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Topical Questions

Volume 541: debated on Thursday 8 March 2012

This is my first departmental Question Time as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Since my appointment in February, I have been rather busy, following on from the successes of my predecessor. I have opened the world’s largest offshore wind farm off the coast of Cumbria, launched the energy efficiency deployment office to help the Government deliver their energy efficiency policies, and published reforms to the feed-in tariffs scheme. In addition, the Department of Energy and Climate Change and Ofgem have published a report on cutting the costs of offshore wind connection.

I welcome my right hon. Friend. Will he confirm that the Government are committed to exploring the full range of possible renewable technologies —marine, tidal, geothermal and so on—as part of a portfolio approach to a mixed energy economy, which plays to the strengths of this country both economically and environmentally?

My hon. Friend is right that this country is blessed with huge potential for renewable industries. We can therefore seek a transition to the low-carbon economy, support energy security and build a green economy, which will benefit businesses, create jobs and increase our exports to the world.

The Labour Government committed £60 million to supporting manufacturing for offshore wind in this country. In October 2010, the Government promised to continue our scheme. Eighteen months on, when there are reports that manufacturers are holding off on investing in offshore wind in Britain because of uncertainty about Government policy, why has only one grant been awarded and why does 98% of the budget remain unspent?

The Government are supporting the wind turbine industry in this country. It was under the last Government that a factory closed, the Vestas factory in the Isle of Wight. The right hon. Lady needs to examine our record, which is very strong. We are seeing more and more investment in the industry.

I asked a pretty straightforward question. The Government have signed up to a £60 million budget, and so far only one grant has been provided. Why is that the case, and why does 98% of the budget remain unspent?

Twice this week I have asked the Government why they are failing to back British businesses, and twice they have had no answer. After his leaked memo, we now know that even the Business Secretary agrees with me. On Monday, I said:

“We have to do more to develop our supply chain and to support manufacturing in this country”.—[Official Report, 5 March 2012; Vol. 541, c. 597.]

On Tuesday, the Business Secretary said that

“there is as yet little attention given to supply chain issues.”

That is a straight quotation from his memo. Is not the truth that the Government’s mixed messages and failure to get behind British businesses mean that jobs and investment in industries that could come to this country are now going overseas?

The right hon. Lady is wrong on this point. Many companies from around the world are looking to the UK as the premier place to invest in the offshore wind industry. She is talking down great places such as Hartlepool that want to attract investment in the industry. We are looking at the supply chain, and we have set up the offshore wind developers forum, which has pledged that 50% or more of the work in the supply chain will be in Britain.

T5. Will the Secretary of State update the House on measures to support the training of installers, assessors and suppliers of green deal home improvements? (98688)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because I have today announced £3.5 million to train green deal assessors, delivering on the Deputy Prime Minister’s announcement last March of the creation of 1,000 green deal apprenticeships. That money will help hundreds of people gear up for the green deal and ensure that the scheme is a real success on the ground. I have also announced today £10 million of innovation funding to improve the energy efficiency of non-domestic buildings.

T2. Will the Minister congratulate the firm of Mabey Bridge in Chepstow, which was started last year? It has just doubled its work force to 200 and has a full order book for 35 wind power towers. Will he take this opportunity to denounce the doubters on his Back Benches and give a clarion call of support for wind as a job-rich form of energy that is British, eternal and clean? (98685)

The hon. Gentleman gives a perfect answer to the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). That is an example of a company investing to take advantage of the opportunities that exist. I was delighted to be able to open the factory extension last year and to meet the company again last week. It is doing a tremendous job, and it is a great British success story.

T6. In Warwickshire, we are fortunate to have many people who are seeking to design community-based renewable energy solutions, ranging from solar panels on public buildings to hydroelectric power. In the run-up to the Budget, will the Minister ask the Treasury to consider extending community investment tax relief to matters such as investment in community energy, which delivers both social and economic benefits? That could provide a significant incentive for people to invest in such schemes. (98689)

I thank my hon. Friend. He, like me, is a great champion of community energy, but I am afraid he is tempting me down the path of forecasting the Budget, which is a somewhat career-limiting move for junior Ministers. I can say, however, that we have established a community energy contact group to discuss those issues, about which he knows I am particularly passionate.

T3. Does the Secretary of State support WWF’s earth hour on 31 March, when across the world, everyone will be encouraged to switch off lights for one hour to highlight the issue of climate change? What will he do to promote earth hour? (98686)

T8. Many of my constituents are concerned about the number of proposals for biomass plants that are springing up in an area of high-value agricultural production. In these times of concern about food security, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that we do not use high-value crops in such plants? (98692)

The Government will not allow the growth of bio-energy to compromise food security. There are many other feedstocks for bio-energy, including wastes. Crops for energy can be grown in ways that do not compete with food, for example, through using marginal land. We want our farmers to share the economic opportunities offered by bio-energy as well as realising the benefits of clean, secure energy for the country.

T4. Why will just 3% of families at risk of fuel poverty this year get the help to which they are entitled from the warm home discount scheme? (98687)

I do not recognise the figure that the hon. Lady gave. The warm home discount scheme is proving a real success, but it is just one in a suite of policies that aim to help the poorest and most vulnerable families. However, if she has new evidence, I would be happy to meet her to discuss it.

