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Commons Chamber

Volume 555: debated on Thursday 13 December 2012

House of Commons

Thursday 13 December 2012

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

Canterbury City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.


Lords amendments to be considered on Thursday 20 December.

Leeds City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.


Lords amendments to be considered on Thursday 20 December.

Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.


Lords amendments to be considered on Thursday 20 December.

Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made, That the Lords amendments be now considered.

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Household Energy Bills

Helping people with energy bills is a top priority for us, so we have a range of initiatives including tariff reforms, energy-saving policies and direct help to cut the bills of those on the lowest incomes. From our consultation on proposals to help to get consumers on the cheapest tariffs to the green deal, and from the warm home discount to our promotion of collective switching, this Government will do whatever we can to help people and businesses to combat the effects of rising energy prices.

Has the Secretary of State had a chance to peruse the report just produced by the Committee on Climate Change on the customer price differential between a renewable-rich strategy and a gas-rich strategy? Does he agree that that could represent a sixfold difference in long-term price increases for customers? Does he agree with the committee’s view, and will he be sharing his views with the Chancellor shortly?

The hon. Gentleman got a lot of questions in there. I have looked at the headlines but I cannot say that I have read the full report, although I certainly intend to do so. I agree that it poses some challenges to those who debate energy policy, because it suggests that with a high gas price prediction, we could see energy bills going up by, I think, £600, whereas under a renewables strategy it would be only £100. The Government are adopting a mixed-energy approach, so that we are not dependent on any single energy source and can therefore manage the risks, because we cannot know the future of gas prices or predict how the cost of renewables will go down. I believe that our approach is the best one for the British economy.

The cost of energy is crucial for the nearly 10,000 pensioners in my constituency, and I am worried about the Government’s policy to get people on to the lowest tariff. What would happen if the energy companies simply raised the price of the lowest tariff? How would the Secretary of State address that problem?

We have taken a balanced approach in our tariff reform proposals, on which we are now consulting. We have tried to ensure that those people who are on so-called dead tariffs, or on unnecessarily high tariffs, will automatically be switched down to the lowest tariff, given their preferences. We have also tried to ensure that there will still be competition, in that there will be four classes of core tariff so that the energy companies will be able to compete using those tariffs. The key is to try to help people who do not engage with the energy market to get a good deal, as well as to ensure that competition can deliver for consumers and for businesses.

With respect, the Energy Secretary has not answered my hon. Friend’s question. How are the Government going to ensure that the energy companies do not simply raise the price of their lowest tariff so that it is no longer as low as it was in the past?

With respect, I did answer the question. It involves something called competition. On this side of the House, we understand competition and how it supports consumers. I have to say to Opposition Members that an awful lot of people were asking the last Labour Government why they did not sort out the multitude of tariffs that were creating complexity and confusion and getting in the way of competition. Through our simplification, we are helping the most vulnerable people and those who have been on dead tariffs and paying far too much for their energy, but we are also ensuring that competition can deliver for our economy.

23. The Secretary of State will be aware that Scottish and Southern Energy has indicated that pre-payment customers will now be able to enjoy the same rates as other customers. Is he going to persuade the other suppliers to do exactly the same? (133342)

It is great news because it shows how competition can assist in this process. I refer the hon. Lady to Ofgem’s retail market review analysis, which showed that customers on prepayment meters can save an average of £65 and up to £152 by switching to the cheapest deal within that prepayment method. The proposals we are taking forward really will help people on prepayment meters.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way to reduce energy bills is to reduce energy use? With that in mind, can he tell us whether he has reached an agreement with the green investment bank to help to fund the green deal?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: when it comes to energy bills, saving energy is the best way to save money. The green investment bank is engaging with my Department and the Green Deal Finance Company over the support it will give to the green deal. I cannot make an announcement today. All I can say is that the green investment bank is being helpful on the green deal, as on many other areas, and that it is a victory for this Government that we have introduced the green investment bank.

Energy bills have risen by nearly £300 since this Government came to power. I agree with what hon. Members have just said—that one of the best ways for households to protect against rising prices is to improve the energy efficiency of their properties—yet the launch of the Government’s green deal scheme has been shambolic. I listened to the Secretary of State’s answer and noted that he cannot tell us even whether the green investment bank is going to capitalise the green deal, yet he expects people to sign their green deals in just over a month’s time. The number of homes expected to be insulated next year is set to fall dramatically. The Insulation Industry Forum is warning that low green deal uptake will mean that 16,000 jobs are set to be lost in the sector next year. Will the Secretary of State guarantee that he will not let that happen?

The hon. Lady does not seem to understand the green deal, For a start, it is being launched on 28 January, after the soft work we have seen over the last few months to prepare for it. We believe it will be a huge success. I believe the green deal should have cross-party support, and I hope that the hon. Lady will confirm from the Dispatch Box that the Opposition support it. The green investment bank’s support for the green deal will not be direct; it will come through supporting the financial arrangements of the credit. I thought the hon. Lady would understand that. As for predictions on insulation, I think we should wait. I believe the green deal will support the market and that it will be a real step forward.

I thank the Secretary of State for his answer, to which I listened carefully. We have been working on the green deal for over two years now, yet in five weeks’ time the Secretary of State expects consumers to sign a deal when they do not know what the interest rate and the cost of the finance will be, which I think will be crucial to the success of the scheme, which we all want. Rising prices are hitting all consumers, but their effects are felt most by those in fuel poverty. Two years ago, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), said at the Dispatch that his Government would really attack fuel poverty, yet uSwitch estimates that the number of those in fuel poverty has risen to 6 million under this Government. Analysis by National Energy Action has shown that even after the measures introduced by this Government, such as the warm home discount, funding for fuel-poor and low-income households will be cut by half from January. Will the Secretary of State now apologise for breaking his promise to the millions of people who will be feeling the cold this winter?

This Government are doing everything they can to tackle fuel poverty. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Chris Huhne), set up the review to look at how we measure fuel poverty, and that concluded that the last Government could not even measure fuel poverty correctly. We are using a whole set of new initiatives, including collective switching, using the power of people coming together. One would have thought that Labour Members would have used that in their 13 years in power. They failed to use the collective principle to try to help people; we are doing that, and we are determined to tackle fuel poverty.

Shale Gas

17. What steps his Department is taking to ensure that safety and environmental concerns regarding shale gas exploration and extraction are addressed before shale gas reserves are developed. (133336)

Shale gas may prove to be a useful addition to the UK’s diverse portfolio of energy sources, and would be particularly valuable in replacing declining North sea supplies, with benefits to energy security as well as to the economy and employment—but its exploitation will be acceptable only if it is safe and the environment is properly protected.

Hydraulic fracturing operations for shale gas were suspended last year, pending consideration of seismic events in Lancashire. Based on the latest evidence and expert advice, and having considered the responses to a public consultation on that advice, I have concluded that, in principle, fracking for shale gas can be allowed to resume— subject to new controls to mitigate the risk of seismicity. I have made full details available to both Houses by means of a comprehensive written statement tabled this morning.

I want to see proper environmental safeguards and generous community benefits for the areas where fracking will take place, but does my right hon. Friend agree that shale gas has the potential not only to lead an industrial renaissance in this country but to play a serious part in dealing with fuel poverty?

I agree that shale gas has an important part to play in our energy mix and in our economy, and I also agree that we must ensure that communities benefit and that there is proper environmental regulation. I have been very impressed by the way in which Members in all parts of the House have contributed to the debate and to the Department’s thinking, but I pay particular tribute to the hon. Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), who, along with the independent experts, has really influenced our thinking. It is very important for us to take the public with us as we explore the potential for shale gas in the United Kingdom.

Many of my constituents remain concerned about the parallels that they perceive between shale extraction in the United States and what is being planned in the United Kingdom. Will the Secretary of State say a little more about why he thinks that the regulatory environment here will be superior to that of the United States, thereby disproving many of the alarmist stories that are circulating?

Let me also pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend has done for his constituents, who I know are concerned about shale gas. I can reassure him that the regulations that we already have in the United Kingdom are much stronger than those in many American states where fracking for gas has been taking place for many years. We have the regulations, controls and powers of the Environment Agency, the regulations, controls and powers of the Health and Safety Executive and the regulations, controls and powers of my own Department, so we already have a strong regulatory regime. However, if the exploration suggests that there is potential for commercial development and we move in that direction, we will keep that regime under review, and will tighten and strengthen it if necessary. Today’s announcement is about new controls to ensure that seismicity is not a problem.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s reassurance that environmental and safety concerns will be given a high priority, but some people fear that those whom the press have dubbed the frackheads in the Government are rushing ahead with tax incentives for shale gas exploration without taking the time to look into those concerns first. Can the right hon. Gentleman reassure me that no tax incentives will be introduced until we are 100% sure that it is safe to go ahead with fracking in this country?

