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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 585: debated on Thursday 4 September 2014

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Security

We have taken a number of measures to ensure the security of the UK’s energy supply, including introducing new electricity system balancing measures. Our recent national gas risk assessment demonstrated that our gas infrastructure is resilient. In the autumn, I will publish the statutory security of supply report for 2014, which will provide a further assessment of our energy security, and set out my response to the Office of Gas and Electricity Markets’ recent electricity capacity report. We have also engaged closely with EU and G7 partners on measures to increase the EU’s energy security.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the most cost-effective as well as greenest ways to address concerns about security is through greater use of demand-side response, which has been successfully deployed at scale in the United States? Will he undertake to ensure that the treatment of demand-side response providers in the forthcoming capacity market and the transitional arrangements is no less favourable than those available to electricity generators?

I am pleased at the way in which our demand-side measures have been advancing. They are something on which I have placed a lot of stress. I know that my Minister of State appeared before my hon. Friend’s Committee when it was investigating this matter. We certainly want to ensure that we move forward on this and that there is nothing in the way of taking up more demand-side measures.

Last month, EDF announced that it was temporarily closing four of its nuclear reactors, reducing the UK’s nuclear capacity by a quarter. With most of the nuclear fleet being decommissioned by 2023, what steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure maximum use of those assets before that date?

With regard to the two nuclear plants involved, Heysham and Hartlepool, we are taking only precautionary measures to ensure that proper safety and security measures are examined, and I am sure that the whole House will agree that that is the right step. The impact that that will have on our margins over the winter has already been taken account of in National Grid’s analysis and procurement plans. On the hon. Gentleman’s longer point, the whole energy strategy is designed to ensure that we have the capacity that we need not just for the short and medium term but for the long term. I refer him to the investment report that we published in July, which shows a fantastic record of investment in energy across the piece. Indeed, there have been record levels of investment in energy, especially in low-carbon energy.

What action are the Government taking to ensure that gas supplies keep flowing this winter should Russian gas stop flowing to the EU?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The UK imports very little gas from Russia. We have the most liquid and resilient gas markets in the whole of the European Union, but of course we are not complacent. We have been working at the EU to ensure not only that we check resilience of our gas supplies but that our EU colleagues are able to ensure their energy security. This is an EU measure which is very important for the whole of the European Union.

One of the best things that the Secretary of State can do for continued investment is to bring forward the 2030 decarbonisation target to give long-term certainty to investors.

There is a particular issue with regard to gas and gas storage, which is impacting on ceramic manufacturers. Now that we have a new Minister, who is at the Department of Energy and Climate Change and at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and National Grid has announced that it has brought forward the supplemental balancing reserve tender, which will put even greater pressure on energy suppliers and security this winter, it is absolutely essential that the Secretary of State reconsiders his Department’s stance on gas storage. We urgently need a change of policy on extra gas storage.

The hon. Lady knows that we legislated to introduce a decarbonisation target for 2030 in the Energy Act 2013. She also knows that my party strongly supported that.

We looked at gas storage in huge detail to see whether there was a case for Government intervention, but we found that an awful lot of gas storage was being built with more modern technology, which means that the gas can be produced and brought into the pipeline network much more quickly. We have looked at that matter in detail and we do not intend to review it.

17. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the problems we are facing illustrate that, despite huge investment, wind and other renewables cannot replace conventional fuels and require additional capacity megawatt for megawatt to meet need when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine? Will he confirm that the Government’s costings for renewables do not take into account the cost of supplying an additional amount of conventional capacity? (905195)

We need a mixed approach to energy supply and generation. The Government have always argued that we need renewables, gas and new nuclear and that diversity gives a country extra strength in its security of supply. When we do our analysis we consider all the system costs, not just of renewables but of nuclear and other systems, and no type of electricity generation is without its challenges. For example, in the short term, we have seen fires at two coal plants, Ironbridge and Ferrybridge, that we are having to take into account in our analysis to ensure that our capacity margins are okay over the winter. The mixed approach that we propose is the most secure.

The future of Thoresby and Kellingley coal mines has now been in limbo for more than five months, which raises concerns about energy security. Both the Business Secretary and the previous Energy Minister, the right hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), said that they were not open to supporting or providing state aid, but the new Minister of State has indicated in meetings that he may be open to state aid, so will the Secretary of State clear up once and for all whether the Government will consider providing it?

Important though the issue is, it is not an issue of energy security. Even if those collieries were in any way to be suspended, the energy security of the country would be okay. The Government have worked tirelessly with the different companies involved to do what we can to help them reach a deal that will ensure the future of those pits, and we will continue to do just that.

