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Commons Chamber

Volume 576: debated on Thursday 27 February 2014

House of Commons

Thursday 27 February 2014

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 Company Obligation

1. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of changes to the energy company obligation on consumers. (902723)

We will shortly be consulting on changes to the energy company obligation. We are aware of a number of ECO-funded solid wall insulation projects that are not going forward, but we have been encouraged by the large number of households that have already benefited from ECO measures, which is now estimated at nearly 450,000 properties at the end of December 2013. Moreover, thanks to the package of changes that I announced on 2 December 2013, which included the proposed ECO changes, consumers across the UK are set to see their energy bills reduced this year by an average of £50.

The Secretary of State already knows the devastating impact that his changes are having on thousands of residents in Clifton in my constituency who live in hard-to-treat homes, but what hope can he offer to the 12 local youngsters who, after completing their initial training, were due to start year-long apprenticeships in installing solid wall insulation when his change of policy put their futures and hundreds more green jobs on hold?

I am sure that the hon. Lady welcomes the many ECO measures in her constituency. The ECO measures that we announced in December prolong the programme for two more years and have a particular focus on fuel poverty, which I would hope that she welcomes. We will announce quite soon our proposals on incentives for people who want to invest in green deal measures, through which I am sure she will see real benefits for solid wall.

I welcome the news that the energy company obligation scheme will offer targeted support to low-income households until at least March 2017. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is often the poorest families who live in the worst insulated and hardest-to-heat homes, and that these targeted measures have the potential greatly to reduce energy costs in such difficult-to-reach houses?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As a result of our changes, we believe that more ECO measures will help more households. The fact that we have managed to ensure that the affordable warmth and carbon-saving community obligation aspects of the ECO will be extended at the existing rate for two more years is extremely good news for our efforts on fuel poverty.

Last month, in answer to a question from me, the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), said that he would speak to the energy companies about the fact that under the affordable warmth aspect of ECO, as run by them, off-grid gas boilers are not available. Has any progress been made on that, and will the Secretary of State take action to end that discrimination?

We have listened to several representations on that and other areas. We will shortly publish the consultation document on the ECO, to which the hon. Gentleman might want to respond formally, as well as our fuel poverty strategy, which will cover some of the issues that he raises.

Order. He does not look like her and she does not look like him; I apologise to the hon. Gentleman. More specifically, I apologise to the hon. Lady.

This time last year, work under the affordable warmth component of the ECO—the element that helps low-income households—was trading on the brokerage at between 25p and 30p in the pound. Today it is trading at just 6p, which means that a maximum of £840 is available for each job, whereas last year £3,500 would have been available. Given that the Government’s figures on the boiler scrappage scheme show that 96% of boiler replacements cost more than £1,000, what assurances can the Secretary of State give that such work is being done legitimately, safely and responsibly, or even at all?

It is certainly being done in great numbers, and we can contrast the situation with that under the Warm Front scheme that the previous Government introduced. In 2010-11, about 80,000 households received help under that scheme at a cost of £366 million, but in the first year of affordable warmth, 130,000 households benefited at a cost of £350 million.

The hon. Lady—the hon. Gentleman; I am making the same mistake as you, Mr Speaker, so I do not know what it is about the hon. Gentleman today. However, I am surprised that he complains about costs coming down, because I would have thought that he would welcome that. He knows that there is regulation to ensure that standards are met.

Energy Efficiency

More than 450,000 homes received energy efficiency improvements in 2013 as a result of the coalition’s pioneering energy company obligation and green deal measures. We expect that figure to grow substantially in 2014 and that the green deal market will continue to expand.

I hear what the Minister says, but more than 7 million homes in the UK are without adequate loft insulation and more than 5 million are without cavity wall insulation, so will he explain why the number of households getting help through Government programmes fell last year by more than 90%?

It is slightly misleading to talk about 7 million lofts with inadequate loft insulation. They may not have the full amount of insulation, but the amount that they lack varies significantly.

So it is inadequate. We now need to move on, not just to simple measures such as loft insulation, but to a much broader holistic approach to home insulation—whole house retrofits. They are more complex and more expensive, but they also cannot be done just with subsidy. The Labour party has to make a choice. Do Labour Members want to force up consumer bills giving ever more subsidy to a small number of people, or do they want to work with us to create a genuine new market where people are incentivised to pay for themselves?

The green deal has the potential to revolutionise energy efficiency, but we all need to understand how we can ensure that our constituents link into it. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that the green deal is as straightforward and efficient as possible, and that as many people as possible in north Oxfordshire can benefit from it?

During the past few months we have certainly been taking advantage of the fact that we now have the green deal up and running, and we have been improving the experience of the green deal, both for the consumer and the supply chain. We have now had more than 145,000 assessments by the green deal, and we know that it is getting high levels of customer satisfaction and that more than 80% of people who have had an assessment are moving on to install measures.

Since the privatisation of the public utilities, in Yorkshire the gas is now owned by the Germans, electricity by the Chinese and water by the Singaporeans. Should not the six major energy companies be driving this bid? We know that the Government are really lacking in green energy and the green deal. Why cannot the Minister galvanise the six energy companies, or should I ask Mrs Merkel this morning?

We should celebrate foreign investment in the UK and welcome the fact that the UK, particularly under the coalition Government, is becoming a world centre for inward investment. We are seeing investment in the green energy sector reach record highs—more than £30 billion since the coalition came into government —and seeing the amount of clean energy that we are generating take us up the European league table from the miserable second from bottom place that we used to occupy under the last Government.

One of the groups most deserving of benefit, from the warm home scheme in particular, are those who live in park homes, of which we have many in North Wiltshire. Due to the curious anomaly that electricity payers have to match exactly the people listed in the Department for Work and Pensions, they are not eligible for the warm home discount. Will the Minister find some way of getting around this anomaly, so that these deserving people, who live in their own homes, many of which are the coldest that could possibly be imagined, benefit from the scheme?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his tenacity in raising this issue. He is right. Park home owners and occupants have traditionally had a very poor deal compared with other consumers. We do not have the full answer yet, but I am determined to try to improve their lot, and I will be happy to meet him to try to iron out some of these quite difficult problems where people do not own the meter. There must be more that we can do.

A staggering amount of electricity is used and several large power stations kept running simply to power electronic devices such as televisions and computers that are left on standby. What can the Minister do, perhaps with other Departments, to try to tackle the problem of electronic devices having to be left on?

My hon. Friend asks a good question. Such electronic devices are largely covered by EU-wide product standards rather than just domestic initiatives. Innovation is the key, and that is what we want to spur. DECC has an innovation fund, and if my hon. Friend has some suggestions, I would be happy to hear them.

I do not wish to be unkind, but the Minister does perambulate in a mildly eccentric fashion. If he feels that he can face the House in answering questions, that would be greatly to the advantage of both the hon. Gentleman and the House.

Energy Prices

We announced in the annual energy statement that Ofgem would work with the Office of Fair Trading and the new Competition and Markets Authority to deliver the first annual competition assessment in late March, early April. These independent competition authorities have set out the remit for this assessment. They have said that they will look at prices, as well as profits and other relevant matters.

I recently wrote to those competition authorities, drawing to their attention three specific matters that have received little attention in the energy price debate but which I consider are of strategic importance, including profits, prices and market share in the domestic gas supply market. It is for the regulators to decide what steps they now wish to take in light of all the evidence.

Given that 31,000 winter deaths were caused by the cold during last winter and that there will be further rises in energy bills this year, why does the coalition give a higher priority to maintaining the energy cartel’s 77% increase in profits and shareholder dividends than to the lives of vulnerable people?

We do not; I am afraid that the hon. Lady is wrong on many counts. First, the structure she describes as a cartel was created by the previous Government. The big six were created during the consolidation under Labour, so they are Labour’s big six. It is under this coalition Government that we have seen a massive increase in the number of entrants to the market; we now have 20 independent suppliers taking on Labour’s big six. That is good competition that will help people. Secondly, we take winter deaths extremely seriously. If she looks at the data, she will see that winter deaths have gone up and down over a period of years and that the highest figure over the past decade was actually when the Leader of the Opposition was doing my job. The reason they go up and down is that they are related not simply to energy costs, but to health matters such as flu epidemics. We need to ensure that we have a cross-Government approach to tackling winter deaths, which is what we are doing.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for visiting Norwich recently to listen to my constituents about energy bills and for attacking the high profits made by suppliers on gas bills. Will he explain the analysis that led him to send a letter to Ofgem and the CMA concerning prices and profits in the supply of domestic gas?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his sterling work in this area. When Ofgem published segmental accounts in November, combined with figures on market share and other data, we saw for the first time a four-year time series showing some real concerns. It was that analysis that led me to write to the competition authorities, drawing their attention to the problems in the domestic gas supply market, which were never raised by the Labour party.