I do not think that anyone has described me as a frackhead. My job is to make certain that the environmental and safety controls are there, and I believe that the work that we have done, particularly on the seismicity aspect but also on other aspects, can reassure the public in that regard. I am determined to ensure that the environment is properly protected, and as Members will see if they read my statement, I have also commissioned a study of the potential impact of shale gas exploration on greenhouse gas emissions. I hope that that will reassure people on the environmental side as well.

I welcomed the announcement of the formation of the Office for Unconventional Gas last week, and I thank the Secretary of State and Ministers for all the work that they have done in that respect. However, some of my constituents have subsequently expressed concern about the possibility that the office is not fully independent. What assurances can the Secretary of State give that it will both improve regulations and be robust, transparent and able to respond to any concerns that Fylde residents may express?

I repeat my thanks to the hon. Gentleman. The way in which he has stood up for his constituents provides a model for all Members. I can reassure him that the Office for Unconventional Gas will be a strong office, and that it will be in my Department and accountable to Ministers, so that Members can hold us to account in the House. One of its jobs will be bringing together the various regulatory bodies so that they are properly co-ordinated, and our work as we approach potential commercial development in a few years’ time will include ensuring that we have all the regulatory controls that we need.

Is the Minister aware that you cannot be too sure what happens once you start drilling a long way through strata? In my area, after a pit had closed a whole village had to be removed and rebuilt on the other side of the road because of the escape of methane and other gases. I have heard that a company is drilling within a mile of that area now. It may not be anything to do with this fracking business, but I hope that the Minister will tell people to keep their noses out, because otherwise there might be another explosion in the area.

The whole House listens to the hon. Gentleman closely on these issues because he is an expert on drilling and all aspects of the coal industry. I do not know the case to which he refers, but if he wishes to write to me, I am sure my officials can look into it. He makes an important contribution to this debate, because he highlights the fact that this country has had to tackle methane emissions in the coal and the oil and gas industries, so we have a lot of knowledge, experience and expertise to draw on to make sure we can control emissions from shale gas.

I can see how excited Members on the Government Benches are about the potential for shale gas, but I wonder whether they will be equally excited if drilling starts in Wiltshire, Lincolnshire or other parts of the country. As the Secretary of State knows, we have always said fracking should go ahead only if it is safe and environmentally sound. We set out six conditions, and we will be looking to see if they are met in the Government’s written statement today.

On prices, last week the Chancellor said he did not want the British public to miss out if gas prices tumbled as a result of discoveries of shale gas, but does the Secretary of State agree with the former Energy Minister, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), as well as most experts, that

“betting the farm on shale brings serious risks of future price rises”?

First, I thank the right hon. Lady for saying she will look at our statement carefully. I know that her colleague, the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex), wrote to my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden when he was a Minister to set out the Opposition’s conditions. I believe that when the Opposition study the written ministerial statement—we gave a copy to the right hon. Lady before this Question Time, but she should have a chance to examine it—they will see that we have met all the conditions.

The right hon. Lady’s main question was on prices. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden that we should not bet the farm on shale gas. I am absolutely clear that the most responsible and sensible way forward for energy policy is to have a diverse set of resources and sources for our energy. Some of the press and commentariat have got very excited about the possibility of gas prices falling, but the independent analysis and the International Energy Agency findings do not necessarily support that.

Order. This may be a suitable subject for a full-day debate, but the answers must not take that form. We are grateful to the Secretary of State for his recognition of that important point.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement that there will be some further environmental studies, because is it not the case that at present we simply do not know the environmental impact of shale gas exploration in relation to methane seepage and methane getting out into the atmosphere? Until we can be certain of the impact, we must proceed with a great deal of caution.

I agree with my hon. Friend that we should proceed with caution, and we are doing so. The evidence so far suggests that the carbon footprint of shale gas exploration is only slightly higher than that for conventional gas, but I am determined that we in this country examine it seriously, which is why I have commissioned a study.

Carbon Capture and Storage

3. What assessment he has made of the role of carbon capture and storage in the development of future energy strategy. (133320)

It is a pleasure to answer a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood, the Robin Hood of his age. Carbon capture and storage has the potential to play a crucial role in our future low-carbon energy mix, allowing us to benefit from the flexibility of fossil fuels without associated emissions. As set out in the annual energy statement, the Government are committed to working with industry to create a cost-competitive CCS industry in the UK, and to make that happen we have introduced one of the best support packages in the world.

What a privilege it is to receive an answer from the Minister who has won the award of Minister of the year! Does he agree that CCS gives us the opportunity to make use of coal, which offers us 200 years-worth of supply, flexibility within the market and the ability to produce our energy very cheaply? Will he come and have a look at the coal industry in Sherwood?

When I think of Nottinghamshire I think of my hon. Friend, and when I think of my hon. Friend I think of Nottinghamshire—how proud each must be of the other. He is right to say that carbon capture and storage can play a role in delivering clean coal, and three of the four projects we are supporting in our £1 billion competition are coal projects. I know that he visited Thoresby colliery in his constituency just a few weeks ago, and he will understand that CCS is crucial to our ambitions to deliver energy security in a way that reduces emissions.

The Government have not met the deadline for the first stage of European Union funding for CCS, yet the gas strategy looks to the construction of about 30 new gas-fired power stations. Will the Minister tell me how many of those are likely to have CCS fitted from the outset?

The hon. Gentleman says that we did not benefit from European funding in the first stage. In anticipation of this scrutiny, I spoke to the European Commissioner for Climate Action just yesterday evening, making it very clear that we hope for—indeed, we expect—European support for the work we are doing. It was a very positive call. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will work with Europe to ensure that both what we do and what is done across Europe supports the development of world-beating CCS.

In his discussions with the EU Commissioner yesterday, did the Minister have the chance to raise the case of Germany? It burns about 25% more carbon per head than the UK, yet has just decided to go ahead with 23 unabated coal power stations, which will increase that differential still further.

I would never be so impertinent as to raise the policy of another sovereign state in such a call. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that the future of coal is clean coal. That is the way forward and it is why we are running our £1 billion competition. May I draw the House’s attention to the conclusion of the UK CCS cost reduction task force, whose members I met yesterday afternoon? It has said clearly that coal power stations equipped with CCS have

“clear potential to be cost competitive with other forms of low-carbon”


In his evidence to the Liaison Committee earlier this week, the Prime Minister talked about the importance of CCS in relation to gas and coal generation, saying:

“Here are some funds. Let us have demonstrator projects and all the rest of it.”

The “all the rest of it” is the European Commission saying in correspondence to me that the UK did not secure up to €600 million of match funding because the Treasury would not confirm co-funding. It is also the Cabinet Office project assessment review—it is previously unpublished but I have obtained a copy—stating that “only” £200 million is “available”. How does the Minister expect there ever to be progress in developing commercial CCS if the Government’s financial commitment falls so far short of the Prime Minister’s warm words?

I can tell the hon. Gentleman, although I am in a sense disappointed to do so, because he will not have been privy to the information I gave the House until I provided it a few moments ago, that that was not the reason given by the European Commissioner—[Interruption.] The Commissioner did not say that to me in our telephone conversation. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman will know that in that first round no CCS project received support—there was some thought that a French project might, but in the end it did not. The second round will begin next spring and will be completed next year. I have made it very clear that we will work as a Government, with Europe, to ensure that our projects have the very best chance of receiving that additional funding.


The coalition Government are absolutely committed to achieving substantial cuts in carbon from our electricity sector by 2030; that is entirely consistent with the targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008. We have also announced that we will take a power to set a legally binding decarbonisation target for the electricity sector specifically as a Government amendment to the Energy Bill.

I am grateful to hear that, and I very much hope that the target we set will be the right one to ensure that we meet our commitments to cut emissions by 2050, because it is very clear that we need a target. Will the Minister say what he believes that will be?

We will ensure that if we take such a power, it will be to enable us to meet our climate change commitments. The important thing is to see any power in the context of setting the overall carbon budget for the period 2028 to 2032 and beyond.

But is the Minister just delaying the decision until after the general election? Is he now accepting the advice of the Committee on Climate Change that the Government’s dash for gas perpetuates the stop-start approach to investment in low-carbon technologies? We need certainty for investment.

The hon. Lady, my former Environmental Audit Committee colleague, is absolutely right to say that we need certainty for investment. The CBI has said that the Energy Bill

“sends a strong signal to investors”.

Energy UK says:

“This energy bill is a big and positive step forward.”

The right time to decide on a decarbonisation target for 2030 will be when we set the fifth carbon budget, which must be set by June 2016. It is at that point, when we can take it in the context of the whole economy and the economic effort to meet our decarbonisation targets, that we will decide whether we need to set an additional target.

It is interesting that the Conservative part of the coalition is answering this question, rather than the Liberal Democrat part. Will the Minister not admit that the chief executive of WWF UK had a very good point when he said recently that the lack of a 2030 decarbonisation strategy in the Bill will undermine the certainty of long-term investment in renewable energy supply chains and that that is a clear failure of leadership by the Prime Minister?

