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Topical Questions

Volume 582: debated on Thursday 19 June 2014

In advance of our dinner tomorrow night, let me tell the House that in May, in response to the crisis in Ukraine, the G7 and the European Union re-evaluated our energy security plans and agreed a new approach that would strengthen our long-term energy security. The United Kingdom is rated the most energy secure country in the EU. To maintain this position, we are pressing forward with the diversification of our energy supplies.

In April, we announced £12 billion of investment in renewable energy projects, supporting 8,500 jobs under the final investment decisions enabling process, which is resulting in the development of offshore wind, coal-to-biomass, and dedicated biomass for combined heat and power projects.

To address short-term capacity issues, this month National Grid announced demand-side balancing reserve measures that will ensure that the risk of disruption remains at very low levels. Energy efficiency is also a key part of energy security, and in June we announced new energy efficiency funding worth £540 million over three years, including boosting cash-back offers under the green deal.

At Copenhagen, world leaders made commitments to the creation of a green climate fund and to mobilising $100 billion a year of climate finance by 2020. However, it is not clear how much progress has been made in securing this funding, and developing countries have said that they cannot set their emission targets until they know. Will the Minister please tell us what is going on?

That is a very important question. We are one of the world leaders in promoting international climate finance, and we very much support this fund. It has taken a while to get together to finalise the arrangements. Some real progress has been made in recent weeks, at long last. We hope that countries will start pledging to the fund at United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s summit in November or at the UN framework convention on climate change talks in Lima in December. It is also important that we have private climate finance. Only last week, the Minister of State, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), brought together many people to ensure that there is private money to help to get to the $100 billion target.

T2. With one of the potential investors unfortunately walking away from negotiations over our last remaining deep mines, will the Minister update the House on what he is doing to assist in finding replacement investment for UK Coal that will give workers at Kellingley colliery in my constituency the chance of a more secure future? (904325)

I understand the uncertainty that this is causing workers at Kellingley colliery in my hon. Friend’s constituency and at Thoresby colliery in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr Spencer). We have been working with the company since January to help it to overcome the challenges that it faces. The exceptional offer we made of a Government loan of £10 million to the consortium that was leading the rescue remains on the table despite the withdrawal of Hargreaves, and we continue to work with UK Coal and its directors to explore what other sources of private investment might be available.

As has been said, there is a great deal of concern about the future of jobs at Kellingley and Thoresby pits following the decision by Hargreaves to pull out from UK Coal’s managed closure programme. The redundancy process is already under way, but there may still be time to find a way forward, so could the Minister confirm that the £10 million loan is on the table and that the Government are still exploring all viable options, including an employee buy-out, to secure a future for these pits?

The only plan so far presented by the board of UK Coal is the plan from which Hargreaves withdrew last week. If further plans are presented by UK Coal, with which we are working each day, we will, of course, be prepared to ensure that the £10 million loan remains available. If there is a viable plan for an employee buy-out, we will certainly look at that as well.

T4. Many rural communities in my constituency of North West Leicestershire have considerable concerns about the current flurry of planning applications for large-scale solar farms on greenfield sites. My constituents therefore have considerable sympathy for those protesters campaigning against the current high-profile application by Borchester Land to build a large-scale solar farm on the Berrow estate in Ambridge. Would a Minister care to comment on that situation? (904327)

My hon. Friend knows that it is a rule not to comment on individual planning cases, but, having looked at the issue very carefully, I draw the attention of South Borsetshire district council to the planning advice and solar strategy that we sent to all councils, making it clear that our focus is on brownfield sites, not high-grade agricultural land, and, wherever possible, building-mounted.

T3. The Secretary of State will be aware that an article in the Daily Mail at the end of last month said that British Gas workers “who doubled bills” were “treated like celebrities” and given trips to Monaco and Rome, plus other things, and that they targeted churches, charities and elderly people because they were easy targets. Does he think it is right for a company to be able to do that, and what is he doing about it? (904326)

Of course, that is completely wrong and when I have my next meeting with the management of British Gas I will bring it to their attention and make my views very plain.

T6. In contrast to the gloomy outlook from the Labour party, could we have an update on progress on improving access to and the availability of large-scale solar panels on commercial and industrial properties? (904331)

We need to see real growth in that rooftop space. To that end, the Department for Communities and Local Government will undertake a consultation in the next few weeks on granting permissive planning permission for rooftop solar up from 50 kW to 1 MW, in addition to the work we are doing to tackle non-financial barriers. I will spell that out in more detail when I address the rooftop solar conference being held by the British Photovoltaic Association on 1 July.

