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Off Grid Gas

Volume 563: debated on Thursday 6 June 2013

18. With reference to the findings of the all-party parliamentary group on off-gas grid, what plans he has to help residents living off the gas grid. (158095)

I am grateful to the all-party group on off-gas grid for its informative report. I chaired a round table in May with colleagues from that group, consumer groups, local government and industry, as a result of which a better consumer code of practice is being circulated by the Federation of Petroleum Suppliers. Fuel Poverty Action is developing recommendations on information sharing and vulnerable customers, and Ofgem is considering connecting electricity and gas priority service registers to other markets, including heating oil.

I thank the Minister for that answer and welcome the developments that have been made as the all-party group continues its good work. Will the Minister review the progress that has been made and meet the group again so that further representations can be made and we keep the providers of that type of power up to speed?

I reassure my hon. Friend that the round table I was privileged to chair was not a one-off event and I shall be organising a further meeting on 11 September to chase up progress. I am happy to meet specifically the all-party group, as well as continuing to chair the round table.

Topical Questions

Since my Department’s last question time, the remaining stages of the Energy Bill have been completed and approved by this House by 396 votes to 8. The Bill has been introduced into the other place as we make further progress to build the world’s first ever low-carbon electricity market.

For consumers, I published the Government’s response to the discussion document, “Ensuring a better deal for energy consumers”, which confirmed the Government’s backing for Ofgem’s market reforms that are designed to improve competition in retail markets and help consumers. Today, along with the Department for Communities and Local Government, we have published the Government’s decisions on onshore wind to give communities a greater say, setting out an industry-proposed fivefold increase in benefits for communities in England, and keeping financial support for onshore wind at the rate of 0.9 renewables obligation certificates.

Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland has more than 7,000 households living in fuel poverty, and since this Government came to power the energy bill of the average family has leapt by more than £300 a year. Will the Minister please tell the House why the Government have halved support for people in fuel poverty while giving millionaires a tax break?

We have not halved fuel support and will increase it over the lifetime of the spending review. We are changing and reforming it to ensure that it is more effective, which the hon. Gentleman ought to support.

T2. One way we can reduce the cost of heating and carbon emissions is through the use of biomass boilers, which can save households hundreds of pounds each year. The Government have a target of installing 1 million biomass boilers in the UK by 2030, but some are concerned that the target might not be met. Will the Minister outline what steps are being taken to achieve the target, and meet businesses such as Baxi UK in my constituency to discuss the issue? (158098)

I know that my hon. Friend does a huge amount for businesses in his constituency, and I would be happy to meet him, Baxi UK, and representatives of the industry in my Department. The coalition Government are committed to delivering not just cheaper bills but cleaner energy, and biomass boilers are part of that strategy. The good news is that we have recently announced that renewable heat payment vouchers for biomass will increase to £2,000 until March 2014, and later this summer we will provide details for the scheme that we will be launching for domestic renewable heat initiatives next spring.

Apparently, more than 5 million homes could still benefit from cavity wall insulation, so there is still a lot of work that could be done.

The Government have claimed it is too early to set a decarbonisation target for 2030, but next month they will publish their electricity market reform delivery plan, which will determine our energy mix and its carbon intensity. In the absence of a legally binding decarbonisation target, will the Secretary of State at least confirm that his long overdue delivery plan will be in line with our legally binding carbon budgets, or will the Government be rewriting the fourth carbon budget?

No, the plan will be in line with our legally binding obligations. As I have explained to the House, before we set the decarbonisation target in 2016 we will give National Grid guidance on setting the EMR delivery plan to ensure that it is on path to meet our decarbonisation targets in the least-cost way.

T3. The Minister will be aware that I represent Thoresby colliery in my constituency, one of the most efficient and profitable pits in the country. Is he optimistic for the future of coal mining in Nottinghamshire, and does he remember my invitation to visit? (158100)

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. He will know that deep-mine coal in this country has suffered a number of setbacks this year, including the serious fire at Daw Mill colliery. I assure him that my officials continue to work with the company to do our best to ensure its continued viability. We are also in touch with the situation in Scotland to ensure that everything possible can be done to replace some of the jobs that were lost when the company there went into liquidation.

