers will contribute just £300 million. After 18 months, the verdict is in—plan A has failed colossally. So may we have a debate on the Chancellor’s autumn statement? It is time for the Government to adopt Labour’s five-point plan and put jobs and growth first.
When listening to the Chancellor’s statement, the House could have been forgiven for thinking that we were back in the 1980s—back to the future. Now we have the “back to the future jobs fund”. With more than 1 million young people unemployed, the Government’s U-turn on tackling youth unemployment is welcome, but the devil is always in the detail. May we have a debate on the measures that have been announced for tackling youth unemployment and how far they will go toward repairing the damage inflicted by the Government’s decision to abolish the future jobs fund in the first place? Such a debate would provide the Government with a good opportunity to apologise for their hastiness in cancelling a successful initiative.
The Government should also apologise for their reckless approach to economic management and, more crucially, they should stop blaming everyone and everything else when things do not go according to plan A. Last week, we heard that they were not to blame for their planned reduction in the feed-in tariff for solar-generated power and the damage that threatens to inflict on the solar industry. We were also told that the reduction was not a betrayal of their promise to be the greenest Government ever. This week, we have also heard that it is not their fault that there is no guarantee that the £1 billion for carbon capture projects will be forthcoming in the near future. However, we then learned in The Independent that the autumn statement would announce a review of legislation relating to the protection of precious wildlife habitats in the planning process because they are deemed to be a potential barrier to economic growth. May we have a debate about the role of green policy in promoting economic growth, given that the Conservative party said, “Vote blue, get green”, whereas the reality is that we are not getting very much at all? It will take more than a few huskies and a vanity photographer to restore the Prime Minister’s green credentials.
Not only do the Government refuse to respect the usual courtesies of the House but they refuse to respect the promises they made to the electorate or to take responsibility for their actions when things go wrong. They are out of touch and they are hiding from the electorate and from Members of the House.
May I welcome the hon. Lady to her debut at business questions? Of course we understand the absence of the shadow Leader of the House, who is in her constituency.
On the date of Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech, I repeat what I have said in previous questions—we will announce those in due course. We have a legislative programme going through both Houses, and when that programme has made good progress we will be able to announce the dates of Prorogation and the Queen’s Speech.
The hon. Lady somewhat devalued the debates between now and Christmas that I have just announced, including an Opposition day, which she thinks is of no consequence at all. There is an important debate on the economy on Tuesday and some important debates will be chosen by the Backbench Business Committee. I am sure that she did not mean to insult the subjects chosen by that Committee by implying that they are not of any importance to the House.
On the ministerial code, I look forward to the debate on Monday; the Backbench Business Committee has brought forward a motion on the subject. I repeat that we are committed to what is in the ministerial code: important announcements should be made to Parliament in the first instance.
When we set the target that the hon. Lady mentioned, we gave ourselves an extra year’s headroom, and we have now used that up, so we are still on track to meet the original target. The strategy on which we have embarked, which she criticised, has been endorsed by the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, the Bank of England and all credible commentators. It is the Labour party alone that wants to embark on a reckless series of policies that would put at risk the low interest rates that the country now enjoys.
I hope that the hon. Lady welcomes the announcement made a few days ago on the youth contract. The future jobs fund was an expensive use of resources, and many of the jobs were short-term posts in the public sector; those in them ended up back on the dole. Our Work programme is a much more targeted and efficient alternative.
On the issues that the hon. Lady raised about climate change, we have just had Department of Energy and Climate Change questions, in which there was an opportunity to press the Secretary of State on our commitment to our environmental targets, which I am sure that he reasserted.
I think that I have answered all the questions that the hon. Lady put to me. Her last point was to ask whether we would stop blaming other people for the problems that confront us. The Office for Budget Responsibility could not have been clearer about the reasons for the difficulties that confront the country. The first is issues in the eurozone, the second is the increase in commodity prices, and the third is the deep recession that we inherited from the Labour party.