I am afraid that I could not disagree more. If we look at the people who will be putting billions of pounds into decarbonisation, and if we consider what the industry is now saying, we can see that there is genuine transparency, longevity and certainty as a result of the Energy Bill. I understand the concerns of WWF, but now we have published the Bill the need for additional legislation to give certainty falls away. As I said, we will consider the need for a decarbonisation target as part of setting the fifth carbon budget for 2028 to 2032, which will happen in 2016.

I agree that certainty is needed for investors, and I hear that from the Cambridge cleantech cluster and others. I very much welcome the proposed power for the Secretary of State to set a target, but would the Minister support the Secretary of State in setting such a target?

I can assure my hon. Friend that there is a unanimous view among DECC Ministers. We think there is significant merit in a target, but the right time to decide whether we should set one and what it should be will be when we set the fifth carbon budget, which has to be done by June 2016. I reiterate that investor certainty, which was not there before we published the Bill, is now there in spades. I think we can all move forward and look to a future full of investment in a very exciting sector.

My UK energy app tells me that of the electricity generated in this country and lighting us, nearly 80% comes from burning hydrocarbons, 16% from nuclear power and, despite all those windmills onshore and offshore, a derisory 1.3% from wind power. Is it credible to suggest that over the next 18 years we will have replaced all that hydrocarbon and our ageing power stations with windmills, or will we just have black-outs?

My right hon. Friend points out that we inherited an appalling level of renewables deployment. We are now changing that very quickly, but he is quite wrong to think that we are seeking to place the entire UK capacity with renewables alone. Nuclear will play a strong role and there will be a big role for gas in the future. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, what we need is a diverse, clean energy mix and that includes a range of technologies. Perhaps my right hon. Friend will be slightly less afraid of the future than he seems to be at the moment.

If nuclear is indeed to be part of the decarbonisation mix, have the Government factored in the long lead-in for planning applications for nuclear power stations?

We are very confident that we have the right framework in place to deliver the new nuclear build programme on time as anticipated as part of our energy road map.

The Minister says that the reason the Government cannot set a decarbonisation target is that the fifth carbon budget, which covers 2030, will not be set until 2016, but the third and the fourth carbon budgets, which run till 2027, have already been set. If that is the only objection, why does the Minister not use the power in the Energy Bill, end the uncertainty and set an interim decarbonisation target for 2020 or 2025?

I know that the right hon. Lady and the Opposition love a target and would love more targets, but everyone is agreed that what we want is certainty, not targets. We want a simple architecture. Overall, there are too many targets. What we need is real clarity to be certain that we deliver against those key targets. As I said, we are open-minded about the issue of a decarbonisation target, but we want to assess it at the right time.

If that is the best answer that the Minister can provide, it is no wonder that the DECC team loses out time and again when faced with arguments from the Treasury. Not only have the Government failed to set a decarbonisation target, but we have seen the blocking of the appointment of David Kennedy as permanent secretary, and now they are proposing a gas strategy that would blow a hole through our climate targets. Before the last election, the right hon. Gentleman told Members that the Conservatives

“attach the highest importance to the full implementation of the Climate Change Committee’s recommendations”––[Official Report, Climate Change Public Bill Committee, 24 June 2008; c. 60]—

and that the Conservative party in government would implement the advice in full. Will he confirm today that if the Government opt for 37 GW of new gas, as their strategy proposes, for the first time ever Ministers would have to reject advice from the Committee on Climate Change and rewrite the fourth carbon budget?

The right hon. Lady clearly does not understand the difference between sensitivity modelling, which shows a whole range of potential outcomes, and a Government plan going forward. She should look at our central forecast. I can assure her that we take the advice of the Committee on Climate Change extremely seriously, but we are delighted that as a result of the publication of the Energy Bill, we now have the certainty that was not there a couple of weeks ago, and industry is speaking up in a chorus of approval of the steps that this coalition Government are taking. We will deliver a transformation in the UK energy sector and the market will deliver the billions and billions of pounds of investment to make it happen.

International Climate Change Agreement

6. If he will make it his policy to seek bilateral agreements in advance of a new international climate change agreement. (133323)

The best strategy to avoid dangerous climate change must be agreeing a new global deal in 2015. However, while pressing for this, we are also working hard with other countries to encourage low carbon growth through effective bilateral partnerships. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and to GLOBE International for the important work that they are doing in this area too.

Following the outcomes at Doha, it is clear that we need to reconsider how we use our political capital to get a successful deal in 2015. Does the Minister agree with GLOBE’s analysis that much greater focus should be given to supporting action at national level to put in place climate legislation and regulation in order to create the political conditions for that agreement?

My hon. Friend is right. If we are to see progress that allows us to clinch that global deal in 2015, we need much more momentum and we need to build momentum at national level as well. The UK has led by example but we are also now engaged with countries such as South Korea, China and Mexico, and other countries with which GLOBE is familiar, to see how we can work together in partnership to drive real progress on the ground, as well as with the private sector.

May I press the Minister on that? How much of the UK funds delivered through the international climate fund will benefit businesses in Britain’s low carbon sector?

I am delighted to say that making sure that our international climate fund benefits the UK low carbon sector is a key aim of our policy. That is why I took a trade mission—the largest ever green trade mission—to east Africa in October, and I will be going in the new year to the middle east, taking more of our renewables companies, to make sure that where we are supporting developing countries, UK industry gets the benefit of that, and in the long term, probably more than the total spend.

Energy Infrastructure Investment

7. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the implications of the autumn statement for investment in new energy infrastructure. (133325)

18. What discussions he has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the implications of the autumn statement for investment in new energy infrastructure. (133337)

My Department and the Treasury regularly discuss how to incentivise investment in new energy infrastructure. That is why we were able to reach agreement, paving the way for the introduction of the Energy Bill and the Chancellor’s autumn statement. These enable us to meet our legally binding carbon reduction and renewable energy obligations and ensure the investment required to bring affordable power to our nation.

Given the recent announcement on consumer price rises, how will the Minister ensure that decisions over the next six months on investments in new nuclear generation capacity, before the Energy Bill is even on the statute book, will be made at the lowest possible cost to consumers?

The arrangements in the Energy Bill allow for precisely the eventuality that the hon. Lady describes: they allow final investment decisions to be made in concert with contracts for difference. She will know that we are in ongoing discussions about the Hinkley Point development. I cannot say too much about its commerciality, but she should know that we intend to proceed with that with alacrity and diligence. I am confident that new nuclear can play its part in an energy mix that is fit for the future.

Centrica recently pulled out of investment in a new energy plant at Scawby Brook, and the Siemens and Able UK renewables investment on the Humber, although hopeful, are still uncertain. How will the Government ensure that areas such as the Humber do not miss out on opportunities for investment and jobs because of ongoing uncertainty?

The Energy Bill brings a framework of certainty that will allow investors to be confident about the Government’s direction of travel. I am obliged to say that, frankly, those decisions could have been made five, 10 or perhaps 15 years earlier, given that we knew that our energy infrastructure was ageing and that we would have to rejuvenate it by means of legislation. The hon. Gentleman is right to make the case for the Humber. I have met one of his near neighbours to discuss that, and I will be happy to meet him and delighted to meet representatives of his community to discuss what we can do to assist his cause that we are not already doing.

Cumbria has the fastest flowing water in England, a strong, well developed and world-class hydro-technology industry and strong public support for hydro-technology schemes, so will the Minister strongly consider energy infrastructure schemes for hydro-technology in Cumbria?

The hon. Gentleman is right that hydro-technology can also play a part. The critical point is that the energy infrastructure investment that has been discussed in the House this morning is central to our macro-economic plans. We are speaking not merely of tens of thousands of jobs, but of hundreds of thousands of jobs and new skills in his area and others. Given that I have offered to meet the hon. Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin), I think that I should meet the hon. Gentleman, too, to discuss the specifics of his area.

That is tremendously generous of the Minister of State. I think that there is a glow of appreciation across the Chamber.

What can the Minister do to ensure that adequate investment finance is available to marine energy and its attendant infrastructure? Is he aware that it is now more than eight years since a marine current turbine was trialled off the north Devon coast, which more than twice exceeded expectations for energy production but has not come to market because of a lack of finance? If he cannot make new finance available, can he rebalance existing finance away from 30-year-old wind technology and towards the new technologies that could drive forward the process of decarbonisation?

I do not want to take the opportunity to put the wind up anyone, so I will concentrate on the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. He is right that we need to look at all kinds of technologies to achieve the mix that we have described. He will be familiar with our work on green energy parks and will know that six of the eight major wave and tidal energy projects around the world are in this country. I know that the Environment Agency certainly believes that, because it told me so last night. We are investing in that significantly, but I will look at it again because it is absolutely right that we are at the cutting edge of technological change when that can contribute to the energy mix I have described.

Geothermal Energy

The coalition is supporting geothermal heat through the renewable heat incentive. Our September consultation proposed a higher tariff unique to geothermal. The coalition is also supporting geothermal power through the renewables obligation. We announced in July that geothermal would be paid at a rate of two renewables obligation certificates. Deep geothermal heat and power projects have also been supported by specific grant awards under the Department’s deep geothermal challenge fund and through the Government’s regional growth fund.

