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Topical Questions

Volume 571: debated on Thursday 28 November 2013

I recently published the annual energy statement, which focuses on security of supply and on competition in energy markets. Since then, I have focused on driving forward our ambitious agenda for more competition. For example, I held a recent round table with industry leaders and consumer groups to consider the practical steps that we need to take to deliver faster and easier switching for consumers. There have been significant new investments in renewable energy and I expect to make further announcements on that shortly.

Finally, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) and I recently attended the global climate change talks in Warsaw, where a good agreement was reached that put in place the foundations for the critical talks in Paris in 2015 and established a work programme to prepare for them.

The Secretary of State will be aware that we will shortly lose more than 12 GW of generating capacity at oil and gas-fired power stations due to EU directives. What consideration has he given to placing those power stations in our strategic national energy reserve, in order that we can retain them for when we most need them in the coming years?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. However, power stations that have opted out under the large combustion plant directive must close by the end of 2015. The directive provides no derogation from that requirement. As a safeguard against the risk of low capacity, National Grid has consulted on a new system of balancing services to procure additional capacity in the winters of 2014-15 and 2015-16 if it is needed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) asked an important question about the impact of the carbon price floor on energy-intensive industries. Those industries are concerned that they are not getting the compensation that the Secretary of States suggests they are getting. May I ask the Secretary of State about the carbon price floor again? Who does he agree with—his deputy, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), who said that it was an “absurd” waste of money and “assisted suicide” for British manufacturers, or his Liberal Democrat predecessor Chris Huhne, who said,

“We do not need it to drive decarbonisation… It was a straightforward revenue-raising measure by the Tories”?

The idea that energy-intensive industries are not getting some of the support is not true. Payments under the scheme of compensation for the indirect costs of the EU emissions trading system are being made. It is true that the proposals for compensation for the carbon price floor are still going through the state aid process. However, we have a scheme that will come out and people will get those payments.

T2. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that neither he nor his Department would seek to block the production of any Government report on the impact of energy infrastructure and specifically the planned Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs report on the correlation between onshore wind and residential property values? (901324)

No, we do not block reports. We work with colleagues across Government. We are working with our friends in DEFRA to produce a report on the area that my hon. Friend mentions.

T3. Does the Secretary of State accept that the recent comments on rolling back green levies have caused serious concerns to companies such as Siemens? Exactly what will he do to ensure that the investment in Hull is not jeopardised by the mixed messages from Government? (901325)

I reassure the hon. Lady that I have made it clear that the review of green levies does not cover renewables obligation certificates, feed-in tariffs or contracts for difference. That should be a great reassurance to Siemens. I hope that she will take that message back to her constituency. I look forward to meeting her and her colleagues shortly to discuss the important investment in Hull by Siemens.

T4. A great deal of information is available to help our constituents save money on their energy bills by switching, fixing or insulating their homes, but it can be a challenge to ensure that the right information reaches those who need it most. Will the Minister commend local business Worcester Bosch for sponsoring a free information pack for my constituents in Worcester? (901326)

I certainly commend not only Worcester Bosch but the work my hon. Friend does in his constituency with the public and the fuel-poor, and particularly in getting that information to them. Last month, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State wrote to all Members of the House and asked them to share with their constituents a guide developed by our Department, in conjunction with charities such as Age UK and National Energy Action, which explains how householders can cut their energy bills and where they can go for help this winter. There is help on offer.

T7. This morning it has been reported that in looking at the costs of energy, the Government are considering changing the cost of transmission. Will they take the opportunity finally to get rid of the discriminatory locational system for transmission and distribution costs that raises prices in the north of Scotland? (901330)

National Grid has been looking at the balance in cost between north and south, but a lot of energy is generated in Scotland, not least in renewables, and Scotland has an interest in ensuring that that energy is transmitted to England.

