House of Commons
Thursday 3 April 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 Markets (Competition)
From day one of the coalition we have worked to improve competition in energy markets. Deregulation stimulated growth in the number and size of small independent suppliers, competing with the big six we inherited, and we have taken action to encourage switching, including easier switching, faster switching and collective switching. Ofgem’s retail market reforms and market maker obligation are also improving competition in both wholesale and retail markets. However, because we believe more should be done, I asked Ofgem and the competition authorities to make an annual assessment and last week we backed its proposal for a market investigation reference.
I welcome the referral to the Competition Commission. In an article earlier this year the Secretary of State criticised Labour’s proposals to put up a ring fence between the generation and supply arms of the vertically integrated energy companies saying it would push up prices. Is he still ruling out the introduction of a ring fence?
What we need to do in these matters is to go on the evidence and recommendations of the competition experts. I would not prejudge the market reference—let us see what it says—and I am glad the hon. Lady welcomes that, but one of the things the Opposition have failed to recognise is that there may be problems in the gas market, where there is not vertical integration. The Opposition have been completely silent on this matter, and I am not surprised as I am afraid their competition policies in this area have been appalling.
Is the Secretary of State not embarrassed that despite his Government’s talk of market forces, competition, switching and incentives, it took the threat of intervention from a future Labour Prime Minister to bring about the prospect of some relief—[Laughter.] The Secretary of State laughs but it took that to bring about the prospect of some relief for hard-pressed energy consumers.
I think the hon. Lady ought to talk to the leader of her party because when he was doing my job he said, after many years of increases in gas and electricity prices that were higher and faster than they have been under this Government:
“As I have said before in the House, I am not in favour of referring these matters to the Competition Commission.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2010; Vol. 506, c. 444.]
When the Leader of the Opposition had the chance to take this measure, he did not.
May I draw the Secretary of State’s attention to the fact that the Institute for Public Policy Research has said that increasing competition in the energy market will produce efficiency savings which could mean £70 a year being knocked off the average bill? Why will he not back Labour’s plan to break the domination of the big six, require them to sell power into a pool, get new businesses into the market and cut bills for consumers and businesses?
Some Labour Members are suffering from amnesia. It was the Labour party that created the big six. It was this coalition that deregulated to enable new independent suppliers to come into the market—11 new suppliers coming in since 2010, and there has been a big increase in the number of customers for the smaller suppliers, who are taking on the big six. It is this party and this coalition Government who have been the force behind competition, while Labour Members are the friends of the big six.
It is always interesting to hear about this because when the Leader of the Opposition talks about an energy price freeze, he is not absolutely clear that it will go ahead. When he was on the “Today” programme in September 2013, he was asked what would happen if wholesale prices were to rise, and he admitted that the price freeze might not go ahead, which is not something that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) is prepared to admit. I have to say that we need to read the small print of this price freeze because it might not happen. It is a con.
The Secretary of State wants to have his cake and eat it. Does he not see that the Ofgem report and the referral to the competition authorities makes it clear that the market is just not working in the interests of consumers? It is going to take at least 18 months for them to report, and then he is going to have to implement the recommendations. Why does he not just do the decent thing and introduce a price freeze now?
We have been reforming the energy markets since day one, but we were not happy enough with the results and we wanted to do more, because of the mess we had inherited. That is why we asked the competition authorities to look at this matter. They have proposed a market investigation reference, and we are completely behind that. Neither we nor Ofgem are going to stand still during that 18 months, however. We are going to be working on trying to improve the markets even before the market investigation reference reports. We are being really active on reducing switching times, for example. We also want to push the smart meter roll-out programme, which will help people, and the Ofgem retail market review will complete and implement its proposals, including taking customers off dead tariffs. We have acted, we are acting and we will continue to act on behalf of customers. The last Government failed to do so.
Will my right hon. Friend take this opportunity to examine the role of the regulator, Ofgem, in improving and increasing competition? How is it that above-inflation—sometimes double-digit—price increases have been allowed, when they are not allowed in other sectors, such as water?
Price controls were taken off this sector in 2002, so Ofgem does not have the power to control prices. Hon. Members should remind themselves that it was the Labour party that took the price controls off. We want to ensure that the regulatory framework and the policies are correct. That is one of the reasons we are pushing the policies that we have adopted. It is also interesting to remind colleagues of the record of the Labour party and its leader. When he was doing my job in 2009, the right hon. Gentleman talked about reforming Ofgem, saying that
“the regulator needs stronger powers to deal with abuse, and the Bill will specifically act to prevent the exploitation of market power by energy generators.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2009; Vol. 501, c. 412.]
What went wrong with Labour’s plans when it was in government?
If we are to improve the energy markets, we must also increase capacity, as this Government have rightly noted. Does the Secretary of State welcome the fact that my local enterprise partnership is launching a plan for a skills centre in Berkeley, so that we will have the skills to deliver the extra capacity that we need?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to see a big investment in the skills and expertise of our young people, as well as in the existing work force. This is a great opportunity, given the massive investment taking place in our energy sector, and we are going to need all the young people that the skills centre in his constituency can deliver.
Does the Secretary of State agree that increasing competition in the energy market, as in any other market, requires the Government to remove red tape and regulation and the barriers to entry so as to increase the number of new entrants to the market?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question; that is exactly what we did in 2010. Since then, we have seen a boom in the number and size of independent suppliers taking on the big six that Labour created. As Ofgem and the competition authorities’ assessment makes clear, however, we need to see more progress. That is why I am strongly behind the market investigation reference.
There is already a cash gap between what the big six are planning to spend on infrastructure and the amount that needs to be spent. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a price freeze would serve only to discourage competition, which would reduce investment and place a greater burden on the taxpayer and the consumer?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and this point is not discussed enough. When we talk to the industry, and to investors in the UK and internationally, they tell us that one of the things they fear most from Labour’s price freeze is that it would prevent them from going ahead with the investments that they want to make. A price freeze would undermine investment; it would represent a lurch back to the ’70s. Let us look around Europe to see what has happened when price freezes have been implemented. Hungary implemented a price freeze—indeed, a price cut—recently, and investment there has plummeted. All that is needed is a grasp of standard economics, but the Labour party does not appear to have even that.
As the Secretary of State is well aware, competition in our energy markets is partly governed by EU regulations, particularly those relating to state aid. In the light of the announcement by UK Coal yesterday, will he confirm what the trade unions learned in talks with the Commission this week—namely, that the attitude to Government support to prevent the immediate closure of the two deep pits at Kellingley and Thoresby is much more flexible than his officials’ interpretation seems to suggest? Given that the amount of support required would be less than one tenth of the £700 million that the miners’ pension scheme paid to the Government last month, does he agree that he and his officials should be taking urgent action to prevent immediate job losses?
The energy Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), has been working tirelessly on this matter with our officials. I hope the Opposition will recognise the huge efforts that officials in my Department, under his leadership, have been putting into it. We have been talking to all parties, including the Commission, to make sure that interpretations are based on the law, and we will do whatever we can to help.
For competition to work best, domestic consumers have to be able to switch their suppliers easily. Residents in Kettering want to pay the lowest prices for their electricity and gas, but many constituents, especially those who are elderly or not online, find the complexity of bills overwhelming and far too confusing. What can the Secretary of State do to take the hassle out of switching supplier?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. One aim of the retail market review put forward by Ofgem was to reduce the complexity and confusion in the amount of tariffs, which many people thought was a barrier to competition and switching—the previous Government refused to do this. But I do not think we can rest there, and one reason I have been so supportive of things such as collective switching and engaging with the third sector—Age Concern, Citizens Advice and National Energy Action—to develop the big energy saving network is to ensure that we are reaching out to those people who find switching, even when the tariffs are more simplified, a difficult process and a hassle. We are doing everything we can to make sure that the benefits of switching and competition can be enjoyed by all.
