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Commons Chamber

Volume 560: debated on Thursday 14 March 2013

House of Commons

Thursday 14 March 2013

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Efficiency

Before I answer may I, on behalf of many Members of the House, welcome the election of the new pope, Pope Francis?

The green deal, which went fully live on Monday 28 January, will help transform the homes of British people over the coming decade and beyond. This transformational policy, along with the energy company obligation and the roll-out of smart meters, will drive the development of a new energy efficiency market, providing unprecedented choice, benefits and access to low-cost finance for British households.

The Government claim that the green deal will be the biggest and best home improvement plan since the second world war. Can the Minister tell us how many households have taken out the green deal so far?

The green deal has got off to an excellent start. As the hon. Gentleman may know, we have released data today which show that nearly 2,000 green deal assessments have been made, and already that figure is out of date. There are more than 600 accredited advisers and more than 600 installing firms have been accredited. Nearly £30 million of ecos have been traded on eco-brokerage. The hon. Gentleman should listen to the industry. I do not often recommend that people listen to tweets, but if he looks at the tweets of British Gas, GHE Solar, Toriga and Green Deal Shop, they will tell him and other right hon. and hon. Members how well those firms are doing with assessments and, they believe, taking those on to installations.

It is estimated that 8 million homes would benefit from solid wall insulation and 4 million from cavity insulation. There is a huge market out there for the green deal. What is my right hon. Friend doing to promote the green deal to make sure that as many people as possible take it up?

I can assure my hon. Friend that I, my Ministers, the whole Department and the whole Government are pushing the green deal. The solid walls that he referred to—those 8 million homes—have not featured in energy efficiency programmes in any major way before. It has been an undealt-with issue in energy efficiency. We have not ducked that and we are tackling it.

It is just over a month since the green deal was launched. We have just heard that more than 2,000 assessments have taken place. However, the Secretary of State refuses to reveal how many households have actually signed for a green deal package. We know that the Department is monitoring green deal uptake in real time through the energy performance certificate register. Why will he not share that information with the House today?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady has asked that question as it suggests that she does not understand how the green deal plans work. She should know, and I think she probably does, that after an assessment has been made and an installation programme has been booked, the green deal plan is signed only after the installation has been completed and then goes on to the green deal register for the green deal payments to appear on the bill. So there is quite a lag, as the hon. Lady would know. We did not expect a huge number of green deal plans to have already been signed. The key issue at this stage is the green deal assessments and the green deal assessors, and we are making huge progress, as the industry is saying.

I thank the Secretary of State for that response, but he will know that the public want to know how many people, having seen their assessment, have signed on the dotted line for the deal. Given that Nationwide is offering energy efficiency loans with an interest rate of just 2.29%—less than a third of the interest rate under the green deal—does the Secretary of State believe that more people would take out the green deal if offered a better deal?

The green deal is going well, as the industry says. I welcome Nationwide’s product because it shows that there is more competition in the market. It shows what the green deal is spurring. It is not just green deal plans that will be a mark of the programme’s success; it is green deal self-funded plans, which will be a result of the green deal assessments being made. They would not be made in the way that they are if we had not gone forward, and the hon. Lady should welcome that.

Domestic LED lighting can use as little as 5% of the power of a normal light bulb. Though more expensive initially to buy, LED light bulbs require very little maintenance and have a very long life. What incentives are there in the green deal or elsewhere to promote domestic LED lighting?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We strongly support LED lighting. There are issues about whether different types of lighting can come under the green deal because light bulbs can be taken away, and if the cost of those is in the electricity meter for the next tenant or the next owner-occupier, that would not be fair and would not, therefore, abide by the green deal rules. However, we agree with my hon. Friend: there is a strong case for people investing in LED.

Deep-mine Coal Industry

The Government value the role of British coal in meeting our energy needs. Equipped with carbon capture and storage, coal generation can continue to play a significant long-term role as part of a future low-carbon energy mix.

The Minister is very much aware of the situation at Daw Mill colliery, where 650 miners who have given their lives to the coal mining industry are facing uncertainty with regard to redundancy payments. Will he give a commitment to do everything in his power to ensure that these men receive their entitlements in full?

There are few in this House who can match the hon. Gentleman’s understanding, knowledge and support for the coal industry. I cannot match it, but what I can match is his determination to do right by the workers there. I had a positive meeting with the unions yesterday; I also met UK Coal yesterday and, again, had a positive meeting. The Government will do all they can, not only to protect the future of the coal industry, but to protect the interests of those workers who will lose their jobs at Daw Mill. I made that abundantly clear. We cannot match the hon. Gentleman’s knowledge of these things, but I can certainly match his determination.

The Minister said in his response that coal had a good future in this country if it was combined with carbon capture and storage, a technology that is many years from working. Across the rest of the world, unabated coal is accelerating. In particular, countries such as Germany that produce 20% more carbon per unit of GDP and 20% more carbon per capita than us are launching a number of coal-fired stations. Why is their position so different from ours?

We are committed to CCS because we believe it can work. My hon. Friend will know that the carbon capture and storage cost reduction taskforce predicted it could work much earlier than previously estimated—by the early 2020s. With carbon capture and storage, coal can play an important part in our future. I cannot be clearer than that, Mr Speaker, surely.

The Minister will be aware that UK Coal, which owns Daw Mill colliery, is one of the principal owners in the coal industry that remains. The worst case scenario that we had put to us the other day was that if UK Coal cannot survive, two more pits—one that is loss making, one that is making a bob or two—could go, as well as some other land sites. When he is talking about Daw Mill colliery and talking to UK Coal, will he ensure that he protects the redundancy money? There is someone in my constituency who used to work in Derbyshire but who now travels 100 miles there and back to Daw Mill. Will he get his redundancy pay? He was finished before the fire, so will the Minister get on with it?

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right—again, he is an authority on these matters. The pits at Thoresby and Kellingley are, of course, also owned by Daw Mill. Part of our determination—the determination I outlined a moment ago—is to ensure that the future of those pits is secured. However, he is also right to say—this goes for me, too—that the workers matter most in all this. That includes the workers who were made redundant in the early restructuring, the workers at Thoresby and Kellingley and the workers at Daw Mill. I have made that abundantly clear to the unions, with which I had such a positive meeting, and I have told the company that, for the Government, it is a key priority.

The Minister has already referred to the importance of CCS in relation to the medium and long-term future of coal generation. I am sure he will be aware that around two thirds of the coal we burn to generate electricity in the UK is imported. He might not be aware yet that, as of 9.5 this morning, 46% of all the electricity being generated in Britain today is from coal-fired stations. Given those two factors and his determination, as he has said in the past, to put the “coal” into coalition, may I urge him to put the “sense” into sensible and get on with developing a short-term strategy for coal to protect the indigenous industry in the UK?