On Wednesday, more than a third of questions were Opposition Whips’ questions with exactly the same wording. That blocks Members who really want to ask questions from getting their question on the Order Paper. I know that that is not something that the Government do. Will the Leader of the House issue a statement next week condemning the practice?
I think that I am right in saying that my hon. Friend raised that issue with you, Mr Speaker, at the end of the question session. As my hon. Friend implies, it is way beyond my remit to comment on the issue, but I would say that there is no evidence at all of him ever having asked a question given to him by our Whips.
To help the Leader of the House fill the time before the end of the Session, the Backbench Business Committee will conduct a review of its work. To do that, we are sending out a feedback form asking Back Benchers about their experiences and ideas for the future of the Committee, so that we can put forward proposals for its future in the new Session. What can he do to help the Committee promote the survey and encourage Back Benchers to fill it in and return it before Christmas?
I applaud the work that the hon. Lady and the Backbench Business Committee do, and I welcome her public service announcement about the survey. I would indeed encourage colleagues to complete and return the survey; that will, in due course, inform the review of the Backbench Business Committee that the House has committed to undertake at the end of the Committee’s first year.
May we have an urgent debate on Burma? I am sure that we all welcome the recent release of political prisoners, but there are still more than 1,000 being held without charge or trial. If the Burmese regime is serious about being taken into the international family and community, it needs to let those people go.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. Like him, I welcome the signs of relaxation of some of the extreme measures undertaken by that regime. I cannot promise a debate, but I understand that the Backbench Business Committee has indicated that, on the last day before the Christmas recess, we will have a series of Adjournment debates. He might like to apply for one of those.
That was one of the most extraordinary Government business statements that I have ever heard—extraordinary for its complete absence of Government business. Is the Leader of the House not the slightest little bit embarrassed to be scrabbling around, trying to find things for us to do, when the Government face the gravest crisis since the 1930s? If I may make one suggestion, how about a debate on the Government’s plan for regional pay rates in the public sector, which will be absolutely devastating in south-west England, where we have very low pay in the private sector and, already, the biggest gap in house-price affordability?
On the first point, we are anxious to avoid the fiasco that took place in the last Parliament; towards the end of a Session, Bills would be rushed through the House with inadequate consideration. As a result of the way in which we have planned this Session, the House has had ample time to discuss legislation. The right hon. Gentleman will know that we have two Houses of Parliament. Bills have to go through both Houses, and they have to complete the process before the House can be prorogued.
The legislative programme means that Bills, having gone through the House of Commons, are now in another place, where they are being considered. I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman is asking for yet more legislation when, quite often, I receive complaints from Opposition spokespeople that we legislate too much and do not give the House adequate time. As for regional pay rates, he will have heard what my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said in the autumn statement: he has asked a commission to look at this and report back.
May we have a road safety debate, so that Transport Ministers can explain to the House and to the country why they are pursuing policies that will result in more crashes, injuries and deaths, which would be the inevitable consequence of raising the speed limit to 80 mph, using the hard shoulder for moving traffic, and reducing the frequency of vehicle checks? Last night, St John Ambulance held its inaugural national awards. May I suggest that such a debate would provide an opportunity to discuss its campaign to introduce first aid training in schools, which would help to save lives, not increase deaths?
I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from. The Government are consulting on raising the maximum speed limit and reducing the speed limit elsewhere. A final decision has not been taken on that proposition, and I shall ensure that his views are fed into the consultative process.
I appreciate the efforts that you made, Mr Speaker, to allow me to ask a question earlier. I hope that the leader of my party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Mr Dodds), duly noted the way in which I stood aside for him, and rewards me accordingly.
In a breathtaking display of bigotry this week, the Sinn Fein Lord Mayor of Belfast refused to give a Duke of Edinburgh award to a young Army cadet. That typifies the intransigence that we see from Sinn Fein: Sinn Fein Members ignore the electorate by refusing to take their seats in the House, yet they get hundreds of thousands of pounds supposedly to carry out parliamentary businesses. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate and a vote so that the issue of the abuse of public funds can be dealt with?