Yes, have your conversation with the man who is dealing with coal, because this is very important. The Secretary of State referred to lurching back to the ’70s, but this is about the fact that we are reaching the end of an era. There will be one pit left if this decision goes through and it is all about some money. An idea has been put forward from those on the Labour Front Bench regarding the pension fund, but another solution could also be used. Why is it that the oil companies are being encouraged to take tax breaks in order to exploit those narrow seams of oil which are uneconomic? We have more than 100 million tonnes of coal beneath our soil, so surely he could use the same sort of system, with the EU and anybody else, to stop the demise and the closure of the last three remaining pits.
We are working tirelessly on this. We have to make sure that we get a solution that all parties can sign up to, that provides value for money and that will actually work. We are trying our best, but the hon. Gentleman should know that there are genuine economic and geological issues, and other difficulties, involved. My right hon. Friend the energy Minister is trying to resolve this, working with everybody involved.
We recognise the competitiveness concerns of electricity-intensive industries, which is why the recent Budget included new compensation for the costs of the renewables obligation and feed-in tariffs, and capped the carbon price support mechanism. We are also providing compensation for the costs of the European Union emissions trading scheme, and to date we have paid out £31 million to 53 companies.
Following the £7 billion package of support for the energy-intensive industries, EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said that it will
“help to level the playing field these companies need to compete effectively with others around the globe, and keep production here in the UK.”
What estimate has my right hon. Friend made of the potential for reshoring in the chemicals sector, now that conditions are so much more attractive to investors?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her question. By 2018-19, British business will have saved some £4 billion from the measures we have put in place. We have cut green taxes for households and now we are cutting green taxes for business. That should be a further incentive for the chemical industry not only to grow in this country, but to bring further investment back to the UK.
Will the Minister take this opportunity to guarantee to energy-intensive industries that the compensation for the carbon floor tax that this Government introduced will be backdated to the date from which the Government have promised compensation, which is April 2013?
Carbon price floor compensation is something that we are still pursuing with the Commission in Brussels. I am hopeful that that will be agreed soon. The state aid clearance procedures are lengthy in these cases. Obviously, we are continuing to press the case for backdating.
The carbon price floor tax introduced by this Government makes it four times harder for UK industry to compete with EU competitors. How many companies have received compensation for the carbon price floor tax? Is it more than one or fewer than one?
We have introduced compensation for the EU emissions trading system, as I have said. We have already paid out compensation to more than 50 companies in the steel, paper and chemical industries. Some of the major industries concerned have welcomed the further proposals that the Chancellor announced in the Budget, including Tata Steel, which said that the measures that were announced in the Budget
“will make an important difference to Tata Steel in the UK.”
Energy Bills (Park Homes)
Unlike previous schemes, park homes are now eligible for the energy company obligation, and some park homes have already begun to benefit from support. Additionally, we have made it possible, since February this year, to create an energy performance certificate—an EPC—for a park home, and this lifts a key barrier to accessing green deal finance for park homes.
I thank the Minister for his reply, and it is heartening to hear that some progress has been made after the very many questions that I have asked on the subject. I know that he will agree that we are talking about some very vulnerable people who are terribly exposed to energy prices. There is an imperative to get better insulation. How widespread is the publicity about this help, and has he found a way around the joint metering for electricity and water and the subsequent recharging, which often seems to add even more to their energy pricing?
The hon. Lady raises a valid point. Frankly, successive Governments have failed to act sufficiently for park home residents. Although the measures that we have taken move the agenda on, we accept that there is more to do, and we want to do more to help park home residents. Providing better information and support is part of that strategy, and we are making more information available to residents. We are looking to see what further steps we can take to help to insulate the homes of park home residents.
One problem with energy in many park homes is that the supply is in the name of the operator of the site, who then sells on the energy to the tenants. One quirk of that is that under the warm home discount the name of the tenant must be on the bill, and it is not in these cases, so although these tenants would otherwise qualify, they do not in fact get the warm home discount. Will the Minister look at that and see whether there is a way around that anomaly?
I fully accept the hon. Gentleman’s point. That has made it difficult for successive Governments to reach out and act effectively to help park home residents. We are determined to try to crack this, and we are looking carefully at exactly the point he makes.
14. What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. (903474)
There are three main actions we are taking to help households with energy bills, including direct financial help, improving competition and energy efficiency. With direct financial help, the coalition introduced the warm home discount, which will take £140 off the energy bills of over 2 million of the poorest households this year. We permanently trebled cold weather payments, and we continue to spend over £2 billion a year on winter fuel payments. Last December, we reviewed Government policy costs, to take an average of £50 a year off a household’s bill.
Today, 3.4 million people pay their energy bills with their credit cards. Although some will do that to manage their finances efficiently, half report that they are doing it because of the rising costs of energy. Is it not about time we had a price freeze?
A bit of a non-sequitur there! We have made it very clear that we are doing everything we can to help the people on the lowest incomes, and we shall shortly be publishing our fuel poverty strategy, the first in more than a decade. It is interesting to note that when we considered how fuel poverty was measured under the previous Government, we found it was very inaccurate. We have therefore improved it so we can get to the people who are really struggling. The hon. Gentleman knows in his heart of hearts that the price freeze is a complete con. It will not help consumers, but it will undermine competition and prices will end up going up.
The over-75s are the most likely to live in the least energy-efficient homes and are most vulnerable to cold weather, yet they are the least likely to switch energy suppliers so they often pay more than they need to. Will the Secretary of State back Labour’s call for all over-75s to be put on to the lowest possible tariff?
The Secretary of State mentioned going back to the 1970s. I hope he has seen the Office for National Statistics figures published yesterday on hourly pay rates, which showed that on average they are down 7.6%, and twice as much in construction. Why can the 36,000 households in my constituency that would benefit from a price freeze not enjoy the £120 they would have if he implemented such a freeze?
Since the Tories privatised the energy companies, things have got worse, with more than 6 million households now behind on their bills. When will the Government stop tweaking prices in the energy sector and take on the energy giants that are making billions at the expense of ordinary people in this country?
The hon. Gentleman really is suffering from amnesia. There was a 13-year period in which Labour could have done something about that and failed. In fact, Labour took price controls off. The leader of the hon. Gentleman’s party refused to refer the energy markets to the Competition Commission; this Government have done that.
Some of the highest fuel bills and worst fuel poverty are faced by people in rural areas who are off the gas grid and by the small but even more vulnerable group of people who do not even have mains electricity. Is my right hon. Friend going to introduce some targeted measures to help these vulnerable groups?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that many households that are off the gas grid and the small number that are off the electricity grid suffer high energy bills. Interestingly, the new analysis we have done for our fuel poverty strategy shows much more clearly than the measures used under the previous policy that that is a key group of people we need to help. That is what we will be doing very soon when we produce our draft fuel poverty strategy, in which he will see a number of measures.
Further to the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), when will off-grid rural residents get a fair share of energy company obligation spending? Will the Secretary of State ensure that rule changes do not create another loophole by focusing on off-grid customers in general rather than off-grid rural customers in particular?
The private rented sector has the highest proportion of the most energy-inefficient homes, which leads to high energy bills and fuel poverty. Does the Secretary of State agree that we need a robust and enforceable minimum standard for all such homes, and will he explain the failure of the Government’s proposal to specify that that minimum standard should be at least an energy performance certificate band E for all homes?
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that question. She will know that this Government brought in a power in the Energy Act 2011 that would allow us to introduce legislation and regulations for the private rented sector. We plan to consult on that soon and take the sort of measures I think she will support.
