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Topical Questions

Volume 578: debated on Thursday 3 April 2014

Since the last Question Time we have continued to see strong investment and growth in Britain’s low-carbon electricity sector. Last year, for example, renewables accounted for a record 14.8% of all electricity generated in the UK, a 28% year-on-year increase. The news that Siemens and Associated British Ports are to invest £310 million in their wind turbine factories in Hull underlines the fact that the UK is the best place in the world to invest in offshore wind. On bills, we received the competition report from Ofgem and the competition authorities and strongly support the proposed market investigation reference. On climate change, we received the second of three reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which confirmed that climate change impacts are already occurring on all continents and across the oceans. It should now be clear to everyone that unless we take strong action on climate change, the dangers to human health, food security and the global economy will become intolerable.

The Secretary of State recently spoke at a renewables conference in Edinburgh. He correctly highlighted that, with a third of the support for renewable energy going to Scotland, which has less than a tenth of the population, consumers in all parts of the UK contribute to, and benefit from, Scotland’s renewable energy potential. Does he agree that such pooling and sharing of energy potential and resources, rather than Scotland leaving the UK, is the best way of getting the most cost-effective low-carbon energy for my constituents and his?

I am delighted to say that I could not agree more. The hon. Gentleman is right that the single energy market across Great Britain is a source of benefit for all British citizens, ensuring that we have cheaper and more secure energy and enabling us to go green much more effectively. Rather than being independent, our energy systems are interdependent. We are better together.

T4. Does my right hon. Friend agree that any Government-imposed price freeze on energy companies would be counter-productive, not least because prices would be likely to rocket afterwards, and in the meantime the discouragement of investment in the sector would be deeply damaging? (903490)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I think it is even worse than he says, because a price freeze would reduce competition. Not only would the big six put up their energy bills after the price freeze ended, but there would be less competition in the years ahead.

T2. Like many people across the country, I am suffering at the moment as a result of the poor air quality. Does the Secretary of State think that the poor air quality is due mainly to sand or to emissions from power stations in other parts of Europe? What is he doing with his European Union counterparts to ensure that we get energy security in Europe, because of the threat of Russia turning off energy supplies, and to ensure air quality in Britain by having cleaner power stations? (903484)

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is suffering—as he can see, I am too. He makes a valid point, because air pollution is a serious issue. Although it is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, we take it very seriously. Most analysis shows that the air pollution that is most damaging in UK cities comes from the transport sector, but clearly we will do all we can. It is yet another good reason for going green.

T6. Communities to the east of my constituency are facing proposals for two 80-metre wind turbines. To add to their misery, proposals are in the pipeline for a further 40 wind farms across York in the council’s draft local plan. Given that we have already achieved the Government’s target capacity of 13 GW for onshore wind, including those in the planning process and those that have planning permission, will the Secretary of State agree to look again at the subsidy for onshore wind and attempt to rebalance it in favour of other renewables? (903492)

I have to tell my hon. Friend that we are favouring other renewables. Offshore wind and other renewables get much higher strike prices. With regard to the spend from our low-carbon electricity budget, under the levy control framework they get more support because they are less mature technologies. As the technologies mature, we have been reducing support, whether for solar or onshore wind, in particular. Onshore wind is playing a vital role. It is the cheapest large-scale renewable technology, and I would not want to do anything to reduce its deployment.

That last answer was very interesting because

“Onshore wind is by far the cheapest large-scale renewable energy source that can be deployed at significant scale.”

Those are not my words, nor the words of the onshore wind industry, but those of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Yet it was reported this week that the Prime Minister wants, in effect, a moratorium on onshore wind. What impact does the Secretary of State think such loose talk has on investment, and does he support the Prime Minister on this issue?

The coalition’s policy is to continue to support the deployment of onshore wind. We already have 7.2 GW operational—a very big increase under this coalition—as well as 5.2 GW that have been consented and 6.5 GW in planning. We do not expect all that to come forward, but it does suggest that investors believe that Britain is a good place for onshore wind.

I heard with interest the Secretary of State’s answer which demonstrated how European support for renewable green energy makes a substantial contribution to energy security. Is he surprised that climate change sceptics often seem also to be Eurosceptics?

There is certainly a link. I have not done a detailed analysis to see whether the correlation is 1:1, but I would not be surprised.

T3. The Secretary of State will know that almost alone among advanced economies, the UK economy is still smaller, and our industry is still producing less, than before the global financial crisis. Does he agree that strategic industries such as steelmaking are essential for growth that is more manufacturing-based and investment and export-led? While the Budget announcement of relief on the rising costs of the renewables obligation is very welcome, two years is too long to wait. Will he seriously consider the case that Tata and other energy-intensive users are making to bring this in sooner? (903486)

Tata Steel has made it clear that it welcomes the announcement in the Budget. It is important not to promise a scheme that could not necessarily be delivered by April 2015, because these schemes, like the others, take time to receive state aid clearance in Brussels.

What are the procedures for a fracking permit to be issued for deep-well shale gas drilling, and what opportunities will those living locally have to express their concerns about the process in the planning application?

The process is that applicants must first have a licence and then receive planning permission from the local planning authority. They then need authorisation from the Health and Safety Executive for the method of fracking, permits from the Environment Agency concerning the protection of water and the environment, and, finally, a consent from the Department. The key to that process is that the major decision within it is local. It is a matter for the local planning authority to decide whether the application, on its merits, is appropriate for that particular site.

