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Topical Questions

Volume 545: debated on Thursday 17 May 2012

As the hon. Gentleman will know, my Department’s key objectives are to have secure, clean and affordable energy and we have been working hard on those objectives. The energy Bill measures to reform the electricity market are very important for that. We hosted the clean energy ministerial very recently, which was attended by Ministers from 23 leading economies, and we worked together on clean energy technologies. I was particularly pleased to see that Professor John Hills’ report—the independent review of fuel poverty—was published.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Last week it was Centrica and this week it was Scottish and Southern Energy announcing record profits at a time when household bills continue to rise. In those circumstances, why will not the Government insist that the big six must write to customers telling them what is the cheapest tariff rather than directing them to the phone or the internet, where there is no guarantee that they will get the right information?

I do not think the hon. Gentleman has been listening. The Deputy Prime Minister announced the deal we have struck with the six big energy providers. They are now committed to writing every year to their customers telling them what is the best tariff for them.

T2. Under the previous Labour Government the number of households living in fuel poverty rose to almost 6 million. What are this Government doing to help the poorest households in my constituency? (107635)

We are doing a huge amount, from the warm home discount to the push on collective switching. My hon. Friend will know that today’s figures on fuel poverty show a fall of 0.75 million, but we should not celebrate that because those figures are based on the current measure of fuel poverty. If they were recalculated using the methodology proposed by John Hills, the fuel poverty figures would stand still. There can be no room for complacency; we have to redouble our efforts to tackle fuel poverty.

This week, we learned that the Foreign Secretary—for whom I understand the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) was once the chief of staff between elections, just to add to his biography which we are learning about today—does not think the Government are doing enough to support the low-carbon economy. I absolutely agree with him. We also learned that the Energy Secretary and the Business Secretary wrote back urging caution. It was bad enough when the Chancellor was talking down the green economy, but for him to be joined by the Energy Secretary absolutely beggars belief. Is not the Foreign Secretary right that unless Britain shows strong leadership on the green economy, there is no hope of securing international agreement on climate change?

Unlike the right hon. Lady, I have read the letter from the Foreign Secretary and I wrote the letter to the Prime Minister. They are very positive about what we want to do on low carbon technologies and climate change in this country and abroad. We are leading the way.

T4. Despite assurances from my hon. Friend the Minister, small double-glazing companies in my constituency still feel that they are being elbowed out of green deal work by larger national companies. What more can my hon. Friend say to reassure small and medium-sized enterprises in Sittingbourne and Sheppey that they will be able to access green deal work? (107637)

Of course, the green deal has not actually started yet; it will not be launched until the autumn and we have yet to see the full framework, but I can assure my hon. Friend that we have already taken several steps to make it easier for SMEs to engage in the green deal across the board. We shall continue to work with SME working groups to ensure that there is maximum availability of the green deal and the ECO—the energy company obligation—for SMEs, who will be vital for their delivery.

T5. The Minister will be aware that although the ECO will be delivered in Scotland by the Scottish Government, the underlying legislation applies to England, Wales and Scotland. Given concerns about how the green deal will be implemented, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that my constituents and those of other Scottish MPs get full benefit from the ECO when it is finally brought into effect? (107638)

The hon. Gentleman will know that we are still finalising the details of the ECO, but I should be happy to meet him to reassure him that the scheme really will benefit the whole country.

T6. As high energy bills continue to affect local households in my constituency, can the Minister outline what the Government are doing to improve the UK’s long-term energy security problems? If energy security is not addressed—I stress that it is a long-term issue—energy bills will continue to soar. (107639)

My hon. Friend is exactly right. Later this month when we publish the energy Bill, he will see that we have very ambitious electricity market reforms to deliver, among other things, energy security in the future. We need investment of £110 billion in our energy infrastructure over the next decade. That is a real task, and we need to make sure that there are incentives to bring forward that low-carbon investment.

T8. Speaking in the House on 9 February, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said he expected to see“steady growth in the number of people who will be employed”—in the solar industry—“until 2015 and beyond.”—[Official Report, 9 February 2012; Vol. 545, c. 479.]Why then have 6,000 people in the solar industry lost their jobs since last summer? (107641)

We have now put the whole solar industry on a much more stable foundation. We shall shortly be publishing our plans for a feed-in tariff system that really can go forward into the next decade and beyond, with a real sense of ambition. It is affordable, it is ambitious and it will bring real clarity to the industry.

T9. Earlier, the Secretary of State mentioned the excellent Which? big switch scheme to save people money. What I particularly like about it is the fact that it is based on co-operative action—individuals choosing voluntarily to work together rather than a statist top-down approach. Does my right hon. Friend share that view and what support was he able to give? (107642)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He will know that when I was at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I stimulated a huge amount of research and work on collective purchase and co-operative principles so that together we can purchase not just energy but other things more cheaply. I asked if the Department had any detailed research, because I thought the previous Government, who were supposed to be in favour of collective and co-operative principles, might have done some—they had not.