The most sustainable way to cut bills is to improve the energy efficiency of our homes. On 16 January the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), told the House:
“we have extended the ECO out to 2017 and increased the number of people that it will help.”—[Official Report, 16 January 2014; Vol. 573, c. 987.]
Will the Secretary of State explain why the impact assessment published by his Department on 5 March says that 440,000 fewer households will get help with energy efficiency following the changes to the ECO?
The Government formally reviewed Ofgem’s role in 2011. Since that review, we have strengthened its powers to investigate and penalise market manipulation, and Ofgem has taken firm action to improve competition, including reforms of the retail and wholesale markets. Last week it proposed referring the energy markets to the competition authorities—the first ever such reference.
Finally, one might say, Ofgem has referred the six big energy companies to the Competition and Markets Authority. If the Minister reads the small print in Ofgem’s statement, however, he will find that it does not cover power generation. Is that not another failure by Ofgem to deal with the problem properly? It is not possible to deal with the issue if power generation is left out. Is it not time that Ofgem had the plug pulled on it and we had a real regulator with teeth?
I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is not right about that. This reference is of the energy market; it includes power generation. Simply winding up Ofgem would mean that another regulator had to be set up in its place. Labour set up Ofgem, and now they want to abolish it, but they would have to set up another regulator. They seem to have a quango fetish.
Does the Minister of State agree with the consumer report published by Which? at the end of last year which said that consumers had been put out by £4 billion a year since 2010? If he does agree with that report, does he think it is consistent with the regulator having done a good job, as he has just assured the House it has done?
Last December the Secretary of State declared that Ofgem was fit for purpose. Is not last week’s reference to the CMA evidence that it is not fit for purpose and needs to be scrapped?
It is Ofgem that made the reference, so I do not follow the hon. Lady’s logic. We have strengthened the powers of the regulator, and for the first time ever, the regulator has referred the energy markets to the competition authorities. That is evidence of a strong regulator doing its job.
For the security of electricity supply, we are taking short, medium and long-term actions. In the short term, National Grid and Ofgem are implementing a reserve of power stations—stations that would otherwise be mothballed or closed—to be used if necessary, and we are actively supporting new proposals for interconnectors with Europe. In the medium term, we have finalised our plan for a capacity market, and plan to run the first auction for capacity later this year. In the long term, we have introduced our electricity market reform which is leading to the current boom in low-carbon energy investment.
My right hon. Friend will know that under the previous Government, the number of energy suppliers halved, which did nothing to promote energy security. Will he set out the steps that this Government are taking to ensure that new entrants come into the marketplace to promote competition and energy security?
My hon. Friend is right. The generating market, to which not enough attention is paid, is becoming more competitive. The amount of electricity traded on the day ahead market has increased from 5% to more than 50%, which has really improved competition, and Ofgem’s measures to create more liquidity in the forward market, which take effect next week, will enable the entry for which he asks.
Given the public backlash throughout the country against onshore wind farms, will the Secretary of State update me on future investment for tidal and wave energy, which is a much less intrusive form of renewable energy that can provide a constant energy supply that would help to deal with security in the future?
My hon. Friend and I may disagree about onshore wind, as I have visited many popular sites from which local communities see real benefits, but I agree that tidal and wave power has a big future. The Government, and especially the Minister for climate change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), have been active by allocating £20 million for tidal arrays and ensuring that the EU provides funding for other projects. Generous support has also been given through the renewables obligation certificate and contract for difference systems.
Given the almost complete lack of movement on investment for all the permissioned sites for gas-fired power stations, the Department’s estimates of spiralling costs for the capacity market mechanism, the state aid difficulties with proposals for that mechanism and the mothballing of existing power stations, will the Secretary of State review the case for a strategic reserve mechanism, which his Department suggested in 2011 would be a far less expensive and more secure method of supplying future capacity?
The hon. Gentleman is very knowledgeable about such matters, but our plans for the capacity market are on schedule, so the fears that he voices are not there. He talks about the benefits of a strategic reserve, which we debated during the passage of the Bill that became the Energy Act 2013, but what National Grid and Ofgem are doing in the short term has similarities with a strategic reserve, yet avoids the disadvantage of creating perverse incentives for the wider energy market.
Does the Secretary of State agree that security of supply will not be enhanced by the closure of two of the last three deep mines, Kellingley and Thoresby, and open-cast mines? Bearing in mind the fact that the Government have taken £4.5 billion from the mineworkers’ pension scheme, including £700 million this year, surely it is not beyond their imagination to use the miners’ own money to support what is left of the industry.
Ogfem tells us in its most recent energy capacity report that supply will fall by about 5% between 2012 and 2016, leaving an estimated capacity margin of between 2% and 4% in 2016. Will the Secretary of State confirm that contingency planning is allowing for that and that a cold winter will not cause the industry to have to close shifts?
I can confirm that. Obviously, we have been preparing for that for some time and working with the industry, National Grid and Ofgem. As I said, we have short-term plans with National Grid to have a reserve of power plants, as well as our longer-term reforms regarding the capacity market, so I can confirm that the lights will stay on.
Under this Government, just one new gas-fired power station is being commissioned and three power stations have been mothballed. Last week, National Grid warned that any delays to the planned capacity mechanism auction in December could lead to brown-outs throughout the UK. The Secretary of State indicated earlier that the plans are on track, but will he clearly confirm once and for all that there will be no delays to the auction later this year?
We are on track. We are working both within the Department and across Government. We saw the Chancellor of the Exchequer confirm in the Budget that all the remaining issues are being taken forward in secondary legislation. The right hon. Lady will know that there is a state aid case at the Commission. We do not control the Commission—no Government ever do—but our communications and partnership working with the Commission have been very fruitful.
My understanding is that the auction can be held before that, but let me ask another question. Even if capacity auctions are not delayed, they will not be operational until 2018-19, which is why we need the supplemental balancing reserve in time for the capacity crunch this winter and the next. The timetable for that has already slipped, meaning that some plant cannot be brought out of mothballing in time for this winter. Does the Secretary of State believe that the supplemental balancing reserve is still required, and if it is, when will it be operational?
As the right hon. Lady will know, Ofgem has to consult on this. It is expected to complete and announce its plans in May. If, as I expect, Ofgem believes that we should continue for this winter with a supplemental balancing reserve, the working assumption is that the auction would follow fast behind that.
Over 600,000 homes have so far received energy-efficiency improvements as a result of the coalition’s energy company obligation and green deal initiatives. Green deal assessments are stimulating interest. There had been more than 160,000 green deal assessments by the end of February, and yesterday we announced an additional £88 million from the Government to drive a street-by-street roll-out of the green deal under the communities scheme. We expect the green deal market to continue to expand during 2014.
My constituent, Mr Davis, has late onset spina bifida. He needs a wide range of electrical equipment just to live his daily life, including an electric bed and wheelchair, and machines to keep his legs from swelling. Because Mr Davis has an occupational pension and is not in receipt of means-tested benefit, he cannot get any of EDF’s energy-efficient schemes or special tariffs. As a result, he pays £250 a month for electricity. After this week’s Work and Pensions Committee report criticising the Government for targeting disabled people, what can the Minister do to help Mr Davis?
I am very concerned about the point that the hon. Lady raises about her constituent. Obviously, there are some specifics involved—for example, how much his occupational pension is. Clearly, she is concerned and I would be happy to look at the matter in more detail if she would like to meet me.
The Minister keeps making announcements about how well the green deal is going, but it does not seem to be going very fast. No one today has mentioned smart metering. Many of us thought the way to make our constituents more conscious of how much they are spending on energy and reducing it would be through smart metering. How is smart metering rolling out now?