It really is important that we have clarity about the future of these mines. It helps no one—not UK Coal, not other potential investors and not the work force and their representatives—for this uncertainty to continue. The Business Secretary and the previous Energy Minister indicated that they were not open to providing state aid, whereas the new Minister has indicated that he may be open to state aid, so will the Secretary of State clarify? Will the Government not support state aid or have they changed their mind?

We consider all options, but the right hon. Lady presents state aid as a “get out of jail free” option when it is not. If the European Commission were presented with the state aid case, it is extremely likely that by the end of the support it would require the collieries to close. We think that there is an advantage in a commercial approach and that is what our attention is focused on.

Renewable Energy Investment

Since 2010, an average of £7 billion has been invested each year in renewable electricity, compared with £3 billion a year in the previous Parliament.

May I take this opportunity to welcome my right hon. Friend to his new role? There has been a recent proposal for a tidal gateway across the Ribble estuary that could provide enough electricity for 18,000 homes. Will the Minister update the House on the progress of the project and ensure that environmental considerations will be at the forefront of the proposal?

The project is proceeding and I would be very happy to hear more detail about my hon. Friend’s position and support for it. Ensuring that we get renewable investment of all kinds is an important part of our plan to deal with climate change and increase energy security, and that is something on which we are working hard.

The Minister has just heard an exchange about the question of state aid that specifically referred to him. We met the miners from the three deep-mine pits that are left, Kellingley, Thoresby and Hatfield, which are in peril. I am talking about energy supply, something for which the Minister is responsible. This Government took £700 million out of the miners’ pension fund last February and all we want is £70 million of state aid for those three coal pits to exhaust their reserves. Treat us like you do the oil companies when you give them tax breaks in the North sea and let us exploit the reserves in the three remaining pits.

I have much to learn from the hon. Gentleman, but that question was not really about renewable energy. Since taking up this post, I have been working hard for a solution to the issues around UK Coal. The Secretary of State set out some of the downsides to a state aid solution. I am prepared to look at all options, but we should be clear that the EU Commission is absolute that it would require a closure of those mines were we to put in place a state aid solution. I come from Nottinghamshire mining stock and I will not take any nonsense from the hon. Gentleman.

Later this month, I shall be attending a meeting in north Wales to discuss the construction of a tidal lagoon at Colwyn bay—one of several that are planned for the coast of Wales and the north of England. Does my right hon. Friend agree that tidal lagoons have the potential to make an enormous contribution to the energy security of this country, and what is he doing to encourage their development?

Yes, tidal has enormous potential. Only last month, at Pentland firth, we saw the roll-out of the biggest tidal array yet. I look forward to working very closely with my right hon. Friend.

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his post. I hope he is as energetic in it as he was as Minister for Skills and Enterprise. May I press him on the sustainability issue? Is he aware that the Trillion Fund is a new way of raising money for sustainable energy projects, both in this country and worldwide? It is a very exciting new venture. Vivienne Westwood has just invested £1 million in it. Will the Minister get behind that crowdfunding initiative and give it some support?

The hon. Gentleman is very kind; I am grateful for his compliments. I look forward to the opportunity of working positively with Vivienne Westwood on improving our energy supplies and security. We need improvement across the board, and that includes ensuring that we make the most of our indigenous gas supplies. Improving renewables in our country is, of course, about finance as well as technology on the ground. There is a big opportunity, especially as the cost of renewables falls—the cost of solar is pre-eminent in that fall—and we must seize it with both hands.

Skills, as well as nuclear, are important to pushing forward the renewable energy cause, so does the Minister agree that, as part of the long-term economic plan, the investment by the growth fund in Berkeley for a skills and training centre in green and other energy sources is an excellent way forward?

Yes; I know something about that proposal from my previous job. I am of course a great fan of the skills agenda and I am convinced of the need to drive up the quality and quantity of skills in this area. I am also a big fan of the long-term economic plan, so my hon. Friend’s question just about hit the nail on the head.

Onshore wind developments are being held up by huge delays in the planning system. Since 2009, onshore wind projects have taken, on average, an additional four months to receive planning approval. In total, developments are taking more than four years from the point of application to generating electricity—an increase of over a year since 2009. Can the Minister explain why?

The easiest way is to say that local people’s views are now being taken into account, and I am very glad that they are. It is funny to get such a question from the Labour Front Bench, given that the amount of investment in renewables has doubled in this Parliament—compared with the previous Parliament. At the same time, though, we have strengthened planning rules to allow more control by local people, because the worst way to try to improve the roll-out of renewables, which is important for energy security as well as for climate change, is to ignore the position and the views of local people. That was what happened under the previous Administration and we have changed that.