That is a good point. There is a good argument for making a clear statement about how we see coal developing in the short to medium term. It is absolutely right that we pursue CCS. Perhaps we will get the chance to say more about that later in these questions—who knows, Mr Speaker? The hon. Gentleman is right, and I will certainly consider making a statement on that. The appropriate time for that will be when we make further progress at Daw Mill, Thoresby and Kellingley. He is right. The Government can learn from the Opposition, and the wise Ministers on the Front Bench recognise that.

Electricity Infrastructure

3. What recent discussions he has had with utility companies on the cost of providing electricity infrastructure. (147678)

It is as though all my Christmases have come at once, Mr Speaker.

My regular discussions with energy companies about the cost of our electricity infrastructure are essential to ensure that the Government guarantee energy security, meet decarbonisation objectives and, just as important, do so in a way that makes energy affordable for customers across Britain.

I thank the Minister for that answer. He will be aware that, as a result of statutory undertakings, companies such as ScottishPower have a virtual monopoly over electricity industry infrastructure, which hinders commercial development, particularly in my constituency. What can be done about that?

Let me be clear that my Department expects network companies to provide connections in a timely and affordable way while maintaining the secure electricity on which we have all come to depend. Connections to the distribution network are a matter for the distribution network operator, as my hon. Friend knows, and the independent regulator, Ofgem. I entirely agree that those companies must behave properly, as we make extremely clear in our discussions with them. Indeed, I was with a number of transmission companies earlier this week doing just that.

Bloomberg research has shown that investment in renewable energy has halved since this Government came to power, and the Pew group has found that Britain has slipped to seventh in the world for investment in clean energy, so is it not the case that, although the Government talk a good game, we are actually slipping behind in investment?

That is an interesting tangential question, given the question on the Order Paper, but the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that it is vital to our energy security that we have an energy mix. Our Energy Bill underpins exactly that strategy—a mixed economy of generation—purely because only by that means can we be sufficiently flexible and responsive in a highly dynamic set of circumstances.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important to avoid incurring costs by building infrastructure that is not needed? Is he aware that the National Grid proposal to construct overhead pylons across Suffolk was based on the assumption of early completion of new nuclear power stations at Sizewell and completion of a large number of offshore wind farms, none of which is certain to be built? Does he agree, therefore, that the proposal should now be deferred?

It is right that the infrastructure we put in place should meet a purpose; infrastructure without a purpose can hardly be legitimised. I am not as familiar with the intimate details of the affairs of Suffolk as my hon. Friend is; he would hardly expect me to be, but I am more than happy to take a look at that. Furthermore, and not for the first time, I would be delighted to meet him to discuss these matters more fully.

In his discussions on infrastructure, has the Minister considered the place of pump storage systems and how they fit into the new world of contracts for difference and capacity payments?

It is not the first time the hon. Gentleman has raised that matter. Scotland has a particular interest in that, because of the transmission circumstances that prevail there. That is something the Department has looked at and we continue to have those kinds of exploratory discussions. If he wants to feed into those, of course his contribution, as ever, would be most welcome.

Green Deal

The green deal went live, on time, on Monday 28 January. The Government’s “Green Deal With It” communications campaign was launched the same day. By the end of February, according to the official statistics, 1,803 assessments had been carried out.

I am grateful to the Minister for that answer. Major employers in Worcester, such as Wolseley, npower and Worcester Bosch, are looking forward to participating in the green deal, but the latter warned that for the programme to reach its full potential more ordinary installers need to be given the chance to sell it. What steps are the Government taking to reach out to installers and ensure that they have a chance to play a part in rolling out the green deal?

A whole range of installers will be absolutely vital, and I was delighted to see that Wolseley has said that it is seeing strong demand not only for its products, but for adviser training, as it is a trainer. For small and medium-sized enterprises, we are waiving all fees and oversight costs for the first two years. We are hosting a range of networking events with the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce and the CBI, and we are co-hosting eco roadshows with Energy UK. We are also committing money to training assessors and installers, and there is more to come.

Stafford borough council is working with green deal providers to raise awareness among my constituents of access to the scheme. Will the Minister and his green deal team meet me and the council to discuss how we can encourage the best possible take-up in Stafford and the surrounding areas?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend and his council. We are seeing a very encouraging degree of not only commitment but real enthusiasm from local authorities across the country. Local authorities will be key to a really ambitious roll-out.

Will the Minister reflect a little further on the question that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger) put to the Secretary of State—namely, are the interest rates for the green deal too high to encourage take-up and ultimately too high for consumers to get a good deal out of the green deal?

I understand what lies behind this point. However, if the right hon. Gentleman looks at this carefully, he will see that when people quote interest rates such as the one for Nationwide they are not comparing like with like. Crucially, the green deal interest rate is fixed for 20 years. I am aware of only one other such product in the market. Access to the green deal interest rate is incredibly fair and open, and not only for people who are lucky enough to own their own homes.

The Minister’s answer just will not do, because the blunt truth is that the green deal interest rate is set at almost 7%. Is it not the case that many people who take up the green deal will find that interest repayments end up costing more than the original measures, and, worse still, that if they try to repay their loan early they will be clobbered with hefty fines? How is that fair?

I will tell the hon. Gentleman what is not fair: scaremongering about the green deal, particularly when that puts off vulnerable people who would otherwise have no access to affordable finance. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman can scoff at 7%, but he should compare that to any other form of unsecured lending that is available to people on low wages or the minimum wage. How many people on low incomes, or people who are not lucky enough to be a home owner, can access interest rates like that? He might be a smart home owner himself, but he should think about those who do not have the same opportunities. This actually represents a really good deal.

Energy Bills

We have a range of initiatives to help people with their energy bills, including tariff reforms, energy saving programmes, and additional help for those on the lowest incomes. From our proposals to help get consumers on the cheapest tariffs to the green deal, from the warm home discount to our promotion of collective switching, this Government are working to help people keep their energy bills down.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. However, supply is also crucial. Ofgem forecasts that UK spare electricity capacity will slump to 4% by 2015, and that highlights the acute need to get more nuclear power on stream. May I urge him to strain every sinew to finalise the right deal with EDF to build a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point?

I assure my hon. Friend that we are straining every sinew in the negotiations with EDF. He will recognise that I cannot be more explicit than that given that they are commercial negotiations. I will say, though, that we take energy security very seriously and listen to Ofgem, National Grid and others. However, we do not imagine that new nuclear power will assist in the rest of this decade, because new nuclear power stations take such a long time to build.

We are currently going through a cold spell and, as night follows day, we know that in a few months’ time the energy companies will announce even bigger boosts in profits because people have been using more energy. Is it not time to get to a situation whereby a cold spell is not an occasion for energy companies to make even more profits but to keep prices down for consumers?

