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Topical Questions

Volume 555: debated on Thursday 13 December 2012

Since our last Question Time, we have published Britain’s first comprehensive energy efficiency strategy and a consultation on electricity demand reduction; we have announced a landmark agreement across the coalition Government on energy policy, including a tripling of support for low-carbon generation by 2020; and I have attended the UN climate change talks in Doha, where we were able to make steady progress on the Durban platform towards a legally binding global deal on greenhouse gas emissions in 2015. We have also introduced the Energy Bill, which will have its Second Reading next week. It will reform the electricity market, provide long-term certainty to investors and ensure that British households and businesses enjoy affordable, secure and clean electricity supplies.

Despite all those measures, in Stoke-on-Trent North alone fuel poverty is among the highest in the country at 25%—10,120 households out of a total of 40,000—and Warm Front has been cut. Given the delay to the green deal—the computer software could not be sorted out—and given that we still do not know about the loans from the green investment bank, what emergency measures will the Secretary of State take to help insulate homes and get in place energy efficiency in places such as Stoke-on-Trent North?

The hon. Lady is wrong to say that the green deal is delayed. It is not delayed—it is on track. She also missed out a whole range of policies that the Government are taking, such as the energy company obligation, which includes affordable warmth, which will be targeted on fuel poverty. It is a very important measure and I think that people should focus on it. We are not complacent. We know that fuel poverty is a real concern, and that is one of the reasons why we have had so many initiatives, whether they be the reform of tariffs or collective switching. We are delighted that 115 applications have been received by our “Cheaper Energy Together” competition. That shows commitment across the country to help on fuel poverty, which is central to that competition.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. As a Liberal Democrat, I am pleased with the progress that the Department is making on decarbonising Britain, but, bearing in mind that 50% of carbon emissions come from buildings, will the Secretary of State tell the House what discussions he is having with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government about making sure that zero-carbon homes are on track for delivery in 2016?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his question. I know that he did an awful lot of work on this issue himself. The Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr Foster), is working on it and, when we discuss it as a Government, we will make our views clear. Zero-carbon homes are very important.

T2. The Secretary of State will have seen that the big six have laid the blame for the recent price rises on the wholesale prices and Government policies. Given that there is alleged corruption in the pricing of gas and that we have got to the stage where the energy companies do not think that it is their job to worry about whether they put their prices up or not, will the Secretary of State get Ofgem to start to pay its way and look at what is happening to prices and profits in the gas industry? (133344)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s support for Ofgem’s role, which is not a view shared by his Front-Bench team. Ofgem and the Financial Services Authority are undertaking investigations to make sure that, if there has been manipulation of the gas markets, it is tackled in the strongest possible way. We will have to await the results of their investigations.

T4. Emissions from international aviation and shipping are not currently included in the UK carbon budgets. The Committee on Climate Change recommends that they should be included, and that has been accepted by the shipping industry and aviation representatives. A decision has to be made by the end of the year. Will the Secretary of State confirm that they will be included? They are emissions, so they should be counted. (133347)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He is right that we need to take this issue seriously. We intend to lay a parliamentary report announcing our decision before the end of the year, as is required by the Climate Change Act 2008. In making that decision, we are considering carefully the advice provided by the Committee on Climate Change. We are taking careful note of developments in the international policy framework for aviation, in particular in relation to the EU emissions trading scheme and discussions with the International Civil Aviation Organisation. It is important to clarify that the Government have set the first four carbon budgets, which take account of international aviation and emissions.

T5. May I take the Secretary of State back to his statements today about investment? He has said before that there was plenty of confidence in industry and that investment would occur as a result of the Energy Bill. That is not the case for the 1,500 leading companies in the UK that have signed an advertisement demanding that the Government set the 2030 decarbonisation target because it is the only way to give confidence to the markets. (133349)

The welcome that industry gave to the publication of the Energy Bill was extremely heartening. The British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, the Engineering Employers Federation and the Federation of Small Businesses, which represent thousands of businesses, welcomed the Energy Bill. The fact that we are taking powers in the Bill to set a decarbonisation target shows real leadership and many companies have welcomed that.