That was not an answer to my question, and I have to say that most of the developments started under a Labour Government. The figures reveal shocking delays to vital new energy infrastructure. Delays to onshore wind and the use of recoveries and call-ins, not local people, mean that projects are left languishing for years before they receive an answer. Those delays cost jobs and threaten our energy security. What urgent steps is the Minister taking, and what discussions has he had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, to sort out this mess?

I have discussions with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to ensure that local people’s views are taken into account. The hon. Lady says that the extra investments are due to decisions taken under the previous Government, but that is not true. There is an increase in renewables roll-out, but we have to do it taking local people’s views into account, because to save the global environment and tackle climate change, we cannot sacrifice our local environment, particularly in beautiful places. Getting that balance right is very important. It was not right before and we have put it right.

Sustainable Energy

3. What his Department’s policy is on promoting sustainable energy sources; what estimate he has made of future UK generating capacity from such sources; and if he will make a statement. (905175)

We have a range of measures in place to promote sustainable energy sources, including reforms to the electricity market to support nuclear, renewables and carbon capture and storage. The percentage of electricity generated from renewable sources has doubled from 7% in 2010 to 14% at the end of last year.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his answer, but it demonstrates that renewables are not the only way and something we can depend on for electricity supply. I note that generation from nuclear power went down slightly in the first quarter of this year, from 18% to 17.7%. What action is he taking to ensure that nuclear energy expands in the years to come?

The whole Department is supporting and driving the first new generation nuclear power stations, which are extremely important for our energy security and the energy mix. Of course a mix is the best way to deliver energy. Renewables are important and are now a material part of our energy supply, but nuclear is zero-carbon energy, too, so we are working hard to land the new generation of nuclear power stations.

Is it still Government policy to support energy from waste incineration? There are problems in my constituency, where the biggest incinerator, run by Viridor, is causing problems of emissions, odours and noise. Will he ask his officials to have a look at the situation in Runcorn to see what is going wrong there?

There are opportunities in energy from waste, not least because it deals with two problems at once, but we have to make sure we get the details right. I will be happy to look at the case the hon. Gentleman raises.

The record growth, the record deployment, the record investment in renewables under this coalition Government are hugely to their credit, but there is more that we can do. Solar is a particularly exciting opportunity, as my right hon. Friend says, and we are about to smash through 4 GW of solar deployed under this Government, but we need to do more to unlock the potential of roofs, particularly commercial and industrial roof space. Will he pledge to work with my hon. Friends to continue to tear down the barriers to deployment?

Here I am trumpeting this Government’s successes in deployment of renewable investment, and there is the man who led the charge. I pay huge tribute to the work my right hon. Friend did—he did an absolutely terrific job. Thanks to his work, 1 million people now live with solar panels on their roof. I think solar is one of the big opportunities. As the price falls and it becomes competitive—potentially grid competitive—in the short to medium term, solar is a big opportunity, even in cloudy old England.

Following on from the exchange with my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland Central (Julie Elliott), what assessment has the Minister made of the impact of a brake on wind farm development on land on our burgeoning wind farm manufacturing industry and on companies such as West Coast Energy in my constituency, which create hundreds of jobs specialising in that growth area of the economy?

The doubling of investment in renewables under this Government has undoubtedly helped those people, as it has helped many other people to get jobs, which is one of the reasons we are seeing record jobs in this country as part of our long-term economic plan.

The people of north and west Wiltshire strongly support renewable energy, but we are besieged by hundreds of planning applications from London-based commercial operations for solar farms, not on roofs of factories or brownfield sites, but on greenfield sites across the county. Will my right hon. Friend reiterate the strong message that our right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) previously sent out, which is a strong presumption against the use of agricultural land and a strong presumption in favour of industrial roofs and other places?

There are opportunities for solar, where appropriately sited, in many different places on roofs and on land. In fact, land can be combined with agricultural use and solar. One other advantage of solar is that it can effectively be masked from being seen from elsewhere because it is low-rise rather than high-rise. This has to be done sensitively. There is no point in destroying our green and pleasant land in order to save the global environment. We have to tackle security of supply and climate change in a way that also protects the local environment.

Onshore Wind Farms

In future, instead of a fixed level of subsidy, onshore wind will have to bid for support through our new contracts for difference, which will be allocated competitively so that only the best-value projects are supported. The first allocation rounds open in October.

Is the Minister aware that Norfolk hosts a large number of offshore wind arrays that command widespread public support, in stark contrast to most—not all—onshore wind farms, which can be very unpopular when they destroy beautiful landscapes? Further to his earlier reply, can he confirm that Norfolk will not have any more onshore wind farms imposed on it in the face of local opposition?

As I said, we have given more local control in the planning system, as well as changing the subsidy regime so that onshore wind would have to be competitive, for instance, against solar. As the costs of solar fall, it is increasingly able to compete for that subsidy. This is about getting the best possible value for money out of the subsidy but also ensuring that local people have a say in the planning system. I know some of the sites that my hon. Friend is talking about—indeed, I visited, or rather went past, one of the developments last month—so I know of the local concern in his constituency. We have to make sure that in future local people have more of a say, and we are doing that.