The hon. Gentleman will know that we have taken a lot of extra powers in the Energy Bill to make sure that Ofgem’s reforms on tariffs can go through and that the energy companies cannot be allowed to drag their feet. That has been welcomed by many consumer groups. This Government have also taken action to help people on the lowest incomes. We have trebled cold weather payments, so when there is a cold snap people get the help they need when they need it.

When the House of Commons analysed the DECC-produced fuel poverty data set of 2009, the figures suggested that the renewables obligation could have pushed 100,000 people into fuel poverty, in 40,000 to 50,000 cases because of the wind element. How many people were pushed into fuel poverty last year because of expensive wind energy?

I congratulate my hon. Friend on his ingenuity, but the analysis that others have done of those figures shows that what has really pushed people into fuel poverty has been gas prices, with global gas prices having increased significantly. We also have to deal with the renewal of the transmission mechanism and distribution networks. Those things have far bigger impacts on prices and bills. The hon. Gentleman ought to have a balanced approach.

The single biggest driver of rising energy bills is global gas prices. Last week the Institute for Public Policy Research think tank found that household energy bills would be lower and less volatile if the Government decarbonised the power sector by 2030. Does the Secretary of State agree?

I strongly agree that a lot of analysis suggests that if we move to a decarbonised sector, this country and our consumers, people and firms will be less exposed to volatile international gas prices.

Although the Secretary of State says he agrees, the problem is that the Government are not tackling the issue. The truth is that the Energy Bill does not require the Government to set a decarbonisation target. Even if such a target were set, there is nothing under the Bill’s present arrangements to ensure that it would be met. The Committee on Climate Change is absolutely clear: the Government should set a decarbonisation target now, not in 2016, and all the Government are doing is extending the uncertainty for another two years. Was not the former Energy Minister, the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), right when he said that this uncertainty will lead to higher capital costs and, ultimately, higher energy bills for the public?

I have to remind the right hon. Lady and the House that no single party—not the Labour party, the Conservative party, the Liberal Democrats or even the Green party—argued in its 2010 manifesto for a decarbonisation target for the power sector. It was this Government and me as Secretary of State who argued for such a target and got the power to set one in the Energy Bill. When it comes to targets and having the policies to meet them, this Government have done far more than the previous one. The previous Government were right to set targets in the Climate Change Act 2008, but they did not produce the policies to meet them. This Government are doing that.

Biomass Conversion

6. What recent assessment he has made of the long-term environmental effects of Government support for large-scale biomass conversion. (147682)

We agree that effective sustainability controls must be in place for bioenergy. We already have biomass sustainability criteria for the renewables obligation, and we now propose to improve them by adding new sustainable forest management criteria for wood fuel and a requirement for an independent audit, and by setting a trajectory so that greenhouse gas life-cycle savings targets become tougher over time.

I welcome the commitment to reforestry targets, but how do Ministers stand up the rather curious proposition that wood burning is carbon neutral? They support the conversion of coal-fired stations to wood burning, but that is only carbon neutral if emission at the point of burn is ignored, and it takes up to 98 years for tree growth to neutralise that. Will the Minister confirm that this dubious practice is simply an interim measure? I understand the need to protect the investment at Drax and elsewhere.

Biomass certainly needs to be sustainable as well as affordable, but it is not carbon neutral. However, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that greenhouse gas savings from biomass are at least 68% less than those for coal. Although it may not be carbon neutral, it is certainly much cleaner so far as carbon is concerned.

A number of recent papers—the Searchinger paper, the Hudiburg paper and the Schulze paper—have noted the problems of life-cycle biomass. The Minister is right to have taken steps to address that in forest regrowth and the sustainability standards, but he has not yet addressed the impoverishment of soils and how the resulting increase in the use of fertiliser will lead to an increase in emissions. Will he publish the basis on which he amended his Department’s projections on biomass?

The hon. Gentleman makes a sensible point. He is right to highlight the impacts not just on the burning of wood or biomass, but on indirect land-use change. The Government are taking this seriously and we are working on it with colleagues at the Department for Transport. In order to be effective, land-use change needs to be dealt with on a pan-European basis. We would welcome support from throughout the House for work with our partners in Europe to put in place robust sustainability criteria.

Is the Minister fully committed—by which I mean not just words, but urgent action—to conversion of coal-fired power stations, such as Drax and Eggborough in my constituency, to biomass, which is sustainable?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes) met representatives of Eggborough this week and I can confirm that we are committed. As I have said, biomass conversion needs to be sustainable and affordable, and it is an important part of a balanced mix of clean technologies.

Plutonium Reuse (Sellafield)

7. What assessment he has made of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s process and timetable for determining credible options for plutonium reuse at Sellafield; and if he will make a statement. (147683)

The process and timetable on the reuse of plutonium were set out in the Government’s consultation response in December 2011. Work on the reuse of plutonium as a mixed oxide fuel is progressing well and remains on track.

May I register my disappointment that the Minister has been forced to come to answer questions this morning, when as late as last night, some of us still held out the hope that he might be translated to the Holy See? Be that as it may, does he share my belief that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority needs to ensure that more than one technology, not just CANDU, is deemed credible for plutonium reuse, so that any subsequent licensing round is competitive and transparent, and delivers best value for the British taxpayer?

I was always an outsider for Pope, although my infallibility was a strength. My hon. Friend is right that the licensing round needs to take account of those considerations. Following extensive discussions and consultation, we settled on making MOX for nuclear reactors our preferred policy option. However, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is still working on alternatives. We are finalising guidance on regulatory justification for the reuse of plutonium, and I can commit today to that being published shortly.

Whether the Minister of State is infallible is a matter for conjecture, but in the 30 years that I have known him, he has always been inimitable.

Independent Power Generators

9. What recent representations he has received on a future route to market for independent power generators. (147686)

Since our call for evidence last year, Ministers and officials have held meetings with a wide range of independent generators, suppliers and other stakeholders covering route-to-market issues, including the availability of power purchase agreements.

Does the Minister recognise the difficulties that independent low-carbon generators will have with the passing of power purchase agreements following the end of the renewables obligation? Is he looking at alternatives to PPAs, such as the green power auction market, and will he seek to implement such a market in consideration of the Energy Bill?

The hon. Gentleman has been consistent in his advocacy of independent generators. He raised this issue during the Committee stage of the Energy Bill. He knows that I am not unsympathetic to his assertions about the difficulties that independent generators face. I believe that contracts for difference will make it easier for independent generators to access the market, as he knows, because they will remove wholesale price risk and eliminate the requirement to market renewables obligation certificates, which will also reduce risk. I make this commitment: I think that we need to look at this matter more closely and to do more. We need a more plural and a more liquid market to create competition and drive down prices.