T9. The replacement of the levy exemption certificate with the carbon support price will have an adverse effect on industrial combined heat and power plants, which often feed energy-intensive industries such as Dow Corning in my constituency. What action is the Minister taking to overcome that, and will he offer reassurance that CHP plants will not be worse off under the new regime? (98693)

We are determined to support CHP, which we see as having an important future in our energy mix. As announced in last year’s Budget, the Chancellor will set out how CHP will be treated under the carbon price floor in the Budget this month. That will form part of our wider strategic aim of reducing emissions in industry, which we will explore further through our forthcoming heat strategy.

T7. I have previously raised in the Chamber the number of people who are on prepayment arrangements and expensive tariffs. The Minister assured me that that would be monitored. May we have an update on how many people have now switched to direct debits? (98690)

More information is coming in on that all the time. I had a meeting with Ofgem and suppliers recently. I am keen to harvest that information and I am happy to share it with the hon. Lady and the rest of the House as soon as more becomes available.

Where are we with nuclear waste? If nuclear power is essential to deliver low-carbon economies, where is the Department in its programme and level of investment for disposing of spent nuclear fuel?

My hon. Friend raises one of the most critical issues at the heart of the nuclear debate. The Government have taken forward significantly the programme for the long-term deep disposal system for our legacy waste in this country. We are trying to advance that programme by at least a decade and discussions are continuing about that. We also recently published the waste arrangements for any new nuclear operators, with which they will have to comply for their plants to go forward.

The main source of biomass in the UK is wood, and the renewables obligation is distorting the competitiveness on price. Having had very good meetings with the Minister, I recently met representatives of the industry, who tell me that the issue is now critical. What progress has been made?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, just as we are determined to ensure that biomass does not compromise food security, we also want to ensure that biomass activities can have other good uses, for example, in wood panelling, furniture and building. There is a very strong industry, particularly in Scotland and the north of England, and we have been pleased to have good engagement with the right hon. Lady and the industry. I want to reassure her that we will continue with that because we want an outcome that benefits all parties.

In response to a freedom of information request, the Department confirmed that seven documents were prepared for the Copenhagen summit that show the cost to the UK of a 30% cut in EU emissions. When he was Energy Secretary, the Leader of the Opposition made the ludicrous claim that disclosure would damage international relations, and he vetoed it. Given the Minister’s personal commitment to a more transparent approach under FOI, will he publish the seven documents so that taxpayers know the costs that they would bear?

I will certainly look into the issue that my hon. Friend raises about Copenhagen. If it is possible, I will publish the documents.

Will the Secretary of State update the House about the memory stick that was lost in India, which contained plans for Hartlepool nuclear power station? What has been done about the matter?

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman that we have looked into the matter. Any loss of a memory stick is a matter of concern, but we have looked at the information that was contained in it, and it was not critical. Although the loss is inconvenient and irresponsible, it poses no threat to national security.

As the promoter of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, which tasked the Government with eliminating fuel poverty, I know that my hon. Friend will share my disappointment that the previous Labour Government failed to do that. Now that we have the report, will he act on the Macmillan recommendations about vulnerable cancer patients?

My hon. Friend is a huge champion of fuel poverty—[Laughter]and is absolutely right to be proud of his record in addressing that issue. I should have said that he is a champion of action on fuel poverty. He also is absolutely right to raise concerns about the treatment of vulnerable customers, including those with cancer and other potentially fatal illnesses. I would be happy to meet him to discuss that further.

The Secretary of State has today informed us where the headquarters of the Green investment bank will be, but has he also broken the news to Edinburgh that it will host not a bank but a cash-limited fund until at least 2017? Does he intend to go to the Treasury on behalf of Edinburgh to seek permission for the green investment fund to become a bank substantially before that date?

I am surprised the hon. Gentleman talks down the bank. It has £3 billion to spend in this Parliament and will leverage in billions more of private sector investment. That is good news for our economy and for the transition to the low-carbon economy.

I was concerned to read the scaremongering in The Guardian today about how nuclear power station sites are at risk of flooding. My understanding is that there has been no cover-up of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on flooding, but we know that the Department of Energy and Climate Change has taken action through the Weightman report to say that coastal defences must be maintained. Does the Minister agree that such scaremongering is not helpful to residents in Suffolk?

I can give my hon. Friend an absolute assurance on this. We will not compromise on safety in any respect with regard to new nuclear power stations. That is an integral part of the national policy statements and the planning process. We have the most effective and toughest regulatory system anywhere in the world and one of the most highly regarded international inspectors is leading the process. We will not compromise on safety in those areas.

Green economic development will be the central focus of the United Nations conference in Rio in June. Given that, which Ministers will attend? Now that the Brazilian Government have changed the date to 15 June in deference to the Queen’s diamond jubilee, will the Prime Minister himself attend?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is leading on our preparations for Rio. I know she will want other senior Ministers to accompany her.

Royal Assent

Just before we move on to the business question, I have to notify the House, in accordance with the Royal Assent Act 1967, that Her Majesty has signified her Royal Assent to the following Acts:

Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Act 2012

Live Music Act 2012

Public Services (Social Value) Act 2012

Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims (Amendment) Act 2012

Welfare Reform Act 2012

Consumer Insurance (Disclosure and Representations) Act 2012

Bank of Ireland (UK) plc Act 2012.