I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has just said. He will know that that issue was raised yesterday in Northern Ireland questions, and he may have heard what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. I understand the disappointment of the young person who did not receive the medal in the way in which they hoped, and I understand the very strong feelings that have been aroused. I remind him of what my right hon. Friend said when that point was made yesterday:
“The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. The armed forces are a wonderful example of people from right across the community working together.”
He went on to draw on the example of the Royal Irish Regiment and the work that it has done in securing
“representatives from right across Northern Ireland and the Republic”.—[Official Report, 30 November 2011; Vol. 536, c. 925-926.]
I very much hope that we can move forward in a more consensual way than that particular gesture indicated.
I know from personal experience and from my postbag in my Loughborough constituency that the lack of access to affordable child care is critical in preventing women from going back to work. May we have a general debate on child care policies?
I would welcome such a debate, and on Tuesday it may be in order to discuss that. We have announced that we will invest an additional £300 million in child care support under universal credit, on top of the £2 billion in the current system. At the moment, that provision is available only if someone works more than 16 hours, but we are going to remove the minimum hours rule. I very much hope that my hon. Friend welcomes that announcement.
May we have a debate next week about the harmful effects of violent video games? Last week, the university of Indiana published research that showed that regularly playing those games resulted in physical changes in the brain. At a time when parents are thinking of purchasing video games for Christmas, does the right hon. Gentleman not think that it is important to hold a debate on this matter? This is not about censorship—it is about protecting our children.
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I know that this is an issue that he has pursued with vigour for some time. I cannot promise a debate next week. Home Office questions, I think, will be held on 12 December, but in the meantime I will draw his concern to the attention of the Home Secretary.
Following the welcome announcement of additional funds for the Highways Agency and the Department for Transport for road infrastructure projects, may we have a debate on the key projects that Members wish to raise? Personally, I do not always find the Highways Agency as responsive as it should be, and it would be good to put on the record some of the projects that we are passionate about in our constituencies.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who reminds the House of the supply side measures that we have taken, bringing forward some important infrastructure projects to generate employment. He will know that a large number of schemes were announced by the Chancellor on Tuesday, including some infrastructure projects to support growth in the west midlands. I am sorry if that did not go quite as far as my hon. Friend would wish, but on Tuesday, in the debate on the economy, I am sure that he will have an opportunity to make his plea, which I hope will be heard by Ministers.
The Leader of the House may not have seen the Amnesty report on Saudi Arabia, which was published this morning. Amnesty says that
“hundreds of people have been arrested for demonstrating, while the government has drafted an anti-terror law that would effectively criminalize dissent as a ‘terrorist crime’ and further strip away rights from those accused of such offences.”
The hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) will lead a delegation from Parliament to Saudi Arabia at the weekend. Does the Leader of the House agree—I have already spoken to the hon. Gentleman—that anyone who represents the House in Saudi Arabia should raise those issues, and it is important that they are raised face-to-face with our opposite numbers?
I feel as if I am a postbox in the dialogue between the right hon. Lady and my hon. Friend the Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski). She will know that we had a debate on Monday—indeed, I think she took part—in which some of those issues were raised, although not the recent report by Amnesty International. I am sure that my hon. Friend heard her plea, has taken it on board, and will report back when he returns and let her know how he got on.
May we have a debate about rail in the north? We have a huge requirement for rail investment in the north, especially Yorkshire, and we have had some encouraging news recently. It would be timely to hold a debate after the announcement of the TransPennine Express electrification in the autumn statement on Tuesday.
I would welcome such a debate, and it may be relevant on Tuesday. I see from the Chancellor’s announcement on Tuesday that there will be two new park-and-ride sites in York; and Leeds rail growth will be assisted by two new railway stations in Kirkstall Forge and Apperley Bridge, and a number of other schemes in the Yorkshire region. I very much hope that my hon. Friend accepts that this is a priority, and that we are making progress with infrastructure in the area that he represents.