I am grateful to the Minister for his answer. This is an exciting opportunity for Cornwall, and the hon. Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) has convened meetings in this place to discuss it, which the Minister was gracious enough to attend. Given the potential for jobs in Cornwall, the potential to make a base-load contribution to energy, and the now-legendary willingness of the Minister of State, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) to meet, will the Minister agree to meet a delegation from Cornwall to discuss the potential of geothermal?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s diligence in pursuing this issue, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton), because their efforts have really helped to promote this industry in their region. We are very keen to see progress in Cornwall, which we estimate has the best geology for deep geothermal power generation in the UK. I will be delighted to meet them both to see how we can advance this agenda.

Shale Gas

12. What recent advice he has received on the effects of shale gas exploitation on (a) water resources and (b) carbon budgets. (133330)

We liaise closely with the Environment Agency on this issue, and it confirms that volumes of water used in shale gas exploration are not exceptional compared with other industrial activities that routinely take place across the United Kingdom. Any operator who wishes to abstract water as an alternative to using public supplies will need a licence. Additional water abstraction will be authorised only where it is sustainable and no risks are posed to the rights of existing abstraction licence holders.

Shale gas exploration is at a very early stage in the UK, and its possible scale is as yet unknown. We have legally binding carbon budgets, and that should reassure the hon. Lady. In addition, I hope that she will be reassured to know that I have announced today that I am commissioning a study of the possible impacts of shale gas development on greenhouse gas emissions.

On the first part of my question, when one recognises the fact that 4 million gallons of water are needed for every single frack, the Minister’s answer about the water supply is very complacent. On the second part, on carbon emissions, why do the official scenarios published last week alongside his gas generation plan set out an option for carbon intensity that is four times higher than the maximum level compatible with meeting our carbon budgets?

We have legally binding commitments under the Climate Change Act 2008, and our carbon budgets have been set out for people to look at. When we announce strategies it is not unusual for there to be a whole set of analyses, including sensitivity analysis. Yes, one analysis showed higher carbon intensities, but there was also an analysis that showed lower carbon intensities, and I think that people have missed that.

Many of my constituents just to the west of the Singleton Well shale gas site draw their water from their own sink holes in the Bleasdale area and Bowland forest. Will the Minister’s Department monitor the exploration process throughout Lancashire, because if there is going to be a problem with the water supply, it will be in that part of my constituency?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. The Environment Agency will carry out the monitoring, but because we have increased the co-ordination of regulatory bodies, my Department will be aware of it. I hope that I assured him in my answer to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) that the terms of any additional licences would have to ensure that the abstraction was sustainable and would not put at risk the rights of existing licence holders.

Capacity Mechanism

14. What steps he is taking to ensure that the forthcoming capacity mechanism is not unduly biased towards large, centralised, fossil fuel generation. (133332)

The capacity market is intended to ensure that we have adequate reliable capacity on the electricity system. It will be open to all reliable providers of capacity, including large centralised generation and other forms such as demand-side response, storage, and combined heat and power. We are putting in place tailored arrangements accordingly.

Does the Minister not share my worry and concern that, in the context of the Energy Bill and every other measure, it does not matter that we have been told this morning that we have unanimity across the two Government parties, because there is no unanimity with the Chancellor? What he said in his autumn statement and what he said this week means that it is all about gas, gas, gas. I am in favour of shale; indeed, today’s Question Time has been destroyed by not having a proper announcement on and scrutiny of shale. The fact is that we now have a Government determined to go for gas with no balance in the energy economy at all.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the intermittence of renewables and the relative inflexibility of other forms of generation mean that gas is necessary to provide flexibility. However, he is absolutely right that if we are going to make an argument for a mixed economy, because that provides the best chance of sustainability, we cannot put all our eggs in one basket. The Energy Bill, together with the levy control framework —which, as he also knows, provides £7.6 billion for renewables, carbon capture and storage, and nuclear—enables us to achieve just that mix.

Topical Questions

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.

Business of the House

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 17 December—Remaining stages of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill. I also expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.

Tuesday 18 December—Second Reading of the Justice and Security Bill [Lords], followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the fund for European aid to the most deprived.

Wednesday 19 December—Second Reading of the Energy Bill.

Thursday 20 December—Launch of a report and announcement of a new inquiry by the Energy and Climate Change Committee, followed by the pre-recess Adjournment debate, the format of which has been specified by the Backbench Business Committee.

Provisional business for the week commencing 7 January 2013 will include:

Monday 7 January—Remaining stages of the Trust (Capital and Income) Bill [Lords], followed by motion to approve a European document relating to the Commission work programme 2013, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Colleagues may also wish to know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer will deliver his Budget statement on Wednesday 20 March 2013.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 17 January will be:

Thursday 17 January—Debate on the fourth report of the International Development Committee on tax in developing countries.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for next week. I welcome the fact that after months of prevarication the Government have decided to bring forward legislation on equal marriage. Does he join me in hoping that in debates that take place in this House, hon. Members will not resort to outrageous and offensive remarks such as those made by one Member who equated same-sex marriages with polygamy and incest? While welcoming the legislation, we have serious concerns about the Government’s decision to make it illegal for the Church of England and the Church in Wales to hold same-sex marriages, even if they decide to do that in future. Although we would not want to force any church to conduct a same-sex wedding, the Government’s decision to make it illegal is wrong. Will the Culture Secretary look at that again and make a further statement?

I fear that the right hon. Gentleman will have some difficulty in coaxing the Culture Secretary to the House following the antics of her special adviser. The Opposition support a statutory underpinning of media regulation to protect the victims of press intrusion and guarantee freedom of the press. The Government seem to want to threaten the press with statutory underpinning to control the news agenda. Will the Leader of the House confirm that, given the seriousness of events, the Prime Minister is thinking of giving back responsibility for media regulation to the Business Secretary?

This week, the European Union was awarded the Nobel peace prize. When the prize was announced, the Prime Minister said that he thought it should be presented to schoolchildren from across the EU. This week, he sent the Deputy Prime Minister to collect the award.

We also learned this week that the Prime Minister’s much-vaunted speech on the EU has been put off once again till the new year. The Prime Minister has repeatedly delayed a speech setting out the Government’s European policy no doubt because the Government have as many positions on Europe as there are Ministers. The Education Secretary would vote to leave the EU—[Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] That is an interesting Back-Bench response. The Policing Minister warns that Eurosceptics are fantasists. The Deputy Prime Minister thinks that repatriating powers is “a false promise”, but the Prime Minister thinks that it is a good idea.

It is obvious that the Government’s approach to the EU is mired in confusion and hesitation. The Prime Minister will be at the European summit today. Following recent precedent and given the multitude of positions within the Government, will the Leader of the House confirm that, after the summit, the House will be treated to statements by both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister, rather than just the one?

Given that we are considering remaining stages of the Growth and Infrastructure Bill next week, will the Leader of the House ask the part-time Chancellor to make a statement updating us on how the infrastructure measures announced in the Budget are going? The Government have a Growth and Infrastructure Bill, but, out in the real world, there is no growth and not enough infrastructure is being built. This PR Prime Minister’s solution is a rag-bag of measures to cover up the fact that the Government have no plan for growth. Given that, I wonder whether, in the next Queen’s Speech, we can look forward to a united coalition Bill; a big society success Bill; and a “We’re all in this together” Bill.

The Chancellor claimed in the autumn statement that his changes affected those

“living a life on benefits”—[Official Report, 5 December 2012; Vol. 554, c. 877]

who were still asleep when their neighbours go out to work. The Prime Minister refused to say so yesterday, so will the Leader of the House confirm that 60% of the people hit by the Chancellor’s real-terms cut in support payments are in work? The politics of divide and rule that the Chancellor practises is predicated on vicious, poisonous, nasty little caricatures. Can we therefore have a debate on whether the mother on maternity pay is a shirker; the father on the minimum wage getting tax credits is a shirker; the cleaner who gets up at 5 am is a shirker; and someone on sick pay recovering from an operation is a shirker? Those are the people who are hit by the Chancellor’s proposed cuts: people who are doing the right thing, and people who are trying to get on in life. At the same time, the Government are handing out a huge tax cut to their millionaire mates. So there we have it: the Government think that millionaires are the strivers while workers on the minimum wage are the shirkers.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the statement, although I was surprised that the announcement yesterday of figures that showed the largest quarterly rise in employment for a decade did not feature in her remarks. None the less, she asked several questions.

I am not aware of any prevarication on the equal marriage Bill. We had probably the largest response to consultation of its kind in the middle of last year. It was perfectly proper for Ministers to take some time to get the response to that exercise absolutely right. The Secretary of State came to the House and explained that there are very good reasons why the Church of England and the Church in Wales have special arrangements. The reasons are absolutely clear in the response to the consultation, and will be clear in the Bill when it is published. Those Churches will have the ability and responsibility, as, for example, the General Synod will have in relation to the Church of England, to determine their attitude.