T4. On some energy issues, such as setting a date for a decarbonisation target, the Government appear to be extremely slow, but on others, such as the exploitation of shale gas, they want to rush ahead at great speed without looking at environmental and safety considerations. Will the Secretary of State commit to looking properly at those considerations before any extraction takes place? (158103)

In 2016, we will be the first country to set a decarbonisation target, so the idea that we are being slow on that is preposterous. On shale gas, we are behind other countries—she may have noticed that the US has already gone into it. We are determined to see whether this country can benefit from shale gas, but we will ensure that we protect the environment and take the public with us. That is the right way to get the benefits for the country that shale gas might well offer.

T6. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on today’s announcement that local opinion will no longer be trumped at the planning stage by national policy. However, everyone in my constituency wants to know whether that applies to the six large wind farm applications, over which planning power is not devolved, and which are currently being heard at the UK’s largest ever public inquiry, which started yesterday. Everybody in my constituency is desperate to know whether those applications are subject to the new policy. (158105)

My hon. Friend will know that the public inquiry has started, and that it would be inappropriate for a Minister to comment on it. I am sorry, but I cannot give him the answer he looks for.

T5. Will the Secretary of State explain why, at the same time as energy bills are soaring, research from Energy Bill Revolution and the Association for the Conservation of Energy shows that help for people most in need is falling? (158104)

I have not seen the research to which the hon. Lady refers. Given that we have introduced the warm home discount, which targets some of the poorest households in our country, taking £130 directly off their bills, I would be surprised by such findings. I reassure her and the House that the Government are not complacent on the challenge of fuel poverty. We know we need to do as much as possible, which is why we commissioned Professor Hills, why we consulted on many of his proposals, and why we will respond. We will shortly produce a framework on fuel poverty and produce a strategy by the end of the year. The Government believe that that should be a high priority.

T7. When will the British Geological Survey review of shale gas reserves be published? Given that IGas recently found that there are 20 times the previous estimates of reserves, does the Minister agree that shale represents a major strategic advantage for Britain, in meeting energy demand and decarbonisation? (158106)

I can confirm to my hon. Friend that the BGS report will be published before the summer recess. There have been a number of optimistic estimates of the amount of shale in the UK. Shale clearly has enormous potential. It would therefore be irresponsible of us not to encourage exploration to see exactly what is down there.

The Teesside Low Carbon consortium, comprising some of the country’s top companies and experts, was rightly disappointed when its innovative project for capturing and storing the carbon created by our energy intensive industries was rejected by the Government. We know that the project is on the reserve list, but is there any real hope that the project, which would take huge amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, and which has the potential to drive thousands of jobs in an area where unemployment is as high as 10%, will receive financial and other support from the Government to make it a reality?

Let me be clear: this project was not rejected but placed on the reserve list. We are working with our two preferred bidders to take forward the carbon capture and storage competition. Should one of the two bidders drop out, we will of course look again at the situation.

Following on from the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer), Kellingley colliery in my constituency is a profitable, high-performing deep coal mine with 700 highly skilled employees. Will the Minister update the House on what is being done to ensure its viability?

I think my hon. Friend knows that we have been working flat out to help the company to restructure since the fire at Daw Mill. That has involved intensive work with a number of other Government bodies. I understand how frustrating it is for him and, in particular, for those who work in the colliery not to have had an announcement yet, but I am hopeful that we will see progress in the next few days.

Further to that question, the Minister will know that UK Coal has applied for a loan from the Government that would be paid back when the insurance comes through from the Daw Mill fire. What is happening with that loan?

The position is that insurance payments are now coming through to the company, so the financial situation is not quite as the hon. Gentleman describes it. I want to assure him that the Government are doing everything they possibly can to safeguard the financial future of the two collieries, and to assist the company in necessary restructuring following the disastrous fire at Daw Mill earlier this year.

Many village halls, such as the one in East Brent in my patch, have applied for Big Lottery awards for all funding to install PV solar panels and use feed-in tariffs as an invaluable source of income to make repayments on loans to complete their projects. It is a feature of the lottery that it is funded not by Government but by individuals, and that that grant funding is made completely independent of government, as is stated on its website and in its literature. Ofgem seems to have decided in February 2013 that lottery funding is—

Order. It is my ambition in this Parliament to educate the hon. Lady that the second sentence should usually end with a question mark. That is what we want.

It is, Sir. I must explain myself. Will the Secretary of State investigate Ofgem’s administration of the scheme and the lack of information provided to everybody involved, so that it reverses its decision to categorise lottery money as state aid?

My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for her constituents in villages, helping them with community halls and so on. I am aware of this issue—it is not just grants from the lottery, but grants from elsewhere in government that prevent installation of micro-technology receiving feed-in tariffs under the Ofgem scheme. This matter has been raised by a number of hon. Members and I hope we are able to look at it in due course.