We have one of the most ambitious smart metering programmes in Europe, which we will roll out over this decade. The hon. Gentleman is right—the increasing deployment of smart meters will certainly work well with the green deal. If he talks to some of the entrepreneurs and the new companies coming into the market, which are backing the green deal and getting behind it, he will get a very encouraging picture indeed. There is a huge amount of innovation happening that we should all be proud of.
The sector with the most energy-inefficient homes is without doubt the private rented sector, with thousands of people living in cold, inadequate homes that are expensive to heat. The hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) referenced the fact that the Energy Act 2011 placed a duty on the Secretary of State to introduce a minimum standard for this sector from April 2018 at the latest. The Secretary of State was worryingly equivocal in his answer. Will the Minister therefore give a cast-iron promise today that this duty will be fulfilled, without loopholes and with the minimum standard at energy performance certificate rating E by 2018?
We would not have brought forward that measure in the Bill had we not intended to fulfil it. This is a coalition commitment, which we are proud of. We will make sure that it is implemented properly and we will consult appropriately. We are proud of that Bill and we are going to implement it.
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?
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.
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?
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.
Business of the House
The business for next week is as follows:
Monday 7 April—General debate on justice and home affairs.
Tuesday 8 April—Consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Wednesday 9 April—Continuation of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
Thursday 10 April—Statement on the publication of the 13th report from the Public Administration Select Committee entitled “Caught red-handed: Why we can’t count on Police Recorded Crime statistics”, followed by matters to be raised before the forthcoming Adjournment. The Select Committee statement and the subject for debate were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.
Friday 11 April—The House will not be sitting.
The provisional business for the week commencing 28 April will include:
Monday 28 April—Second Reading of the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Bill.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 10 April will be:
Thursday 10 April—Debate on police response to domestic violence.
I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I know that this Government aspire to shrink the state to pre-war levels and take us back to Victorian times, but do we really have to endure the return of London smogs? The chief medical officer has recognised air pollution as one of the top 10 health risk factors in the country. We all know there is little we can do about sand from the Sahara, but will the Leader of the House tell us what steps the Government will take to tackle the UK’s contribution to this problem?
As the much delayed and barely anticipated Queen’s Speech begins to loom closer, may I ask the Leader of the House about reports that the Government failed to consult the Queen about her most convenient date for the state opening and plumped for 3 June, despite a clash with the Buckingham palace garden party? One would think that with all the spare time this zombie Government have at their disposal, they would at least have been able to put it off for a day, but I have found the reason for their inflexibility—4 June is Eton founders day, so half the Cabinet would be unavailable. Given that the Government are so desperate for business that they have had to announce a general debate on Monday, will the Leader of the House confirm what we all know and admit that Prorogation will come sooner rather than later?
Yesterday we learned that the Prime Minister believes that he meets a better class of engaged and talkative shopper at Waitrose. As someone who holds an advice surgery in Asda, may I tell the Prime Minister that his snobbery is out of touch and misplaced?
I do not know whether the Saharan dust cloud is responsible for clogging up the machinery of government, but this week has been remarkable for the sheer scale of the incompetence emerging after this Government’s four years in charge. On Monday, we learned that the Government have got only 3,780 people into their flagship universal credit scheme, which was sold as a way of transforming the lives of people on benefits. That is 0.3% of the 1 million people the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions was aiming for by now. So far, £140 million of public money has been written off, each user of the scheme has cost taxpayers an incredible £160,000 and £34 million has been wasted on IT systems that do not work. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State to come to the House and explain why his Department is in complete and utter chaos, and why he is letting down vulnerable people as a consequence?
The Work and Pensions Committee published a report on Wednesday, which reveals that the bedroom tax is causing disabled people
“severe financial hardship and distress”.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the right hon. Member for Wirral West (Esther McVey), the Minister responsible for the tax, claimed that it was saving money, but she has now been forced to admit that it is not saving anything.
The Liberal Democrat president, the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), then issued a cynically choreographed announcement that the Liberal Democrats no longer support the bedroom tax. That is odd because, as the bedroom tax has made its way through this House, he has behaved like a true Liberal Democrat: as Liberal Democrat president, he has voted for it; he has abstained on it; and he has voted against it. Will the Leader of the House organise a debate and a vote in this House in Government time so that we can see what on earth the Liberal Democrat president and his party are going to do next?
The National Audit Office delivered a damning verdict this week on the Royal Mail fire sale, which has left the taxpayer short-changed by hundreds of millions of pounds and given a whole new meaning to the phrase “Cable theft”. It is so indefensible that one Conservative MP has described it has described it as a “debacle”, “unethical” and “immoral”. Despite the Prime Minister’s feeble efforts to defend the indefensible yesterday, if someone takes something worth £3.4 billion from us and sells it for £2 billion, it is fairly obvious that we are not getting a good deal.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister was unable to say whether a gentleman’s agreement was reached with the so-called long-term investors, who actually cashed in their shares within weeks and made millions. Since the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has refused to answer, will the Leader of the House now tell us who the 16 priority investors selected by the Government are, whether any of them are Tory donors, and whether the Government will publish any correspondence? The country has a right to know.
With all the incompetence this week, it seems appropriate that we had April fool’s day. Some of the fake articles almost fooled me. I almost believed that Piers Morgan was the new press adviser to the Liberal Democrats, and I was taken in by the idea that Alex Salmond would want his face on a new Scottish pound coin; but I could not believe that the Chancellor’s best man made £36 million from the Royal Mail fire sale until I found out that it is actually true. How is that for a mate’s rate?
I am grateful to the shadow Leader of the House for her response to the business statement.
The hon. Lady accuses us of shrinking the state. What we are doing is trying to live within our means, which is a perfectly reasonable proposition. As it happens, we are taking Government spending back to about its level in 2004; it is nothing like as apocalyptic as she would have us believe. In truth, having inherited the largest deficit of the G8, it is necessary. It is part of what our long-term economic plan will achieve: it will reduce the deficit and, as a consequence, we will be able to have stronger economic growth to create more jobs and live within our means, including by capping the welfare budget.
I note that, having voted for the welfare cap, all we hear—once again—from Labour Members is that they do not believe in it, that they would vote against it and that they are against the measures within it. Frankly, they also now appear to be against universal credit, which will have the most positive characteristics of being able to support those people whose needs are greatest and to provide additional resources, not least to those on low incomes with children. It is being delivered carefully. We are seeing where the issues lie and dealing with them.
For the shadow Leader of the House to castigate the Department for Work and Pensions again this week is astonishing, when one considers that it is presiding over the most far-reaching and positive pension reforms that anybody here has seen in their lifetime, and that it has presided over an increase in employment of 1.3 million people and an increase in private sector employment of 1.7 million people since the election.
The shadow Leader of the House asked about the reports on the spare room subsidy over the past week. Interestingly, much of the analysis showed flaws and inaccuracies in the BBC data. Frankly, if the Government had published the data behind the BBC’s announcement and had tried to make arguments on that basis, we would have been castigated. It would be best if it went back and did its numbers again.
The shadow Leader of the House asked about the Queen’s Speech and the date of Prorogation. As is customary for all Governments, the date of the Queen’s Speech is announced following full consultation with the palace. The date of Prorogation will be announced in due course and will be subject to the progress of business.
On shops, the Prime Minister, like all of us, visits various retailers in his constituency. There was a Waitrose in my constituency, but it got shuffled out of it in the boundary changes before the last election. I tend to get accosted in all the shops I visit, wherever I go, in a very positive fashion.
I visit the Tesco in my constituency at Bar Hill. When I visited Tesco as a new Member of Parliament—happily this does not happen these days—I was accosted by a shopper on the grounds that she recognised me. However, she thought that she recognised me as the manager because I was the only person there in a suit, and that I would therefore know where she could find her washing powder. Hey ho, things have got better.