The Secretary of State knows that the big six were set up in the way they were because, after the introduction of the new electricity trading arrangements and then the British electricity trading and transmission arrangements, that spread competition in the market. However, Which? has now said that vertical integration has skewed the market, penalised new entrants and impaired competition. Does he not accept that Which? is right and that the Opposition are absolutely right to seek to break up that vertical integration?

I accept that we need to look at the electricity generating market. One of the reasons we support Ofgem’s proposals, which this week it was announced will go forward on 31 March, is that they will contest the vertical integration model for the first time. Again, it is this Government who are challenging the structures we inherited from the previous Government. We are allowing the competition authorities and regulators to take that contest forward, but the Labour party is saying that it must be against the consumer interest, yet it has no real evidence for that.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the high prices we see are not purely the result of the oligopoly set up by the previous Government, and that policy and energy mix are also important? To that extent, has he compared prices in Germany with those in the UK?

There are a number of international comparisons on that basis, and the UK performs very well, by and large, particularly on post-tax analysis of domestic gas and electricity prices. But we should not be complacent; we should do everything we can to help customers and businesses with high energy bills.

Community Energy

This year the coalition launched the UK’s first ever Government community energy strategy. That marks a profound step change for the energy sector and includes a series of ambitious new measures. To take that agenda forward, the Department is setting up a dedicated community energy delivery unit.

Those are wide-ranging plans that have been long in gestation. I am sure that the Minister is as keen as I am to take specific steps to help clean our energy supply and sustain local communities. What specific measures in the plan will enable local communities to take a lead in developing renewable energy in their area?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s long-standing interest in campaigning for renewable energy. Let me assure him that there is a great deal of meat in the community energy strategy. We are establishing a £10 million urban community energy fund, providing seed funding for a one-stop-shop information resource, launching a £100,000 community energy saving competition, and setting up an industry-led taskforce to achieve greater shared ownership of onshore renewables. Altogether, it is a bold vision with a plan for delivery.

The Minister will be aware that a number of community-based combined heat and power schemes that were proceeding exactly on the basis set out in the strategy paper he mentioned have now collapsed thanks to the changes in the energy company obligation that his Department announced recently. Does he intend to take steps to use the resources he has mentioned, as set out in the community energy strategy, to help retrieve those schemes? If not, what message does he think will be sent on the future of the community energy strategy as a whole?

We certainly want to see more CHP, and we now have a dedicated resource in the Department supporting it. This comes back to the point I made earlier. Labour Members have to decide: are they going to stand up for endless subsidy or support us in driving down the cost of consumer bills? They cannot have it both ways.

Energy Companies: Charges

5. What steps he has taken to investigate the practice of energy companies having higher charges for non-direct debit customers. (902727)

Energy companies are required under the terms of their licence to ensure that any differences in charges to consumers between different payment methods reflect only the differing costs to the supplier of that particular form of payment. Ofgem is looking at payment differentials, including higher charges for customers who choose not to pay by direct debit, in its competition assessment, which will be published this spring.

About 1 million people do not have a bank account. What steps are the Government taking to help those who do not have a bank account and therefore find it impossible to pay by direct debit?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. The coalition is absolutely committed to improving access to financial services for the vulnerable, particularly the fuel-poor. As recommended by the Parliamentary Commission on Banking Standards, the Government are seeking a voluntary industry agreement on renewed minimum standards for basic bank accounts. In addition, we have committed nearly £2 million over this year to develop the big energy saving network to ensure that the most vulnerable are getting the best deals they can.

Is not the sluggishness of Ofgem in tackling this discrimination yet further evidence that it is no longer fit for purpose?

No, it is not. This is an ongoing situation. Ofgem has looked at the issue, but it is not something that one can look at once and then discard. That may be Labour’s approach, but we are maintaining long-term vigilance to make sure that the consumer is looked after on an ongoing basis, month in, month out. It is very important that they will now have the additional benefit of a referral to the competition test.

Will my right hon. Friend look at some of the work of Ofgem, and how it allows price rises in the energy sector that are way above inflation whereas Ofwat takes a much tougher line as regards water customers?

I am aware of the comparison that my hon. Friend makes. However, the fact is that we have an extraordinary requirement for new investment thanks to the dearth of investment, and long-term investment, that we saw under 13 years of Labour. We are now playing catch-up. We require over £100 billion to go into our energy sector to secure our supplies, and I am afraid that that money has to come from somewhere.

Fuel Poverty

6. What recent assessment he has made of the incidence of fuel poverty in rural off-gas grid areas; and what steps he is taking to tackle such fuel poverty. (902728)

One in five of the fuel-poor does not have access to mains gas, and the majority of those households are in rural areas. We are determined to increase the delivery of energy efficiency improvements to the rural fuel-poor and to achieve far more for rural areas than previous schemes. We are actively taking forward a number of initiatives to deliver on that.

There are an estimated 10,000 off-grid homes in East Hampshire. I know that the Minister is personally committed to tackling rural fuel poverty where it appears, but what is being done on a practical basis, including on encouraging off-peak buying and ensuring that the code of practice is upheld?

I know this is an issue about which my hon. Friend feels particularly strongly, so I am happy to confirm to him that we are taking real steps. I will shortly be meeting the biggest seven energy suppliers to discuss improving the delivery of ECO measures, specifically to off-gas and rural homes. We are also consulting on increasing the number of rural low income homes eligible for ECO and incentivising the delivery of measures to off-gas grid, low income and vulnerable households. And—

It is always useful to have the abridged rather than the “War and Peace” version, but we are grateful to the Minister nevertheless.

In many of the rural communities that are finding it so difficult because of fuel poverty, those who get the winter fuel payment would love to receive it earlier. Is the Minister prepared to meet a delegation of the all-party group on off-gas grid led by his hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) to discuss this matter?

This has been raised with me and I understand the work that the all-party parliamentary group is doing on it. I am sympathetic to the point that is made, but there are practical problems and costs to doing as the hon. Gentleman suggests. But I am not unsympathetic to him and, of course, I would be happy to meet.

Over half the people in this country who are in fuel poverty live in solid wall properties, and a significant number of those are people living off-grid in rural communities. Again, the changes announced to ECO in the autumn statement mean that no more than 25,000 solid wall insulation jobs a year will be done, whereas a few years ago 80,000 jobs a year were being done. If the Minister really intends to tackle fuel poverty in off-grid areas, how can he do so without an adequate solid wall insulation industry?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is scaremongering slightly about the solid wall insulation industry. The figures he referred to are the de minimis; they are not the maximum. There are other ways in which we will be installing solid wall insulation, not least working with our cash-back. I am surprised he did not mention the cash-back, as we are now offering up to £4,000 for solid wall insulation under the roll-out of the green deal. This has been very warmly welcomed by the industry, including the National Insulation Association, so perhaps he could join us in supporting the supply chain and talking up this market, rather than acting as a little bit of an Eeyore.

Tidal Energy

The coalition Government recognise the huge potential for tidal energy in the UK, and have put unprecedented resource and effort into supporting the UK marine energy sector as a whole. This week in Belfast I chaired a meeting of the Marine Energy Programme Board, which regularly brings together all the major companies and entrepreneurs in this exciting sector in which the UK leads the world.

Given the regularity, the predictability and, as we have seen lately, the strength of the tides round these islands, is it not about time we had something like a national policy statement on tidal energy to get investment going in what could be a very important sector?

I fully share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for tidal technology. It has huge potential in UK waters and my hon. Friend is right, as usual. A national policy statement is the next logical step for the industry, once it can demonstrate that it can deploy at scale commercially and economically, ideally above 50 MW. I am determined to work closely with the sector to make that happen.

I am sure that like me, the Minister would welcome a decision by the Scottish Government this week to grant £2 million to a tidal power global engineering hub in Edinburgh. Following the decisions about carbon capture and storage this week and earlier grants from DECC for wave energy in my constituency, does the Minister agree that the interests of the Scottish renewables industry are best served by the two Governments working together, with unlimited access to the UK-wide market, rather than any separation between the two countries?

Absolutely. Undoubtedly we are better together, and the fact that we are seeing increased co-operation between the UK marine energy park in Cornwall and the south-west and the Scottish marine energy park in the waters of the Pentland firth is a clear demonstration of how, together, we are much greater than the sum of our parts.