Wind Farms (North Lincolnshire)

12. What the height will be of the proposed wind farms in north Lincolnshire; and if he will make a statement. (147689)

The proposed height of wind turbines is set out in the planning applications that are submitted for proposed wind farms. The local planning portal shows four wind farms with applications submitted in north Lincolnshire, with heights that vary from up to 100 metres to 126.5 metres. We are committed to supporting onshore wind as part of a balanced mix of energy to meet the UK’s needs. Wind farms must be well designed and well sited to be approved, and the planning process can take account of concerns, including landscape and visual amenity concerns.

Will my good friend visit me in north Lincolnshire so that we can stand together on the edge of the Wolds, an area of outstanding natural beauty, near the Ramblers church at Walesby and look at the amazing Lincolnshire clay and the 40-mile view? Will he then come back in 10 years’ time to see that great view desecrated by vast arrays of windmills 100 metres high, all in the name of some controversial science? Can we not place these windmills somewhere where they do not desecrate our lives?

The hon. Gentleman will know that I benefit from an infallible Minister of State who comes from Lincolnshire. He keeps me informed of all the issues to do with Lincolnshire and gives me his own particular line on them. I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am well versed in Lincolnshire issues. We take community concerns seriously, not just in Lincolnshire but across the country. That is why we published the call for evidence on community benefits in September. We will report to the House on that in the summer.

Fuel Poverty

We have in place the green deal and the energy company obligation, which we expect to provide support for at least 230,000 low-income and vulnerable households each year. In addition, our warm home discount scheme supports 2 million households in total, and this winter has already helped more than 1 million of the poorest pensioners. We also make cold weather payments and winter fuel payments.

The previous Government and this Government have a good record of working with energy companies to try to help vulnerable people. Could more be done, particularly for disabled pensioners who own their own home?

My hon. Friend is right and I am sure more could be done. That is why we designed the green deal and the ECO to be flexible and responsive to the needs of a range of energy consumers, particularly the fuel-poor. If my hon. Friend has any particular ideas on that, I would be happy to discuss them with him.

Will the Minister provide an update on the Government’s plans to publish a refreshed strategy for tackling fuel poverty this year?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the Government are committed to bringing new ambition and vision to tackling fuel poverty. The last fuel poverty strategy was published 10 years ago, and we will be coming forward this year with an ambitious strategy, pulling together all strands of policy and building on the latest evidence and creative thinking in that area. I would welcome my hon. Friend’s input, given his knowledge and experience in the area.

I make my usual declaration of indirect interests. All MPs will be aware of the effect of fuel poverty on our constituents. A housing association in my constituency is trying desperately to upgrade its properties, which are in an appalling condition. It has fallen foul of the vested interest of a financial investment company which is the latest owner of the freehold for those properties. The company wants only to make a fast buck and is not prepared to renegotiate the contract, but in the meantime my constituents are suffering from bad health and an inability to pay their fuel bills. What can the Department do to help tackle those vested interests?

The hon. Lady is right and has a real point. The leasehold-freehold issue is one of the knottiest to tackle and has eluded successive Governments. I would be happy to sit down with her and look at that specific case to work out what more we can do to help the sorts of tenants to whom she refers.

Will the Minister confirm that, even by his own contentious estimates purporting that thanks to his measures the average effect of reduced energy use will offset the increase due to green levies, taxes and subsidies, two-thirds of households will be worse off? Since giving those figures, the Government’s estimates of savings from energy-saving measures have been reduced.

I am afraid I just do not agree with my right hon. Friend, despite his considerable experience and knowledge of the sector. None of us knows for sure whose forecasts are right, and we will not know until the time. A great deal of uncertainty is attached to all forecasts, but the latest Government forecasts to 2020 show that consumers will be better off due to our policies.

North Sea Oil

15. What steps he is taking to ensure that oil from the North sea continues to make a contribution to UK energy needs; and if he will make a statement. (147693)

The North sea has been a major UK success story, and oil and gas will continue to play a key role in the energy mix for years to come. The Government continue to promote activity and investment in the North sea, and we maintain a close dialogue with the industry on how to support its continued development.

My hon. Friend knows that the Government have issued more exploration licences than ever before, which is fantastic. However, there are many mature wells from which about 80% of the oil has been extracted. How can we set up a new procedure whereby we wring every single last drop of oil from those mature wells, and benefit the UK economy accordingly?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: North sea oil and gas have a long and bright future. He may not have seen the report from Oil & Gas UK—as you may not have done, Mr Speaker—but it states that we are seeing the highest investment in UK offshore oil and gas development on record. The Government, too, are doing their bit. The brownfield allowances have encouraged that investment, and this is about growth, jobs and skills, as well as energy. I look forward to a bright future in the North sea for the United Kingdom and all those who work in that wonderful industry.

Indeed, the oil industry does have a bright future; it is not a twilight industry. Miraculously, Scotland’s First Minister seems to have found a great deal more oil at the weekend, which will be very interesting to see. For the last drop to be wrung, as the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) said, assets in the North sea will need to continue and many were not built to last as long as they have. What will the Government do to help companies to improve their asset integrity in the North sea?

The hon. Lady is, I am aware, the chair of the all-party group on British offshore oil and gas. I visited Aberdeen a week or so ago, and I am going again in a week or two. I have committed to visiting Aberdeen more often even than my predecessor, who had a proud record in that regard. We need to bring in a new type of investor to the North sea industry. To that end, I have run investment events that will encourage the industry to link up with a new breed of investor. She is right: infrastructure matters and we must facilitate the investment to rebuild that infrastructure.

I am delighted to hear that my hon. Friend will be visiting Aberdeen as often as I did, because I found that to be one of the most inspiring parts of the energy portfolio. What more can we do to support groundbreaking, world-class companies here in the UK supply chain, so that they can take advantage of the opportunities here and overseas, and we can get the industrial benefit alongside the energy benefit?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and let me repeat that he was highly thought of in the industry, not least due to his commitment to the visits he made and to his work. It is key to recognise that many small and medium-sized companies are a part of this exciting opportunity. Often we see this issue in terms of very large oil companies, but it is the SMEs that require the extra investment I described in answer to the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg).

New Generating Capacity (Investment)

16. What steps he is taking to increase the confidence of the energy sector to invest in new generating capacity. (147694)

The UK is one of the most attractive places in the world to invest in energy infrastructure, and still more so since we published the Energy Bill. The certainty this provides is backed by complete cross-Government support unmatched by any other country in Europe.

The Minister seems to be living in a parallel universe. I have a declared interest: I am on the environmental scrutiny board of Veolia, the environmental company. When I meet people who are being asked to make a long-term investment in the production of energy, they are very cautious of making any commitment at this time. What will he do about that? An energy gap, which is totally frightening for the people of this country, is emerging.