On the issue of smog, we are hardly returning to Victorian times. Crikey, I remember being a boy in the east end and not being able to see the pavement as I walked to school because of the smog in the 1960s. It was, of course, a Conservative Government who introduced the Clean Air Acts to clear up that pollution. The UK meets the EU limits in this regard. However, as we have seen this week, a combination of events can still result in high levels of air pollution. We are investing heavily in measures to reduce emissions, in particular from transport. More than £2 billion of measures have been announced since 2011. Johnson Matthey, which is based next to my constituency and at which many of my constituents work, produces some of the leading catalytic converters. We should be proud of this country’s achievements in producing technology that enables us to reduce emissions. It is important that we achieve that.
The shadow Leader of the House asked about the Royal Mail sale. I am afraid that she was wrong again. The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills responded on Tuesday to the shadow Secretary of State. She has not caught up with that reply to his questions. I will repeat what the Secretary of State said yesterday in response to the question about a gentleman’s agreement, for her benefit and for the benefit of the House:
“More than 500 would-be investors in Royal Mail were approached in the lead-up to the sale. A number of long-term institutional investors who knew the company gave us the confidence to press ahead”
with the initial public offering
“and were some of the larger investors on day one. This is standard practice for any flotation. We did not seek to lock them in as they would have paid less for a stock they could not trade. And there were no meetings between”
Ministers or officials and these investors. He said:
“There was no agreement, gentleman’s or otherwise.”
I note that the hon. Lady has not asked for a debate on some of the most positive things that have happened this week. The Opposition voted against the Finance Bill, but I thought that they might have had the good grace to acknowledge that one of the consequences of this Government’s policies is that the income tax-free personal allowance is going up to £10,000. That will take another 200,000 people out of paying tax altogether, and be worth £705 to some people. Fuel duty is now frozen again, and is 20p per litre lower than it would have been under the previous Labour Government’s escalator plans. This weekend sees the introduction of the employment allowance, which is £2,000 off the cost of national insurance for nearly 1.5 million employers across the country. That will further stimulate the business of this country to create the jobs that give people the greatest confidence and security for the future.
Order. As usual, a large number of right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. The House will know that my almost unfailing practice is to seek to accommodate everybody and call every Member at Business questions, but I remind the House that there are two Government statements to follow, a Select Committee statement and then two debates under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee. There is therefore a premium on brevity from Back and Front Benchers alike, and dependent on that we might, or might not, be able on this occasion to accommodate everybody. We will be led, I hope, with style and aplomb by Mrs Cheryl Gillan.
The Leader of the House carefully stopped his business announcement on 28 April with the Second Reading of the hybrid Bill on High Speed 2. I am sure that he and the usual channels would not want to short-change Members of this House or our constituents, so I am asking for a second day’s debate on 29 April. So many people’s lives, homes and livelihoods are affected, so much environment is damaged and there is such a high risk with this project, that the House deserves two days’ debate on Second Reading of this Bill.
The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the report from the university of Bristol about the high level of mortality among people with learning disabilities. Is he aware of the disappointment of those who attended the NHS conference on Friday about the lack of substance and clarity over funding? May we have that issue clarified, and have the kind of debate that has already happened in another place?
If I may, I will ask my hon. Friends at the Department of Health to respond to the right hon. Gentleman about that, but from my recollection of when I was at that Department, our approach was to protect resources available for learning disabilities through local authorities. That made a big difference at a time when local authorities were otherwise having to make considerable reductions in spending.
My right hon. Friend is aware that Manston airport in my constituency is threatened with closure after fewer than four months of a promised two years under its present ownership. Manston is a planned search and rescue facility, and a major diversion field: only this week, a jet destined for Heathrow and running short of fuel had to be diverted to Manston. I am still hopeful that with good will it may be possible to secure a buyer prepared to keep the airport open, and if Manston does close I shall wish to raise the background to the matter in an Adjournment debate. In the meantime, will my right hon. Friend seek to ensure that the Government gives consideration to how the predatory disposal of national assets with security implications might be averted?
I am sure the House will completely understand and indeed endorse my hon. Friend’s view of the importance of regional airports—in this instance Manston—in his constituency and in other neighbouring constituencies across Kent, and Thanet in particular. As he knows, my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport are well aware of the issue, and in addition to what he said about the desirability of a debate in the House, I know that they will want to keep in touch with him and with the owners and operators out of Manston airport, recognising all the while that it is a commercial matter, but that the importance they attach to regional airports is undiminished.
My constituent, Miss Perry, of Gracehill in Ballymena, recently received her house insurance premium, which is double what it was last year, and she was told by the insurance company that that is a direct result of the floods that affected England. Although those floods were terrible and awful, and thank God they did not affect Northern Ireland to the same extent, is it appropriate that premiums should be increased by that amount in Northern Ireland, and may we have a debate on the matter?
The hon. Gentleman will understand that by its nature insurance is a pool of risk. The insurer to whom one goes, depending on the parameters of the insurance offer, will sometimes pool risk across very large populations and very big geographical areas. The Government do not interfere with the commercial operation of insurance markets, but the Water Bill, which has just completed its consideration in the House of Lords, will ensure that people can continue to have access to flood insurance. Flood Re, as a reinsurance mechanism to back that up, is very important, but it does not in itself reduce insurance overall. The £10 addition across all insurance premiums is necessary to meet the costs of Flood Re.
You very kindly granted me a recent debate in Westminster Hall, Mr Speaker, on the tragic death of my late constituent, Eystna Blunnie, and her unborn baby Rose, who were brutally beaten and killed by her ex-partner. This terrible crime left the whole of Harlow in shock. Since then, a domestic homicide review has been carried out and is due to be published soon. It will be anonymised, despite the parents’ wish for their daughter and her child to be named. May we have a statement, and will my right hon. Friend speak urgently to the Home Secretary and the Justice Secretary on this issue?
I am aware of the tragic murder of Eystna Blunnie just days before she was due to give birth to her baby girl Rose in 2012. On behalf of the House, and for myself, I would like to take the opportunity, through my hon. Friend, to offer our condolences to Eystna’s family on their loss.
My hon. Friend will know that in April 2011 the Government placed domestic homicide reviews on a statutory footing, so that every local report into a domestic homicide is reviewed and quality assured by a panel of independent and Home Office experts. Each review results in a tailored action plan delivered by the area in question to ensure that we learn and act on the lessons of individual tragedies. I understand that a domestic homicide review of this case is under way and will be published by the community safety partnership in coming months. For reasons of data protection, such reviews are anonymised to protect the identity of all involved, including the victims and their families. I will, as my hon. Friend requests, raise the issues he has raised with my right hon. Friends at the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice.
Last week, 45 members of staff at Hull’s office of the official receiver were told, after a three-week review, that the office was to close, and that all the jobs would be moved to Leeds in October. That will mean a loss to the economy in Hull of about £1 million, on top of the other cuts we have suffered recently. Hull has been trying very hard to regenerate the city. May we have a debate on why, when we are taking two steps forward, the coalition Government seem to be taking us one step back?
The hon. Lady often comes to the House to offer good news from Hull, the city of culture and renewable energy investment, so I am sorry that on this occasion she feels that there is bad news. I do not know the circumstances in detail. I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends to look at the issue she raises and to respond to her, but she will understand that, when we are realising efficiencies in resources, there will sometimes be necessary and inevitable changes in public services.
The Leader of the House, as a former Secretary of State for Health, will be aware of the problems facing minor injuries units. Minehead community hospital in my constituency is having problems in recruiting and in improving ambulance response times. Nearly 300 people, who are worried about the future of Minehead’s minor injuries unit, attended a public meeting this week. May we have a statement on all Somerset hospitals that are suffering from the same problem? There seems to be a funding issue at the very highest level.
