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Topical Questions

Volume 560: debated on Thursday 14 March 2013

The core purpose of the Department of Energy and Climate Change is to power the country and protect the planet, and to avoid catastrophic climate change while providing secure, affordable energy supplies to the UK.

I want to take this opportunity to express my regret at the closure of Daw Mill colliery following a fire. The closure will be felt keenly by the communities surrounding the colliery, and particularly by the families of those whose jobs are threatened as a result. We are in close contact with UK Coal and the unions to try to develop a way forward, as the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) said earlier. Since the last oral questions, the Energy Bill has continued its passage through this House and we remain on track.

There are proposals to create what will be the largest onshore wind farm in the country on the edge of my constituency. I am a huge supporter of renewable energy, but I have major reservations about onshore wind, as I believe it is very expensive and unreliable. I am therefore not at all supportive of the proposals. Does the Secretary of State agree that we have enough onshore wind farms already?

I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend but I cannot agree with that bold statement, not least because onshore wind is one of the cheapest—if not the cheapest—of the large-scale renewable technologies. It has huge benefits. The planning system is important, however, and local communities can have a say on these matters. One reason that we published the call for evidence on community benefits was to ensure that local communities benefit more from hosting such installations.

T3. The village of Salsburgh in my constituency is not on the gas distribution network, which means that the inhabitants have to spend more money on electric and oil heating systems. That situation is replicated throughout the country. What are the Government going to do to tackle the issue? (147797)

The hon. Lady raises an important issue, and it is one that many hon. Members have experienced in their constituencies. In the past, people who are off the gas grid have not had the support they deserve, but the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings is looking into the matter. We are looking at tackling fuel poverty through mechanisms such as collective switching, for example, and at renewable heat, which can really help people who are off grid. We are looking across the range of our policies to see whether we can help.

T2. In my Stroud constituency, we have a large number of innovative energy firms eager to pursue research and development projects. One area I think worth developing is energy storage, particularly storing electricity, which answers quite a few questions about engineering and providing an industrial base, as well as the peak problem in relation to renewable energy. What measures will the Government take to encourage investment in energy storage? (147796)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think energy storage technology holds out massive potential for the future, and UK firms are at the cutting edge of some of these technologies. When we finalised the Energy Bill, we said that we were minded to run a capacity market next year. One thing we would do with that is to have an early capacity market auction for demand-side response and storage technologies. That would send a very clear signal to these innovators.

Order. Let me remind colleagues of the premium on brevity at topical questions. I want to get through everybody’s question so Members need to help me to help them.

T5. I have written previously to his Department, so the Secretary of State should be aware that the people of Merseyside pay more for their electricity than people anywhere else in England. Will he therefore insist that Ofgem recommends a price reduction so that people in Liverpool pay the same tariff as others elsewhere in the country? (147799)

I am sure Ofgem will have heard the hon. Gentleman’s question. He will also know that Ofgem has proposed major reforms of tariff, which we believe will help many people, particularly those stranded on the so-called dead tariffs who are paying far more than they need to. This will, I believe, support competition in the market. Let me point out that the hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team is in favour of abolishing Ofgem—a particularly interesting position.

T4. In my constituency, a number of groups are looking at ways to set up new renewable energy projects. However, I have met some who have faced barriers from organisations such as the Environmental Protection Agency and other Government bodies. Will the Minister outline what help is being given to local community groups to get their organisations off the ground and will he look at ways of ensuring that the regulatory regime is proportionate both in cost and time to the scale of the projects involved? (147798)

This coalition is absolutely committed to driving a transformation in the take-up of community energy, so we are really keen to help community groups such as the ones my hon. Friend mentions. That is why we established LEAF—the local energy assessment fund—with £10 million and the low carbon communities challenge with up to £20 million. I would be delighted to talk to my hon. Friend about how we can help his communities to access that cash.

T7. What could be more topical than a challenge to the recently announced infallibility of the Minister of State, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes). Indeed, there has been such a challenge—from Mitsubishi, Vestas, Alstom, Areva, Doosan and Gamesa. The Minister maintains that there should be no decarbonisation target until 2016; they have said that postponing the 2030 target decision until 2016 creates entirely avoidable political risks and slow growth in the low-carbon sector, handicaps the UK supply chain, reduces UK research and development and produces fewer jobs. (147801)

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I have seen that letter. He will know that there is a case, which I have supported, for bringing this forward and setting a target in 2014, but we have reached an agreement across the coalition. I think it is a very sensible agreement, because we are the first Government ever to propose setting a decarbonisation target. I think we should be proud of that. Rather than talking it down, the Opposition should realise that we have moved further and faster than they did.

T6. I want to thank the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) for hosting a constructive meeting with the Welsh Assembly Member Russell George and myself earlier this week about planning permission for onshore wind farms and associated infrastructure in mid-Wales. Will the Minister tell us how he intends to ensure that more weight be given to the view of planning authorities and local communities when they fiercely oppose wind farms in their areas? (147800)

The Secretary of State has said—and I can do no more than echo his words:

“I am clear that local people and their councils should not feel bullied into accepting proposals they do not want.”

It is critical to listen to local communities. The call for evidence that my right hon. Friend has mentioned is, in turn, critical to that. I am delighted that I was able to meet my hon. Friend and his colleagues. He will await our response to the call for evidence with interest, as will the whole House, and I am sure it will be very good news.

Further to Question 2 on the deep-mining industry outlined by my hon. Friends, Britain could be facing a sharp rise in the importation of coal. On that basis, what assessment has the Minister made of the future security of energy supply in Britain?