We should be very proud of the investment in renewable energy and the progress that has been made over the past four years, making this the greenest Government ever, to coin a phrase. The current policy of reducing the subsidies is absolutely sensible. However, may I gently say that sometimes those who make the most noise are a very vocal minority? My experience in my constituency is that a very few vocal people oppose wind farms whereas most people say, “Actually, not only do we not mind them, we quite like them.”

Where local people not only do not mind local wind farms but quite like them, and the local council decides that that is their democratic decision, giving them more power over the placement of local turbines is the right approach. This is about making sure that we have support locally.

Under the planning system there are separate land use categories for houses, industry and retail but there is no separate land use category entitled “energy generation”. This is an accident of history, because when electricity was first generated it was done only by the Crown using Crown prerogative. The reason local authorities are struggling with all the planning applications for wind farms and solar farms is that they do not have this separate land use category. Will the Minister be kind enough to agree to meet me and the Minister responsible for local government to see how that category could be introduced, because it would better facilitate and regulate the flow of planning applications through all the district councils up and down the land?

I would be happy to meet my hon. Friend and the relevant Minister from the Department for Communities and Local Government, because of course planning issues are directly for that Department. While there may not be a separate category within the planning rules at one level, there is guidance explaining how the rules should be applied in terms of energy generation and transmission, so we just have to make sure that the details are right.

Energy Bills

Energy bills are a real concern for many households, so we are helping people with them by providing direct financial help, encouraging competition, and supporting energy efficiency measures. Last December, we reviewed Government policy costs and made changes to take an average of £50 a year off a household’s bill, and we are making it easier to shop around, switch, and get the best deal. We are also providing direct financial help to the most vulnerable through the warm home discount, which will take £140 directly off the energy bills of more than 2 million of the poorest households this year.

Gas and electricity prices are falling, but bills are not, and profits for domestic suppliers doubled in the past year. In Bolton West, more than 40,000 households would save £120 from Labour’s energy price freeze, so why will the Government not freeze their bills?

We all know that Labour’s energy price freeze is a con. We know that the energy companies will put their prices up directly after the freeze, that it will hurt competition and push out the smaller suppliers that are giving people real choice and helping them cut their bills now, and that it will cut investment. Everyone knows that Labour’s energy bill freeze is a con and would not work.

Last year Hyndburn council launched a scheme to deal with hard-to-treat homes, based on the energy companies obligation. In the autumn statement, that funding was withdrawn and all the leaflets had to go in the skip. This summer it launched a scheme with the green deal home improvement fund. All the leaflets were printed, but the goalposts were moved and on the last day before the recess the fund was scrapped, and all the leaflets have gone in the bin. My constituency has tremendous problems with homes that need insulating and renewable energy. What will the Secretary of State do to ensure that that funding reaches my constituents in a constituency that needs it?

This Government have a very good record on energy efficiency and we want to help the hon. Gentleman’s constituents and others to cut their bills through energy efficiency. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we made some changes to ECO, and that was in order to take £50 on average off people’s bills. I hope he supports that and that he will tell his constituents about that cut in their bills which this Government have delivered.

Energy Efficiency

8. What steps he is taking to increase the UK’s energy efficiency in comparison to that of other industrialised states. (905181)

The innovation of UK business, underpinned by a range of policy measures, has seen the UK become a world leader on energy efficiency. Since 2006 we have had the least energy-intensive economy in the G7. According to the 2013 energy projections the UK is on track to overachieve against its 2020 European Union energy efficiency targets, while collectively the EU has more work to do.

Energy-intensive industries, including ceramics, brick and tile-making and steel, have done a huge amount over the past two decades to improve their energy efficiency, yet they face competition from companies both within the EU and elsewhere whose energy costs are subsidised, whether overtly or covertly. Will my hon. Friend set out what the Government are doing to ensure that UK energy-intensive industries are not put at a competitive disadvantage?

The Government recognise both the challenges that high energy costs represent for industry, particularly energy-intensive industries, and the progress made to improve efficiency across many sectors. That is why in Budget 2014 the Government announced a £500 million-a-year package for support for energy-intensive industries, including compensation for the cost of renewable support schemes and providing relief from the climate change levy, including full exemptions for the metallurgical and mineralogical sectors. Together with the amendments to the carbon price floor, those changes will be worth about £7 billion to businesses in the UK.