The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter) is on the Front Bench and will have heard what my hon. Friend has said. I completely understand. One of the objectives in devolving commissioning responsibilities to the local level, in my hon. Friend’s area and others across the country, is to allow a practical appreciation of the benefit of recruitment and retention of minor injuries units, because such units reduce demand on accident and emergency units and ambulance services. I will, of course, ask my hon. Friends to reply specifically on the issues in Somerset.
I do not know whether the Leader of the House has had an opportunity this week to read a report from StreetGames about the lack of physical activity among young people in particular. It precedes a report from the All-Party Commission on Physical Activity, which will be published next week and presented to the Prime Minister. Will the Leader of the House have a chance to talk to his colleagues in other Departments to establish how the Government can best respond to what is, I am afraid, a crisis?
I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this issue. I confess that I have not read the whole report, but I did see the press reports, which I found very interesting. I know, because of my former responsibilities, that the Department for Communities and Local Government, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education, the Department of Health and others have been working together to try to stimulate physical activity. I was specifically involved in the Department of Health’s support for the Change4Life sports clubs in secondary schools, which began under the last Government but has been extended to primary schools under this one. That should give young people the opportunity to become involved in games through their schools, but of course it is also vital for us to give them further opportunities by supporting local community clubs.
I welcome the Government’s success so far in creating extra private sector jobs which have increased the number of people in employment to 30 million. I also salute the Chancellor’s commitment to full employment. May we have a debate about the need for increased productivity to tackle both our need to export more and the cost of living? Productivity is the key, as well as full employment.
My hon. Friend is, of course, right. One of the most interesting aspects of recent years is that, notwithstanding assertions—not least by the Labour party—that the flexible labour markets that are so important to our economic prosperity would simply enable employers to lay people off, it is because we have flexible labour markets that employers have felt confident enough to take people on. What we need to do now is build productivity in those markets, and that depends on business investment. The Office for Budget Responsibility’s report forecasts strong prospects for business investment, and I believe that the doubling of the investment allowance that was announced in the Budget will enable it to be a strong element of our future economic prosperity.
Yesterday, following a resolution passed by its city council, Sheffield became the first city in the United Kingdom to support calls for the international recognition of Somaliland. Since 1991, the people of Somaliland have made great progress in establishing a stable country with a freely elected Parliament and an independent judiciary. May we have a debate on how the British Government can do more to use their influence in the international community in order to secure recognition of Somaliland?
I am, of course, aware of the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised. He may have an opportunity to raise it with Ministers during Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions next Tuesday, and also with other Members who may be interested in Somaliland and Somalia, and, in particular, may welcome the progress that Somaliland has made in recent years.
May we have a debate on how councils spend taxpayers’ money? Having cut its care budget by £10 million, Labour-led Telford and Wrekin council has just squandered £1.2 million on a failed supermarket bid. Does the Leader of the House agree that there may be a case for an investigation by local district auditors of this squandering of taxpayers’ money?
It is always important for auditors to ensure that councils get value for taxpayers’ money when they spend it. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s desire to see councils focus on how they can maintain the services that local people need most, and care services are often pre-eminent in that regard. Our better care fund, which begins in the current financial year, will provide £3.8 billion for care through local authorities, but, like the rest of us, those authorities must also find ways in which to save money. The Department for Communities and Local Government has published “50 ways to save”, which explains how responsible authorities can save money while also prioritising front-line services.
The Post Office card account is greatly valued by its users on benefits, particularly pensioners, and it is a vital support to the network of post offices across the country, but once again it seems to be under threat. Yesterday the Prime Minister seemed a little nonplussed when asked about this by my hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey), although he promised to look carefully at what she had said. May we have a statement so that pensioners and Post Office workers, sub-postmasters and sub-postmistresses can be reassured about the long-term future of the Post Office card?
At one of the public meetings I regularly hold in my constituency, and indeed again at last night’s Mill Hill Preservation Society meeting, I was asked about step-free access at Mill Hill Broadway, a station on the Thameslink line that is a direct connection to London and is used by many of my elderly and disabled constituents. May we have a Minister come to the Dispatch Box to explain how the Government are ensuring that more and more train stations across the country are becoming step-free?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I know that many Members will rightly share his feeling that we should enable people who have difficulties with access and steps to have step-free access to stations. It is a major task, but happily the scale of Network Rail’s future investment programme is going to enable significant improvements to be made. If he has particular stations in his constituency in mind, I will get in touch with him and make sure my hon. Friends at the Department for Transport respond in relation to Network Rail’s plans.
The Treasury has creamed off in excess of £5 billion from the coal industry pension schemes. May we have a debate to discuss how the Government can best invest the miners’ own money and the continuation of the British coal industry—and perhaps the development and expansion of it as well?
I know the hon. Gentleman was in his place during Energy and Climate Change questions just now when these issues properly were raised. I cannot endorse the point he makes. It is important for people to be aware of the fact that the pension fund for any set of employees is designed to give them the maximum financial security in their old age. It is not intended necessarily to be an investment to be used simply in relation to their existing employment. Considerable risks are associated with that. None the less, these are matters for the trustees of any individual pension fund, but as he has raised these issues I will raise them once again with my hon. Friends at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, who are in continuing discussions with the trade unions and the businesses concerned.
As we heard yesterday, Visteon pensioners have announced that they and Ford have agreed in principle a multi-million pound deal to settle claims for pension losses suffered by former employees. Since my election, I, the Visteon pensioners and the all-party group on Visteon pensioners in their support—and with your co-operation, Mr Speaker, which I am grateful for—have been fighting for justice. Will my right hon. Friend therefore consider holding a debate that will enable interested Members to celebrate this great result, thank Ford for finally doing the right thing and, of course, congratulate Visteon pensioners on their dogged determination and, hopefully, delivering the justice they so rightly deserve?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question, and it allows us further to reinforce the point my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made about paying tribute to those who have campaigned and welcoming what has been offered now by Ford. I particularly pay tribute to my hon. Friend for leading the debate on 12 December last year on these issues. It is something of a novelty to be invited to have a debate not in order to ask for something, but to celebrate that something that has been asked for has been achieved. It leads us into new and happier territory for debates in this House. I cannot immediately promise that, but it is an engaging thought.
May we have a debate on the Royal Mail sell-off? Notwithstanding the Leader of the House’s earlier remarks, the National Audit Office has disclosed that 12 priority investors sold their shares within weeks for a fast buck. If that is true, we need to know the names of the investors and the full details of the transactions, so that we can work out whether the taxpayer has been ripped off.
I answered a question from the shadow Leader of the House on that subject earlier. So far as a debate is concerned, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills answered questions fully and effectively—rather more effectively than the shadow Secretary of State—when he made a statement on the matter earlier this week.
The population of the United Kingdom is 62.3 million. If it is not to rise to 70 million, net migration will have to be cut to 40,000 a year. The coalition Government have successfully cut non-EU immigration from 217,000 a year to 140,000, but Migration Watch has predicted this week that 100,000 people will come to our shores annually from the European Union. That means that our population will be heading towards 70 million-plus, and that the Conservatives’ commitment to cut immigration to tens of thousands will not be met. May we have an urgent debate on the Floor of the House about how the Government are going to get their immigration policy back on track?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. This Government have taken significant steps that have reduced net non-European economic area migration into this country. Additionally, we have taken steps through regulation to reduce the incentives for others across the European Union to come to this country unless they are coming here to work. We will be able to do more, however, not least because of our party’s commitment to the achievement of a further renegotiation in Europe, and there are others across Europe who share our belief that the free movement of labour should relate only to work and not to benefits. As a consequence of such renegotiations, we would be able further to reduce the incentives for people to migrate between countries without being part of a successful economy. On the question of a debate, I remind my hon. Friend that amendments to the Immigration Bill will arrive here in due course from the House of Lords. That might afford an opportunity for debate on these matters.