The Secretary of State does not have to compete with Back Benchers. There is no obligation for the answer to be as long as the question.

Earlier, the Minister mentioned that the Government’s policies would result in energy bills being about 7% lower, but is that not correct only if people go out and buy new energy-efficient TVs, washing machines, dishwashers and combi gas boilers, and that if people do not their bills will actually be higher under this Government?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The methodology of the bills and prices report includes examining how often average households replace these types of goods—it is statistically robust.

I thank the Government for listening on wind. Communities across north Yorkshire will be delighted by this decision. The Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), is already popular in north Yorkshire, but I am sure that they would join me in wanting to give him a collective hug to thank him for this decision.

I am married to a girl from Yorkshire, but I think that a further hug would probably not be appropriate.

It is important that communities understand that they will now have more say against developments that are inappropriate and not properly justified. Too many communities have felt under siege from wholly inappropriate applications, and this measure will now bring them much-needed and long-awaited relief.

The Minister referred to the coal industry in Scotland. I am sure he knows of the devastation in my constituency and in that of my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne). What recent discussions have taken place with the Scottish Government to address the serious environmental consequences of restoration work not going ahead?

We are in touch with the Scottish Government. I have ensured that an official from my Department attends meetings of the taskforce set up following the collapse of the Scottish company. We will learn lessons from what has happened in Scotland, and if the British Government can help, of course we will.

Will my right hon. Friend explain what role he sees the energy efficiency strategy playing in reducing demand for energy?

My hon. Friend will know that earlier this year the Prime Minister launched our first-ever national energy efficiency mission. We are determined always to pursue the cheapest option, including where the cheapest option is saving energy rather than building new plant, but we will do that in a way that is good for consumers and gives us lower bills as well as cleaner energy.

Order. If we are to accommodate the several remaining colleagues, very short answers will be required.

Will the Secretary of State have another go at answering my earlier question? He said he met the energy companies last month. Let me put the question this way: when he met them, did he raise any concerns about the level of profits they were making, and, if so, what did they say?

I do not think that profits were part of a specific conversation. This issue is about the whole market: how we ensure more competition and more investment and how we protect consumers from rising global prices by ensuring that they help us deal with energy efficiency.

In order to save money and improve Government efficiency, would the excellent Secretary of State agree to close his Department and transfer its responsibilities to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills? He, then, could become the Business Secretary, freeing up the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the right hon. Member for Twickenham (Vince Cable), to concentrate on his campaign to become the next leader of the Liberal Democrats. It would be a win, win situation for everyone.

You will know, Mr Speaker, that the Liberal Democrats always listen to the hon. Gentleman’s advice, because it is always meant as a helpful contribution. I can tell him, however, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) is a fantastic Minister of State and does a brilliant job not only in my Department, but in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, so we are already very well connected.

The Secretary of State told me earlier that he was concerned about all Kingstons in this country. On that basis, would he agree to meet me and a delegation from Kingston upon Hull to discuss what more the coalition Government can do to support Siemens coming to Hull?

I welcome the Minister’s support for biomass boilers, but the renewable heat incentive was announced in October 2010. Why is it not possible to open up the domestic scheme for payment before spring 2014?

It has been much more challenging than we anticipated, not least because when we entered government we found that the previous Government had done absolutely no work on this whatsoever. This is the first renewable heat scheme of its type in the world, and heat is much more difficult to quantify and value than exporting electricity, but it is good news. We prioritised industrial heat and are now moving on to domestic heat, and I am looking forward to the scheme’s launch this spring.

The Minister claims that the energy company obligation will help people in fuel poverty, but is it not true that nearly 60% of the funding will go to households that can already afford to pay, not to those people in fuel poverty?

It is anticipated that more than £500 million of the ECO funding will go directly to the most vulnerable and those who need it most, but the balance of the energy company obligation is intended to support roll-outs street by street. It was the specific nature of previous Government schemes under Labour that made them so bureaucratic and ineffective. Our view is that we ultimately need to focus on properties, not just the individuals who live in them.

The co-firing of biomass at power stations such as Drax brings enormous opportunities to growers and farmers in Thirsk and Malton, but will the Minister or Secretary of State assure the House that unfair subsidies to imported wood chip are not undermining our home-grown produce?

The hon. Lady will know that our schemes apply to all companies, wherever they are from. We need to ensure that we invest in renewables such as biomass, but in a way that meets our sustainability criteria and creates a proper, fair market.