Thanks to the work of Nottingham Energy Partnership and Nottingham city council, many of my constituents want solid wall insulation to improve the energy efficiency of their homes, but the sudden closure of the green deal home improvement fund just a month after it opened means that they cannot afford it and local firms offering to insulate cannot plan future work. The Secretary of State dodged the question, but what is the answer: what went wrong and when will there be some certainty about the future of this scheme?

I simply do not recognise the hon. Lady’s characterisation of the scheme. It has been a great success, and it is because of its success that we had to close it early. More than 20,000 new homes are going to receive energy-efficiency measures and I would hope that the hon. Lady welcomed that.

When it comes to efficiency, would it not be more effective to allow this country’s three remaining deep-pit coal mines to exhaust their reserves, rather than bringing in Russian coal, which Putin could stop tomorrow, and also American coal?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. Of course this country’s energy mix must include renewables as well as coal. I think that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Business and Enterprise has largely answered that question already.

Wind Farms (Payments)

In 2012 the Government introduced new licence conditions to prevent generators profiting unfairly from transmission constraint. That has enabled National Grid to halve the average amount paid per unit of electricity to wind farms to reduce output. In the medium term, planned network upgrades will reduce further the overall level of constraint costs.

On one day in August, the Government spent £2.8 million on wind farms that were not producing electricity. “Money for Nothing” might be a good pop lyric, but it is not a good policy for a Government who are short of money. The Minister of State, when he was a Back Bencher, said that payments to wind farms should be drastically cut. Would not reducing these absurd payments to zero be a good start?

Constraint payments have been in place for many years, and those for renewable energy are no different from those for other types of energy. They are part of making sure that we have the right amount of power in the grid. The Government have halved the amount paid per unit of electricity, so the hon. Gentleman, rather than harping, should stand up and say, “Congratulations. Can we do some more?”

Energy Efficiency

Over 750,000 homes were improved under the green deal and ECO between January 2013 and June 2014, and we are on track to meet our target of improving the energy efficiency of 1 million homes by March 2015. A further 20,000 homes could be improved under the green deal home improvement fund, which has a pipeline of work over the coming months. In the longer term, we are providing certainty for the market through the extension of ECO until 2017 and up to £120 million of funding in each of the next two years for future schemes.

Ministers must be the only people who believe that the green deal has been a great success for either householders or small businesses—small businesses that are suffering cash-flow problems because of the Department’s delays in paying for vouchers; small businesses that lost out because they sold customers green deal assessments that could not be completed before the scheme was cancelled; small businesses being offered vouchers on the black market for up to £1,000 for solid wall insulation. When will the Government sort out the problems that they have created for small businesses?

The Government are very aware of the efforts that small businesses make and want to support them, as we continue to do in every Department. The answer to the question is that, because of the outstanding success of the green deal home improvement fund, we are making every effort to ensure that every voucher is correct. The hon. Gentleman has described a situation that would not be in accordance with the rules of the green deal home improvement fund, and it is for that reason that we must be absolutely certain that every application is correct, because we are looking after taxpayers’ money.

Last year the former Minister, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), said that he would have sleepless nights if fewer than 10,000 people had signed up to the green deal by the end of the year. The latest figures I have seen show that just over 1,800 people have signed up. I welcome the new Minister to her post, but may I inquire how well she is sleeping?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I am sleeping perfectly well, but I am also enjoying standing up here today. I think that he is referring to the green deal finance plan, rather than the green deal itself. Green deal measures continue to be a great success and people can fund them however they want; some do so through the green deal finance plan, and some do so through other sources.

As we have heard, it is now six weeks since the green deal home improvement fund closed overnight without notice, yet we still have not heard an account of what happened from the Government. The Minister might believe that it has been a great success, but the hundreds of people who stand to lose their jobs as a result of this incompetence would probably disagree. When will she be able to tell us just how many of the vouchers that are issued will be redeemed? What is she doing to help consumers get the measures they need? Crucially, if the Government have nothing to hide, does she agree that the Public Accounts Committee should conduct an investigation into this shocking example of Government incompetence?

The hon. Gentleman is a little ahead of himself. We are still looking at the applications. Because of the success of the scheme, we are having to do a detailed review of all the vouchers. It is a little early to talk about the Public Accounts Committee. I remain confident that the scheme is a great success, that we will look after small businesses and that it will deliver what we intended: the energy efficiencies in consumers’ houses that are so important to us all.

Carbon and Renewables Targets

12. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in other EU member states on carbon and renewables targets. (905186)

I have engaged extensively with my EU counterparts on the European Commission’s proposals for a 2030 climate and energy framework. That has included discussions at the Energy and Environment Councils in March, May, June and July, and several meetings of the green growth group of like-minded EU Ministers, which I established. Throughout the discussions, I have stressed the need for early political agreement on an ambitious, cost-effective and flexible 2030 framework. That is important to unlock investment and to put the EU in a stronger position for the global climate negotiations in 2015.

