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Topical Questions

Volume 539: debated on Thursday 26 January 2012

Since my Department’s last Question Time, I have attended the UN climate change conference, where the UK delegation as a whole played a key role in securing the Durban platform, a road map to a global legal agreement. DECC has published the carbon plan, which sets out how we will meet our first four carbon budgets; we have consulted on incentives for solar energy as part of our review of the feed-in tariff scheme; and our clean energy plans took an important step forward with the opening of the UK’s first carbon capture and storage plant in November last year.

The right hon. Gentleman neglected to mention the defeat in the High Court. My constituents Mark Davenport and Brian Malone lost money setting up solar power companies. Will the Government compensate people who lost money as a direct result of the Secretary of State’s illegal actions?

Evidence of the very sharp take-up when we announced that we were getting to grips with the problems of the scheme shows that those involved in the industry had plenty of forewarning. As in any other sector, businesses take risks: sometimes the rewards are high and sometimes they are not.

T2. No new nuclear power stations have been built in this country for more than 20 years. How confident is the Secretary of State that Britain will possess all the relevant skills and supply chains necessary to create a thriving nuclear industry in this country? (91752)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of skills to the nuclear industry’s revival, especially as so many who work in that industry are nearing retirement. That is why the Minister of State responsible for energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), has been working so hard with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to make sure, through the nuclear skills academy and other measures, that the skills are there so that we can deliver on time—and we will.

T4. The St John’s Sunshine project in Old Trafford in my constituency planned to use feed-in tariffs to fund big society community projects, but Gavin Wood told me yesterday that those involved now feel that proceeding with the project would be a gamble. What assurances can the Government offer that Ministers will make good on their promises to community projects and offer them the certainty they urgently need? (91754)

As I have made clear in the House before, I wish we had been able under the law to provide separate support to the community schemes that have come forward, but we were not able to do that under the legislation passed by the previous Government. We will consult on that. I merely point out, as I did to the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that the continued fall in the cost of solar panels will make more and more schemes viable.

T3. The green deal is very dependent on consumer uptake and consumer trust in the energy companies. What sort of expertise has the Department in understanding consumer behaviour and how will we be able to deliver this programme through consumer behaviour change? (91753)

My hon. Friend has considerable experience and understanding of consumer behaviour, and she will be pleased to know that we have a specific consumer behavioural insight team in DECC, but the greatest value comes from liaising with retail companies with real track records, such as Kingfisher, B&Q, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Ultimately, it is the private sector that will guide our thinking and be responsible for the success of the green deal.

T6. The Secretary of State seemed to misunderstand my question on oil refinery capacity earlier. Oil and petroleum trade bodies tell me that there is a shortage of oil refinery capacity in this country, and that crude oil is exported to India and brought back in. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that, and how is he responding to that serious question? (91757)

It is a very serious question and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pursuing it further. Some of the crude produced in this country is not suitable for use here because of the diesel demand and therefore it is exported, and the diesel fuel tends to have to be imported, which results in an imbalance. Through the downstream oil infrastructure forum we are looking at the industry’s strategy to put in place a long-term programme to assess how we can support and build up that industry, and the role of international investors is critical to that process.

T5. Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), what estimate has the Secretary of State made of the number of wind turbines that stopped working at some point during the year, and how many of those stopped working due to too little wind and how many of them stopped working because of too much wind? (91755)

I will happily come back to my hon. Friend on wind turbines, but just because someone falls off a ladder does not mean that the House jumps to abolish ladders. In a similar sense, the operation of wind turbines, particularly those that are onshore, which are most economic, provides an increasingly important contribution to our energy needs, which is home-grown and not likely to be buffeted by events in the middle east.

T7. Four thousand five hundred employees of Carillion, headquartered in my constituency, went into Christmas on notice of redundancy due to the arbitrary and clearly illegal changes to the solar feed-in tariffs. We all agree that tariffs need to be reviewed, but will the Minister not help to end the terrible uncertainty in which Carillion employees are living by accepting the High Court decision and taking the time to review the policy properly? (91759)

I have already referred to the substantial costs and the fact that the industry would face a substantial reduction in the number of potential installations were we to accept those costs. I merely point out as well that going forwards we have attempted to provide that certainty, precisely because we laid the order, making sure that the new rate will be available from the beginning of March.

T8. Has the Minister made an assessment of the energy sources that may or may not be available in some of the British overseas territories, particularly the Falkland Islands? (91760)

The matter of oil exploration around the Falkland Islands is a lead responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Exploration is under way. Some of the initial exploration undertaken in territorial waters was disappointing, but that may change in future.

Having been a Minister myself in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, I cannot believe that officials did not warn the Secretary of State and Ministers of the folly of setting a cut-off date before the end of the consultation period. Will he not now apologise to those whose plans have been ruined and whose jobs have been lost, and acknowledge that a review was provided for in the Labour Government’s legislation?

The right hon. Lady sadly does not draw attention to the fact that there was no system of automatic degression under that scheme. However, she will be interested to hear that the general point that we should learn all the lessons required to be learned from this episode is not lost on the ministerial team, and I have ensured that we are doing precisely that. I do not think that it will come to conclusions that will be entirely to the right hon. Lady’s liking.

