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Topical Questions

Volume 585: debated on Thursday 4 September 2014

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.