Coal matters, for reasons of energy security, but jobs and skills matter too. People who do a dirty, difficult, dangerous job deserve our respect and support. The job that they do helps our energy security, and the Government understand that, which is why we will work to preserve that security and protect those people.

T8. The United Kingdom is not alone in Europe in wanting to build new nuclear power stations. How can we co-operate with other European countries to our advantage, without ceding further powers to them? (147802)

Only just last week we hosted, here in London, a meeting of EU member states which either have nuclear power or want to invest in it. We are working with them, not just looking for opportunities for new finance and so forth, but trying to ensure, together, that the EU understands the case for investment in low-carbon energy sources such as nuclear power.

In their response to the Environment Audit Committee’s report “Protecting the Arctic”, the Government said that oil drilling would be necessary in the Arctic to preserve domestic energy security and meet global demand. That was based on projections in the 2011 World Energy Outlook report. However, the 2012 report shows that projected demand can be met entirely by production from already discovered fields. Will the Government be reviewing their position in the light of that?

As we said in our response to the Committee, we are working with members of the Arctic Council, which are the key countries that develop policies of that kind. We do not have the power to infringe their sovereignty, and I would not wish that, but we are working closely with them, particularly with close colleagues such as Norway.

T9. Many of my constituents are concerned about fracking, but I am not aware of any applications for fracking in the south Devon area. Can the Minister reassure my constituents that the Government are not aware of any such applications? (147803)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we have established an office for unconventional gas and oil precisely in order to co-ordinate such matters. It is absolutely right for us to explore this opportunity, which could prove very fruitful, but we must do so in a safe and secure way, and a way that encourages communities to understand the benefits that it can bring them as well as the whole nation.

The CBI estimates that more than a third of the pitiful economic growth that we saw last year came from the green economy. Why is the Secretary of State listening to the Chancellor rather than to green businesses, which say that they want a target in law for the decarbonisation of the energy sector by 2030 and they want that target now?

The hon. Gentleman is right: green growth enables our economy to perform. We are seeing green growth, and I welcome that. I have been working closely with the Chancellor. The deal that we agreed before Christmas will mean a tripling of support for renewable energy, and, for the first time, the power to set a decarbonisation target will be put into law. That provides a framework that the last Government did not provide.

I am concerned by the Secretary of State’s brush-off of my constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Andrew Jones), in connection with the Penny Pot Lane wind development. Communities throughout north Yorkshire are being bullied by wind companies, and money is being wasted. Will the Secretary of State meet me, and other north Yorkshire Members of Parliament, to discuss why the Liberal Democrat obsession with wind is not what north Yorkshire wants?

I did not give my hon. Friend’s neighbour a brush-off. His hon. Friend—and my hon. Friend—asked me whether I thought that we had enough onshore wind. I do not think that, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) knows, Secretaries of State rightly do not comment on local planning applications.

The last Labour Government helped to lift 1.75 million people out of fuel poverty. Does the Secretary of State expect next year’s fuel poverty figures, which will show for the first time what has happened under this Government, to reveal that fuel poverty has risen or fallen on his watch?

I must remind the hon. Gentleman that the figures based on the old way of counting show that fuel poverty increased under the last Government. This Government have conducted an independent review of the way in which fuel poverty is measured, and it showed that the last Government could not even measure it correctly. According to the old measurement, the Queen was sometimes in fuel poverty. However, we are reforming not just the measurement of fuel poverty but the policies themselves, and I shall be producing a fuel poverty strategy later this year.

I want to thank the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) for the care and support he has shown for the workers at the Daw Mill colliery during this difficult time. In addition to the work he is doing, will he make representations to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that it is fully engaged with local organisations in the provision of careers advice, support and retraining opportunities for the workers who cannot be redeployed in the coal industry?

My hon. Friend has been a powerful champion of his constituents in this regard, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Sherwood (Mr Spencer) and for North Warwickshire (Dan Byles) of their constituents. I will, indeed, do what has been asked. In fact, I already have: there will be a bespoke tailored event run with local colleges, local authorities and Jobcentre Plus aimed at providing new job opportunities and reskilling for those who find themselves made redundant.

The Hills fuel poverty review said that unless the Government changed course a further 200,000 families would be in fuel poverty within four years. Does the Secretary of State agree with the Hills conclusions, and if not, will he place in the Library the evidence on which he is basing his views?

Professor John Hills’ report was extremely welcome and had a very important analysis. In reforming the design of the ECO, we took account of the understandings and research Professor Hills laid out, and that is also one of the reasons why we will be developing and publishing a fuel poverty strategy to show we are serious about tackling this issue.

In how many of the homes in need of improved insulation does the Minister expect measures to be taken over the remainder of this Parliament?

We do not have an exact figure, but we do think the green deal framework, supported by the ECO, is the best way of driving forward the very ambitious take-up of insulation measures that we will need not just in this Parliament, but throughout the decade.

I am sure the Secretary of State knows about the Innovate UK conference held in Islington in London this week. Will he take a greater interest in clean, energy-efficient, sustainable production? There is a great market for Britain in this field; we lead the world, but we need leadership to make sure we conquer China, India and other markets.

I was not aware of that particular conference, but I did attend an exhibition called Ecobuild, which showed many British companies that are innovating in saving energy. I am extremely aware of companies that are involved in clean energy, and I am working with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to develop supply-chain policies so not only are low-carbon technologies developed, but innovating British firms get the benefit and we have green jobs in this country.