T5. Will the Government continue to encourage people to switch energy suppliers if they feel they are being ripped off, as I was by British Gas and E.ON UK? I have switched to M&S Energy, and saved two thirds on my bill. (901328)

I commend my hon. Friend; he is clearly one of the biggest switchers in town—but I think we always knew that. I would encourage everyone to follow his example, check their bills, and see whether they can move to a better deal. That is why we are giving statutory backing in the Energy Bill to Ofgem’s retail market reforms which will make it easier for all consumers to follow my hon. Friend’s example, compare tariffs, and get a much better deal.

T8. The number of excess winter deaths more than doubled in Ayrshire and Arran last year. Earlier the Minister referred to influenza, but my constituents are increasingly coming to tell me that they have to choose between eating and heating, particularly those in receipt of benefit cuts, sanctions and other difficult financial circumstances. Does the Minister accept that the cost of energy is a major factor in people turning off their heating and in that increase in deaths? (901331)

We absolutely get the importance of ensuring that people are able to afford the energy they need. Nobody should have to make a choice between heating and eating, and anybody concerned about that should call the energy saving advice service on 0300 123 1234. As we are so concerned about the cost of energy, the Government are determined to do their part to ensure that bills are kept as low as possible. That is why we are looking at the regressive levies that Labour put on energy bills.

T6. Nine out of 10 consumers agree they could get a better deal on their gas and electricity supply if switching could be speeded up, and a third of people would be more likely to change providers if the process were quicker and simpler. What is the Minister doing to force energy companies to reduce the time it takes to switch providers, and when can my constituents in Cannock Chase expect to see the new rules in place? (901329)

My hon. Friend will know that in the annual energy statement I challenged the industry to come forward with proposals on how the process could be speeded up without compromising quality of services or consumer rights, or putting up consumer bills. The industry has started to put forward proposals. I met industry representatives early in November and was encouraged by the discussion, and I hope to make some announcements in the new year.

Coal generates up to 50% of electricity in the UK, but sadly most of that coal is imported—there has been a 37% increase in the past year. What are the Government prepared to do to secure the future of the British deep-mining coal industry?

My Department played a role in ensuring that UK Coal Operations survived this year, following the serious fire at the Daw Mill colliery, and helped preserve 2,000 jobs at Killingworth and Thoresby. We continue to work with the UK Coal Forum and other bodies to ensure that the place of coal is properly recognised in our energy mix.

T9. What assessment has my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made of the implications for fuel poverty if the suggestion by the Free Enterprise Group of Conservative MPs to upgrade VAT on fuel to 15% is implemented? (901332)

For the sake of clarity, let me say that the Government have no plans to change the rate of VAT applied to domestic energy. Any such policy would certainly put up energy prices and risk a very negative impact on the fuel-poor.

At 9 o’clock this morning, npower announced that 1,460 jobs are to be outsourced to India, and in addition that there will be 550 job losses in Stoke-on-Trent. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is the last straw, given the totally irresponsible behaviour of the energy companies? What will he and his colleagues consider doing in order to provide jobs in Stoke-on-Trent, which the Government have so far failed to do? We do not have a local enterprise zone. We need a joined-up approach from this Government.

The hon. Lady is right to raise that matter. The announcement is obviously very worrying for all the people involved, not just in her constituency, but in other parts of the country. We will work across the Government to see what we can do to help the people affected.

Following the publication of the Atkins report, will the Secretary of State publish a plan to implement its recommendations? The local enterprise partnership and I would like the deep geothermal demonstrator site in Cornwall to be expedited.

The hon. Lady knows that we are considering the Atkins report and that we must make choices on which renewable electricity supplies we can back. I hope she will be pleased that, through the renewable heat incentive, we are supporting geothermal heat, which will be a big boost for the industry. That might not be as welcome to her constituents in the case she raises, but we want to back geothermal heat.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), 560 workers at the npower call centre in Thornaby, where many of my constituents work, will be affected by npower’s announcement to remove 1,400 jobs from the UK and send them to India—that is what it has informed the public. What communications have the Secretary of State and the Department had with npower since April? The Government will be aware that its review of call centres has been going on since then.