T5. Almost 5,000 households in my constituency are living in fuel poverty. Apart from increasing energy bills by an average of £60 this year and cutting insulation projects by 90%, what is the Secretary of State doing on this issue? Please do not refer to the green deal, which is a complete flop. My constituents want a price freeze. Why does he prefer energy company profits over people who cannot afford to heat their homes? (903491)

This Government are absolutely determined to do more for the fuel-poor. That is why we are bringing in the first refresh of the fuel poverty strategy in over a decade and doing more and more to help the vulnerable. We do not just want a cosmetic price freeze that would chill investment; we are taking practical measures to help people this winter by reducing their bills by £50 and paying the warm home discount, with up to £135 off bills for over 2 million of the most vulnerable.

Despite much positive news in recent weeks, Ministers will be aware of the concern in the Yorkshire and Humber region following the decision in the recent funding round not to support Eggborough in converting to biomass. Will the Minister update the House on the future of biomass generation?

Biomass generation is one of the technologies that is receiving support under our final investment decision renewables round. We had some 16 applications, which include biomass generation, and we hope to be able to confirm the first investment contracts under that regime this month.

There are 4,627 households in my constituency living in fuel poverty, yet across the nation only 33 people signed up to the green deal last month, the lowest level in any month so far. Does the Minister agree that that is simply unacceptable?

Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman is confusing green deal finance, an option for everyone who does the green deal, with the actual installation of green deal measures. As I said earlier, over 160,000 people have benefited from green deal assessments, over 80% of those people are installing measures and over 600,000 people have benefited from the combination of the energy company obligation and the green deal. I would say to him, wake up and read the real figures.

One of the most valuable initiatives of the previous Labour Government was the publication in 2006 of Nicholas Stern’s review of the economics of climate change. In view of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had to say this week, would it be worthwhile to revisit the conclusions of the Stern review and to update it, so that we see the true threats, but also the opportunities, of climate change in this country?

My hon. Friend is right that commissioning the Stern review was one of the better things that the previous Government did. It very much feeds into our policy. He will be interested to know that as we go ahead to the September summit of the UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, for Heads of State to discuss climate change, the Government have commissioned a new report, working with a number of other countries across the world. It will look at the benefits and opportunities in tackling climate change and is called, “The New Climate Economy”. It will be presented to Heads of State by the former President of Mexico, President Calderon. We believe it will be very influential in getting political momentum at the highest level behind action on climate change.

The Minister will be aware that a recent London assembly report revealed that 76% of disabled Londoners are having to cut back on their heating to be able to afford the bills. What realistic steps are the Government taking to protect vulnerable groups in fuel poverty?

Very practical steps—we are now paying the warm home discount, which will reach a record 2 million people this winter. That is in addition to the other measures of winter fuel payments for pensioners and cold weather payments when necessary. We will be publishing our fuel poverty strategy soon, which will look thoroughly at the whole landscape to make sure that we are doing as much as we can.

The survival of UK Coal and Kellingley colliery in my constituency depends on all parties bringing something to the table, including UK Coal, Harworth Estates, the Pension Protection Fund, the unions and the Government. Will the Minister update the House and my very worried constituents on what the Government are doing to ensure the survival of this important industry? Will he also update the House on the progress of the talks?

On 21 March, new proposals for a managed closure of the two collieries—not survival—were submitted to the Government on behalf of a number of interested parties and supported by the existing UK Coal management team. We have been considering those proposals with interested parties and with the Commission in Brussels. I am fully aware of the urgency of the situation and will continue to keep the House informed.

The Secretary of State rightly spoke of the importance of last week’s IPCC report on climate change. Will he tell the House of any new policy he is considering in the light of that report as a way of advancing progress from the UK on these matters?

I think that the most important thing we are doing at the moment on this issue is trying to get EU-wide agreement on the energy and climate change package for 2030, including a very ambitious binding target on greenhouse gas reductions, which will be binding on the UK as well as other member states. We have been leading that, and last year I set up the green growth group to get all the ambitious states together. Following the March Council, I am very optimistic that we will get agreement on an ambitious package for Europe and the UK at least by October.

The latest quarterly figures reveal that the share of the UK’s electricity generated from renewable sources rose year on year from an eighth of our electricity supply to a sixth. Does my right hon. Friend agree that we need to go further in reducing carbon emissions from our energy supply and that, given that the largest share of that increase came from onshore wind, that should play a key part?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. We have seen a massive increase in renewable electricity under this Government and the pipeline for more renewable electricity has never been as healthy as it is today.

If we can get away from the green deal for a bit, we can talk about 1,300 jobs that are going to go in two of the last three pits in Britain—people who work in the blackness of a coal mine. I want to know the answer to a question that Ministers have been asked on three separate occasions: was there a proposal to use the money from the mineworkers’ pension fund—not the protection fund—in order to save these two pits? Was it raised with the EU? What is the answer? It is time the Government came clean.

Let me be very clear: these issues are being and have been discussed with the unions. I had discussions with the unions last week and we continue to discuss the proposals with the Commission. Any proposal for taxpayer support would have to show good value for money and it would have to be for a clearly defined period. We continue to discuss the proposals for a managed closure with all the parties involved.