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Topical Questions

Volume 566: debated on Thursday 11 July 2013

This week marks the 25th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, which claimed the lives of 167 people, so I am sure the whole House will want to join me in remembering them, mindful of the pain their loved ones must still feel and the scars, both physical and mental, borne by the survivors. The best remembrance is to learn and prevent a repeat of that disaster; and their legacy, and that of Lord Cullen’s inquiry into the disaster, is an oil and gas industry that now has an enviable health and safety record. But of course there remain real risks in operating offshore, so we should be thankful to those who continue to brave the hazards of the North sea and elsewhere to keep our homes warm and our transport moving, and as we meet our energy challenges, let us pay the best tribute to the Piper Alpha victims and their families by doing it safely.

I am sure the whole House will wish to associate itself with my right hon. Friend’s remarks.

While the Government’s announcement on the strike price is very welcome, there are, as my right hon. Friend knows, many parts of the country that want to take full advantage of the future green energy revolution. Certainly in Cornwall we are very keen to become the green peninsula within the UK. Would he be prepared to come to Cornwall and speak to all aspects of the green energy revolution happening there, because we want to take this energy forward?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and his colleagues from Cornwall, who have been true champions for green energy and the impact that will have on jobs and the economy in Cornwall. He will know that I have already visited Cornwall, but I am very keen to visit again because it is such a powerhouse behind our low-carbon economy.

I beg your pardon, Mr Speaker. I was just caught there by the different opinions on the coalition Benches—whether to be pro-renewables in the south-west or not.

May I join the Secretary of State in remembering the 167 people who lost their lives on Piper Alpha 25 years ago? That stands to remind us continually of the vital importance of rigorous health and safety in our energy industry.

When I asked the Minister, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), at the last Energy and Climate Change questions exactly how many customers on dead tariffs would be moved to a cheaper deal, he said:

“I cannot give the right hon. Lady the exact figure off the top of my head, so I will write to her on that.”—[Official Report, 6 June 2013; Vol. 563, c. 1646.]

Twenty minutes ago I received a letter from him telling me he did not know the answer, so let me tell the Secretary of State that companies like British Gas and SSE—

Order. May I just say to the shadow Secretary of State that we have a lot of questions to get through? What we need is a short sentence and then we can move on.

British Gas and SSE between them have more than 20 million customers, and they have told me that they do not have any customers on dead tariffs. Can the Secretary of State explain just how the Prime Minister’s plan to put everyone on the cheapest tariff is actually going to work?

The right hon. Lady will know that the proposal came from Ofgem, the independent regulator. I know she wants to abolish it—which would be a very silly move, if you do not mind my saying so, Mr Speaker—but if she wants to ask Ofgem, it will have the figures for her.

T2. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Stockport Hydro, a micro-power generation social enterprise, and will he explain how he is going to make it easier for similar projects to prosper in the future? (164505)

I pay tribute to all the people who have worked on that community energy project. Micro-hydro plays a real role at community level. Last month we published the community energy call for evidence, which will cover issues that affect local community developers of micro-hydro. There have been problems, and my right hon. Friend has raised them with me, but I urge him and people who want to develop micro-hydro to respond to that call for evidence so that we can get it right in future.

T3. Last year the Chancellor boasted he was the first to fund a green investment bank, but that is not actually the case, because the Government are now borrowing £158 billion more than planned, and we will not have a proper green investment bank until 2016 at the earliest. How can the green investment bank be part of a growth strategy, and will the Minister provide an update on this? (164506)

The hon. Lady could not be more wrong. The UK Green Investment Bank, which was introduced and created by this coalition—the Labour Government had 13 years to introduce it, but did nothing—has been going for only a matter of months but in that time it has invested £635 million and mobilised, in total, £2.3 billion. It has £3 billion of capital, which was added to in the last spending round, so billions of pounds for green investment are coming directly from this Government, using our genius for financial services. This Government are pioneering it.

T4. Wind energy subsidies were supposed to deliver a reduction in costs by creating economies of scale and driving technological innovation. After the recent strike price announcements, it is clear that wind turbines work only because they are being given the same level of subsidy as before—subsidy begets subsidy, not sustainability. Does the Minister seriously see a future for wind turbines without subsidy and, if so, when? (164507)

My hon. Friend will be aware that the draft strike prices that we published a couple of weeks ago show declining support for offshore wind. We need to ensure that offshore wind is cost-effective and to balance that against the need to secure—I have been pressed on this earlier—a reasonable degree of UK content in the fabrication.

T7. Ministers have rightly made it clear that replacement boilers under the green deal and the ECO should be technologically neutral, yet the reality on the ground is that most of the big six energy companies will not include liquefied petroleum gas or oil boilers within the scheme, citing cost. Yet again, it seems that off-grid customers are being left out. Can Ministers do anything to put pressure on these companies to include such boilers within the schemes? (164511)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point. Obviously, it is a commercial decision for each company that operates within the green deal which technologies they are going to stock and offer to their customers. If customers are not satisfied, they should shop around. The great thing about the green deal is that it involves a plethora of choice; there are more than 1,000—I believe there are 1,250 or more—green deal installers now, so customers should shop around. We want to drive choice.