In his preparation for COP 18, what analysis has the Secretary of State made of Professor Sir David King’s proposals for common but differentiated cap and trade schemes, using the human development index as an appropriate measure?

We are taking forward a lot of analysis, not just on that scheme, but on a number of other things. COP 18 in Doha at the end of the year will be really important; I met the Deputy Prime Minister of Qatar recently, to discuss how we can make sure that it is a successful set of discussions.

T10. What discussions is my hon. Friend having with energy-intensive industries such as ceramics and steel, which are key employers and exporters, to ensure that their prices are competitive with countries such as Germany and France? (107643)

We are very much engaged with all the energy-intensive industries, because we are absolutely determined in DECC to ensure that decarbonisation does not lead to de-industrialisation. On the contrary, if we are smart the low-carbon transition should enhance our competitive position. But that does mean being sensitive to the burdens that we place on manufacturing industry. We are starting with a package of compensation worth £250 million for energy-intensive industries, but that is only the beginning of a much more nuanced and ambitious policy.

Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Brighton energy co-op on its launch last night of the first community generation scheme in Brighton? What is he doing to ensure that the electricity market reform proposals will properly support community energy schemes, particularly those by co-ops, housing associations and local authorities?

I can congratulate the scheme in the hon. Lady’s constituency. It shows that under the new regime of solar feed-in tariffs that we have introduced, there are still many communities that are going forward and making those investments. That belies much of the criticism we have heard in the House today. I can assure the hon. Lady that we want to continue to encourage such community schemes in our future policies. Quite a lot of those schemes will still get the more standard and common renewable obligation approach support. Some of those community schemes will not have to go to the larger-scale contracts because of the difference in the electricity market reform.

Will Ministers redouble their consistent and very welcome efforts of the past couple of years in support of the onshore manufacturing sites for offshore wind turbine production—not least sites like Kishorn in my area, which I raised with the Minister’s predecessor—which have lost out in enterprise zone status, and therefore find themselves at a bit of a competitive disadvantage over the next five years? I am sure that a summer recess ministerial visit to Kishorn and the west highlands would be most welcome and would boost morale.

My right hon. Friend will, I am sure, be delighted to know that I am already planning that. We are looking at a visit to Nigg before going on to Shetland and doing other parts of Scotland at the same time. I am delighted to have the chance to take part in that process. We should absolutely celebrate the way that some of our great, historic industrial facilities, built for the oil and gas industry, have been given new opportunities and a new lease of life, as they start to build the infrastructure that will be necessary for our renewable future.

Have Welsh Government Ministers requested at any point that they should have the final say in whether fracking developments take place on Welsh soil?

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, decisions on energy infrastructure matters for Wales are made on a nationwide basis. We know that that is what the industry looks for. But of course, in that process there has to be local authority planning consent for the specific project. There has to be approval by the Environment Agency and its equivalents in Wales and Scotland, if the project is taking place there, and by the Health and Safety Executive. All the appropriate bodies are involved in that process.

I welcome the current carbon capture and storage competition. As the Tees Valley has 18 of the top 30 UK carbon emitters, I am sure the Minister will agree that its bid has a lot to commend it. Will he ensure that the needs of heavy industry are given due weight alongside the needs of energy generators?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question. I know he does a huge amount to support industry in his constituency. I can tell him that in the competition that we announced at the beginning of last month, we were very clear that we wanted to encourage clustering, so after listening to the industry we were encouraging change. Bigger pipes are needed, so that more than one power plant can take part in those schemes with other industries that emit a lot of carbon.

Coal will continue to provide between 27% and 50% of electricity in the UK for the foreseeable future. Can the Minister explain what Government support will be given to the British deep-mined coal industry to prevent it from extinction in the next few years?

The most important thing that we can do for the coal mine industry is to show that there is a continuing role for coal in the generating mix. We are all clear that we cannot have unabated coal in the mix in the future, and new plants will need to be equipped with carbon capture and storage technology. That is why the competition that we are launching here to put the United Kingdom at the forefront of the development of CCS technologies offers the best possible future for coal to have a long-term role in the energy mix going forward.

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), Warm Front was, in my view, undermined by the extortionate charges of a small cartel of suppliers. Given that only 22 companies are so far among the providers for the green deal, can the Minister assure us that local fitters and local suppliers can be part of the programme, so that costs are competitive?

My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head. Previous programmes were monopolistic, did not offer real choice and were not open to real competition. The green deal will change all that. We are going to have genuine competition, real choice and real ability for local players to come into this exciting market.

The Secretary of State knows that if we are to get energy security and diversity, we have to invest now in big infrastructure projects, but he knows also that nimbyism, often so rampant in the questions put in this Chamber, is a great barrier to planning permission. What is he going to do about planning for decent infrastructure to achieve those objectives?

The hon. Gentleman knows that this House passed a relevant national planning statement and that the Department for Communities and Local Government produced the national planning policy framework. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that there is a balance to be struck between the need to make sure that the local democratic voice is heard and the need for the types of investment that both he and I support. There is a balance, but we are determined to ensure that, with electricity market reform, we get the investment needed in this country.