Just last week the Secretary of State, the Minister of State and I were in Downing street with the Prime Minister, making exactly the case to the investment community for which the hon. Gentleman is calling. I want him to join me in my universe. That universe is the universe of optimism, the universe of growth, the universe of success.

There was not much good news for bill payers in the answer to my last question, so let me try one about businesses. I am glad to hear about the summit in No. 10. Ministers say that investment in energy infrastructure is at a record high, but four out of five of the projects that they claim credit for either received planning permission or started construction under Labour. My hon. Friend the Member for Corby (Andy Sawford) earlier quoted independent sources saying that under this Government investment in clean energy has fallen by half. Businesses are saying that what they need now to invest is a target in law to decarbonise the power sector by 2030. Why will the Government not listen to them?

I have all sorts of prepared notes but I am not going to use them because the answer to this question is as plain as this: it is fine to have targets; targets matter because they signal direction. However, one must have weapons to hit those targets. What the Government have done that the previous Government did not—I do not want to be excessively critical—is put measures in the Energy Bill that will allow us to develop the weapons to hit targets. That is what investment is about: meeting targets, not setting them.

Energy Market Competition

Like my hon. Friend, we want more competition. One of the biggest barriers to entry and to greater competition is low liquidity in the wholesale power market. Ofgem is currently taking forward reforms to address that issue, and we are supportive of its progress, but the Government are also seeking backstop powers in the Energy Bill to allow us to act, should Ofgem and industry actions prove insufficient.

I thank the Minister for that response. The billing stakeholder group produced a number of recommendations to increase competition, including putting more tailored information on the face of quarterly bills. Those recommendations were taken up by Ofgem and they chime with what the Prime Minister has said, but we know that the energy companies oppose them. Will the Minister give us an assurance that the energy companies will not be allowed to row back on those recommendations?

Yes, I can. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for ensuring that these proposals, which will make a transformational difference to consumer bills, end up being enacted, and for the work of his stakeholder group. I can tell him that the proposals will be part of the licence conditions, and that if energy companies fail to deliver on them, they could be fined up to 10% of turnover. We are of course taking powers in the Energy Bill as well.

Marine Renewable Sector

The most recent assessment of the marine energy sector was undertaken last year in the UK renewable energy road map. Our assessment showed that marine energy had real potential to contribute to our emission reduction targets beyond 2020. Up to the end of last year, 11 MW of wave and tidal technologies were deployed around the UK, but the coalition Government have big ambitions for the sector, which could expand to as much as 27 GW in the coming decades.

I am grateful to the Minister for that response. The £20 million investment that was announced two weeks ago is very welcome for marine renewables, but it will go into the tidal sector, which is already reasonably well developed. There are also major opportunities in wave power, however. Will the Minister meet me and industry representatives to try to move the wave hub forward and to bring it up to a commercial scale?

Most certainly; I know that my hon. Friend is a powerful champion of wave power. I am delighted with the progress of the marine energy park in the south-west. I was there last week for the RenewableUK conference to witness the signing of a memorandum between the south-west marine energy park and the Pentland Firth and Orkney waters marine energy park. I would be delighted to work with my hon. Friend to see what more we can do to drive the exciting progress in this sector.

Topical Questions

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.

Alcohol: Minimum Unit Price

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what is the Government’s policy on alcohol pricing?

I am aware that there have been a significant number of media reports and stories in recent days about the Government’s proposal to introduce a minimum unit price, and I am grateful for the opportunity to clarify the Government’s position.

The Government are determined to find the best way to diminish the misuse of alcohol. Over 44% of violent crime is alcohol-related. Fighting, antisocial behaviour and public drunkenness are familiar sights in many city centres, and there were 1.2 million alcohol-related hospital admissions in 2010-11. That is the context of our policy making and our inheritance from the previous Government. In March last year the Government published our alcohol strategy, which set out a range of measures to tackle the harms caused by excessive alcohol consumption.

The Government have already introduced a wide set of reforms to tackle binge drinking and the corrosive effect it has on individuals and our communities.  We have done the following: rebalanced the Licensing Act 2003 in favour of local communities by, for instance, removing the “vicinity test” to ensure that anyone, no matter where they live, can have input into a decision to grant or revoke a licence; introduced a late-night levy, making those businesses that sell alcohol late at night contribute to the cost of policing and wider local authority action; and introduced the early-morning alcohol restriction order, enabling local areas to restrict the sale of alcohol late at night in all or part of their area if there are problems.

The Home Office has also recently consulted on a range of new proposals set out in its alcohol strategy—this is a wide-ranging consultation—and it includes a ban on multibuy promotions in shops and off-licences to reduce excessive alcohol consumption; a review of the mandatory licensing conditions to ensure they are sufficiently targeting problems such as irresponsible promotions in pubs and clubs; health as a new alcohol licensing objective for cumulative impacts, so that licensing authorities can consider alcohol-related health harms when managing the problems relating to the number of premises in their area; cutting red tape for responsible businesses to reduce the burden of regulation, while maintaining the integrity of the licensing system; and the introduction of a minimum unit price.

The public consultation opened on 28 November— I imagine that all Members present contributed to it, given their interest in the subject—and closed on 6 February. We received a large number of responses covering a very wide range of views, including from members of the public, the police and licensing authorities, health organisations, alcohol producers and retailers, trade bodies and charities.

On minimum unit pricing, there were—and are, in my view—powerful arguments on both sides of the debate. We have to ensure that we base our decision on a careful consideration of all the representations we received. We are evaluating the data precisely and we will announce our decision when this careful evaluation is completed.

I asked what the Government’s policy was on alcohol pricing and I am still none the wiser. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said,

“we must deal with the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager…in supermarkets”—[Official Report, 13 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 307.]

But the Home Secretary has briefed that she has blocked minimum price plans. The Health Secretary said yesterday,

“Like the Prime Minister I believe there is a case for minimum pricing”,

but we have no idea what they are doing, and it seems that the Minister does not, either. And where is the Home Secretary? I have to say that I feel sorry for the Minister, who has been sent here to waffle to the world while the Home Secretary hides. She was skulking at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, and her office will not tell me where she is today. There is something Macavity-like about this Home Secretary.

What kind of mug is the Minister? War has clearly broken out between the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister, but while they hide in their trenches, the Liberal Democrats once again have been sent over the top. The Home Secretary was quick enough to come to this House when the policy was first announced. It was her policy; she supported it. When she set the price nine months later, she had no doubt. The Home Office document said that the Government are

“committed to introducing a minimum unit price. However, in other areas”

this consultation

“seeks views on the introduction of policies.”

So they were not consulting on the minimum price—they had made a decision.

We know that the Home Secretary has overruled the Prime Minister; it appears she has also overruled herself. It was her plan; she has announced it twice. She said she was committed to it; now, she says the opposite. It is clear that this right hon. Lady is for turning—just not for turning up.