To date, EU targets have focused principally on renewables, not on carbon reduction. The result is that countries such as Holland, Germany and Denmark, which produce more carbon per capita than us, have exceeded their renewables targets. Will the Secretary of State ensure that any future targets that we sign up to are focused on carbon reduction, which is the primary aim, and not on the secondary aim of renewables? That would allow nuclear, carbon capture and storage and gas to play a part in other states.

As my hon. Friend is a huge expert in this area, he will know that the electricity market reforms in this country have been deliberately technology neutral. That will be the case as the market evolves over the next decade and more. This country has therefore not had targets for particular technologies. We want the market to decide on the mix. That is the approach that we have taken in the European negotiations. We have argued for the most ambitious greenhouse gas emissions target of any member state and for it to be technology neutral. I am delighted to report to the House that we are winning that argument.

European Interconnection

Increasing electricity interconnection is an important part of our policy because it supports our energy objectives. The gas market is already well connected. Last December, I published “More interconnection: improving energy security and lowering bills”, which sets out our plans. A new regulatory regime for investment has since been announced. The Government have made a commitment to open our capacity market to interconnected capacity from 2015 and have supported about 6 GW of projects to benefit from European projects of common interest status.

Following the visit to Plymouth of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who was enthusiastic about the marine energy park, what discussions has the Secretary of State had with Plymouth city council to ensure that the marine energy park is delivered as part of the Plymouth and south-west peninsula city deal?

I have had no personal discussions with Plymouth city council on that matter. I will ensure that those discussions are taken forward either by the Minister of State or myself. That idea is part of our long-term plan. My hon. Friend is right that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle did a fantastic job on marine parks, not just in the south-west, but elsewhere. That is part of the way in which we want to take forward marine and tidal energy.

What progress has the Secretary of State made on the Iceland and Norway interconnectors? Will he produce a report for the House on the potential for securing the supply of substantial amounts of very low-carbon energy into the country through those interconnectors?

The Norway project—the NSN project—is particularly exciting because there is a massive surplus of hydroelectric power that could come through a cable from Norway. Those talks have been really effective. The announcements that Ofgem and the Department have made—particularly that we will allow interconnector capacity to bid into the capacity market from 2015—have been well received in Oslo by the Norwegian authorities. I am confident about that interconnector project. The idea behind IceLink is that we could get a cable from Iceland to Scotland and supply geothermal energy through it. We are waiting to hear from the Icelandic authorities on how they want to take that project forward.


Shale gas, carefully extracted, offers the potential to improve the security of Britain’s energy supplies and create jobs. All onshore projects are subject to scrutiny through the planning system, the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive.

Many of my constituents are expressing concerns about fracking. If the Minister wants to take the public with him when he is dealing with energy applications, will he agree to Labour’s amendments to the Infrastructure Bill to allow baseline assessments so that people’s concerns can be assessed?

We are looking carefully at all the amendments that have been tabled to the Infrastructure Bill. In several cases, the amendments reiterate what already happens. We want to ensure that we make the most of Britain’s indigenous energy supplies in a way that is safe and secure, creates jobs and will give us better security of supply. We will consider all measures to try to do that.

Given that the UK has been producing nuclear energy safely for nearly 60 years without any major problems, does the Minister agree that, given all the safety regulation we have, there is no reason to believe that this country is not capable of extracting shale gas safely?

I have not made my mind up on fracking yet, but the information that we get is a bit like the Scottish Government’s White Paper—full of words but with no answers. Will the Minister ensure that the people of this country are fully informed about fracking and what is happening with it?

Yes. We have an intensive communication plan, and I will ensure that the hon. Gentleman is included in any future communications. I can particularly recommend to him one of the Department for Energy and Climate Change publications, which explains in clear detail exactly what fracking is, how it is safe and the regulatory structure for it. It is important to ensure that we take advantage of this indigenous and secure domestic energy supply, but in a way that is safe and secure.

Global Climate Agreement

If we are to meet the objective of the convention and avoid dangerous climate change, it is imperative that we secure an international, legally binding agreement, with mitigation commitments for all, in Paris in 2015. To facilitate that, I have pressed our case at a number of international ministerial climate change meetings this year, as well as bilaterally with my counterparts in Governments and with other key actors across the globe, including in China, the US and India. I will, as usual, attend the United Nations framework convention on climate change ministerial conference of parties in December this year, and I will also attend the UN Secretary-General’s climate summit in September, which will be the first meeting of leaders focused solely on climate change since 2009. Closer to home, I am continuing to push for EU agreement to an ambitious 2030 emissions reduction target of at least 40%, including by convening the green growth group of Ministers.