Following the Minister’s last reply, he will be aware that the UK is the global leader in wave energy, especially in relation to the wave park project off the north Cornwall coast. What can he say to ensure that we retain that position, bearing in mind that research and development in this field is measured in decades?

My hon. Friend is right. We are leading the global race in wave and tidal energy, and we are seeing increased inward investment into the UK by major international firms that want to be part of the development of the UK marine sector. The marine energy park in the south-west has a key part to play in that. I am delighted with the positive news about Wave Hub and the berths there, and we can look for more positive news as a result of the substantial resource that this Government have put into the sector.

Smart Meters

Good progress is being made. The first technical specifications have been confirmed and some energy suppliers are installing smart meters already, although most consumers will be offered smart meters from next year. We are on track to complete the national roll-out to 30 million premises by 2020.

Since the original Mott MacDonald assessment of smart meters, their cost has doubled. It is also estimated that half the meters already installed will have to be removed before 2020. Are we not heading for another IT disaster?

Absolutely not. I am a little surprised at the hon. Gentleman’s criticism, given that his colleague the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey) told this House on 23 April 2012 that our plan

“has a number of world-first features.”—[Official Report, 23 April 2012; Vol. 543, c. 782.]

European Green Capital 2015

9. What steps his Department is taking to support the city of Bristol in its role as European green capital 2015. (902732)

I congratulate Bristol on being named European green capital 2015. Ministerial colleagues across Whitehall are working to explore what support we can provide to the city. The Minister for cities, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), will shortly be hosting a business round-table with the mayor of Bristol to discuss the role the Government can play.

Bristol is a hub of green technology and growth and thoroughly deserves its title. However, it is also a city that has very bad traffic congestion problems, leading to carbon emissions. Will the Minister lend his support—possibly working with other Departments —to make sure that the European green capital award provides the impetus for a railway revolution in Bristol and the Henbury loop line in my constituency?

My hon. Friend is a powerful champion of the Henbury loop. It is for the West of England Partnership to identify that particular rail scheme as a priority in its strategic economic plan. If it does so, it may be considered for funding under the local growth fund.

Household Energy Bills

Energy bills are a real concern, so we are helping households with them in three ways: direct financial help, energy efficiency measures and increased competition. Direct financial help includes the warm home discount, the winter fuel allowance and cold weather payments. Energy efficiency measures are delivered in a variety of ways, but especially through the energy company obligation and the green deal. Our relentless focus on increasing competition ranges from Ofgem’s retail market review to our focus on new suppliers and making switching quicker and easier.

In July 2012, off-grid fuel was selling for as low as 56p per litre, but by December the price was as much as 65p per litre, so a pensioner couple with an average 1,800-litre tank of oil in their garden could have saved £150 if they had bought in July. To put it another way: their winter fuel payment was half wiped out by December. Will the Secretary of State bring forward early payment of winter fuel payments for pensioners on off-grid energy?

We have been working extremely hard and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) in particular has been leading the work to promote the “buy early” campaign so that consumers can buy oil when it is available at a lower price. Moreover, we have a six-monthly round-table with the industry to make sure we are doing everything we can.

The hon. Gentleman asked about winter fuel payments and he will know that they are a matter for the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions. We are working with the Department for Work and Pensions and other Departments on the fuel poverty strategy, and that issue and others will be dealt with as part of those discussions.

Energy Prices

Energy prices have been rising in the UK and many other European countries for nearly a decade, largely driven by the rise in global gas prices, itself driven by forces such as high economic growth in Asia and higher demand for gas in Japan post-Fukushima.

The other main causes of the rise in energy prices seen in the UK have been the need to fund the investments needed in new generation, including low carbon, and new transmission and distribution networks, as old power stations and networks need replacing. Although we cannot control price pressures from global markets, and although we have to make vital investments to keep the lights on, we are doing everything we can to help people and businesses struggling with this decade of energy price rises.

Further to the exchanges earlier in this sitting, I am still a little confused about the Government’s position. Will the Secretary of State support Labour’s plan to break the dominance of the big six and require them to sell into a pool, which could have a real effect on energy prices?

The hon. Lady is right to say that there are issues, because the previous Government created the big six. We have acted from day one to put pressure on them.

On the hon. Lady’s last point about selling into a pool, let me explain the Labour party’s policy, because it is already out of date. Because of measures that we and Ofgem have taken, next-day trading has increased dramatically to more than 50% of electricity. That is equivalent to a pool. From talking to independent generators competing with the big six, we know that they are not interested in increasing that more; they are interested in forward markets, because that provides greater liquidity to enable them to compete. That is what Ofgem announced this week. I am afraid that Labour, as always, is completely behind the curve.

On reducing energy prices further, Ofgem estimates that about £1 billion could be saved by reducing peak energy. What sort of strategies of demand-side response are the Government looking at?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise that issue, because there are some really cost-effective and good wins to be had. That is why we introduced the electricity demand reduction strategy in the Energy Act 2013. We will have a pilot—we expect it to go forward later this year—which will be the first ever electricity demand reduction project in this country.

Off-grid Homes: Fuel Bills

This winter’s “Buy oil early” campaign, co-ordinated by my Department, was launched by the industry in September. We have worked with industry to provide consumer guidance on how to form oil buying clubs, which allow savings through bulk buying. I will review its progress at the next ministerial round table in May. The launch of the domestic renewable heat incentive this spring will also provide payments to promote a switch to renewable forms of home heating.

I very much welcome what my right hon. Friend says. As several colleagues have already mentioned this morning, the cost of heating oil for off-grid homes is a major concern. Will he give us more details of the domestic renewable heat incentive scheme, particularly in respect of domestic biomass boilers?

The domestic renewable heat incentive scheme is designed to drive forward the uptake of renewable heat technologies, such as biomass boilers. We published details of that scheme last July, and we intend it to be open for applications this spring. It is targeted at, but not limited to, homes that are off the gas grid, because those without mains gas have the most potential to save on fuel bills and to decrease their carbon emissions.

Surely one of the biggest problems for off-grid homes is that they are not even entitled to the protection of the fairly weak regulator, Ofgem. Regardless of who created what, will the Minister please tell us why oil customers are not entitled to this most basic of regulatory protections?

The new code that we have agreed with the industry gives those customers more protection than they have had in the past. We are looking at the operation of the code this winter, and we will review how effective it has been when we hold the next ministerial round table in May.

Energy Meters

Energy suppliers are required to investigate if a customer suspects that their energy meter is not recording consumption accurately. Under Ofgem’s standards of conduct, that must be carried out in an honest, transparent and professional manner. If necessary, a consumer can request that the meter be independently tested by a meter examiner appointed by the National Measurement Office.

What the Minister has outlined does not appear to have happened in the case of a customer working in my constituency to whom npower recently agreed to give a rebate of £2,548. He is a professional man who is well able to go through the time-consuming process and to afford the £96 fee he had to pay, but the process would have been a challenge for a more vulnerable customer. To add insult to injury, three months after the rebate was agreed, he still has not received his refund. What can be done to improve this unacceptable situation?

That is a quite unacceptable delay. Any charge should be reimbursed if the meter is found to have been inaccurate. I will take up the matter with the company and it needs to resolve it rapidly.

Extreme Weather Events

14. What recent assessment he has made of the effects of climate change on the frequency of extreme weather events. (902737)

The science is clear: we are already seeing some effects of man-made climate change and the future threat from climate change is great, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister confirmed in the House yesterday.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published its fifth assessment last September, which covered the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. It stated:

“Extreme precipitation events over most of the mid-latitude land masses and over wet tropical regions will very likely become more intense and more frequent by the end of this century”.

It also stated:

“It is very likely that heat waves will occur with a higher frequency and duration.”

With respect to recent events, the UK Met Office’s chief scientist said that

“all the evidence suggests there is a link to climate change”.

I welcome that response. It seems that extreme weather events are increasingly becoming the norm. Tomorrow, I am hosting a Green Alliance event in Eastleigh to discuss with local businesses, community groups and service providers how climate change will affect our area. Does the Secretary of State agree that such inclusive local approaches are as vital as international agreement?

I do agree with that. My hon. Friend and Eastleigh borough council are leaders in the bottom-up approach. He will know that there are two areas that we need to tackle. First, local communities and individuals must reduce their carbon emissions to stop climate change getting worse. Secondly, communities must work together to make people’s homes and communities much more resilient to the climate change that has already happened.

