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Topical Questions

Volume 557: debated on Thursday 31 January 2013

The core purpose of the Department of Energy and Climate Change is to power the country and protect the planet, avoiding catastrophic climate change while providing secure and affordable energy supplies to the UK. Since the last DECC questions, the Energy Bill received its Second Reading, and it is now in Committee. We have launched the green deal to help all households save energy and to lower bills and we continue to work towards a legally binding global international treaty, engaging with our partners to formulate a road map through to 2015.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Congleton sustainability group, part of Congleton partnership, has developed plans for a local micro-hydro scheme to generate electricity from the old mill weir. It has received an offer of £250,000 from the rural carbon challenge fund, which is a substantial proportion of the funding needed, but further help is needed to translate this innovative scheme into a reality. Will the Minister meet me and a delegation from my constituency to discuss it?

I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s question; that sounds a very interesting scheme. We are supporting micro-hydro schemes through feed-in tariffs but if she has particular issues that she wants to discuss with me or my colleagues in DECC, I am sure we will find time to meet her and her delegation.

Every day it is becoming more evident where the Liberal Democrats do not agree with their Conservative colleagues. However, in response to Labour’s proposal to extend community energy schemes by increasing the feed-in tariff threshold to 10 MW, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), told the Energy Bill Committee that

“it is a matter of public record that I myself supported the expansion of the FITs scheme at the Conservative party conference last year…However, this is a coalition Government”.––[Official Report, Energy Public Bill Committee, 22 January 2013; c. 248-49.]

Will the Secretary of State confirm today that it is the Liberal Democrats who are responsible for the Government’s failure to support extending the feed-in tariff threshold to 10 MW in the Energy Bill and therefore to support and encourage community energy schemes?

I congratulate the right hon. Lady on a good try, but I am afraid it is going to fail. I work closely with both my Ministers of State and we are a united team on that and many other measures. I am sure the right hon. Lady will be terribly disappointed, but that is why we will introduce later this year the most ambitious community energy strategy this country has ever seen, and we will consult on it before we finalise it. She wants to point out one measure, but that will be considered along with many others. We have a rather more ambitious approach to community energy than the previous Government ever had.

T4. The Energy Minister has appeared before the Energy Bill Committee, waxing lyrical about the important reforms the Government are introducing to ensure that we get the energy investment we need in the future. What steps is he taking to ensure that those measures will see appropriate diversity of generating technologies? (140479)

Diversity matters because it provides resilience and sustainability. It is absolutely right that, through the mechanisms we put in place and the framework of certainty I described earlier, we guarantee an energy mix that is fit for purpose and fit for the future.

T5. In 1976, the Flowers commission said that it would be irresponsible to proceed with generating electricity from nuclear power without a policy on the disposal of waste. The policy then was to dig a hole and bury the waste in it. The policy now is to do the same thing, but we no longer have a hole since Cumbria county council turned down the planning permission yesterday. Will this preposterous buffoon of a Minister of State try to answer one question and say whether it is still irresponsible to proceed without a solution to deal with the waste? (140481)

Order. I think the hon. Gentleman should withdraw the expression “preposterous buffoon”—[Interruption.] Order. The hon. Gentleman has a very wide vocabulary and should use an alternative expression.

I will pull those words and refer instead to this Minister who has failed to answer any question today and has demonstrated his incompetence.

I am extremely disappointed in the approach that the hon. Gentleman has taken. My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I work very closely on this issue and many other matters and he has made an important contribution to the debate. The hon. Gentleman clearly has not read the written ministerial statement issued before oral questions, which makes it very clear that our policy continues and has not changed. As his hon. Friend the Member for Copeland (Mr Reed) said earlier, it is worth noting that Copeland borough council and Allerdale borough council voted with substantial majorities to say yes to a nuclear waste facility in their area.

Order. We have a lot to get through and we need short sharp questions and answers. I look to Roger Williams for a rapier thrust.

T6. Anaerobic digestion is sometimes seen as a Cinderella technology in our fight against climate change, although I am sure that that is not the case in the Department. A report by the Royal Agricultural Society of England sets out some of the benefits of on-farm AD, such as a reduction in greenhouse gases and pollution, but also a number of barriers to it. Will a Minister meet interested parties to discuss how those barriers can be overcome? (140482)

I am certainly happy to meet interested parties because AD is a priority for the Government. Since we published our AD strategy in 2011, I am glad to say that the deployment of AD plants has increased by a third. We remain ambitious, and I will happily meet my hon. Friend.