Climate change will affect the poorest people in the poorest parts of the world. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he is working with officials and Ministers at the Department for International Development, and that the Government are looking to make an announcement about initial capitalisation of the international green climate fund before the Ban Ki-moon summit?

I can certainly confirm that we work across Government—not just my Department and DFID but other Departments as well—to ensure that the international climate finance fund that we announced at the beginning of our time in office is wisely spent, particularly to help the poorest, most vulnerable and most exposed.

On the hon. Gentleman’s other question, we will make a capital bid to the green climate fund, but I do not think we will necessarily announce it before the UN Secretary-General’s New York summit.

The Chinese President has just said that he will not attend Ban Ki-moon’s summit, which follows Prime Minister Modi of India saying the same. Given the statement that the Environment Ministers of the BASIC countries—Brazil, South Africa, India and China—issued in New Delhi recently, does the Secretary of State share my concern that it looks like countries such as India and China are rowing back from their enthusiasm for pushing for an international climate agreement?

No, I do not. In my visits to Beijing and Delhi I see the reverse. I see the Chinese taking climate change more seriously than they have ever done, not just in what they say at the international table but in the actions they take—massive investment in renewable energy and low-carbon energy such as nuclear—not least because of the impact of air pollution in some of their cities on the eastern border. Equally for India, I think that Prime Minister Modi will be a global leader on this issue.

Topical Questions

I start by paying tribute to my two ministerial colleagues who have moved on. I am delighted that my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon) will serve in the Cabinet after his excellent work at the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and I particularly thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) for his astonishing contribution, especially in arguing the case for action on climate change. He will be missed in the House, given that he is not seeking re-election.

I welcome my new colleagues, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), and the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who have already made an impressive start.

I also bring to the House’s attention the investment report I mentioned earlier, which we published in July. It shows the record amounts of energy investment that the coalition Government have achieved, especially in low carbon, and I inform the House that after a review of the fourth carbon budget I have decided to leave it unchanged.

When last year I raised the impact of standing charges on those in fuel poverty, my right hon. Friend said that he would keep the issue under review. What assessment has he made of the issue since then?

As my hon. Friend will know, we have published a draft fuel poverty strategy. It sets out a range of measures that we would like to take, not least some ambitious new targets for tackling fuel poverty, and the issue raised by my hon. Friend is part of that. Ofgem’s retail market review looked at standing charges and their operation, and that analysis will feed into the consultation on the strategy.

In the early exchanges, a difference of approach seemed to arise out of the support or non-support for Thoresby and Kellingley coal mines. Will the Minister of State clarify whether he is open to a state-aid application, and say what form of assistance he would make available to UK Coal? If a formal application is made, how quickly will the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills decide whether to present the case to the Commission? If that is not the case, will he explain why the £4 million loan has been delayed, and say when he expects that money to reach the mines?

As the Secretary of State and I have described, the commercial option has the benefit of being under the control of UK Coal, and we are working towards that. It has not been delayed; it is a matter of ensuring that it can be done on a commercial basis. On whether we should go further and look at state aid, as I have said, I have been open to all options but there are some serious downsides, not least that the Commission would require the coal mines to close.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that consumers in rural areas with no mains gas and predominantly solid wall properties still find it difficult to access help to cut their fuel bills? He has visited such properties in my constituency. Is he still working to help them?

I am grateful for my right hon. Friend’s question and he has been a real champion of that issue. When I visited his constituency I saw how some rural properties off gas grid have high energy bills because they cannot use gas. This is very much at the heart of the new thinking in our draft fuel poverty strategy, which is now out to consultation. The Department has stepped up its work on that, and we hope to bring proposals to the House by the end of the year.

T3. Has the Minister seen the report from scientists in Aberdeen working with Cambridge university about the predicted 80% increase in global greenhouse emissions from the production of food, and particularly our increasing reliance—worldwide, but in this country too—on red meat? Will he talk to his colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about that and say what he will do about it? (905165)

It certainly is an interesting report and, along with many other issues, we need to consider it very seriously, although that sector does not constitute a big part of the UK’s projected emissions growth. The issue has formed part of the European negotiations. Other European countries are looking to expand their agriculture sectors and this is a big issue for them—a genuine issue. It is part of the wider negotiations, and we have to take it seriously.

When my right hon. Friend travels to New York later this month for the climate summit, will he tell the strong story that in the UK, thanks to the Climate Change Act 2008, passed under the last Labour Government, and this coalition’s hitting of our carbon budgets, coupled with our economy having the strongest growth in the G8, it has been possible to have strong growth and to reduce emissions, and that Britain is continuing to show genuine international green leadership?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Green growth is a reality in the UK. Expanding low carbon is part of the Government’s long-term economic plan, and we want to ensure that others focus on that as well. That is why we established the green growth group at the EU and have sponsored the new climate economy study due to be launched later this month, ahead of the UN Secretary-General’s summit. That will send a message to Heads of State around the world that it is possible to go green and continue to prosper and develop.