I am aware of no plans for change in ministerial responsibility for the media. The Deputy Prime Minister attended the Nobel peace prize. My personal view is that the Nobel committee’s decision is welcome, but perhaps ought to have recognised that peace in Europe has been secured through not only the development of the European Union, but NATO. It is a pity both were not recognised.

The Government’s European policy is very clear. The Foreign Secretary is securing a review of competences to consider how we can enter into negotiations with our partners in Europe to ensure that where powers do not need to be exercised at a European level, they are not exercised at a European level. The previous Government talked about subsidiarity, but never delivered. They engaged in a process of constant integration—an escalator of responsibilities and competences to the European Union that never went in the opposite direction. As the Prime Minister rightly said, when we are able to undertake a new settlement of competences and powers in Europe, the British people should have the chance make a judgment.

The Prime Minister will be going to the European summit. In the same way that I wondered why the shadow Leader of the House did not talk about the latest employment figures, I wonder why she did not refer to the welcome news that jobs at Airbus have been protected. The Prime Minister will have an opportunity to reflect on that as he goes to the European summit.

The hon. Lady talked about our proposed welfare reforms. She did not say—the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls) did—that the Labour party is proposing to vote against them. Labour Members voted against the housing benefit cap, and they are proposing to vote against what is a fair proposal. People the length and breadth of the land know that in the past five years average earnings rose by 10% and that these benefits rose by 20%. They will be asking why that happened and why benefits should be rising faster than incomes. Many people, including those in the public sector whose pay is being limited to a 1% increase, will think it absolutely reasonable that benefits, whether payable to people in work or out of work, should likewise be limited to a 1% increase as part of deficit reduction. I heard nothing from the hon. Lady about how the Labour party would deliver deficit reduction. If Labour Members vote against the proposals, people will not understand why they are not giving priority to people who are earning in work.

The hon. Lady talked about tax, and she might like to reflect on this simple fact. What change has there been in average tax rates for people at different levels of income under the Labour Government in 2009-10 and under the coalition Government in 2012-13? It is straightforward: under this Government, the lower one’s income the greater the reduction in the average tax rate; the greater one’s level of income—all the way up to £2 million—the bigger the increase in taxation. It is clear that under this Government more of the burden is being borne by those who have the broadest shoulders. By April 2013, as a consequence of the increase in personal tax allowances under the coalition Government, the tax bill for someone in work and earning the minimum wage will be more than halved. That is the fair way to proceed; that is the way this Government will proceed.

I have to apologise to the shadow Leader of the House, as I have not been able to announce further time for Opposition day debates. I am sorry I could not do that, because I think many Government Members appreciated yesterday’s Opposition day debate. It afforded a helpful opportunity for the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) to confirm that he regarded it as irresponsible for the coalition Government to have secured a real-terms increase in NHS spending. He also said that he supported a Labour Government in Wales undertaking for an 8% real-terms cut in NHS spending. Such Opposition day debates are only to the benefit of the coalition Government.

I am sure that the entire House will be shocked, angry and dismayed at the continual incursions by the Spanish Government into the waters around the British sovereign territory of Gibraltar. This is an act of aggression. Will the Leader of the House ask the Defence Secretary and the Foreign Secretary to make an urgent statement on what Her Majesty’s Government will do to ensure that these illegal incursions into British sovereign waters are stopped forthwith?

The whole House will be aware of my hon. Friend’s stalwart support for the people of Gibraltar and their relationship with this country. There were two incursions by a Spanish naval vessel into British Gibraltar territorial waters on 10 December. Radio warnings were issued and the vessels departed from those waters, and we have protested to Spain via diplomatic channels. The Royal Navy challenges Guardia Civil and other Spanish state vessels whenever they make unlawful maritime incursions into British Gibraltar territorial waters, and we will back that up by making a formal diplomatic protest to the Spanish Government making it clear that such incursions are an unacceptable violation of British sovereignty.

The Leader of the House might be aware of the latest statement on tax by Google’s chairman, Eric Schmidt. He said he was “very proud” of its tax avoidance scheme. “It’s called capitalism,” he said. Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to remind operators such as Google which operate and make profits in this country that they should pay the appropriate taxes?

I understand capitalism to be about making a profit, not avoiding taxes, and doing so by satisfying customers. The chairman of Google, or any company that wants to satisfy its customers, should take account of customers’ views. The Government are setting out to ensure that people pay the taxes that are due—we are doing that more successfully than the last Labour Government—and we will make further improvements by introducing a general anti-abuse rule next April.

Yesterday, I met an employer from Tamworth who had given a 48-year-old man his first real job in more than 20 years. May we have a debate on what we can do to help businesses, particularly small businesses, play their part in getting the long-term unemployed off benefits and into work?

Like Members across the House, my hon. Friend will have taken great comfort from the latest figures on employment and employment opportunities, while recognising that long-term unemployment remains high. We are doing everything possible to reduce it, however, with almost 900,000 people engaged in the Work programme and one quarter of them having found jobs. In practice, it sometimes takes one, two or three jobs before people find secure long-term employment, which is the aim of the Work programme, but progress is increasingly being made to ensure that the long-term unemployed get those opportunities.

Given the huge cost of road crashes to the NHS and the economy and that nearly 2,000 people die and 20,000 people are seriously injured each year, and on the back of the annual Christmas drink-drive campaign, in light of the overwhelming support in the House for The Times’ cycling campaign, and given yesterday’s disturbing news that the speed cameras on the M25 have not been operational for a whole year, has the Leader of the House been approached by the Department for Transport about having a debate on road safety in Government time? It is an issue that concerns every Member.

Yes, I know it concerns Members, and I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s own work in this respect over the years. I will talk to my colleagues in the Department for Transport and ask them to update the House. At this time of the year, it is tremendously important that we focus on this matter, not just because of the Christmas season, but because of the weather conditions. It is really important. Overall, this country has an extremely good road safety record, but we need to improve none the less.

May we have a debate on the merits of leaving the European Union? Even the Euro-fanatic BBC decided that it was worth debating on “Newsnight” last night. Surely we should not leave such important matters to the BBC for debate; surely this is the type of thing that should be debated in this House. Opinion polls consistently show that twice as many people want to leave the EU as want to stay in it. Such a debate will allow people to see how many of their MPs agree with the majority view in their constituencies.

I am not sure that the business of the House should be led by “Newsnight”. We in this House regularly debate European issues. We will debate things such as the Commission work programme shortly and, as I told the House, the Prime Minister will make a statement and respond to questions next week on his return from the European Council. I entirely understand my hon. Friend’s point. I hope that what I said to the shadow Leader of the House gave him and others a great sense of assurance that this Government take seriously the issue of arriving at a new settlement in Europe—one that will give the people of this country an opportunity to make a judgment about the basis on which we have a long-term future in the European Union.

On 27 November the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland published a report that showed a serious decline in completion and accuracy of the electoral register, with completion now at only 73% and accuracy at 78%, and 400,000 people from a population of 1.8 million not on the register at the right address. This is very serious. It is a Northern Ireland Office responsibility. May we have an urgent statement about what programme of action the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will implement to address this serious problem?

The right hon. Gentleman raises an important point. If I may, I will seek a response to the point he rightly makes from my colleagues in the Northern Ireland Office.

The charity Gingerbread has launched a campaign to ensure that single parents are not disadvantaged in the job market. In my Edinburgh West constituency, three in every 10 families with dependent children are headed by a single parent, which is more than 3,000 families. May we have a debate on what action can be taken to improve access to affordable child care and encourage more employers to adopt flexible working practices?

From our point of view, one of the important things in this context is the overall employment situation, which is very good. We have seen from the latest data that the number of women in work is up 236,000 since the election, while unemployment among women has fallen during the quarter by 21,000. We have to ensure that women in particular are assisted back into work through the Work programme. Expanding access to child care is important. My hon. Friend will know that the Deputy Prime Minister has announced on behalf of the coalition Government that the number of two-year-olds receiving nursery care is being doubled to cover an extra 130,000 children, with an additional £200 million going into child care support under universal credit as well.

Is the Leader of the House aware that the likelihood of a child visiting any green space has halved in the last 10 years? As we enter the Christmas season, is it not time that we started promoting access to the countryside for young people, especially when we know that learning outside the classroom is in steep decline because of the Government’s changes to educational provision and the independence of schools to make decisions on such matters? We need action now, and I say this as chairman of the John Clare Trust, a national centre for learning outside the classroom.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that schools must make arrangements for access to sporting facilities, including sport outside and in the open air, which is important. I very much share his view: we know that there are long-term health benefits associated with giving children access to green space, not just in the countryside, but in urban areas and new developments. As Secretary of State for Health, I had conversations directly with, for example, Natural England about precisely these issues, which have also formed part of our work in the coalition on finding ways to deliver our public health objectives right across Government. Using their new public health responsibilities, local authorities will be able to combine that work with their planning responsibilities in a helpful way.