The transition to a low carbon economy provides a huge opportunity for the UK to be a major source of jobs and growth, of which areas such as the north-east very much want their fair share. According to figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance, however, investment in clean energy in the UK is due to hit a five-year low this year. May we have a debate to find out why that is happening?
I do not have the figures in front of me, but my recollection is that 14 major contracts for new energy investment are in prospect over the next 15 years. We are world leaders in offshore wind energy, and we now have some of the greatest prospects for investment in energy, not least as a consequence of the capacity market reforms in the Energy Act 2013, which will give investors the opportunity to come in and make their investments, confident about the nature of the market in the years to come.
I endorse everything that my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) has said. Did I just detect a hint that the Leader of the House was encouraging Back Benchers to amend the Immigration Bill to restrict immigration from the European Union? If so, may we have a statement from the Leader of the House next week to celebrate that fact?
I think what I said was that, in so far as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) wished to have an opportunity to debate those matters—I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) agrees with him on that—the Immigration Bill will take us further in the direction of ensuring that there are no incentives for people to come here without good reasons or without the prospect of work. I am not encouraging amendment to the Bill as such, because a number of useful amendments are being made in the House of Lords. When the Lords amendments come back to this House, however, we will have an opportunity for that debate.
Given that the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) has just confirmed to the House that two of the last three deep mines are to close, and that a seismic survey last week revealed 23 trillion tonnes of coal in 20 seams under the North sea, would it not be opportune to have a debate about the role of coal in a diverse energy supply?
Of course I cannot promise an immediate debate on that. Securing our energy supply in a manner that enables us to meet our decarbonisation objectives is a proper and continuous source of debate, and I know there will be further debates on it. What I think the Minister of State was saying from the Dispatch Box was that he is thoroughly engaged with the company and the trade unions, and has been for some time, in considering the consequences of the prospective closures.
Will the Leader of the House arrange for regular debates on whether we should stay in or leave the European Union? Will he insist that the Deputy Prime Minister participates in each of those debates? Now that Nigel Farage has, unsurprisingly, twice wiped the floor with the Deputy Prime Minister on this issue, is it not clear that the more people hear the debate and the arguments about whether we should be in or out, the more likely they are to conclude that we should be out? It is equally clear that those who want to stay in are relying on dodgy figures, desperate scaremongering and personal, cheap insults.
It will not surprise my hon. Friend to know that I believe we should have a debate in this country about our future relationship with the European Union, but that we should have it once we have had the opportunity that only a Conservative victory at the next general election would afford us: to have both a renegotiation of our relationship with our partners, with that mandate behind us, and the mandate for a referendum in the next Parliament. That gives force to such a debate. In the absence of a referendum, there is no force to this debate.
Ofsted reports today that too many nurseries in England are failing to ensure that children are in a position to learn when they get to primary school. Worse, Sir Michael Wilshaw says that children from the poorest backgrounds are especially badly served, with only a third reaching a good level of pre-school development. May we have a statement on this damning indictment of the Government’s early years record, which is failing?
I am sorry to hear the hon. Gentleman characterise these things in that misplaced way. What they are is an endorsement of our determination to improve early years education, not least to enable primary schools across this country to have more teacher-led and education-driven—standards-driven—early years education. In that sense, they are very supportive of what we set out to do. Across the House we should be very clear that, as I know from my former public health responsibilities, whether children are school ready when they first go to school is one of the central measures of long-term prospective outcomes for children. We need to focus on that, and I hope the Ofsted report will enable us to do so.
May I associate myself with calls for a second day to debate the HS2 Bill on Second Reading? May I also ask the Leader of the House for a debate on university technical colleges, which are a tremendous way for young people to gain the industry-specific skills they need? Will he encourage Jaguar Land Rover and JCB to co-sponsor a midlands UTC, so that the midlands and Tamworth remain the home of the manufacturing sector?
I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming that university technical college, and the support of JCB and others for it. I know that we are now talking about some 45 UTCs across the country. What is so compelling about them as a thought is that not only are they focused on giving young people the opportunity to have access to vocational qualifications in an abstract sense, but they are focused in given areas on knowledge of where those skills will be taken up by local employers. That gives tremendous confidence to young people going to UTCs.
I am sure the Leader of the House would agree that the matters being investigated by Ofsted in certain Birmingham schools are deeply worrying. Will he ensure that the Ofsted and Birmingham reports are published swiftly, and that thereafter there is a swift statement to this House?
The hon. Gentleman is of course right, and Members across the House will share his concerns about the timeliness of the matter. I will, in consultation with my hon. Friends at the Department for Education, ensure that the House is informed as soon as possible, subject of course to the inquiry being carried out thoroughly.
The Leader of the House will know that, a couple of days ago, the House agreed, without a Division, a programme motion for the Finance Bill. I had originally thought that that was a good idea, but having listened to him this morning, I think that perhaps another day’s debate would serve to remind the House that the Opposition voted against all of our excellent tax changes—our tax cut for working people and the freezing of fuel duty. An extra day’s debate to remind the British public of that might be a good use of this House’s time.
Well, my hon. Friend tempts me. Two days, as the programme motion specifies, is the right answer for the time being. Of course if we were able to go beyond that, it would allow us to find out what it was specifically that the Labour party objected to that caused it to vote against the Finance Bill. Otherwise, we will have to tell the British public that it is against the increase in the personal tax allowance, against the reduction in corporation tax for businesses and, I am afraid, against the long-term economic plan that is delivering for the people of this country.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Minister for Schools has answered that question on a number of occasions. It relates of course to the necessity of managing within budgets for those who are of that age in that sector. As he raises it again, I will ask my hon. Friends to return to him with any additional information that they can give him.
May we have a debate on the 50th report of the Public Accounts Committee on the rural broadband programme? It is a totally successful programme, but there are issues with British Telecom, exemplified in my constituency by it leaving out villages such as Glasson Dock in pursuance of attempting to box in the only other operator in the area, Broadband for the Rural North, which is a social enterprise and a not-for-profit organisation.
My hon. Friend might find it useful to note that there will be a debate in Westminster Hall on Tuesday 8 April entitled, “Broadband and the north of England” in which he may have an opportunity to expand on some of his important points. It is widely recognised among Members that while we are making tremendous progress on broadband coverage— 10,000 additional homes per week—we are all focused on trying to ensure that people do not get left behind.
The Leader of the House might know that I am a Labour/Co-operative Member of Parliament. Did he see last night’s BBC “Newsnight” programme in which there were shocking revelations about the pressure that the Treasury, the Bank of England, the Financial Services Authority and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills put on the Co-op and the Co-op bank to take certain measures that destabilised the Co-op bank, which has a proud tradition of being a very different bank?
I did not see that programme, so I cannot comment directly on what the hon. Gentleman alleges. My recollection is that the Treasury Committee is continuing to undertake an inquiry into the Co-operative bank. It is not for me to refer such matters, but he might like to refer any information he has to that Committee.
May I add to the call that was made a few minutes ago by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) for a debate on the UK’s set position in the European Union? Next Tuesday will see the announcement of the winner of the €100,000 “Brexit” prize, which is organised by the Institute of Economic Affairs. We have seen debates on the television and in the think-tanks. It seems bizarre to the public that this House is not debating what life would be like for the UK outside the EU. We should have an urgent debate before the European elections.