21. Many of us have welcomed the Prime Minister’s acknowledgement yesterday that climate change is one of the greatest threats that we face. Will the Government follow through on the logic of that position, and will the Secretary of State now rule out categorically any weakening of the fourth carbon budget? (902746)

The fourth carbon budget review is under way. I will not prejudge that, and the hon. Lady should not expect me to do so. I will say that this Government are leading the international climate change debate in Europe. The 2030 energy and climate change targets, which will be discussed at the European Council in March, are critical in tackling climate change. She will know that we have to work internationally to do that. This Government and the UK have been leading that debate.

May I congratulate the Secretary of State and his wife, Emily, on the birth of their daughter? I commend him for taking paternity leave, although I know only too well that he will never have been far from the duties of his office.

The Secretary of State has criticised his Conservative coalition partners for undermining the consensus on climate change. Given that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said that people should

“just accept that the climate has been changing for centuries”

and that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) said that he has

“not had time to get into the…climate change debate”,

will the Secretary of State tell us whether it was them that he had in mind? Are his comments not a bit rich, given that he voted against setting a decarbonisation target?

I thank the right hon. Lady for her warm comments about the birth of our daughter. May I report to the House that mother and baby are doing well? It is nice to come back to Parliament for a rest.

When I made those comments, I was not talking about my ministerial colleagues; I was talking about some voices on the Conservative Benches, particularly in the other place, who question the science of climate change, and I think that is very unhelpful. The right hon. Lady talks about a decarbonisation target, but it was this Government who brought forward legislation on a decarbonisation target. The Labour party did not have one in its manifesto and neither did the Green party. We took the policy forward and it is in the Energy Act 2013.

Energy Market Competition

We have taken a large number of steps to increase competition in the energy market after the consolidation under the last Government that created the big six. We have deregulated the market to encourage the entry of smaller suppliers and more than 20 independents are now competing with the big six on retail energy. We have supported Ofgem in its reforms of bills and tariffs to make them easier and simpler, including through the ending of so-called dead tariffs. We have also supported Ofgem’s reform of the wholesale electricity market which, as has been confirmed this week, will be introduced on 31 March this year. We are also making it easier and quicker to switch.

On privatisation, some 27 companies were involved in the generation, supply and distribution of electricity, and of course gas. The market was set up to allow new entrants, but under Labour it shrunk to the big six. What action will my right hon. Friend take to allow new entrants to all three aspects of the market?

My hon. Friend is right that we saw consolidation in the energy market under the previous Government, which is when the big six were created. We have acted since day one through deregulation, which has enabled more independent suppliers to come to the market, and through making it easier to switch to the simpler and easier tariffs and bills that Ofgem has promoted. This week’s announcement in the wholesale market will see much greater transparency in forward markets, which will reduce barriers to entry to take on the electricity generation side of the big six.

Thomas Docherty: not here. I do not know what is going on; the fellow was here earlier and he has now beetled out of the Chamber. How very unfortunate. I call Tessa Munt.

Given the complaints figures uncovered by Which? recently, which showed that the big six received more than 5.5 million complaints in 2013 alone, does the Secretary of State think the time has come to have a full overhaul of the broken energy market, starting with a full competition inquiry to increase competition after the market assessment has been completed?

It would be wrong of me to anticipate what the annual competition assessment will conclude. We provided evidence for that, which was the right thing to do, but it is for that independent competition authority to decide what the problem is—that is why we have asked it to do it. It is doing detailed work, and when it has analysed the problem, it will decide what remedies are required.

The Secretary of State asserted in answer to an oral question on 16 January that Labour’s proposals to introduce a ring fence between generation and supply would cause “real problems” and push up prices. The Procedure Committee has ruled that the Secretary of State should provide me with evidence for that claim by 26 February, which was yesterday. Can he tell me today what the evidence says and whether he will publish it?

First, the annual competition assessment will, of course, look at that issue in detail. As the right hon. Lady will know if she has read the details of Ofgem’s wholesale market reforms, for example, there is a lot of work to suggest that it is not at all clear that vertical integration is bad for consumers; it may be in some cases, but it will not be in others. The theory behind this is pretty clear: vertical integration was adopted so that people could hedge the risks between generation and supply. That can lower the cost of capital and lower prices for consumers.

The Secretary of State has asserted his own view in the House and in the media before Ofgem has even made its assessment, so I think my question stands. Even Government Members think that the Secretary of State is wrong. The hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) wrote on “ConservativeHome” on 18 February that if companies had separate licences for generation and supply, as Labour has proposed, it would

“shine a light in some of the murky areas”

of the energy market. Apart from some of the big six, can the Secretary of State name a single organisation that opposes a ring fence, and will he confirm that he is ruling out the introduction of a ring fence while he is Secretary of State?

No, I will not do that for the simple reason that we have asked the independent competition authorities to look at the evidence. Unlike the right hon. Lady, I am not prejudging the outcome of independent competition regulators. We provide the evidence and we allow independent authorities to make judgments on that. It is quite odd that the Labour party is now turning its back on independent competition authorities.

Topical Questions

Since Energy questions in January we have published Britain’s first ever community energy strategy, which is widely welcomed by the sector. This week we published a review by Sir Ian Wood into our oil industry. I have accepted Sir Ian’s recommendations, and we intend to fast-track his proposals. I am grateful to Sir Ian and his team for their work, which we believe is a game-changer in the management of our offshore oil and gas assets. Finally, we announced a second carbon capture and storage project this week—the world’s first ever commercial-scale gas CCS project—and CCS will play a key part in our decarbonisation strategy.

The CCS project is indeed most welcome; it is a pity it did not get here some years ago. The Secretary of State mentioned the fuel poverty strategy currently under preparation. I appreciate that the winter fuel allowance is for the Department for Work and Pensions, but given the impact it could have on pensioners in rural areas will he press for action to be taken to allow the early payment of the winter fuel allowance?

I say to the hon. Gentleman what I said to the previous questioner who raised this. We are looking at all these matters and we are working across Government—with the Department for Work and Pensions, the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Treasury and the Department of Health—on our fuel strategy, because it touches on all areas of government: benefits, health services, flu jabs and a whole range of issues that need to be looked at. I am not going to prejudge the publication of that strategy.

T3. The Secretary of State stated in the Yorkshire Post on 14 February that he expects Eggborough power station to remain open, even if it does not obtain his support for converting from coal to biomass. Will he explain his Department’s detailed analysis, specific to Eggborough, that leads to that conclusion? I appreciate he might not be able to do that in the time allowed here, so will he—not just his officials—meet me and representatives from Eggborough to discuss that detailed analysis as a matter of urgency? (902716)

My hon. Friend is a consistent champion of Eggborough and its proposed conversion. He will know that I have already met him and representatives from the company to discuss the proposal for converting to biomass. We received a large number of investment projects under the intermediate regime. It was not possible, because of a limited budget, to support them all through the taxpayer, but he will know that Eggborough has a number of other options and routes to consider.

I am very pleased that the matter of Eggborough has been raised. The loss of 850 jobs at Eggborough, with thousands more in the supply chain, is very worrying. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that his Government’s policies create jobs, not cost jobs, and safeguard, rather than threaten, our energy security?

The jobs have not yet been lost at Eggborough, which is still producing power. A large number of investment projects came forward under our intermediate regimes involving hundreds of other jobs. It was not possible, within a limited budget, to accommodate every single investment project. Eggborough has been given its provisional ranking and it has other alternatives, such as applying for a contract for difference under the enduring regime.

T5. The Minister will recall visiting my constituency a couple of years ago to look at a green deal project to make houses on the Lakes estate more energy efficient. Will he update me on how many families were able to benefit from the scheme? (902718)

I cannot give my hon. Friend the figure off the top of my head, but what I saw in his constituency, and what he has championed, is at the forefront of what we want to see: energy efficiency measures that genuinely improve not just the fabric of the building but the community, living standards and the comfort of people there—as well as driving down energy bills.

T2. The Minister of State previously showed faux concern for communities that are off gas grid. Is not the implication of the Government’s energy policy that many, many more communities will be without gas supply if gas supplies are switched off when the energy industry is electrified? When will he tell those communities that they will no longer be able to have gas? (902715)

I do not recognise the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. The idea that the Department has taken the decision to mandate the end of the gas network is simply not true.