May we have an urgent statement from the Leader of the House on how he plans to deal with the redefinition of marriage Bill? As I understand it, his plan is for it to have its Second Reading in the new year, right at the end of the Session. The Bill was not in the Queen’s Speech or in any party’s manifesto. It is unique to bring in a Bill in this way. Will he guarantee to the House that he will introduce it in the next Session, after it has been announced in the Queen’s Speech, and that its Committee stage will be held on the Floor of the House?

I can give my hon. Friend a statement on this point. It is our intention to introduce the equal marriage Bill in the new year. The situation is not remotely unprecedented: we have recently introduced a number of pieces of legislation that were not anticipated in the Queen’s Speech. Our intention is to introduce legislation, based on the response to the consultation, and I am sure that when we do so, he and many other Members will find it helpful to enable the House to express its view on how we can ensure equal access to civil marriage in this country.

On Tuesday, I asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he was embarrassed by the fact that, by the end of this year, a quarter of a million people in this country will have accessed emergency food aid. He ignored the question. Yesterday, I had a debate on food poverty in the run-up to Christmas, and the response from the Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr Heath), was that he did not think that food poverty was a useful concept. Will the Leader of the House encourage his ministerial colleagues to visit a food bank over the Christmas period, and may we have a statement in the new year in which they can report back on what they have learned about why people in this country are struggling to feed themselves and their families?

I was here when the Chancellor was asked that question, and I do not think he ignored it at all. The hon. Lady must recognise that the most important thing we can achieve is to enable people to be in work. It is staggering to see the way in which the Opposition have completely ignored this week’s data showing one of the fastest quarterly increases in employment that we have seen for a decade. Despite the economic inheritance from the last Government, and despite the deficit, we are stimulating job creation. In fact, the Office for Budget Responsibility has said that something like two jobs are being created in the private sector for every one lost in the public sector, which is a consequence of deficit reduction. The latest data show a reduction of 24,000 jobs in the public sector and an increase of 65,000 in the private sector. Since the election, the figure is netting out at something like 1.1 million jobs. The answer to poverty, whether it is child poverty or food poverty, is work. Work is the best route out of poverty.

I very much welcome some of the measures that the Government have taken to tackle antisocial behaviour, but may we have a debate on chronic antisocial behaviour by neighbours? The Leigh, Sanger and Ferreira families in Black Dog walk in my constituency have been the victims of the Clarke family for over a quarter of a century. A debate on how we might further address such unacceptable situations would be much appreciated.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, particularly in relation to his constituents, that will have been recognised by Members across the House. Today, the Government have published the draft Anti-social Behaviour Bill for pre-legislative scrutiny. The reforms in the Bill will put victims first, and they include a new community trigger that will empower victims and communities to demand that local agencies deal with persistent problems where they have previously failed to do so. I think that my hon. Friend will find that particularly relevant to the circumstances he has described. The measures will also speed up the eviction of antisocial tenants by introducing a faster route to eviction for the most serious criminal or antisocial behaviour. The Home Affairs Committee is looking forward to undertaking pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill and producing a final report with recommendations in February.

We know that the Office for Budget Responsibility is predicting that the UK economy will contract by 0.1% in this quarter, and that it believes that the economy will contract this year as a whole. May we have a debate on business lending? It was confirmed to me on 11 December by the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), that business lending had contracted by 2.8% this year, and high streets such as the one in Guisborough in my constituency are really suffering due to a lack of funding to business.

The hon. Gentleman will know that this Government are literally leaving no stone unturned, as Michael Heseltine might have put it, to ensure that we support lending to businesses—especially to small and medium-sized businesses. That is why the funding for lending scheme is so important; it is clearly getting going and significant amounts are starting to be lent as a consequence. It is also why my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills have together been pushing for the business bank, which will be able to leverage additional specific lending to small and medium-sized businesses—not only through that bank, but through many of the new challenger banks that are giving support in that market.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the latest OBR report. He might recognise that the OBR has published updated figures on the scale of the recession under the last Labour Government, showing a total loss of gross domestic product of 6.3%. We are having to live with the economic consequences of Labour, and I think the Labour party should start from an understanding of the recession and the depth of debt it left this country.

May I pick up on the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone), particularly the last part of it, which the Leader of the House did not answer? As it is an issue of conscience, all parties will be entitled to a free vote on the management and scrutiny of the redefinition of marriage Bill. May we therefore follow the precedent set by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in a previous Parliament of holding the Committee stage on the Floor of the House, allowing all Members to exercise their conscience?

I am sorry if I neglected to answer that point—perhaps I did not hear everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) had to say. That is always a mistake—I should listen carefully to him, and I attempt to do so. I cannot promise what my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes) asks for. We will introduce and hold Second Reading of the Bill in the new year. When he looks at the Bill, I think he will realise that the Second Reading debate may well crystallise the issues. I share the view expressed by the shadow Leader of the House: I completely respect the views of those who oppose equal civil marriage. I recall listening to the Second Church Estates Commissioner, my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who I thought expressed the Church of England’s view on the matter very well. I completely understand it, but I do not think that that view should necessarily be translated into the view of the state on what constitutes equality in civil marriage. That, I think, is the difference of view. Expressing that difference of view on Second Reading is the responsibility of this House as a whole. I welcome the fact that all parties appear to be giving Members the opportunity to vote freely on the issue.

Order. It is a curious phenomenon in the House that when there are fewer Members standing—and fewer are standing today than is often the case at business questions—exchanges seem to lengthen to absorb available time. May I gently exhort the House to be pithy because there is a statement to follow and other business. If we can treat these matters succinctly, that would help.

May we please have a statement on undiagnosed cleft palates in new babies? The Royal College of Surgeons has found wide variations across the UK. In North Thames, only 42% of cleft palates are identified at birth, whereas in Oxford the figure is 94%. The Government really must do better by mums and babies on this issue.

I shall endeavour to be brief, Mr Speaker. Perhaps there is a law of the expansion of questions to fill the time available, yet perhaps that time available— [Hon. Members: “You are doing it now!”] I am doing it now.

This is a matter for clinical practice, and it is important that clinical guidelines apply in the NHS. It is the NHS’s responsibility to draw up the guidelines. I listened with interest to points made this morning that resulted from research, and I am sure that they will be reflected in the guidelines in due course.

Next week, Yorkshire is likely to win its bid to host the 2014 Tour de France. UK Sport backed Scotland for this event. May we have a debate to ensure UK Sport now offers the same multi-million pound cash deal to Yorkshire as it did to Scotland, so that there is no tartan bias in the arrangements?

I am very interested in that news, and I shall congratulate Yorkshire if it is successful. The matter is obviously the responsibility of UK Sport, but I will draw it to the attention of my colleagues at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and ensure that those at UK Sport are aware of my hon. Friend’s comments.

Is the Leader of the House comfortable with Ministers’ refusing to meet other Members of Parliament? On 17 October, I presented a ten-minute rule Bill on alcohol, relationship and drugs education that received cross-party support and the backing of 14 national charities. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Education, the hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), asking whether I could bring the Bill’s sponsors and representatives of the charities to discuss the matter with her, but I was refused a meeting.

The hon. Lady will know, as I hope the whole House does, that I consider one of my responsibilities to be ensuring that the interests of the House and its Members are understood and acted on in Departments and by my colleagues. I will therefore take the matter up.

May I support what has already been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell), and gently remind the House that an illegal incursion into British Gibraltarian sovereign waters is technically an act of war? What is happening at the moment is wrong, and we should do something about it. May we have a statement by the Secretaries of State for Defence and Foreign Affairs, as a matter of urgency, so that they can respond robustly to this aggravation?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reiterating the point about the incursion. I hope that I was clear and unequivocal earlier about the nature of the Government’s response.

As one who is very sympathetic to the idea of equal marriage, may I ask for a debate on the way in which future legislation will apply to Wales? I ask because the Church in Wales is disestablished, and has been since 1920, and because the Archbishop of Wales, Dr Barry Morgan, has expressed reservations about the Government’s approach.

I am indeed aware of the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, but it does not mean that specific legal arrangements relating to that Church will not prove necessary, given its responsibility to provide opportunities for marriage for the whole population of Wales. I am not an expert on the subject, but I am sure that it will form part of the debate on the equal marriage Bill, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have a chance then not only to make his points, but to be given good answers.

In January this year, the House voted unanimously for a review of the Government’s much-criticised decision to retain self-regulation for the big pub companies. Last week we learned from the British Beer and Pub Association that self-regulation has no role in tenant profitability, which was the big problem identified by the Select Committee. Now that we know that self-regulation cannot work, may we have that review, and may we have a statement from a Minister?

I hope my hon. Friend will forgive me when I say that I do not know the answer to his question. I will ask my colleagues whether they can respond to it, as I too will be interested in the reply.

When will the Leader of the House schedule a full debate on the impact that the Government’s plans for real-terms cuts in tax credits will have on the living standards of up to 5.8 million people from next April? Such a debate would enable us to discuss why, according to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, 63% of the affected people in my constituency and 82% of those in the right hon. Gentleman’s constituency will be strivers in low and middle-income jobs.