T5. The Minister will know that all existing nuclear power stations report operationally to EDF Energy in Barnwood, Gloucester—the home of British nuclear engineering. After my right hon. Friend has agreed the strike price and other details for the next generation of nuclear power stations, will he accept an invitation from me to visit Barnwood and the impressive nuclear academy training ground for so many graduates and apprentices in this vital sector? (164508)

I will consider that invitation, as I am sure my right hon. Friends will. My hon. Friend will know that I spoke recently in Gloucester at Horizon-Hitachi’s supply chain conference in respect of its proposed nuclear station at Oldbury. I confirm to him that negotiations with NNB GenCo on an investment contract at Hinkley remain ongoing and that agreement will be reached only if a deal is fair and affordable, represents value for money and is consistent with our policy of no public subsidy for new nuclear.

This morning, six Greenpeace activists are scaling the Shard in what has been dubbed the “ice climb”. Does the Minister think that drilling for oil in the Arctic is an essential part of meeting our future energy needs? Or does he think that, given the huge environmental concerns about drilling there, it is a price that is too high to pay?

The hon. Lady will know that the six nations that make up the Arctic Council and own the land have sovereignty there—the UK is not one of them. She will know that the Select Committee produced a report on this issue—I believe that was last year—and we responded to it. We want to be part of those discussions to ensure that if anything happens, it is done in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

T6. Will Ministers set out what contribution this Government’s energy and climate change policies will make to the increase in jobs in the UK as a whole and in Greater London in particular? (164509)

My right hon. Friend will know that our policies are playing a big role in that. Three years ago, the Renewable Energy Association calculated that more than 18,000 people were employed in renewable energy in the Greater London area alone. That represented 19% of the share and was a bigger share than any other region had, and we expect that to grow. Across the UK we expect green jobs to be a very important part of the boost that our energy investment restructure will give. The House may wish to know that earlier today we granted planning consent to what will be the world’s largest offshore wind farm off the Lincolnshire-Norfolk coast, with £3.6 billion of investment and 1,130 new jobs created.

Can the Minister give some comfort to the green deal installers in my constituency by telling me how many installations he expects this year rather than how many assessments he expects?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that what is innovative and unique about the green deal is the fact that it is encouraging a huge plethora of new entrants into the market. It is not an old-style left-wing centralised monolithic programme run from London. It is unleashing competition, small and medium-sized enterprises, and diversity and plurality. We therefore want the most that we can possibly deliver.

T8. Setting up the green investment bank was one of the Conservative party manifesto pledges and I was pleased to hear in the reply to the hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Rushanara Ali) of the progress that is happening. What specific projects has the green investment bank been backing? (164512)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it was the Conservatives who set up the Wigley commission, which came up with the original scoping ideas for the green investment bank. In practice, it has been terrific. It has invested £30 million in the Wakefield waste project, £46 million in the Walney offshore wind farm and £57 million in Rhyl Flats. It is supporting the new industrial energy efficiency programmes and, of course, has put a significant slice of debt into the Green Deal Finance Company that will allow green deal finance to flow.

The Minister has made much of the 40,000 assessments that have taken place, but it is my understanding that only four people have signed up for the green deal. How many installations will there be in the year ahead?

The hon. Lady must understand that this is a 20-year programme, not some knee-jerk reaction. I know that the Labour party is heavily invested in failure and is made up of a series of doom-mongers who are never happier than when they are talking down the green economy. I have much greater faith in SMEs to deliver a transformational green economy than they do.

Does the Secretary of State agree with me that some people’s concerns about shale gas are based on fact but many are not? Will he ensure that his Department produces and maintains an up-to-date online database so that people can see what claims are evidently false and, where they are based on fact, what the Government are doing to address them?

The Department for Work and Pensions Minister responsible for health and safety will reply to this afternoon’s debate on the 25-year anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster. What is the Secretary of State’s Department doing to build on the safety regime that is currently in place to ensure that the men and women who daily risk their lives by working offshore, contributing a huge amount to the UK economy, have the safest working environment possible?

We are doing a number of things, working with the Health and Safety Executive and the industry. Only last week I held a meeting in my office with a range of people from the industry and with key players to see what progress has been made since that tragedy and what more we can do. It is clear that there is no room for complacency, although there has been a great deal of progress.

What steps is the Minister taking to promote the development of energy storage systems, notably liquid air, which would be a good solution to our energy problems in the future?

My hon. Friend will know that we have an innovation fund directed at encouraging new forms of storage of energy. It is bringing forward a lot of new ideas, including the one he mentioned. We see the capacity market having a role in electricity storage, too.

The Minister has talked around the question of how many green deal assessments have turned into measures being introduced in homes. How many is it, Minister? How many homes have signed up for green deal measures?

As we know from the official statistics published in June, only a handful have completed the process. That is because finance only became available in the couple of weeks before those statistics were published. As I said in my earlier answer, the number of finance providers has now doubled to eight and we expect about 50 by the year end. Opposition Members can continue to carp and we will remember that.

I thank the Minister of State for visiting the Burton Wold wind farm in Kettering on Monday. Did he gain a favourable impression of the level of community support for it?

I had a terrific visit to Kettering and I would like to praise my hon. Friend and his council colleagues for a project which is an exemplar of the way to involve communities in supporting onshore wind and a range of energy efficiency measures, which are seen as part of an holistic whole, bringing new housing, new services and proper infrastructure in a well-planned way that is supported by the community.

We know that many older people do not adequately heat their homes, which puts them at risk of illness and death. Will the Minister update the House on any progress made in discussions with suppliers about the installation of cold alarms, which would alert householders and carers when temperatures become dangerously low?

I cannot give the hon. Lady an up-to-date view on that, but it is a very important measure in which I know that she has taken a great personal interest, so if I may, I will write to her and give her a bang up-to-date report of where we are.