Alcohol abuse is very serious: to public health, and to law and order. We said that the Government were right to look at minimum pricing, but they needed to make sure that supermarkets did not just get a windfall and that the pub trade would not be harmed. They needed to look at the evidence and make sure the policies were workable. Instead, we have chaos and political confusion, and I ask the Minister again: what is the Government’s policy on alcohol pricing? The Prime Minister’s authority is in tatters; the Home Secretary’s credibility is in tatters; and the rest of us, including the Minister, do not have a clue what is going on.

I read in the papers that the right hon. Lady fancies herself as the leader of her party. That was not a particularly impressive application. I am here as the Minister responsible for alcohol policy. She said she has no idea what the policy is, but I have just spent five minutes explaining it. There was a lot of barracking from Labour MPs because they thought I was explaining it in excessive detail—that was how I understood it. I have explained the policy carefully. There is a consultation on the areas that I mentioned. The question people want answered is: what on earth is Labour’s policy on this? [Interruption.]

Order. The House really must calm down. It is in a very excitable condition, from which I hope it can be relieved by the hon. Member for Kettering, Mr Philip Hollobone.

There is a range of answers. [Laughter.] There is a serious point here and it will emerge in this session, so let me address it. There are young people who drink cheap alcohol in excessive quantities and are price-sensitive when buying alcohol, so they are likely to be deterred from buying alcohol, to a degree, by minimum unit pricing. However, people on low incomes who consume alcohol responsibly would pay more under minimum unit pricing, and a number of representations have stated that the policy is unreasonable on that basis. We have to weigh up all those representations and points of view. The previous Government did not consider this matter at all. We are considering it carefully and will announce our conclusions when we are ready to do so.

Is the Minister not aware that the very low price of the alcohol sold in supermarkets and convenience stores is the fundamental problem behind the abuse of alcohol and that is not only, in turn, leading, as the university of Sheffield has estimated, to 10,000 unnecessary deaths over 10 years, but it is harming the decent pub trade and accelerating the closure of pubs? So this policy will benefit responsible drinking and also greatly reduce the health harm to a large number of young people. Why does the Minister not just get on and implement it? [Interruption.]

As is being said around me, the right hon. Gentleman seems to have made a good case for why he should have taken action when he was Home Secretary. He chose not to do that, but he has explained one side of the argument on minimum unit pricing, and a number of representations replicated the point he has just made.

Will my hon. Friend bear it in mind that we could have minimum pricing in Scotland but not in England? Will he condemn the irresponsible policy of the Labour party on Northumberland county council, which is that if that happens Northumberland should be promoted as a cheap booze destination for Scots?

Order. The Labour party’s policy in Northumberland is not a matter for the Minister of State—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require any assistance from the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry); she would not have the slightest idea where to start. The Minister may offer a brief view on this matter if he so wishes.

Mercifully, the irresponsible attitudes of the Labour party are not my responsibility, but I can assure my right hon. Friend that the sort of irresponsible behaviour that people have become accustomed to from the Labour party will not be replicated by this Government.

It is a shame that the Minister cannot confirm the reports that Ministers have given to the press about this policy being abandoned. If those reports are true, will he, on my behalf, thank the Home Secretary for and congratulate her on actually looking at the evidence? There is no evidence that a minimum price would reduce problem drinking, far more effective interventions are available and this policy would devastate the west country cider industry. Will he assure me that this sudden outbreak of evidence-based policy will spread to other Ministers, including the Chancellor?

The right hon. Gentleman, too, makes a strong argument, one diametrically opposed to that being made by the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), who is sitting two places down from him,. That shows precisely why we are having a consultation; it might help the Labour party to come to conclusions, as well as the Government.

The evidence from Canada and the university of Sheffield shows that the policy would have an impact, but minimum pricing should be just one aspect of tackling the problem of alcohol misuse in the UK. When Kent and Medway have almost 130 children under 17 receiving treatment for alcohol addiction, does my hon. Friend the Minister agree that minimum pricing is an essential way of getting some of our most vulnerable members of society away from access to high-strength, low-cost alcohol?

I know that my hon. Friend takes a close interest in these issues. It is undoubtedly true to say, regardless of what conclusion one reaches on this issue, that some young people with low disposable incomes drink irresponsibly and are price-sensitive when buying alcohol. They are a particular problem. The question that we need to resolve is whether minimum unit pricing is the best way of tackling that problem, but that is precisely why we are having a consultation, and we will announce our conclusions when we are ready to do so.

My right hon. Friend was not on the Committee so he was not part of that recommendation. Powerful arguments have been made by the hon. Member for Chatham and Aylesford (Tracey Crouch) and the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) on health grounds. The Minister will also know it costs an extra £59 per person for the police to process someone who is involved in alcohol-related crime. Given the powerful arguments in the consultation and in the Cabinet, on either side on this issue, when will we have a final decision?

During my initial response, when Labour Members were sneering and jeering, I was explaining about early morning restriction orders and the late-night levy, which are precisely the types of measures that the Government have taken to address the problems the right hon. Gentleman raises. Of course there are health considerations as well, although one could make the case for an ever higher minimum unit on the basis that the higher the price, the greater the reduction in health harms. A balance needs to be struck, and we are seeking to strike it through the consultation. We will announce our conclusions when we have finished.

It is not only the entire medical establishment that backs minimum pricing on health grounds. I would like to read to the crime prevention Minister an e-mail I have received from a street pastor and to tell him what I am hearing from the special constables and police in my area. They say:

“There is no doubt that the availability of cheap alcohol enables people to get into the habit of being very drunk, very often.”

That has disastrous consequences on our streets. A third of people are unwilling to go out into their town centres.

What is the crime prevention Minister’s personal view? It would be a shame if he became the crime promotion Minister.

Again, I recognise the keen interest that my hon. Friend takes in these issues. I am aware that many people in the health sector share her view. The logic of their argument, as I have just said, is why stop at 45p? If we had a £1 minimum unit price, the health case would be made all the more strongly. The Government have to balance all kinds of competing concerns and other, also compelling, concerns about the affordability of alcohol for people on low incomes. They have to balance the role of the state and of the private individual and what choices the individual is free to make. Great tensions have become evident this morning in the Labour party, and the Government also have issues that they need to resolve.

The Minister will know that in Scotland we have our own plans for minimum unit pricing for alcohol to tackle our excessive consumption. It might surprise him to know that in Scotland the Labour party is opposed to the plans and will do all it can to thwart them. Will the Minister assure me that he will work closely with our Government to ensure that at least we can start to deal with our alcohol problems in Scotland?

The Department of Health in London meets Health Ministers and officials in Edinburgh and we are keen to try to ensure that the harm caused by alcohol across the United Kingdom is addressed seriously. I am distressed to learn that the Labour party is so inconsistent on this matter. I thought being a credible Opposition involved having credible policy positions, but we have not reached that stage yet.