T6. Later this morning I will take part in a meeting to assess the progress and way forward on implementation of carbon capture and storage. Alstom, from my constituency, will be taking part. Will my right hon. Friend please update the House on how the UK is leading the world in carbon capture and storage technologies? (902719)

Yes. The UK is extremely well placed to take forward critical low carbon technology. We have all the experience from the oil and gas offshore industry in the North sea. The North sea has some of the largest reserves of carbon dioxide in Europe, and our universities and companies have some of the greatest engineers and scientists who are able to take forward this incredibly low carbon opportunity for the world.

T4. The poorest consumers are among those who use prepayment meters. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that they are not charged more than other customers? (902717)

We take this issue very seriously. We want to ensure that every payment method reflects the cost fairly, and that there is no gaming between the different methods. The issue will form part of our competition test, and we are also working on it closely with Ofgem.

T7. CNG is a north Yorkshire success story, serving gas customers, small businesses and small corporations, but it is anxious about entering the domestic market because of the burden of regulation, compliance costs and risk costs. Can we do any more to encourage companies such as CNG to enter the domestic gas market? (902720)

I am interested to hear about the company in my hon. Friend’s constituency. If he writes to me giving the details, we shall be able to look into the issue. He may also wish to send those details to the independent authorities which are conducting the competition assessment. We have deregulated the energy markets to reduce barriers to entry to the market, but we want to do more.

Will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the launch today of the fourth GLOBE international climate legislation study, which shows how many more national Governments are taking urgent action to deal with climate change? Given the importance of the climate change debate, will he return to the issue of the review of the fourth carbon budget? Will he recognise that if the United Kingdom and Europe want to continue to take a leading role in climate change negotiations, it makes no sense to have that review now?

I do welcome the publication of the climate legislation study. The United Kingdom, including many parliamentarians throughout the House, has played a leading role in encouraging other countries to enact climate change legislation, and it is encouraging to see how many have responded. I pay tribute to the Members involved, particularly the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner).

I cannot add anything to the answer I gave earlier about the fourth carbon budget review, which is currently under way. When we published the fourth carbon budget, it was decided that a review would take place at this time, and I cannot prejudice its outcome.

We have already set up an implementation group in the Department, because Sir Ian Wood published an interim report and we were able to study it and make preparations. I asked Sir Ian to chair an interim advisory panel to help us with our work, and he has agreed to do so. We are also keen to introduce legislation during the next Session of Parliament to implement his ideas about new powers for the proposed new regulator.

As the Secretary of State will recall, I told the House back in November 2013 that the npower call centre in Thornaby was placing 500 jobs in jeopardy through its proposal to close the centre and relocate on its existing Sunderland site. We now know that more than 400 members of staff have opted for voluntary redundancy because npower’s promises of a relocation package and transport have not come to fruition. What conversations has the Secretary of State had with his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills with a view to mitigating the problems of the Thornaby workers?

I know that BIS considers such issues very seriously, and we discuss them a great deal across Government. We want to ensure that support is provided in the event of large-scale redundancies, whether voluntary or compulsory. I cannot say any more about the specific case that the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I will ask my officials to look into it.

Many communities in my constituency will be interested in the community energy initiative. How can they find out more in order to promote their local generating ideas?

Our Community Energy online guide is a great starter tool, opening up the world of exciting community energy projects which are increasing daily under this coalition Government.

The German Chancellor is visiting Parliament today. May I invite the Secretary of State to hold talks with her about the support that her Government give to energy-intensive industries in Germany? I am sure that that support is welcomed by those industries, but it makes it increasingly difficult for energy-intensive industries in our country, such as the steel industry, to compete.

We are already paying emission trading system compensation—some £28 million so far—to 53 companies, including eight steel companies, nine chemical companies and 28 paper companies. I discussed a carbon price floor compensation scheme with Vice-President Almunia in Brussels last week, and I hope that that too will be approved next month.

I recently met 90-year-old Norah at the Phoenix centre in Holmfirth to learn about the energy bill revolution. Does my right hon. Friend agree, however, that one of the best ways of reducing energy bills for those facing fuel poverty is to insulate their homes?

I agree completely that energy efficiency measures are one of the best ways of providing long-term sustainable support to the fuel-poor. I completely understand and appreciate the motives behind the energy bill revolution, although hypothecation itself may not always be the most effective way of managing public expenditure.

What action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the new fuel poverty target will address the specific needs of people affected by severe and devastating rare conditions such as muscular dystrophy and neuromuscular conditions?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for the question, and that is one of the reasons why, in developing the fuel poverty strategy, we are working across Government. She is right to say some health conditions may require people to be at home for longer, and they may not be of pensionable age and getting the winter fuel allowance. I hope we can look at that issue during the finalisation of the fuel poverty strategy.

With Angela Merkel’s forthcoming speech to both Houses of Parliament in mind, does the Secretary of State agree that it would be very wise and sensible to incorporate energy more thoroughly into the single market, and what steps is he taking to bring that about?

I discussed these issues with the German Government in Berlin yesterday and I agree with my hon. Friend that completing the internal market, with more interconnection and work on network codes and sharing, is part of the answer to making Europe more self-sufficient in its own energy and in reducing our dependence on fluctuating wholesale costs.

I draw attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests—and, indeed, also in The Mail on Sunday. The Secretary of State was good enough to welcome the GLOBE conference today in Washington and the fourth legislative study. Will he also welcome the forest legislators initiative that is going alongside that, which is looking into REDD-plus and the expansion of that work in Latin America and Africa in particular?

First, may I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for the work he does on forestry and the contribution he has made? I am not aware of the details of the legislative initiative he mentions, but it does sound very sensible. This Government have done a huge amount to support efforts to tackle deforestation in Latin America and elsewhere and I will certainly take note of what he said.

Under the current business rates arrangements, businesses have very little incentive to increase energy efficiency as investing in premises can lead to higher business rates. Did the Secretary of State see last week’s British Retail Consortium proposals for modernising business rates, suggesting a scheme whereby energy efficiency and improvements are rewarded with lower business rates, rather than penalised? Will he discuss these proposals with his colleagues in government?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. I did note those proposals and I thought they were very interesting. It would be unwise of me to prejudge the work that will be done on them in other Departments, including the Treasury, but the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), has a meeting later today to discuss the proposals with business representatives.

Business of the House

The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 3 March—Estimates day (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on managing flood risk, followed by a debate on Government levies on energy bills. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Third Report from the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on Managing Flood Risk, HC 330, and the Government response, HC 706; Eighth Report from the Energy and Climate Change Committee, on the Levy Control Framework: Parliamentary oversight of the Government levies on energy bills, HC 872.]

Tuesday 4 March—Estimates day (3rd allotted day). There will be a debate on defence and cyber-security, followed by a debate on the private rented sector. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: Sixth Report from the Defence Committee, Session 2012-13, on Defence and Cyber-Security, HC 106, and the Government response, HC 719; First Report from the Communities and Local Government Committee, on the Private Rented Sector, HC 50, and the Government response, Cm 8730.]

At 7pm the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates.

Wednesday 5 March—Proceedings on the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipations and Adjustments) Bill, followed by a general debate on the Francis report: one year on.

Thursday 6 March—Statement on the publication of the ninth report from the Defence Committee on Future Army 2020, followed by debate on a motion relating to the security situation of women in Afghanistan, followed by a general debate on Welsh affairs. The Select Committee statement and the subjects for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 7 March—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 10 March will include:

Monday 10 March—Remaining stages of the Care Bill [Lords] (Day 1).

Tuesday 11 March—Conclusion of the remaining stages of the Care Bill [Lords].

Wednesday 12 March—Remaining stages of the Intellectual Property Bill [Lords], followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 13 March—Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 14 March—The House will not be sitting.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 6 and 10 March will be:

Thursday 6 March—A general debate on the contribution of women to the economy.

Monday 10 March—A general debate on an e-petition relating to stopping female genital mutilation in the UK.

I thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business. We have all been watching the dramatic scenes unfolding in Ukraine and, as the new Cabinet is installed in Kiev ahead of May’s presidential elections, there are worrying reports of Russian troop movements on the border and ongoing signs of volatility, not least in Crimea. Will the Leader of the House give us his assurance that the House will be kept up to date with the situation as it unfolds over the coming weeks?

Next week, we will discuss estimates and focus on the particular issues chosen by the Liaison Committee. Does the Leader of the House agree that the process for dealing with estimates is arcane, obtuse and in need of reform? Will he support my call for new forms of effective financial scrutiny for the House?