T5. On the roll-out of smart meters, the in-home display accounts for about £15 of the cost per household, yet in a recent survey six out of 10 customers said that they would prefer to receive information on tablets, personal computers or smartphones. Does not the Secretary of State think that he is wasting money by going down the route of old-fashioned technology, and will he rethink it? (904328)

No. There is an awful lot of research that shows that in-home displays lead to changed behaviour. There is nothing to stop an energy supplier offering other options in addition. If the hon. Lady wants the improved energy efficiency and lower energy bills that the smart meter programme wants to deliver, I hope she will look at the research, because it is pretty strong.

T7. On the issue of PV solar farms, do Ministers agree that where local public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of such applications, that should be an important consideration for the planning process? We in Wroughton in my constituency want to see a solar farm at the old airfield, yet we now face a planning inquiry because of objections by the area of outstanding natural beauty. It is deeply frustrating, to say the least. (904332)

I thoroughly understand my colleague’s frustration—he is a fantastic champion for his constituents. That sort of large-scale solar development on a brownfield site on an airfield is exactly the sort of large-scale solar that we want to see and support, rather than one on high-grade agricultural land. It sounds like an exemplar project.

Constituents are still phoning us about problems with green deal suppliers, particularly those who take the money for the survey and then do not come up with the goods in spite of numerous phone calls. This often occurs over different areas, so it is not necessarily appropriate for just one local trading standards officer to take up the matter. Will the Minister consider talking to his colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills about having a more thorough investigation into what is happening on the ground with these companies?

We have an excellent relationship with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We take all cases of potential mis-selling or poor practice in the green deal market extremely seriously, even though such cases are relatively infrequent. The Green Deal Oversight and Registration Body has particular responsibility for policing the market, but if the hon. Lady has specific examples of poor practice, I would be very grateful if she let me have them.

The Secretary of State will recall that I raised with him an anomaly about the warm home discount scheme. Pensioners with social landlords who pay their bills collectively through the social landlord do not qualify for that discount. He promised to look into that matter, and he wrote to me. Will he update me on any progress he has made as it is of big relevance to many pensioners in social accommodation in my constituency?

I can give my hon. Friend an interim update. As part of our work on the fuel poverty strategy, we are looking at reforms to the warm home discount to make sure that it is more effective.

Is the Minister with responsibility for the coal industry aware that when we met the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to try to get something like £70 million to save the two pits at Thoresby and Kellingley, I inquired about the person sitting at the back and was told that he was representing the Minister? In other words, he was jotting down everything that we said—he was acting on behalf of the Minister alone—and therefore the Business Secretary was not able to talk to us frankly, and when we asked for the £70 million to save the pits, they refused. He was like a spy in the camp.

I really do not recognise that description of the meeting that I know the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends had with my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. Let me make it clear: I met the unions on Monday, including the National Union of Mineworkers, and we are prepared to look at any new plan brought forward by the directors of UK Coal that will enable us to continue the operation of the two collieries into next year, but any contribution from the Government has to represent full value for money.

Yes. We are pressing ahead with early implementation of the Wood review. We will make a full formal response shortly, but we intend to establish the principles behind the Wood review in the Infrastructure Bill, which is before Parliament at the moment, and to set out the arrangements for collecting the levy to fund the new authority. We are also pressing ahead with the recruitment of the chief executive officer of the new oil and gas authority, who will be the senior regulator.

If the Government are committed to saving what is left of the British deep-mining coal industry, as has been expressed this morning, will the Minister give a commitment to guarantee that he will discuss state aid to the coal industry for any new potential investor?

Of course, we have been considering the state aid case and what has to be notified to the Commission in Brussels, but we need to see a subsequent plan. We can only act on the basis of a plan put forward by UK Coal Ltd, which is a private company. We are ready to help with any new plan that may emerge from the discussions going on at the moment with potential investors. I need to make it clear to the House that UK Coal Ltd has already had nearly £140 million-worth of taxpayers’ support during the past 10 to 12 years, and it is very important that any new loan represents good value for money for the taxpayer.

People who live in park homes are often on low incomes. What will the Secretary of State do to improve their access to energy and so help to bring down their bills?

We have taken it on board that, to date, and particularly under the last Government, people who live in park homes have had a very poor deal. We are doing two things. First, we are making the energy company obligation more applicable to people who live in park homes, accepting that there are challenges with insulating such properties. Secondly, we are exploring whether it is possible to pay the warm home discount to people who live in such homes. We understand that they do not receive that currently because they pay their bills through the site operator.

Working men’s clubs, such as the Innisfree in my constituency, are struggling to stay open. They find, like many of their members, that energy bills take up a large chunk of their limited budgets. What can the Minister offer to improve their energy efficiency and so help these important community institutions to stay open?

We take all measures to improve energy efficiency extremely seriously. I would be very happy to hear more about the example that the hon. Lady has mentioned. If she will write to me or meet me, we will see what we can do to help.