In Stoke-on-Trent, we have a disproportionate number of people in fuel poverty and a high reliance on intensive energy use, on which a great number of jobs depend. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that the city deal bid that is being made by Stoke-on-Trent and the local enterprise partnership for investment based on energy will be the subject of an urgent ministerial meeting to ensure that the proposals are not stalled?

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. Officials are working closely on the bid, although obviously I cannot prejudge the decision.

T7. As a fellow Member representing an area in the green and pleasant county that is Lincolnshire, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), will be aware that Lincolnshire county council is deeply troubled by the local impact of onshore wind deployment. Does my hon. Friend share that concern? (140483)

I have with me Lincolnshire county council’s statement on exactly that matter. My councillors in Lincolnshire, as wise as they are worthy, and as diligent as they are dedicated, are determined to defend the landscape, and so am I.

You might recall, Mr Speaker, that in July last year, I raised on the Floor of the House my concern about the Department’s delay in deciding whether to retain the electric lines at the Heath business and technical park in Runcorn. This is important because the delay in the decision is holding up the creation of many hundreds of new jobs and of new housing. We are now told the decision might not be taken until March, because the inspector is busy. Does the Minister think that that is acceptable?

It seems to me that the hon. Gentleman’s very specific point is well made. I shall be delighted to meet him to discuss those details and see what we can do to help.

T8. With the development of new sources of many types of generation in many locations on and offshore, what measures is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State taking to speed up the strengthening of the grid, which is essential for the efficient transmission of electricity? (140484)

My hon. Friend will know that Ofgem recently announced the settlement for national grid investment going forward, and the offshore transmission network regime has been strengthened. All these things are very important for the reasons that he outlined.

Further to the earlier exchange about nuclear waste, the Secretary of State will be aware that the Ministry of Defence was talking to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority about taking the MOD’s waste, especially that from the submarines stored in my constituency. Will he confirm what fresh discussions he will ask the NDA to hold with the MOD to resolve the situation?

Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman and all hon. Members that yesterday’s vote by Cumbria county council in no way changes the extremely safe and secure way in which nuclear waste is stored, whether it comes from the Ministry of Defence through nuclear submarines, through power generation, or from our very large nuclear legacy. We are determined to ensure that that nuclear waste is stored safely for decades to come, if necessary in interim storage facilities, but we will be pressing on with our policies for a long-term geological storage facility.

Tilbury power station in my constituency has been generating power for more than 60 years. It successfully transferred from coal-fired generation to biomass to the extent that it generates more than half the UK’s supply of renewable energy. However, owing to the large combustion plant directive, it will still have to close. Is not that stark raving bonkers?

I am aware of that situation, and I know how well my hon. Friend has articulated and represented the interests of her constituents in this regard. This is, in the end, a commercial decision. RWE took the decision to use Tilbury as a test bed in October 2011 and converted the station to run on 100% biomass. Particular circumstances have affected that decision, but I will be more than happy, as I already have begun to, to discuss the matter further with my hon. Friend.

In his response to my question earlier, the Minister of State was gracious enough to say that he wanted complete openness about the strike price. Will he therefore tell the House whether there will be a provision in the strike price negotiations for a claw-back, should the estimated construction costs exceed the real ones?

The hon. Gentleman is being mischievous. I have been very clear that those matters will be published for the scrutiny of the House, but he would hardly expect me to go into the detail of the negotiation while the negotiation was ongoing.

The prospect of managing a contract for difference is no trivial matter for the small organisations often involved in community energy initiatives. Will my right hon. Friend consider pleas from those on the Liberal Benches to continue the now familiar feed-in tariff for small-scale prospective community energy generators?

My hon. Friend knows that we have been looking at the issue and we will continue to keep it under consideration, but it has to be seen in the wider context of the community energy strategy that we are developing.

I have seen many Ministers in the House and I think the Minister of State, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), is one of the better ones I have heard.

May I push the ministerial team on the question of smart metering? As I understand it from the reply to an earlier question, smart metering is now going to be optional. It will not be installed in every house in the country, which would have been transformational. It has been downgraded to optional and will not be applicable across the board.

Our proposal for the smart meter roll-out is very similar to that of the previous Government. We have a very ambitious roll-out. There is no desire for people not to take smart meters, but we have said, as the previous Government said, that if someone really does not want a smart meter, we will not force them to have one.