Does the Secretary of State agree that swift action to deal with metal theft is vital to protect our energy infrastructure, and will he therefore join me as a member of the all-party group on combating metal theft in welcoming today’s statement from the Home Office?

I certainly welcome today’s statement from the Home Office and think that the right hon. Lady the Home Secretary is putting forward some excellent ideas on how to deal with this problem. Metal theft affects all networks, including electricity networks, and because it affects networks it has a much broader cost than many other crimes.

The Government’s incompetence and arrogance over the feed-in tariff fiasco has been staggering. The industry and the public need certainty, so will the Secretary of State now try to answer the question my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) asked him earlier, abandon his costly and doomed legal case and sit down with the industry to agree a sustainable solution?

As I have already pointed out, a substantial part of the industry intervened in the court case on our side. This is the best way forward for the sustainable growth of the industry. We have also laid the order that will provide absolute certainty on the tariff rate we are providing from 3 March, so I think that the right hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically churlish.

On Tuesday the Institution of Engineering and Technology is due to publish its long-awaited report on the undergrounding of electricity transmission lines. Given that 1,000 new pylons would have a significant effect on the natural environment and the landscape, what steps has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that the study considers the wider economic benefits of undergrounding to tourism, particularly in my part of Somerset, and the lifetime maintenance costs of undergrounding compared with using mile upon mile of pylons?

It is a very important study. As part of the process of understanding whether the grid should be under or above ground, we need to start with an assessment of the real costs of undergrounding and overgrounding. This authoritative study is the most dedicated of its kind ever carried out and makes an important contribution to the debate. It will not answer all the questions, but it is an important element.

The Minister will be aware that the cost of smart meters will be borne by us in our electricity bills, but the benefits will not automatically accrue to the consumer. How will he ensure that the most vulnerable, poor and elderly consumers benefit from the installation of smart meters and are protected from disconnection?

The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. One of the keys to the success of smart meter roll-out is the education programme that will go with it to ensure that householders know how to use them to their greatest benefit. We are talking to consumer groups to ensure that that is done in the most effective way and looking at how we can involve parish councils, local charities and other organisations trusted by consumers to ensure that they get the greatest benefit as quickly as possible.

The Minister mentioned the creation of the south-west marine energy park, which is a tremendous boost to projects such as Wave Hub in my constituency. Does he agree that projects being assessed for capital grants to develop wave power should be given preference if they are located within the marine energy park?

The reason we have created marine energy parks is to bring together resources in a co-ordinated and strategic fashion, which has not happened in the past. My hon. Friend’s point is extremely well made and very valid. I expect a significant part of the Department’s research budget—£20 million—to be set aside for wave and tidal technology and to flow to his part of the world.

The energy companies tell us that very few customers are disconnected, but we know that many customers are so-called self-disconnected because they cannot afford to put credit on their pre-payment meters, especially if they are already paying off previous arrears through the meter. Will the Minister as a matter of urgency ask the energy companies how many people are self-disconnected?

As I said earlier, it is important that we understand why people are disconnected. If there is not enough clarity about why people are self-disconnecting, we will ask for more details on why that is happening.

Mid Devon district council, which is based in Tiverton, was planning just before the tariff rate was cut to have 1,800 social homes with solar panels. Will Ministers be prepared to meet officials from the council to discuss a way forward?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. Obviously we want to build a consensus on the way forward. I will publish plans for the reform of the feed-in tariff so that we can put it on a much sounder footing and learn from the mistakes of the system we inherited.

What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the Government’s liability for their unlawful actions in bringing in the feed-in tariff consultation?

We disagree, respectfully, with the Court of Appeal’s judgment, and that is precisely why we intend to go to the Supreme Court. Clearly, given that we disagree, the issue of liability at this stage does not arise.

Half an hour ago the Thamesteel works in my constituency went into administration, with the potential loss of 400 jobs. Obviously I hope that the administrators will find somebody to take over the plant as soon as possible, but any successor will face similar problems with the high cost of energy as do so many other companies in the energy-intensive industry. What can my right hon. Friend do to help such companies?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the autumn statement that we will bring forward a package to help the energy-intensive industry—

Order. I enjoy greatly listening to the Secretary of State, but can he please face the House? Then we will all have the benefit of his eloquence.

We will therefore bring forward that package with a consultation paper, and there will be detailed proposals at that point.

In the light of the court case that has been mentioned and the Secretary of State’s comments this morning, it is clear that the Department is no longer fit for purpose. Is he really telling the House that he is going to drag the Government’s reputation further into the mire and waste further large amounts of taxpayers’ money in order to pursue what is really a wasted cause?

Let me reiterate the point that, if we were merely to accept the number of installations after our reference date and before 3 March, we would add £1.5 billion to the total cost of the scheme. That is what Opposition Members are asking us to do. If we were to go further, the cost would be even greater. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a price worth paying, he is entirely consistent with what else Opposition Members say on economic policy, but it is not something that will be entertained by Government Members.