Next Saturday is international women’s day. Will the Leader of the House tell us how he plans to mark the occasion? Judging by the Government’s record at the moment, I do not think we can expect too much. We have had the notorious all-male Front Bench, and we have learned that the Tory manifesto will be written by five men who went to Eton and another man who went to St Paul’s. And the Defence Secretary is unable to tell the difference between two women in the shadow Cabinet—and it was not me and my sister.

I am sure that everyone will wish to welcome the German Chancellor’s visit to Parliament today. She is certainly getting better treatment than the French President did; he was taken to a pub near the airstrip. There are many on the Tory Back Benches who will be especially interested in what the German Chancellor will say on the question of Britain’s relationship with the European Union. Given that the Leader of the House is a front-runner in the betting relating to the EU commissioner role that is about to become vacant, I am sure that he will take his own special interest too.

Last year, the Prime Minister was forced by his Eurosceptic Back Benchers to announce that he was going to hold an in/out referendum in 2017. Last month, however, the French President dismissed that arbitrary timetable for reforming Europe, telling us that treaty change was “not urgent” and “not a priority”. On Sunday, the Foreign Secretary had to admit that no negotiations were currently under way on an EU treaty. Is it not the reality that the Prime Minister is powerless to make good on his grand, impossible promises to the growing band of Eurosceptics in his own party?

This week, Conservative central office launched an outlandish rebranding exercise, as the chairman of the party attempted to claim that it was now “the workers’ party”. So it is out with the huskies and the hoodies and in with the Bullingdon Bolsheviks. They have claimed to be the most family-friendly Government ever. They have also claimed to be the greenest Government ever and the most transparent Government ever, but their claim to be the workers’ party has to be the most laughable yet. Real wages are down by an average of £1,600 a year, record numbers of people are working fewer hours than they would like, millionaire hedge-fund donors are busy writing policies to slash rights at work and the Work and Pensions Secretary spent the hours before this latest rebrand defending zero-hours contracts. Will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate in Government time on this latest Conservative mis-selling scandal?

The National Audit Office has this morning published a report on the Government’s supposed reorganisation of disability benefits. The report finds that the new personal independence payments will cost three and a half times as much to administer and double the amount of time to process as the disability living allowance.

This Government’s incompetence is causing real hurt and distress to disabled people. This week we learned that the Department for Work and Pensions has stopped employment and support allowance reassessments because it cannot cope with the volume, and it did not even have the guts to announce it to the House. The disastrous introduction of universal credit stumbles from bad to worse. Today, the Work and Pensions Secretary is trying to justify, in a written ministerial statement, why we are set to have 400,000 more children in poverty by the next election. After the criticisms made by dozens of bishops last week, it seems that even divine intervention cannot prevent the incompetence at the DWP. Will the Leader of the House give us a debate, in Government time, on the growing chaos at the Department?

The Government tell us that they have increased flood defence spending when the national statisticians say they have not. They have an Environment Secretary who does not believe in climate change and a Deputy Prime Minister who thinks that he has a right to be in Government for ever. I think this Government might be living in a parallel universe.

I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her words. I entirely agree with her first point. This House has viewed the events in Ukraine with a degree of shock. None the less, it must be for the people of Ukraine to determine their future, and to do so, hopefully, in a democratic and peaceful way. Everyone else must give what support they can and should, while fully respecting the territorial integrity of the country. The Foreign Secretary made a statement to the House on Monday, and he will continue to update the House as and when necessary.

On the issue of financial scrutiny, while estimates days give us an opportunity to debate issues of importance that the Liaison Committee has identified from the estimates to be debated, this is less about the structure of estimates days and more about the work of Select Committees. As a former member of the Health Committee, I recall that there was, and there continues to be, an annual inquiry by the Select Committee into the expenditure of its Department. I do not know whether that is replicated elsewhere. As the hon. Lady will know from the work being done by the Public Accounts Commission, the future strategy of the National Audit Office prioritises the availability of its support to Select Committees to undertake work relating to the expenditure of Departments. As I have made clear at this Dispatch Box, we in the Government welcome that financial scrutiny, as we continue to strive to deliver the greatest possible effectiveness from public expenditure.

I look forward to international women’s day at the end of next week and its theme of inspiring change. As I announced in the business statement, the House will have opportunities to debate a range of issues of importance to women and to all of us, and I look forward to taking part and listening to those debates and to celebrating the role of women not only in inspiring change but in leading in the economy. We have more women in employment than ever before and more women establishing jobs. Like the Prime Minister, I particularly value women who set up businesses and are entrepreneurs and create jobs in our economy.

Talking of enterprising and impressive women, we very much welcome Chancellor Merkel here to Parliament later this morning. I look forward to hearing her speak to the two Houses of Parliament, especially about how our two countries together are working in partnership to deliver a more complete single market, greater competition and more free trade across the world. Those are things that we all value, and that are absolutely necessary not only to us but to the eurozone countries and the European Union as a whole.

The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary have made it perfectly clear that, following the review of the balance of competences, it is the Prime Minister who, as leader of a party, will be setting out what he is seeking to achieve through the process of renegotiation leading to a referendum in this country. That is something for him to do as leader of the party and as current Prime Minister, but not on behalf of the Government, as neither the renegotiation nor the referendum are the policy of the coalition Government as a whole; they are the policy of the Conservative party and will be presented in that context.

The idea of the Conservative party as the party for workers in this country is not new—it is important but it is not new; I recall that in 1987 more trade unionists voted for the Conservative party than voted for the Labour party. I suspect that this week, at the end of which the Labour party will get together with the trade union bosses, many trade union members and many workers in this country who are not trade unionists will recognise that the Conservative party has their interests at heart. It is a party that is cutting their taxes, creating jobs and giving them a sense of security for the future. That is very important, because it is the Labour party that is in denial about all this. It is in denial about the deficit; the shadow Chancellor, in particular, simply will not accept that the Labour Government got anything wrong before the last election. I have to say in all kindness to the Labour party that we learnt painfully that if you do not understand why you lost, you stand no chance of winning.

As we look forward to international women’s day on Saturday, may we have a debate on encouraging more women into chemistry, given that two leaders of the free world have previously been research chemists—the late, great Baroness Thatcher and, of course, our guest today in Parliament, Chancellor Angela Merkel?

My hon. Friend makes a very good point. I am always in awe of those who are very good at chemistry, having achieved what in those days was described as a grade 9 in O-level chemistry. Fortunately, the Secretary of State for Education is planning for a grade 9 in O-levels to represent success, but in my case it was abject failure and so I am in awe of those who have abilities in chemistry. Those who excel in chemistry often have exactly the kind of analytical intellect that enables them to succeed in many other walks of life.

Since the privatisation of the railway industry there has been an explosion of capital works costs, both in track renewals and maintenance. Debt in the industry is reaching crisis proportions, and as and when interest rates begin to rise that crisis will surely be precipitated. May we have a full and urgent debate on the finances of the railway industry?

I cannot offer an immediate debate, but the hon. Gentleman will know that the House has often recently had occasion to ask questions about the rail industry and, in particular, to note the scale of the Network Rail investment in prospect. We are talking about a £38 billion investment, which is the largest rail investment in this country since the Victorian era. It is not just about High Speed 2—that is not even the largest part of it; there are schemes across the whole country, in response to the fact that the number of passengers on the railways has more than doubled since privatisation.

Bombardier’s recent contract award for Crossrail will employ 30 graduates and take on 80 apprentices from around the Derby area. With next week being national apprenticeship week and with youth unemployment falling, will the Leader of the House facilitate a debate on what further steps this Government are taking to tackle youth unemployment?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that, as she is absolutely right. There is some extremely good news in her constituency and neighbouring constituencies, and I am glad she is in a position to highlight that in the House. We are never going to be complacent about the number of young people who are not entering employment. That is why we are putting so much effort into apprenticeships, with 1.6 million apprenticeships planned during this Parliament, which is a significant increase. That will make a very big difference to young people in accessing the jobs that are coming through. Encouragingly, at the same time as we have record numbers of people in employment, we also have record numbers of vacancies, so people can be very optimistic about their prospects.

Council tax rises are one factor in the cost of living crisis, so may we have a debate on how the coalition’s funding distribution is giving the biggest cuts to the most disadvantaged communities and is deliberately calculated so that no matter what efficiencies are found by councils such as Hull’s, they are still having to increase council taxes and cut local services too?