May we have a debate specifically on the national infrastructure plan 2011? As a fellow Shropshire MP, I support the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Daniel Kawczynski) in calling for a debate about roads and road investment. Just after the last election, we saw the removal of the M54-M6 toll road link from capital infrastructure projects. I should like to debate that in the House, and I am sure that other Shropshire MPs would, too.
This reminds me of when I was Secretary of State for Transport many years ago, and heard all these pleas for extra investment, which I take seriously. I remind the hon. Gentleman that when his party came to power it imposed a moratorium on many of the schemes with which I was planning to go ahead. None the less, he makes a serious point about that particular road, and I shall draw his concern to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport.
May we have a debate next week on today’s written ministerial statement on the retention of the mobility component in residential care? It would give the House an opportunity both to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), for listening to hon. Members on both sides of the House and to organisations such as Leonard Cheshire Disability, and to welcome the fact that, today, the Government have announced that the mobility component of disability living allowance will not be removed from people living in residential care homes, as an amendment will be tabled to the Welfare Reform Bill on Report in the Lords. That is welcome news, and the House ought to note that it is an extremely good example of Ministers taking the care, time and trouble to listen and respond accordingly.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In business questions about 12 months ago, that subject was frequently raised by Members on both sides of the House, who expressed concern about our proposals under the personal independence payment to remove the mobility component of DLA for people in residential accommodation. As he knows, we asked Lord Low to review our proposals. He reported a few weeks ago, and today, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has announced that we will not go ahead with our original proposals, as my hon. Friend said. We will table an appropriate amendment to the Welfare Reform Bill in another place to retain that entitlement, which enables people to have the mobility that they very much welcome if they live in residential or nursing homes.
You fortuitously called me, Mr Speaker, just in time to revive an old English custom: a pinch and a punch for the first day of the month. Of course, I would never pinch or punch the Leader of the House, but I might be tempted to do so with the Government unless during the slight time announced today we have a serious debate on the fact that university applications are already 15% down, which is a serious challenge to our university system. The punch is that we should do something more ambitious on youth unemployment than what came out of the autumn statement.
I do not think that the position on university applications for next year is quite as grim as the hon. Gentleman outlines. There was a fall of 0.9% for places that had to be applied for by 15 October. The 15% drop to which he refers is in applications for which there is still time to apply. We have not reached the final date, so it is too soon to say that there will be a fall of 15%. The earlier figure to which I referred is much more encouraging. If one looks at the demography, one will see that fewer people in that age group are coming forward for higher education.
May we have a debate on women and the prison system? Mahatma Gandhi said that a society can be judged by how it treats its first, its last and its lost. It is my strong belief that women in the prison system and the 17,000 children a year who are separated from their mothers as a result of incarceration are among the lost. May we have a debate in Government time to review that important problem?
I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest in that important subject. I very much hope that our new approach to the penal system of payment by results will also benefit women in prison, that new contractors with an interest in finding long-term, secure employment and accommodation for those leaving prison will come forward, and that we will be able to improve our record so far and help those women rebuild their lives after leaving prison.
Certainly not. Our policy on rail fares applies throughout the country. We have changed the formula from RPI plus 3 to RPI plus 1, which will benefit travellers in whichever part of the country they travel. As far as the capital programme is concerned, if the hon. Gentleman looks at the announcements my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made on Tuesday, he will see that every region in the country will benefit from infrastructure projects being brought forward.
Just the other week I visited the Cheslyn Hay Boys Brigade, an organisation that has been running for 40 years as a result of the dedication and commitment of its volunteers. May we have a debate on how we can encourage more Boys Brigades to play an active role in supporting young people’s involvement in civic society?
I welcome the work of the Boys Brigade in my hon. Friend’s constituency and agree that it has a role to play in achieving the objective he has just outlined. I cannot promise a debate in the near future, although he may be able with some ingenuity to squeeze the subject in on Tuesday, and there will be the normal pre-Christmas Adjournment debate on the Tuesday we rise, during which he may have an opportunity to develop his case with yet greater eloquence.