Does my hon. Friend agree that more needs to be done to keep pubs open so that people can drink under some supervision? If we are to do that, the price of drink in pubs must be considered. Will he discuss the beer duty escalator with the Chancellor?

That is a consideration but there have been changes in how people consume alcohol. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the consumption of different types of alcohol, he will see that beer sales have gone down and wine sales have risen sharply. In many cases people are choosing to drink wine at home to a greater extent than would have been the case a generation ago. All those factors need to be borne in mind and that is precisely why we are ensuring that we get the details of the consultation right.

The Home Secretary said a little while ago that the price of alcohol was causing fighting in town centres and that the minimum unit price was the answer. Has the fighting died down, or does the Minister think that it has merely been transferred to the Government Front Benches?

The answer is that crime is at its lowest level since the independent crime survey of England and Wales began in 1981, 32 years ago. Crime is markedly lower—more than 10% lower—than it was when the Government came into office. The points the hon. Gentleman mentions about alcohol are all being considered as part of the consultation.

Does the Minister agree that minimum unit pricing would yet again mean that the responsible and law-abiding were paying for the irresponsible behaviour of others? Does he agree with the majority of my constituents who, although they recognise the complexities of the situation, would like to see a robust response from the police and courts?

My hon. Friend makes a strong argument that replicates to a degree the one made by the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw). Let us say, for the sake of argument, that an elderly person on a low income bought one cheap bottle of wine a week, on average, because they could not afford to buy a more expensive bottle. There is a strong argument against financially penalising that person by introducing a minimum unit price that would increase the cost of that bottle of wine when they are consuming the wine entirely responsibly and causing no wider social ills. Those are exactly the sort of issues that grown-up and responsible Governments must consider carefully.

The Prime Minister said yesterday that he would take action to stop the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being sold in supermarkets. How will he do that?

I remind Opposition Members that nothing was done about these problems—[Interruption.] The idea that alcohol suddenly became cheap in May 2010 and lots of social ills came about as a result—[Interruption.]

Order. Throughout this urgent question there has been too much noise. Frankly, there is too much noise from those on the Opposition Benches, and I have to say to the junior Health Minister that she tends to behave as though every exchange is somehow a conversation with her—[Interruption.] Order. Do not shake your head. If the Government had wanted to put the hon. Lady up to answer, they could have done. They did not. In all courtesy, I say to her: sit there, be quiet and if you cannot do so, leave the Chamber. We can manage without you.

Perhaps I should say in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood) that we are having a thorough consultation, which has finished. We are considering the results and the way in which we will arrive at the best outcome will be announced in due course.

The central problem appears to be the anti-competitive behaviour of supermarkets that sell alcohol below the cost price. Does my hon. Friend agree that rather than introducing a minimum price, a ban should be introduced on measures that distort the market?

My hon. Friend makes a strong point about anti-competitive practices. My personal view is that selling alcohol below cost price—leaving aside for a moment arguments about health harms and law and order considerations—is an uncompetitive practice, which is unfair on other retailers who cannot afford to subsidise their product. But a minimum unit price of 45p would lead to alcohol being sold considerably above cost price, so different considerations apply in that case.

I will give the Minister another chance at the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham South (Lilian Greenwood), pointing out that the Prime Minister said yesterday that he would take action to stop the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager being available in supermarkets. Can the Minister give us clarity on how that is going to happen?

I am giving clarity. I am explaining that there has been a widespread consultation process. There are a large number of factors that a mature, responsible Government would need to consider carefully. That is what this mature, responsible Government are doing, and when we are in a position to announce the conclusions, we will do so.

Does the Minister agree that local initiatives to tackle alcohol misuse, such as the Crawley and Gatwick business watch scheme to label high strength alcohol and restrict its sale, have an important part to play?

Yes, I agree that localism has an important part to play. We have sought to reflect that in the way we have changed licensing regulations—precisely the sort of practical, locally responsive measures that appear to be treated with contempt by the Opposition but are welcomed by communities across the country.

Last year, in the foreword to the Government’s alcohol strategy, the Prime Minister stated:

“So we are going to introduce a new minimum unit price. For the first time it will be illegal for shops to sell alcohol for less than this set price per unit.”

When did that change?

I fear the hon. Gentleman is confusing two separate issues—cost price and a minimum unit price. A minimum unit price of 45p, which is what the Government consulted on—in Scotland the proposed MUP is 50p, but we consulted on 45p—would price a typical 12.5% bottle of wine at about £4.20. Obviously, many bottles of wine currently retail at less than £4.20 but are not sold at a loss. That, I think, is the point of confusion for the hon. Gentleman. I have already said that selling alcohol below cost price is anti-competitive, but whether an artificial price floor should be put in by Government is precisely what we are considering in the consultation.

May I thank the Minister for the way in which he has answered the urgent question? He has been exceptionally clear and he has been listening, like a great democrat. He is not in his Stalinist mode today. Does he agree that the last thing the people of Wellingborough want to see is alcohol prices artificially increased? Average families in my constituency are very concerned about a minimum price.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his characteristic warm reception for Liberal Democrat Ministers. There are two strands to the case being made against minimum unit pricing, both of which clearly have some force. One is about charging people who may have low disposable income more than they would otherwise pay for alcohol, even when there is no evidence to suggest that all those people are drinking irresponsibly. The second is a wider liberal or perhaps libertarian argument about the role of the state and the right of the individual to make choices that he or she wishes to make, free from a more prescriptive view by Government. Both cases were made to us during the consultation and are part of our considerations.

Given that the Home Secretary has announced her personal support for minimum unit pricing on two separate occasions, will the Minister confirm that she has changed her mind?

I am not in a position to announce the results of our consultation; if I were, I would be announcing the results of our consultation. There are genuine issues to be considered on both sides. I have tried to answer them as openly as it is possible for a Minister to do, but they are exactly the issues that we are weighing up.

As I am sure my hon. Friend agrees, judging by the questions coming from the Opposition, we are not sure what they are organising in a brewery on this issue. Given that the Health Committee looked at the evidence and came to the unanimous conclusion that it was in favour, does the Minister think that the House should have a free vote on the matter if we cannot come to a conclusion?

These are not matters that I am responsible for, I regret to say. On the point about the Health Committee, I am aware of its view. I suppose the only point I would make is that we would expect the Select Committee that was responsible for health matters to have a particular perspective on the issue. If we had a libertarian Select Committee, it might say that people should be free to drink even in ways that damaged their health, which would also be a legitimate point of view. I am not saying that, just because the Health Committee’s perspective is predictable, it is not relevant; of course it is relevant, but it is one of a number of points of view, all of which we are considering as part of the consultation.