My hon. Friend asks for a debate before the European elections, but it seems to me that the European elections are about who we send to the European Parliament. The debate between now and the European parliamentary elections should be about sending Conservative Members of the European Parliament, as we have in the past and will again in the future, who will go there and fight for British interests, vote against measures that are not in this country’s interests and promote competitiveness and deregulation in the European Union. That is what the European parliamentary election is about. At the same time, we might have a further opportunity in the course of the next Session in this House to debate through a private Member’s Bill how the people of this country can have their say in a referendum. That is a critical issue in getting such a debate to happen.
Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust is bidding for foundation trust status so that it can take advantage of the Government’s hospital closure programme and sell off half of Charing Cross and Saint Mary’s hospitals, which the people who pay for the NHS, my constituents, do not want. May we have a debate on NHS land sales, and may we have it before 22 May and the local elections? Since Labour made this an election issue, the decision to close Charing Cross has unaccountably been put back to the week after the poll.
One might imagine on hearing the hon. Gentleman that foundation trust status had been introduced by this Government when, of course, it was introduced by the previous Labour Government. It certainly gives freedoms but, as it happens, it does not give a trust any greater freedom to sell property than it would have as an NHS trust. I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman’s description of the purposes of acquiring foundation trust status does not match up with what Imperial College Healthcare itself believes. Many other trusts, including Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust in my constituency, have used their freedoms to enable them to invest in additional capital, including new buildings, to improve the quality of the service they provide for patients.
Roslyn Earle has been forced out of her flooded home because her insurance was placed with an Icelandic company that had its licence withdrawn at the point at which she made the claim. May we have a statement from the relevant Minister about how the Government will address such issues and ensure that my constituent can get the payout she thought she had paid for and she clearly deserves?
My hon. Friend rightly raises his constituent’s concerns and I am sure that people share them, but individual cases are not matters that Ministers can engage with directly. We have created a proper framework through the Prudential Regulation Authority for the regulation of institutions that accept deposits or effect insurance contracts. The PRA is fully operationally independent in carrying out those statutory responsibilities, so, if I may, I will ask it to write to my hon. Friend on this matter.
As part of its bid for part of the £2 billion local growth fund, the Leeds city partnership has produced an excellent video in which it highlights that it is the second largest economy in the UK, with 106,000 businesses, the largest manufacturing base in the UK and eight universities, and that it has the drive, confidence and ambition needed to help rebalance our economy. May we have a debate on the local growth fund to highlight such excellent work aimed at rebuilding our economy?
I am glad that my hon. Friend raises that issue, which is important. I remember—this is going back 30 years—that when others were bemoaning the loss of manufacturing and economic changes, Leeds simply said that those things were changing and that it would therefore become a city focused on the development of financial services. That process was Leeds-led, not imposed from outside. The point of the Government’s work with local enterprise partnerships and local authorities is to enable exactly that kind of local leadership to define a strategy for each area. The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is responsible for cities and the constitution, is leading negotiations with all the local enterprise partnerships between now and July with a view to signing a growth deal with each one, including a share of the local growth fund for projects that will start from April of next year. I am confident that the Leeds city region will be prominent in those deals.
Last week the European Commission finally approved the Government’s plan to offer tax relief to video games producers in the UK. This relief will provide a huge boost for the industry, especially the many games industries based in Silicon Spa in my constituency. May we have a debate on the contribution of the creative industries to the wider economy?
I cannot promise an immediate debate, but I know that one would be useful because it would allow us to highlight exactly what my hon. Friend refers to, which is a great success story for this country, with the creative industries exporting £15.5 billion in 2011—some 8% of total UK service exports—accounting for 1.68 million jobs and more than £70 billion of output: more than 5% of the whole UK economy. It is not just large but highly competitive, and it has a comparative advantage in this country. It is one of the sectors where that is increasingly true, and it is our job to create the framework for it to succeed in the future.
You, Mr Speaker, will know that the Government Whips Office normally operates like a well-oiled machine, yet on this occasion it appears that the Whips believe that there is no interest in HS2 and Second Reading can be held on just one day, even though 40 Members of Parliament will be affected by HS2, it will cost £50 billion and many Members of the House are both for and against it. Can you pass on to the Government Chief Whip that that is not the case, that many Members of Parliament want to speak both for and against HS2 and that it will require at least two days for Second Reading?
I have to tell my hon. Friend that the efficiency and effectiveness of the Whips Office is undiminished. The Whips will have heard what he had to say. For my part, I have announced the business up to and including Monday 28 April, and I will announce the business beyond that day in due course.
Tobacco Products (Standardised Packaging)
With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about the publication of Sir Cyril Chantler’s report on the standardised packaging of tobacco products.
Smoking kills nearly 80,000 people each year in England alone. One out of two long-term smokers will die of a smoking-related disease and our cancer outcomes stubbornly lag behind those of much of Europe. Quite apart from the enormous pressure that this creates for the NHS, it is a cruel waste of human potential. Yet we know that the vast majority of smokers want to quit, and we also know that, tragically, two thirds of smokers become addicted before they are 18. As a nation, therefore, we should consider every effective measure we can to stop children taking up smoking in the first place.
That is why, in November last year, I asked Sir Cyril Chantler to undertake an independent review of whether the introduction of standardised packaging of tobacco is likely to have an effect on public health, in particular in relation to children. Sir Cyril has presented his report to me and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and yesterday we had the benefit of a personal briefing from Sir Cyril, in which he highlighted the key conclusions of his review. Having reviewed Sir Cyril’s findings, I was keen to share this important report with the House without delay, as I recognise the significant interest shown by many Members. I will of course place copies in the Libraries of both Houses.
The evidence has been examined, the arguments for and against have been thoroughly explored and their merit assessed by Sir Cyril, who visited Australia in the course of the review. I asked in particular that the report focus on the potential of standardised packaging to have an impact on the health of children. It is clear that smoking is a disease of adolescence and we know that across the UK, more than 200,000 children aged between 11 and 15 start smoking every year: in other words, about 600 children start smoking in the UK every day. Many of those children will grow up with a nicotine addiction that they will find extremely difficult to break, and that is a tragedy for those young people, their families and the public health of our nation. Sir Cyril points out that if this rate of smoking by children were reduced by even 2%, it would mean that 4,000 fewer children took up smoking each year.
Sir Cyril’s report makes the compelling case that if standardised packaging were introduced, it would be very likely to have a positive impact on public health, and that the health benefits would include benefits for children. The chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, has read Sir Cyril’s report. She sent me a letter with her initial views in which she said:
“the Chantler review only reinforces my beliefs of the public health gains to be achieved from standardised packaging”.
I have placed copies of Dame Sally’s letter in the Libraries of both Houses.
Importantly, the report highlights that any such policy must be seen in the round, as part of a comprehensive policy of tobacco control measures, and that is exactly how I see the potential of standardised packaging working in this country. In the light of the report and the responses to the previous consultation in 2012, I am minded to proceed with introducing regulations to provide for standardised packaging. However, to ensure that that decision is properly and fully informed, I intend to publish draft regulations, so that what is intended is crystal clear, alongside a final, short consultation in which I will ask in particular for views on anything new that has arisen since the last full public consultation and that is relevant to a final decision on the policy. I will announce details of the content and timing shortly, but I invite those with an interest to start considering any responses they might wish to make now. The House will understand that I want to proceed as swiftly as possible. Parliament gave us the regulation-making powers in the Children and Families Act 2014.
I pay tribute to Sir Cyril and his team for the excellent job they have done in preparing such a thorough analysis of the available evidence on the standardised packaging of tobacco products. I believe that the report will be widely acknowledged for its forensic approach and authoritative conclusions. We want our nation’s children to grow up happy and healthy, and free from the heavy burden of disease that tobacco brings. I commend the statement and Sir Cyril’s report to the House.