Yesterday’s strike had less of an impact than some people had feared. Fewer job centres closed than in June and the number of schools that closed was lower than had been feared. While I am on my feet, I would like to pay tribute to those who work for the House for ensuring that it could operate yesterday and that in the Chamber we could have important statements and a debate on living standards.
If the hon. Gentleman looks at page 4 of the distribution analysis, he will see that the distribution is progressive and that those in the top 10% are paying 10 times more than those in the bottom 10%.
I know from my own experience and that of my constituents just how important health visitors are to new mums in the vital first few weeks of a baby’s life, so will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on health visitors and other support given to new mums to help families through that difficult and daunting time?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. She will know that one of the commitments we made was to increase the number of health visitors, which we are doing by redeploying resources. With regard to social mobility and giving people a good start in life, health visitors and what we are doing with free nursery care and the pupil premium are all part of a process of enabling people from disadvantaged families to break through and achieve their full potential.
Further to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), may we have a debate on university applications? Today, applications are down 15% on average, compared with this time last year, but in Middlesbrough they are down 40%. Does the Leader of the House agree with the chair of South Tees Conservative Future when he said that he “can see the benefits of lower applications”?
I am in favour of more applications but, as I said to the hon. Member for Huddersfield, it is too soon to draw the conclusion that I think the hon. Gentleman is drawing—[Interruption.] It makes sense to wait until applications close before drawing conclusions on whether they are up or down on last year. As I said, where applications have closed the reduction is 0.9%, so I think that he is being unduly alarmist.
May we have a debate on how the Government are working with local authorities to protect some of our most vulnerable children, especially in areas such as Sandwell, where the Labour-run council was recently judged by Ofsted to be failing in its provision to some of the most vulnerable children in the community?
May we have a debate on anti-Semitism, because yesterday an hon. Member of this House said in front of a House Committee that Mr Matthew Gould, our distinguished ambassador to Israel, should not serve as such because he is Jewish? In such a debate we could make it absolutely clear that we do not have a religious bar in our diplomatic service and that we do not say that Jews cannot serve in Israel or that Catholics cannot serve in Catholic countries or the Holy See, so that we may eradicate anti-Semitism once and for all from public discourse in our country?
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman and applaud the work that he did in the last Parliament on the subject. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is an equal opportunity employer. It is inconceivable that it would apply any sort of prejudice of the type to which he refers in deciding who should be our ambassador in any part of the world.
Earlier this week one of my constituents was arrested after a video of her ranting at fellow passengers on a Croydon tram and using the most foul racist language spread on social media. It shows that the evil of racism is still with us, but it also shows, on a positive note, the power of social media, as it allowed her to be caught and showed that the vast majority of Croydon residents do not share her views. May we have a debate on how the evil of racism in our society can finally be eradicated?
I agree with my hon. Friend. I should not comment on the particular incident, as I understand that charges have been made. It would be quite wrong if people could not travel on public transport because they were worried about being subjected to the sort of abuse to which he refers. I believe that the penalties we have to deal with hate crimes are serious and hope that they will be used if the offences justify them.
The Government have stated their desire to rebalance the economy and make up for the thousands of public sector jobs that are being lost in regions such as mine, yet today we received the dreadful news that 4,500 jobs at Carillion—a big employer based in Newcastle and Gateshead—have been put at risk as a direct result of the Government’s changes to the feed-in tariffs for photovoltaic panels. May we have an urgent debate on how their policies are impacting on private sector jobs in regions such as the north-east?
I hope that the hon. Lady is able to intervene in the debate on Tuesday. I think I am right in saying that, right at the end of questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the specific case of Carillion was raised and my right hon. Friend dealt with it. On the overall issue of unemployment, the OBR forecast shows that employment will be higher and unemployment lower if we compare the end of this Parliament with the start.