I am surprised that the hon. Lady should raise that issue because at the moment councils across the country are taking difficult decisions while demonstrating that they can sustain, and in some cases improve, the public’s experience of local government services at the same time as they freeze the council tax. This complaint about council tax rises comes from a party which when in government saw council tax double, as I know from my own constituency. Under this Government, the resources being provided and the incentives to freeze council tax mean that hard-pressed home owners and those paying council tax are finding that their local government services are not costing them a great deal more, as they did in the past.

I do not like to be critical of the Government, but we have a lot of statements about things that have either gone wrong or allegedly gone wrong, and we do not have enough statements about all the very good things that are going right. This coalition Government are doing a fantastic job, many things are going right in the economy, and those on the Front Bench should do far more to boost this country and to put the optimistic case forward.

I accept my hon. Friend’s chastisement. I will encourage my colleagues to make more statements of the character that he describes, but I point him towards the Budget statement on 19 March, which I know will be an opportunity to present to the House many of the things that he and I recognise, and the House should recognise, have been a success under this coalition Government.

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the appropriate Minister to make a statement on the long-term future of the Gangmasters Licensing Authority and, in particular, on whether there is any intention to extend its remit into other sectors, such as construction?

I will of course discuss that matter with my hon. Friends. I do not know whether there is any plan of the kind that the hon. Gentleman describes. However, I will discuss the matter with them and see if they can not only reply to him but inform the House, as he requests.

May we have a debate on recent reports by Global Witness about Congolese conflict gold being traded through Dubai and then into Switzerland, where it goes into the European supply chain? Will the Leader of the House speak to his colleagues in the Government to ensure that the UK supply chains are robust and not vulnerable to conflict gold?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. I will of course have that conversation with my hon. Friends at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, because we always want to do whatever we possibly can to prevent such resources—conflict gold, conflict diamonds and the exploitation of mineral wealth—from feeding conflicts that are doing such immense harm to the people of those countries from which those resources come.

Recently I received an answer from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about the number of overseas territory students studying in the United Kingdom. The answer refers to “the Falklands (Malvinas).” Can we have a statement from the Government as to whether or not there is a change of policy towards Britain’s overseas territory?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman, I mean. I spend so much time talking to him that it just seems like he is an hon. Friend.

I hope the hon. Gentleman is aware there is no change in the Government’s position where this matter is concerned. It is the Falklands, it continues to be the Falklands and its constitutional status will remain the same.

May we have a debate on the proper role of Governments and shareholders in the setting of pay and bonuses in the private sector? We seem to be in a ridiculous situation where the Government want to lecture profitable companies in which they have no shareholding about their pay and bonuses, and yet they equally appear to be sitting idly by and allowing a company in which they are a majority shareholder to pay more than £500 million of bonuses, despite the fact that the company is costing the taxpayer more than £8 billion a year?

I will, of course, talk to my hon. Friends at the Business, Innovation and Skills Department. However, I have to say to my hon. Friend that I do not think we are lecturing companies. We are being clear about what we regard as social responsibility, and that companies have a responsibility that extends not only to their shareholders and employees but to the wider society. All companies should recognise that. Where the Government have a substantial shareholding in a company, of course we should use that shareholding similarly—in a socially responsible way. We are aiming for, and have seen, a substantial reduction in bonuses in the banking sector, which I know is occurring in those companies in which the Government have a shareholding.

May we have a statement from the Health Secretary about the possibility of improving outcomes for pancreatic cancer patients through Abraxane?

I will ask my right hon. Friend the Health Secretary whether there is any opportunity to update the House. A diagnosis of pancreatic cancer continues to be very serious. The hon. Gentleman knows that survival rates for pancreatic cancer are very low in comparison with those for many other cancers, on which we have made considerable progress. In the Cancer Research UK laboratories in my constituency, I have seen the work being done on potential routes to the diagnosis and treatment of pancreatic cancer, but it is early days and I fear that the number of projects with good lines of inquiry are still few.

The shadow Leader of the House says that we should have a debate on which is the workers’ party. I say to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House: bring it on. Perhaps we can examine the record of the Labour Government, who drowned the country in debt, left 2.5 million people unemployed, and abolished the 10p tax rate, and compare it with the record of this Government, who cut taxes for 20 million lower earners, increased apprenticeships by 1.5 million, and extended the right to buy.

May I ask our proletarian comrade, the Leader of the House of Commons, whether, in his new capacity as a workers’ leader, he will arrange for portraits of the Tolpuddle martyrs to be displayed prominently in the House of Commons? Is it true that Tory central office is saying that those trade unionists, who were punished and deported to Australia, were leading officials of their local Conservative association?

I hesitate to get into a debate with the hon. Gentleman on these issues. I certainly know that, during the 19th century, there were many reasons why people were appreciative of a Tory Administration who brought in protection for workers through the Factories Acts and the like. In any case, his question about portraits is probably a matter for the Speaker’s Advisory Committee on Works of Art, rather than the Leader of the House.

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that on Tuesday evening, the House finishes its business promptly at 7 o’clock, so that we can all get home, finish our pancakes, and have an early night, as on Wednesday, the first day of Lent, at 7.45 am, the Archbishop of Canterbury is celebrating Holy Communion in the Undercroft chapel? Everyone working in the Palace of Westminster is very welcome to attend.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I am sure that the House appreciates the opportunity to go to the Ash Wednesday service that he advertises. I think that there is nothing on the Order Paper at the moment that would require us to extend our proceedings beyond the moment of interruption at 7 o’clock on Tuesday.

I am disappointed that I have not received a response to my question to the Leader of the House of two weeks ago about the European solidarity fund. In the meantime, may we have an urgent debate on what “Money is no object” means, and whether it could apply to those waiting for personal independence payment assessments?

I endeavour to secure replies for hon. Members, but not inevitably within a fortnight; sometimes it takes a bit longer. I will endeavour to get a full reply to the hon. Lady.

I speak as a genuine working-class Conservative. [Interruption.] My local health authority is making a real mess of the reorganisation of health provision in my constituency, so could we have a debate on health provision across South Gloucestershire, especially in relation to Frenchay hospital, my local hospital?

Hon. Members should not be discourteous to the hon. Gentleman. I have known him for more than 20 years, and I can testify, from personal knowledge, that he was a distinguished ice-cream salesman in Bristol.

Thank you for that, Mr Speaker.

I will, of course, ask my colleagues in the Department of Health to respond directly to my hon. Friend. I know from personal experience how long and difficult the issues surrounding the reconfiguration of services have been following the developments at Southmead and the reduction of services at Frenchay. He has taken a considerable interest in these issues for several years, and rightly so, and I shall encourage my colleagues to respond to him.

May we have an early debate about accident and emergency closures? The Leader of the House has a nice flat constituency, whereas I have a hilly one, and threats of the closure of the Halifax and Huddersfield A and E departments are serious for an area such as ours. May we have a debate about the importance of high-quality care, not of saving £50 million?

My constituency is fortunate in that it contains Addenbrooke’s hospital, with its fine accident and emergency department, but in the past year or so, the Government have invested additional resources to support A and E departments. Sir Bruce Keogh’s review for NHS England on the configuration of future accident and emergency services is not about cuts, but about improving services and ensuring that people are able to get the service they need, including specialised services, at the right place and the right time.

In July 2012, Sir John Holmes carried out an independent review of the national defence medal for the Cabinet Office. Since then, my constituent, Tony Morland, has been waiting patiently for the outcome. Will the Leader of the House make time for a Defence Minister to report to the House on progress so that Mr Morland will stop e-mailing me?

The Government, like my hon. Friend, recognise the great sacrifices made by all members of the armed services past and present. He referred to Sir John Holmes, whom the Prime Minister appointed to carry out a review of the rules and principles governing the award of military campaign medals. The first recommendations on recognition were for those serving on the Atlantic convoys, in Bomber Command and during the Yangtze incident, which were announced by the Prime Minister on 19 December 2012. Sir John continues to work on further campaigns and the broader policy behind the five-year and the double medalling rules.

May we have a debate on the role of the banks in our communities? Santander has announced that it will close 11 agency branches throughout Leicestershire and Leicester, including the branch at Highfields in my constituency, which is a densely populated area of some deprivation. Many of our constituents are getting fed up with how the banks operate.

The hon. Gentleman is right that these issues are difficult. Many Members will have constituents who are worried about the closure of bank branches—it is not just Santander, because Barclays has also announced closures. Of course, the situation is partly the result of changes to the structure of the industry because of the use of online and telephone banking. If I may, I will ask my Treasury colleagues to reply to him. Determining the structure of the banking sector as the changes I describe come into play is not a responsibility of the Government, but my colleagues will have an interest, as do Members on both sides of the House.