T4. Maersk Oil will shortly begin the process of awarding major construction contracts for the exploitation of the Culzean field in the UK sector of the central North sea. Maersk will receive significant tax incentives from the UK Treasury, but what help and support is being given to UK fabricators to ensure that they can reasonably benefit from the development? (905166)

Having a joined-up strategy so that when there is further development in the UK continental shelf we ensure that the whole supply chain is in a position to benefit is an important part of our long-term economic plan—it was great to hear the Secretary of State talk about our long-term economic plan. It is undoubtedly important that, as has happened over many decades, the whole supply chain in the UK benefits from development and exploitation of our indigenous reserves.

T5. I would like to press the Secretary of State on answers he gave earlier about support for the remnants of the coal industry. Thousands of coal miners’ jobs are hanging by a thread, yet his response was that there were issues about committing to closure, but that is not necessarily a problem as long as those pits are allowed to exhaust their known reserves. (905167)

What I have said—and what other Ministers have said—is that the Government have worked incredibly closely not just with the commercial companies involved but with unions and others to help everybody come to a result. I have to tell the House, however, that the coal industry is not nationalised; it is in private hands, and we need to work with the commercial operators.

We are actively involved in discussions with the European Commission on this vital state aid notification and have been meeting it over the summer. Most recently, officials met Vice-President Almunia’s team in Brussels yesterday, and I had a report yesterday evening. Those discussions are intense and, I think, very constructive.

T6. The Government are supporting the roll-out of smart meters that are not so smart: they cannot communicate with smartphones. When will Ministers rectify this failure of Government policy? (905169)

Action is under way to ensure we get the best possible energy efficiency from both smart meters and private developments, such as smart thermostats—this summer, I installed a smart thermostat, so I can turn the electricity and heating in my home on and off from my iPhone. Getting the best cost savings for consumers as well as reducing energy demand by enhancing and embracing technology is a vital part of what we are doing.

T8. With Hull city council yesterday granting final planning permission to Siemens, will the Secretary of State join me in encouraging everyone to take advantage of the new green jobs that will be coming to the city, while deploring the statement that UKIP put out saying it would rather the wind turbine jobs went abroad and the statement of the Hull Green party, which last week told BBC Radio Humberside that it did not rule out boycotting Siemens? (905171)

The whole House can unite behind what the hon. Lady has said. First, it is very good news that Hull city council has gone for planning permission. This Government have worked with the council, with Siemens and with others to bring forward this exciting and vital investment, which is a real shot in the arm for the offshore wind supply chain that we are determined to see as a healthy sector in this country. The statements from UKIP that the hon. Lady mentioned are deplorable and, as with almost everything UKIP says, are against this country’s economic interests. I am particularly surprised to hear that the Green party would want to boycott a company of the standing of Siemens, which has done so much in this country.

In this Energy Question Time, we have heard from the Government Front Bench that the Government are giving assistance, money and help to almost every energy industry in the country—nuclear, commercial operators in the North sea, companies assisting in solar panel investment and all the rest. The only energy industry that is getting no help—it is getting a lot of talk and waffle from Ministers—is the coal industry, and 3,000 jobs are on the line. Do this Government want to allow them to be sacked—a question that has been asked several times by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint)? We have had enough talk; we want some action. The Government should give some state aid to keep those pits in operation so that the reserves can be exhausted. Get to it!

I am delighted to say that I have spent the last two months working hard with UK Coal, meeting the head of the National Union of Mineworkers and the Union of Democratic Mineworkers to ensure that we can come to an arrangement that will help and support coal mining in this country. [Interruption.] From that heritage, which I have, we are looking for practical support for coal mining in the UK—instead of the shouting and the waffle from the man opposite.

Will the Secretary of State reconsider his decision to exclude households that are renting less than a complete building from his proposals to require landlords to improve the energy efficiency of their properties to at least band E by 2018?

First, let me say how delighted I am that we are consulting on new regulations to require private landlords to improve the energy efficiency of the homes they rent to tenants, which is an important move. I hope that Members of all parties will participate in that consultation. The hon. Gentleman raises an important and serious issue. I hope he will participate in the conversation, which is intended to give people the chance to consider the very issue he raises.

What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the likelihood of coal gasification progressing in areas such as the River Dee in north Wales?

I do not know about the proposal relating to the River Dee in north Wales. Coal gasification is one of the many technologies that we look at in the Department. It is not one at the forefront of our thinking at the moment, but if the right hon. Gentleman would care to write about the specific scheme he mentions, I should be pleased to receive a letter from him.