In Tuesday’s autumn statement, we heard good news on regional infrastructure development, and I was encouraged in particular to see the Chancellor refer to engagement
“with the Welsh Government on improvements to the M4.”
Will my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House ensure that there are opportunities for hon. Members to discuss investment in cross-border issues and projects that impact on Montgomeryshire and other cross-border constituencies?
Those are important issues, and my hon. Friend reminds the House that there is indeed a commitment to
“engage with the Welsh Government on improvements to the M4 in south east Wales.”
The Welsh Government will also benefit from the Barnett formula, receiving enhanced funding in line with that which has been allocated to England, and there is also an urban broadband fund, which will create 10 super-connected cities, including Cardiff. There was a lot in Tuesday’s announcement to help my hon. Friend’s constituency and others in Wales.
Given that the Leader of the House seems, if I may say so, to be struggling somewhat to arrange items of business, may I suggest that he schedules a debate on the important work of faith organisations in what I presume he would describe as the big society? Will he also join me in congratulating Leicester’s council of faiths, now in its 25th year, on its successful inter-faith week?
I applaud what Leicester is doing on that particular subject, but let me explain to the hon. Gentleman what happens. The Government schedule time for Government legislation, and most of the rest of the time is allocated to the Backbench Business Committee, so if he wants a debate on faith organisations, which I would heartily support, he needs either to present himself on a Tuesday at 1 o’clock to that Committee and put in such a bid, or to apply to you, Mr Speaker, for an Adjournment debate. That particular subject would be warmly welcomed on both sides of the House.
On Tuesday in the autumn statement, the Chancellor made the argument that investing in early years education and schools will do more to lift people out of poverty than just increasing benefits. Figures that I have obtained from the Library show that of all single-parent families on child tax credits with five or more children, 23,000 such households are out of work and 4,000 are in work, so may we have a debate about whether the best way to help those households aspire to greater prosperity is through helping parents into work with increased free child care, rather than increasing the size of their benefit cheque?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the way to help such people is to help them into work and to remove the barriers that prevent them from going into work, one of which is child care. She will know that we have expanded free nursery education, first, for all three to four-year-olds and, then, to 20% of two-year-old children from disadvantaged families—a figure that was increased on Tuesday to 40%. I very much hope that that will help achieve the social mobility to which my hon. Friend refers.
May we have a statement from the Government on the protections given to whistleblowers? This is a particularly emotive subject in my constituency, as a result of the legacy of the Harold Shipman murders and the crucial role that whistleblowing played in bringing him to justice. A ruling in the Court of Appeal last month, however, to the effect that employers cannot be held responsible for incriminatory acts by the fellow employees of another of my constituents, has some people worried that the protections that we give to whistleblowers are not vigorous enough. Will the Leader of the House raise that issue with his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice and, perhaps, arrange a meeting between me and one of those Ministers to discuss it further?
The hon. Gentleman makes a serious point, and there should not be the deterrent, which he implies, preventing people from coming forward and reporting malpractice, injustice or, even, criminal activities. Of course I will raise with the Lord Chancellor the concern that the hon. Gentleman has expressed following that decision of the courts, and I will see whether the Government need to take any remedial action.
In Norfolk and East Anglia, a huge number of engineering, energy and high-tech businesses are ready to expand and grow, but for many years they have complained about the previous Government’s neglect of our infrastructure and, particularly, our road infrastructure. I therefore welcome this week’s announcement on the A14, building on the A11 and the Government’s broadband investment in East Anglia. May we have a debate on infrastructure and the economic opportunities resulting from it, particularly so that we can highlight in Norfolk the further opportunities that will emerge if we eventually dual the A47?
My hon. Friend makes an important bid for yet further investment in infrastructure in his constituency, and I note that he welcomed Tuesday’s announcement, which will improve the A14, A11 and parts of the M1—junctions 10 to 13. I will pass on to the Secretary of State for Transport the fact that my hon. Friend’s appetite has now been whetted, and that he wants to see yet further investment in his constituency.