As a member of the all-party group on alcohol misuse, I believe that minimum unit pricing is only one of a number of tools in the box. The Minister attended one of our meetings a number of months back. Can he explain why some of his views today have changed from what he said on that occasion?

I do not accept that they have. I enjoyed the conversation that I had and I recognise that there are harms caused by alcohol. In fact, at the beginning of my answer to the question, about half an hour or so ago, I talked about violent crime and how much of it is alcohol related, about the atmosphere in town and city centres—everybody in the House will know from their constituencies how disconcerting many of our constituents find such behaviour—and about the number of hospital admissions that are alcohol-related. I therefore recognise that there are serious concerns, but there are issues that need to be balanced. Otherwise, we would logically end up with the Government being urged to ban alcohol sales altogether—as far as I am aware, nobody is urging us to do that—or with a minimum unit price of, say, £5 rather than 45p. That would have a very big impact on alcohol consumption, but there are other, competing concerns that would not be addressed by going down that route. That is why a Government who govern responsibly for the whole country need to consider all these matters.

Order. These are extremely important matters and I am keen to accommodate remaining colleagues, but if we can have pithy questions and pithy answers, that would be helpful.

It is not media reports or the balance of representations that matters, but the weight of evidence, which includes the impact on the 2.6 million children who live with a hazardous drinker and the 705,000 who live with a dependent drinker. For the sake of the hidden harm to those children, can we follow not the loudest voices, but the increasing evidence from Europe and, recently, Canada showing that affordability, consumption and reducing harm are inextricably linked?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his vigilant championing of the interests of children in households where such disadvantages blight their upbringing. I take seriously the point he makes. There is a range of concerns. There is a serious issue—Labour Members and others might wish to mull this over—about whether someone on a relatively high income who drinks a bottle of wine every evening should be treated differently from someone on a low income who drinks a much cheaper bottle of wine every evening. The second person could face a dramatic increase in the price of a bottle of wine under minimum unit pricing, whereas the first person, with the higher income, will almost certainly be buying a bottle of wine that is already above the minimum unit price. These issues must be considered as well, because it is reasonable for a Government to consider the impact on all parts of society.

I genuinely feel sorry for the Minister, because he has been thrown into the trenches and then over the top into Opposition fire to try to deal with the consequences of the Prime Minister over-speaking at Prime Minister’s questions, which seems to happen quite a lot, but I must press him on this. The Prime Minister said yesterday that he would stop the problem of 20p or 25p cans of lager, but what are the Government going to do?

I would feel more sorry for myself if the Opposition could fire straight, but they seem to have formed a circle and been busy picking each other off, probably because the shadow Home Secretary showed a lamentable lack of policy clarity. [Interruption.] When she got to her feet, she seemed to have no idea what she thinks at all, so everyone on the Labour Benches—

Order. These exchanges are still very highly charged, but the Minister is entitled to be heard and must not be shouted down.

A member of my family is an alcoholic. Minimum unit pricing would not make one jot of difference, because 50p here or there would not break her addiction. Greater resources and co-ordination of support services are the priority; it is there that the industry and Government should be leading.

I am very sorry to hear what my hon. Friend says. I think that it is important, amid all the party political knockabout, that we realise and respect the fact that this is a very serious issue for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people across the country, and they want politicians to address it properly and with consideration. With regard to price sensitivity, there is good reason to believe that different people in different circumstances are more price responsive than others, which is why this is a harder issue to tackle than it might appear after cursory inspection. I accept his point that people who have become accustomed to drinking large quantities of alcohol as a matter of course might be less price sensitive than, for example, younger people who are looking to drink alcohol to excess for the first time. Of course, we need to take a range of different measures into account when trying to help people in those circumstances.

I have to say that I do not agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown), for a change, because I do not feel sorry for the Minister. I think that he would do well to remember that his Government have been in power for three years. Perhaps if he spent less time attacking the Labour party and more time formulating policy, he would not be in the mess he is in this morning. In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), the Minister said—I think that he had better listen to this question—that the Government had not previously proposed a policy of banning the sale of alcohol below the cost of duty and VAT, but that was certainly my impression of their policy. Is he now saying that was never the Government’s policy and that it is not being considered in the consultation?

After the grown-up, and in many ways sad, representation from my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), I am sorry that the hon. Lady did not rise to the occasion a little more. Since the Government came to office in May 2010, crime has fallen. In fact, it is now lower than it was in any of the 13 years Labour was in government. Alcohol consumption overall has also fallen since 2010, but that could mask the fact that some people might still be consuming alcohol to excess. Around 40% of the alcohol consumed in the country is consumed by 10% of the population, so there might be great hidden harms below those headline figures.

On behalf of the responsible drinkers of Amber Valley, I thank the Government for reconsidering this excessive nanny state policy. Has he considered what the policy might do to encourage further the already serious problem of the illegal sale of non-duty-paid alcohol?

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. The higher the Government set an artificial floor for legally acquired alcohol, the greater the profitability of distributing alcohol that does not comply with the Government’s own regulations. That is another of the points that make this issue a little more complicated, if one looks at it in a mature and reflective way, than it may appear if one looks at it from a cursory, party political perspective.

This is a serious issue, and the public take it seriously. They also take very seriously what the Prime Minister stands up and says at the Dispatch Box, where on more than one occasion he has spoken about reducing the impact of low-price alcohol in supermarkets. One assumes, therefore, that he is given policy advice from the Department of Health or the Home Office prior to coming to the Dispatch Box for Prime Minister’s questions. Perhaps the Minister will be willing to make that policy evidence public for the rest of us to look at so that we understand why the Prime Minister is taking that line.

We have published large amounts of evidence. As I said, we have had consultations on licensing regulations for local authorities, the late-night levy that has been introduced for local councils, and early-morning restriction orders. People are focusing on minimum unit price, but in our consultations we are also focusing on multi-buy promotions, licensing conditions, and the regulations—red tape, as I put it—that are affecting businesses. We are having this discussion in the House of Commons precisely because the Government have taken a leading role on this issue and have given it a profile that it was not previously given.

My local authority, Cheshire East council, strongly supports MUP. It has calculated that in that one local authority area alone the cost to the public of alcohol harm is some £190 million across the NHS, local government, the criminal justice system, and loss to business. MUP is one of a number of tools, but if we extrapolate that figure across the country is it not clear that if it is not introduced the cost to the public will be far higher over time than a few extra pence on alcoholic drinks?

My hon. Friend makes the case for a minimum unit price but, as I have said, it is not as straightforward as she implies. There are practical considerations. There are reasons to be concerned about people on moderate incomes who wish to buy alcohol at an affordable price and do not understand why the Government would wish to set an artificial floor that would make it more expensive for them to buy alcohol. There is a perfectly respectable libertarian argument that individuals should be free to decide how they live their lives without a prescriptive Government attending to the details for them.