We have not had specific discussions on the proposal announced today, so I am afraid I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any background detail. However, as I have told the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley), we will work across the Government, particularly with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, to do what we can to help the people affected by the announcement.

Work starts this week on the installation of nine super-efficient General Electric wind turbines at the Burton Wold wind farm extension, which will generate 14 MW of green electricity and power 11,000 homes. Will the Secretary of State congratulate First Renewable on its £45 million investment in the Kettering economy?

We are seeing major investment in all sorts of renewables, including onshore wind and the farm to which my hon. Friend has referred. I very much support his call and congratulate the companies involved.

History was made at the UN climate talks last week—not, unfortunately, by an unprecedented breakthrough in negotiations, but by the unprecedented walk-out by 800 civil society groups and trade unions. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of their concerns that the talks are being unduly influenced by the fossil fuel industry? Does he agree that, if that is the case, it is unfortunate, because it does not give the talks a fighting chance of delivering what science and equity demand?

I met the NGOs before they walked out. I explained the progress we were making in the talks, and after they walked out, we made further progress. No one expected the Warsaw climate change talks to be a breakthrough. They were an important building block— a foundation—for Lima next year and for Paris and the critical talks in 2015. I have laid a written statement on the Warsaw talks.

Parish councillors near Melksham in my constituency are looking forward to the community dividend on offer from developers who propose new solar power farms in the area. When will we have more clarity on such arrangements and when will the Government publish their community energy strategy?

My hon. Friend will not have long to wait before we publish the community energy strategy. This Government are gripping the potential of community strategy. No previous Government have recognised the potential of communities to take control of energy. Thanks to innovation and new technologies, and the financial support we are putting in place, community energy has an exciting future, solar included.

Distribution and grid transmission costs account for between 20% and 25% of energy bills. Areas such as mine, which produce an awful lot of electricity, pay even more for their electricity. When will the Government review the transmission system so that we can have a level playing field across the country and National Grid can act in the national interest?

Ofgem and National Grid have been looking at transmission costs between north, south and different parts of the country. They are looking specifically at the distribution costs of local distribution operators to ensure that they are kept as low as is reasonably possible.

What does the Secretary of State say to my constituents in the rural part of Wellingborough who duly elect councillors, but when planning applications for wind farms come forward, councillors and my constituents are against those plans yet they are overturned by a planning inspector? My constituents think that democracy is not working.

We understand people’s concerns not just about onshore wind but about other forms of energy production, such as shale and so on. We need to ensure that the planning system is responsive. The hon. Gentleman knows that what he has said could be applied to many other developments outside energy. It is often the case that the unpopular development of housing or a supermarket gets overturned by the Planning Inspectorate.

The Secretary of State admitted, in answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), that due to Government incompetence no money has been paid to energy-intensive industries in mitigation for the carbon floor tax. However, he did say that money is being spent on the European Union emissions trading scheme. In answer to a parliamentary question, the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) told me:

“£16 million has been paid to 17 companies.”—[Official Report, 5 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 142W.]

When I asked him to name those companies, he wrote:

“We are still assessing applications.”—[Official Report, 18 November 2013; Vol. 570, c. 663W.]

How can money have been paid out when applications are still being assessed?

More than 60 applications have been received and we have paid out on more than 20 of them. We have done that in the past few weeks. We are processing the others as quickly as possible. The scheme that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to was the carbon price floor compensation scheme, for which we are still awaiting approval under state aid rules from Brussels.

I know the Secretary of State will want to commend the work of the Somerset Community Foundation. Under its “Surviving Winter” appeal, people can redistribute their winter fuel allowance, if they do not need some or all of it, to those who need money to heat their homes. Will the Secretary of State—[Interruption.] Will the Secretary of State have further discussions with the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that notice of that is included in the letter that goes out to everybody?

I will certainly bring my hon. Friend’s point to the attention of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Why has the UK fallen to seventh in the world for investment in clean energy since the Government came to power?

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s figures. A recent Ernst and Young survey had the UK as the fourth most attractive place in the world to invest in renewable energy.