T6. Will the Government do what they can to support the billing stakeholder group’s key recommendation, which has been adopted by Ofgem in its present consultation, that would oblige energy companies to be much more transparent in their bills? That chimes with the Prime Minister’s statement, but we know that the energy companies do not like it. (133350)

I thank my hon. Friend for his dogged determination in pursuit of this issue. I assure him that, although we cannot yet declare victory, we have victory within our grasp. Thanks to the leadership of the Prime Minister and our determination to legislate, we are moving towards bills that not only offer greater transparency and clarity, but instil greater competition. I think that our final model will be based on the modelling that my hon. Friend has shared with us.

Will the Secretary of State explain why he proposes in the Energy Bill to include contracts for difference that are raised from levies in the levy control mechanism, but to exclude capacity payments that are raised by levies from the same mechanism?

They are intended to do two separate things: contracts for difference are intended to stimulate investment in low-carbon energy and the capacity mechanism is about security of supply.

T7. The views of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), on onshore wind farms have been greeted with great acclaim in various parts of the country. What action is he taking to ensure that local communities that do not want such wind farms do not have them foisted upon them? (133352)

My hon. Friend is generous. I do have the wind beneath my wings. He will know that we issued a call for evidence. That has been completed and we are considering the outcome. He and the whole House, including the ministerial team, recognise that community buy-in and ownership, and communities shaping the developments in their area should lie at the heart of all that we do. We must not impose what people do not want on them.

Do the Secretary of State and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), agree with the recent report by Greenpeace and WWF, which states that investment in wind energy could create an additional 70,000 jobs, help us to meet our carbon reduction targets, and boost the economy by £20 billion a year by 2030?

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State has spoken about his support for geothermal energy in the United Kingdom. Will he drive forward the Department’s work with Iceland to develop that country’s vast geothermal potential? Does he agree that an interconnector is not just technically feasible but has the potential to bring vast amounts of low-carbon electricity, thereby helping our security of supply and avoiding price shocks?

My hon. Friend and former ministerial colleague left a huge record of achievement in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, including that of fostering greater links and a coherent strategy with Iceland. I assure him that the Government will build on his legacy to take that project forward.

Last week I met representatives from Bristol port to hear their concerns that the Severn barrage might be back on the political agenda, and the possible impact of that on their business. Will the Secretary of State tell me to what extent that issue, in particular the proposal from Wales, is being actively discussed in the Department? Is it on the political agenda again?

As the hon. Lady will know, a study was done on that early in the coalition Government. It was decided that although the Government would not take the matter forward, if a private consortium wanted to put forward proposals, we would study them. At the moment we have not seen proposals that we could back with any financial regime, whether renewables obligation certificates, contracts for difference or anything similar. I know that people are looking at the issue, but as yet the Government have not taken a decision to support any particular project.

In light of today’s announcement, does the Secretary of State agree that fracking is not appropriate for the Mendip hills? The water that feeds the aptly named city of Wells and the villages that surround it in my constituency takes 900 to 1,000 years to reach the spas of Bath. Will the Secretary of State ensure that communities are consulted fully about this issue?

I can certainly reassure my hon. Friend that communities will be fully consulted. We have made it clear that the regulatory regime is strong, and it will be strengthened if need be. We have put in the co-ordination that will give her constituents the reassurances that they need.

What are the Government doing for those who are off-grid and use liquefied petroleum gas or oil-fired heating and have much higher bills than those on-grid? Those in rural areas suffer from poor support and funding for many public services, and they need extra help from the Government recognising their plight at this time.

I recently met representatives of the downstream industry to discuss that issue and we are indeed looking at competition, accessibility and price for those kinds of customers. I do not want anyone to be cold because they cannot afford the oil or heat they need, and the Government will take action to ensure that people are not cold or needy this winter.