May we have a debate on exporting because as we rebuild our economy, we need to sell more goods in the international marketplace? Such a debate would help to highlight the value of such things as the Queen’s award for exports and the help that UK Trade & Investment can provide to companies in my constituency such as the Malted Waffle Company, which exports waffles to Dubai, and Cargo Marketing Services so that they can do better business abroad.

I give my congratulations to the Malted Waffle Company. I was involved in such things years ago when I was in the then Department of Trade and Industry, so I know that the Queen’s award for exports is not lightly given. The award suggests that a substantial achievement has been made, as was the case when the Cambridge Satchel Company, which is in my constituency, secured a Queen’s award. I do not know the size of the Malted Waffle Company, but it is interesting and encouraging that more medium-sized business are growing not just through the domestic market, but by developing their export markets. A British Chambers of Commerce report on companies throughout the country that was published about a fortnight ago showed an encouraging increase in companies’ confidence that they would increase their export orders in the months to come.

The Law Society has a rigorous conveyancing qualification for solicitors, but some mortgage lenders now require solicitors to undertake the conveyancing qualification scheme run by themselves and have a £5 million bond for negligence rather than the £2 million required by law. May we have a debate on how lenders are adding to the costs of conveyancing, reducing choice for consumers and driving small solicitors out of conveyancing?

We are keen to ensure that consumers have access to competition and choice, and hence the lowest possible cost. I am not in a position to comment on the particular points that the hon. Lady makes, but I will talk to my hon. Friends and see whether they can assist her in how she might take that forward. She may find that she has the opportunity to seek to raise this matter on the Adjournment at some point.

May we have an urgent statement on the Government’s commitment to the virtual court scheme? I have just learned from Medway magistrates court, an excellent local court, that the Ministry of Justice has not confirmed funding post-31 March. It is important that it should have clarity and certainty on that. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend came back to me specifically on that court.

Yes, I will. I will raise it directly with the Ministry of Justice. I realise that Saturday is 1 March, so time is short. My hon. Friend must be concerned that the services in his constituency that he appreciates and are valued continue to be supported. I will ask my hon. Friends what the situation is.

May we have a debate on the Government’s expectations of joint commissioning teams, particularly with regard to respite care? I am concerned that in Birmingham they seem rather unaccountable and have a suspect strategy that does not seem to make financial sense and could result in the closure of purpose-built facilities, such as Kingswood bungalows, which are less than 15 years old.

The hon. Gentleman will recall how right from the beginning under this coalition Government we secured additional resources, notwithstanding all the pressures, for the provision of respite care. In the current circumstances, looking towards the new financial year, the better care fund, available to local authorities working with their NHS commissioners, offers £3.8 billion across the country specifically to try to join up health and social care, in which respite care, from the point of view of sustaining people in care in the community rather than frequent hospital admissions, can play a significant part. I encourage him to talk to his local authority about how it plans to use the better care fund for that purpose.

My right hon. Friend has already referred to local government finance, but may we have a debate on how councils can better manage their affairs? Conservative-controlled Rugby borough council set its budget this week, and this successful district council, working effectively as part of the two-tier system in Warwickshire, is not just freezing council tax, but going further and reducing it by 3%—[Interruption.]—yes, 3%, without any reduction in services or staff redundancies. Does my right hon. Friend agree that other councils should follow Rugby’s lead and look harder to find savings?

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has asked that question, because it might suggest that, presumably at their own expense, councillors in Hull, following the question earlier by the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), should take a little visit to Rugby to see how it is done. The Government very much applaud those councils that are doing this and we are supporting them. As I said, we are providing extra funding for a council tax freeze in the next two years, which will make a total of £5.2 billion for five successive years of council tax freezes, which will be worth up to £1,100 for the average household—further help for hard-working families from this coalition Government.

The Leader of the House will be aware of a small lobbying group called the Football Supporters Federation, which wishes to see the introduction of what it spuriously calls safe standing areas in British football stadiums. Will he make time for a debate on the vexed issue of a return to standing, so that the merits and considerable demerits of any such move can be aired?

I am indeed aware of that important point and agree that it should be debated. I cannot promise a debate at the moment, and a BackBench business debate might be better for the matter, rather than one in Government time, which is limited, but I will raise it in any case with my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport so that they are aware of it.

The number of apprenticeship starts in my constituency is one of the highest in the country, and the companies I have spoken with that have taken on an apprentice have told me about the difference it has made. Next week is national apprenticeship week, so may we please have a debate on the role that apprenticeships play in tackling our country’s skills gap? That would allow the House to celebrate the work of apprentices and highlight the fact that there are still more employers who are yet to take on an apprentice than there are those who have.

My hon. Friend makes some good points. Youth unemployment is lower now than it was at the last election, there are now vacancies and we will have 1.5 million apprenticeships over the course of this Parliament, all of which is very encouraging. I hope that it is increasingly understood that apprenticeships are not just for those who are not capable of academic achievement, because increasingly they are being recognised as a viable career move for those who might have had an opportunity to go to university but chose not to. I have met many apprentices who started working under an apprenticeship scheme, acquired additional qualifications in the fullness of time, up to and including degree qualifications, and were then extremely well equipped to move on to senior positions in the company they worked in.

Many dozens of my Clifton constituents have written to ask me to raise their cases in this House after the Energy Secretary’s panicked energy company obligation changes scuppered their much-needed solid wall insulation scheme, and indeed cost local jobs and apprenticeships. When can we have time to debate properly this Government’s disastrous policy, because at Energy and Climate Change questions this morning Ministers were in utter denial about the impact?

I was not here when the hon. Lady asked her question, but I will of course look at the record to see what reply my hon. Friends gave.

My flood-hit constituents are mystified at why the Government do not seem to be applying for EU funds that could assist them. May we have a statement to clarify the situation?

That relates to the point the hon. Member for Walsall South (Valerie Vaz) made on the use of EU structural funds. I will of course ask my hon. Friends about that. As my hon. Friend will recall, the Prime Minister explained at Prime Minister’s questions just over a fortnight ago that there are issues relating to the overall scale of the damage that gives rise to a claim for EU funds. There is also a concern about the impact such claims would have on the British rebate, as I remember from the past, so taking European money in those circumstances is not necessarily a cost-free option.

The overwhelming majority of the British public supports the Hunting Act 2004, which abolished hunting with dogs, yet that civilising piece of legislation, incredibly, is opposed by many Government Members, who want it repealed. Can we have an assurance today from the Leader of the House that any proposal to repeal the Act will be subject to a vote of the whole House, not an obscure Statutory Instrument Committee?

I am not aware of any circumstances in which what the hon. Gentleman describes might happen. The coalition programme was clear that the intention was for the question of the Hunting Act to be brought forward for a free vote of the whole House.

I would like to add my voice to the calls for an urgent debate on the provision of A and E services at Huddersfield royal infirmary, which is in my constituency, and Calderdale royal hospital. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman), who also asked about that, actually uses the HRI, but I had to use it last summer when I fractured my elbow while running the Honley 10 km race, and I was given excellent service. Please bear in mind that my constituents’ memories are scarred after the downgrading of maternity services at the HRI under the previous Government.

I remember, not least through having spent time with my hon. Friend in his constituency, the issues that arose on the downgrading of maternity services. To reiterate the point I made earlier, in that case it was far from clear how the changes that were to be undertaken would deliver an improved service for the patients and communities served, which is what we are setting out to do as regards A and E. I cannot comment on the circumstances in Huddersfield and neighbouring communities, but I know what Sir Bruce Keogh’s report said about the issue, because I was involved at the outset in understanding the nature of the problems in A and E departments. Those problems are often caused by a large number of patients with the most serious conditions being brought into A and E departments that do not necessarily have the specialist skills required to give them the most effective treatment as rapidly as possible. We need to deliver that treatment while not limiting access for the great majority of patients to A and E services in their local community.

The Prime Minister speaks highly of the work that food banks do in all our communities, so will a Minister, or even the Prime Minister, explain why Tory MEPs voted against a £3 million fund for food banks? Thankfully, the Tories lost heavily by 592 votes to 61, but even so, the Prime Minister still will not allow UK food banks to apply to that fund. Why?

I am not familiar with the vote in the European Parliament or with the character of the European fund. While we absolutely welcome and applaud the work that food banks do, the hon. Gentleman will understand that with any European scheme there are issues that relate not to the desirability of the objective but to the appropriateness, on the grounds of subsidiarity, of a European scheme for the purpose.