Last Tuesday, if I recall correctly, the House had a full opportunity to debate the autumn statement and the economy generally, and full and clear answers were given. I think that when the hon. Gentleman takes into account not only the working-age benefits that are available to those who are in work, but the positive impact of tax changes on those people, he will recognise that the coalition Government are focusing on ensuring that work does indeed pay.

The Welsh Government’s proposals to pass a new law changing the organ donation rules from an opt-in system to an opt-out system are far advanced. That is, of course, a matter for the Welsh Government, but there is no evidence that the move will result in an increase in the number of donated organs. There may well be negative impacts on the donation system in England, however. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement before the Welsh law is passed on its possible impacts across the UK as a whole?

If I may, I will ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health to respond to my hon. Friend on that issue. I responded to the Welsh Government on behalf of the Government, and I made some points about the relationship between the organ donor register and its administration in England and in Wales. That is important, and should be taken into account.

May we have a debate on the merits of docking people’s pay if they do not carry out their duties? The Secretary of State for Education says he wants to do that to teachers, yet he and his Ministers have the worst record in Government on failing to answer parliamentary questions and, as we have heard today, refusing to meet Members who have genuine reasons to want to meet Ministers. Does the Leader of the House agree that the Secretary of State should take his own medicine by docking his own pay until he gets that right?

I have seen the letter my right hon. Friend sent to schools, in which he made the absolutely fair point that, on the basis of ballots in which there was a very poor turnout, there is a minority of teachers who are prejudicing the interests of children in schools. My right hon. Friend was not saying that he was going to do anything; instead he was making it very clear that the Government support schools, as the employers of teachers, in making the right decisions on behalf of their children.

Everyone knows somebody who has been affected by dementia. On Monday I attended a seminar at Stoke Damerel community college organised by Ian Sherriff, a well-known campaigner based at Plymouth university, which was also led by the well-known broadcaster Angela Rippon. May I add my support to calls for a debate in Backbench Business Committee time on dementia, as it is an important issue? Will my right hon. Friend also tell us what progress has been made with the Prime Minister’s dementia challenge?

The Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), is present and will have heard my hon. Friend’s request for a debate on dementia. I was with the Prime Minister when we launched the dementia challenge in the early part of the year. I will not give my hon. Friend a complete and comprehensive list of the many things that are happening, but the dementia-friendly community part of the challenge is resulting in the launch of a new dementia friends scheme, the delivery of awareness sessions on dementia to 1 million people, and some £54 million being made available to support dementia diagnosis in hospitals, because we know that there is under-diagnosis in this country, and we need to improve the situation. A substantial capital fund is also being created to support dementia-friendly health and care environments.

Instead of sacking HMRC staff, may we have a debate on how they could collect tax from wealthy individuals? Instead of cutting taxes to millionaires, the Government should try to collect their taxes.

The hon. Gentleman neglects the simple fact that our measures to ensure that people pay the proper sums in tax to the Government are raising about £7 billion a year more than similar measures under the last Labour Government. We are doing more, and we will do still more. The hon. Gentleman does not take any account of the fact that my ministerial colleagues at the Treasury have announced that front-line staff will be working precisely on tax evasion and tax avoidance, and the implementation of additional measures and a general anti-abuse rule in April will enable us to do still more.

The right hon. Gentleman will know of my interest in cancer and that I am generally supportive of the idea that doctors and clinicians should make decisions about local commissioning. Last night, however, I finished reading “Securing equity and excellence in commissioning specialised services”, a document produced by the NHS Commissioning Board. It is 227 pages long, and I was stunned to learn that there are 130 specialised commissioning services groups and a series of subgroups, as well as the NHS Commissioning Board, four regional directorates and 10 sub-regional directors inside 27 local area action teams. I am unclear how introducing more bureaucracy and new layers of staff—who are appointed, not elected—will lead to an increase in the provision of local services.

We are ever so grateful to the hon. Member for Wells (Tessa Munt), who might wish further to pursue this matter by the well-known device of an Adjournment debate.

The commissioning of specialised services through the NHS Commissioning Board is a direct replacement for the previous regional or national specialised commissioning. I have to tell my hon. Friend that the level of bureaucracy she describes is significantly less than there used to be under regional and national specialised commissioning. The total activity in the NHS Commissioning Board, compared with the responsibilities it has taken on, is reducing by about 30% or 40%; I am talking about the number of people employed and engaged in that kind of central commissioning activity. People with some of these specialised conditions want specialised commissioning on a national basis, because it gives them much greater assurance about the consistent application of the clinical guidelines.

This week, a young guardsman, Guardsman Bhullar of F Company, Scots Guards, took up his post guarding our monarch at Buckingham palace. Unlike his fellow guardsmen, he was wearing a turban rather than a bearskin—it has been a long time coming. He has a bright future and is a capable young man. Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate on improving recruitment of ethnic minorities into our Army, because our armed forces are at their best when they look like the society they protect?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The House recently had an opportunity in time allocated by the Backbench Business Committee to discuss defence personnel. I do not recall whether the issue he raises came up, but I share his view, as I am sure the armed forces do. In particular, I think that they, like many across the House, will have been rather cheered by the new guardsman, recognising the tremendous and courageous contribution that Sikhs have historically made to the British Army over many years.

I want briefly to thank the Leader of the House for being flexible in allowing the Backbench Business Committee to allocate debates at the end of the day. I also ask him to help me to encourage Members to come to the Backbench Business Committee with proposals for not only very big debates on subjects such as autism, but debates that are more flexible and can be held quickly, such as yesterday’s debate on women bishops, and debates that are flexible on time and flexible on whether there is a vote at the end.

I am sure that you, Mr Speaker, and the House will be aware of the evidence from the Backbench Business Committee of the progress it is making in being able to accommodate requests. I have seen, by sitting with the Committee at its sessions, just how an increasing number of Members from right across the House appreciate that and take advantage of it. The hon. Lady asks for flexible debates if the business of the House concludes early. We took that approach for the autism debate, which I thought was very successful and delivered precisely what the Committee was seeking.

The Government are about to announce a key decision on whether one-year and five-year cancer survival rates will be included in the 2013-14 commissioning outcomes framework. Given the importance of this decision to cancer patients and the cancer community at large, may we have an appropriate statement in this House?

My hon. Friend and I have discussed this on many occasions. He will understand that one thing we have set out to do is hold the NHS to account, through the Commissioning Board, for the outcomes it achieves in the national outcomes—the NHS outcomes framework. The way in which the board then holds clinical commissioning groups to account in greater detail—I am pleased to say that the first 34 have now been authorised by the board—is a matter for it to decide under the NHS commissioning outcomes framework. It is for the board to make these announcements, rather than for Ministers to do so.

Personal Independence Payments

The Government are committed to enabling disabled people to fulfil their potential and play a full role in society. Crucial to that is the reform of disability living allowance, a lifeline for many but one that is simply not working in its current form. In the past 10 years, the number of people claiming rose by more than a third from around 2.4 million to 3.2 million and expenditure is now far in excess of initial estimated costs.

This year the Department for Work and Pensions expected to spend more than £13 billion on DLA. As a percentage of GDP, we spend a fifth more than the EU average on disability benefits and expect to spend more in real terms in 2015-16 than we did in 2009-10. Today we are publishing the Government’s consultation responses on the draft assessment criteria and on the detailed design of the personal independence payment. Alongside that, I will be laying in draft before Parliament the main PIP regulations, which will set out the PIP entitlement conditions, assessment criteria and payment rates. We will also publish in draft what the transitional arrangements might look like. The main scheme regulations are subject to the affirmative procedure and I look forward to debating them in full early next year.

Personal independence payments will be easier to understand and administer, financially sustainable and more objective. Throughout the whole development, we have consulted widely with disabled people and we have used their views to inform policy design and implementation plans. As a result of hearing those views, we have made several key changes to the final assessment criteria and I would like to thank the individuals and organisations who contributed.

Starting with the rates, I am pleased to confirm the rates for PIP will be set at the same rates as DLA. The daily living enhanced rate of PIP will be the same as the higher rate care component of DLA, and the standard rate of the daily living component will be set at the middle-rate DLA care component. The mobility rates of PIP will be the same as the DLA rates. Furthermore, following the autumn statement, disability benefits will be protected within our uprating measures and PIP, like DLA and carer’s allowance, will continue to be uprated by inflation.

The most important thing I want to announce today is that we have listened to and acted on the huge amount of consultation we have had with disabled people and disability groups. We have made specific key changes as a result of our engagement. They are outlined in full in our consultation responses and include broadening our approach to aids and appliances, assessing ability to read and taking account of specialist orientation aids that help mobility; mirroring the linking rules for DLA, which will help to ensure continuity for people with fluctuating conditions; and new plans for contacting young people when they reach the age of 16, or their appointees, to help a smooth transition to PIP.

All the changes we have made address the genuine concerns of disabled people and the organisations representing them. Overall, their effect is to make PIP more transparent, objective, and fair.

We also listened carefully to concerns about the speed of reassessments. To that end, we will now undertake a significantly slower reassessment timetable to ensure we get this right. It will be phased in, starting with a controlled start area in the north-west and parts of the north-east of England from April 2013. We will then take new claims nationally from June 2013. From October 2013, we will start reassessing people whose DLA award is due to end, people who report a change in their condition and young people who reach the age of 16. But now the peak period of reassessments will not start until October 2015. That means we can learn from the early introduction of PIP, testing our process and making sure the assessment is working correctly before we embark on higher volumes. We will then consider the findings of our first independent review, planned for 2014, and act on them. Importantly, unless people report a change in their condition, those with a lifetime or indefinite DLA award will not be reassessed until October 2015 at the earliest.

We can now publish case load assumptions about the impact of PIP. Those figures clearly show that PIP will deliver its key objective of focusing support on those with the greatest needs. By October 2015, we will have reassessed 560,000 claimants. Of those, 160,000 will get a reduced award and 170,000 will get no award, but 230,000 will get the same or more support. Under the new criteria, almost a quarter of PIP recipients will get both of the highest rates, worth £134.40 each week, compared with only 16% on DLA.

By reforming the system and ensuring that it is fit for the 21st century we can use the money we spend on disabled people more efficiently and effectively to help those most in need.

I thank the Minister for her statement and for the advance copy of it.

Last Thursday we had the written announcement of the closure of Remploy factories, with more than 800 redundancies. This Thursday we have a statement that is intended, according to the Government’s own estimates, to remove a disability benefit from more than 500,000 disabled people. Let me make it clear that we are in favour of an assessment for DLA, but the assessment needs to be the right one.

I shall deal first with a number of myths. There has indeed been an increase in the number of people claiming DLA. A significant number of those have protected DLA as they move into retirement. As the Minister knows, about 900,000 people currently receiving DLA fall into this category. However, the other factor that I thought she might have alluded to was that the lives of disabled people have changed dramatically since 1992, when the expectation for many of them was that they would move into residential care. Thankfully, that is not the current situation when most disabled people want to live, as far as possible, independent lives in their own community, and DLA has been crucial for many disabled people as they move into that environment of independence, choice and control over their own lives.

I listened carefully to the Minister’s statement. In the short time available to us, I have not been able to scrutinise carefully the detail of the new assessment criteria, but I shall make some initial remarks. I welcome some of the changes that the Government have made, including the broadening of approach and the mirroring of the DLA linking rules. I welcome too the fact that the Government have recognised that the initial proposal on the speed of the assessment was unrealistic, and there will now be a significantly slower reassessment process. Nevertheless, we are still looking at June 2013 as the vesting date for new cases and we have not yet properly scrutinised the new criteria, so although I welcome the change in the speed of the assessment, I think there are still some issues about the new cases coming on in June 2013.

We will apply stringent tests to the new PIP assessments. Let me ask the Minister some specific questions. Given that DLA support allows many people to travel to work, will the Government give a commitment that it will not be taken away from anyone who is in work? In other words, if they are currently on DLA and are currently in employment, will the Minister give a commitment that the financial integrity of disabled people who go to work will not be undermined?

The Government are protecting under-16s and those over the age of 65, so how does the Minister’s claim that she is maintaining the overall budget square with that protection at each end of the age spectrum? If one looks at the demography, one clearly sees that there is a disproportionate impact on working-age disabled people. The Minister makes great play of the fact that the budget will remain the same, but I want to remind her of the comments made by her predecessor and other Members on the Front Bench, including the Secretary of State, that greater support would be given to those with the most severe disability. I wonder how that marries with the fact that the rates for the new PIP will be exactly the same as the current rates for DLA. That seems to be a conundrum.

The new criteria must not push people into social care or into the NHS. What discussions has the Minister had with the Department for Communities and Local Government, local government and the NHS to consider the impact as 500,000 people—over a longer period, admittedly—lose benefit?

May I also ask the Minister what the impact on carers will be? I think that there was a little confusion in her answers about carers on Monday, so I want to give her another opportunity. Carers UK estimates that 10,000 people who currently receive carers allowance could lose it as a result of the changes. Has she made any estimate?

I appreciate that this is a short statement so I will give a shortish response but I say once again to the Minister and to the Secretary of State that there is a whole raft of welfare reform changes that are impacting on the lives of disabled people. The Government have the facility and capacity, with hundreds of thousands of civil servants, so why do they not undertake a cumulative impact assessment of the effect of their changes on disabled people?

I welcome the right hon. Lady’s words and her acknowledgment of the listening and consultation that we have done and the changes that we have made. I cannot give the assurances that she would like on PIP, as those were not the case for people of working age under DLA. What we can say is that everybody will be viewed as an individual when it comes to assessing their needs and that more people will get the higher awards—nearly 25% of those on PIP will be on the highest awards. As for carers, one thing we all agree on is that they do an incredible job. We will support them as best we can. I can also announce today that the links for carers that were in place under DLA will also be in place under PIP.

The Opposition never conducted a cumulative impact assessment when they were in government, and for good reason. I understand that it would be impossible to measure the impact of such large reforms and changes, particularly as they will not be in place until 2017 and the case load is dynamic. Even the Institute for Fiscal Studies says that it would be nearly impossible to do that. As I have said, I am delighted that we have listened to the disability groups, taken on board what they have said and made the changes they asked for.

Does the Minister welcome, as I do, the fairer way that fluctuating conditions, mental health conditions and cognitive impairments are assessed under PIP, in contrast to DLA, which tended to focus solely on physical impairment?

I thank my hon. Friend, who quite rightly states that PIP is intended to look at fluctuating conditions, take all the impacts into assessment and deliver for those people.

I welcome the Government’s decision to delay the implementation of PIP and hope that they will continue to keep the timetable under review, because I suspect that it might not be as easy as the Minister implies it will be today. I advise her that she worries disabled people very much when she talks about the increase in the costs of DLA. Any increase in DLA, unlike for out-of-work benefits, is not necessarily a bad thing, because if more people are getting more DLA, more people are living independent lives and engaging in society in a way that they were not doing previously. Of course, any money spent on DLA or PIP is often money saved in other budgets, whether in the NHS or in social care. I ask the Minister to be very careful about the language she uses, because many disabled people are very worried about the implementation of PIP and what it will mean for their lives. Any words about saving money makes them think that they will be the victims of some kind of economic drive by the Government to ensure that they are saving on the budget for the very vulnerable. That money is spent very wisely on giving them an independent life.

Order. Just before the Minister answers, I remind Members that we must have much shorter questions, because I want to get everybody in.

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. I will of course be very aware of the language I use, and I hear what she says most clearly. I am glad that she is pleased about the slower delivery of PIP and about the independent review that will take place in 2014 so that we can ensure that what is happening is correct and that we are delivering what is intended. We continue to spend over £13 billion, and we will be spending more in every year up to 2015-16 than was spent in 2009-10. I am fully aware of her concerns and we have taken them on board.

I welcome the changes to the descriptors for blind and deaf people and pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Stephen Lloyd), who has been working with the Department on this issue. These changes will enable blind and deaf people to access much more focused support for their conditions. Will the Minister outline that to the House?

My hon. Friend is right. We listened and consulted, and we have made the alterations required for blind and deaf people in relation to their ability to communicate, make journeys, and so on.

The Minister will be aware that the majority of the recipients of DLA/PIP and their carers are dependent on the services provided by local authorities. However, because of the Government’s savage financial cuts for local authorities, those services are being eroded or removed, or in some instances charged for. As part of the impact assessment, will she examine in no small detail whether the services that enable disabled people to live independent lives will still be available or whether the cost of buying them will become prohibitive?

We are working with local government to ensure that we are delivering on this. It is about what is best for disabled people and focused support for the billions of pounds that we are spending.

I welcome my hon. Friend’s statement. May I tell her to stick to her guns on this subject and ignore the siren voices from those on the Labour Benches who seem to believe in a test, but one that nobody can fail, and want to advocate unlimited levels of welfare? Given that we have limited resources, most of my constituents will support the principle that the money should be directed at the people who need it instead of at the people who do not, so may I urge her to continue along that path?

I thank my hon. Friend. This is a principled reform. It is about adding integrity and rigour to the system. It is about fairness and transparency, and helping those who need this support the most.

I think that the comment by the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) was a disgrace.

May I suggest to the Minister that we will not fully understand the impact of her announcement until we see the revised assessment criteria? Welcome as they are for blind and deaf people, will they have the continuing perversity of penalising blind people for having a go at undertaking journeys that they could undertake with DLA but could not undertake unless they had the support that PIP is intended to provide for them? In other words, will they avoid the perversity that was built into the previous assessment criteria and, above all, continue with the higher rate of the mobility component, which was unanimously agreed by this House just two and a half years ago and was threatened under the previous draft assessment regulations for PIP?