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Energy and Climate Change

Volume 587: debated on Thursday 6 November 2014

The Secretary of State was asked—

Framework for Energy and Climate Policies

1. What recent progress has been made on the EU 2030 framework for energy and climate policies; and if he will make a statement. (905915)

9. What recent progress has been made on the EU 2030 framework for energy and climate policies; and if he will make a statement. (905925)

15. What recent progress has been made on the EU 2030 framework for energy and climate policies; and if he will make a statement. (905931)

17. What recent progress has been made on the EU 2030 framework for energy and climate policies; and if he will make a statement. (905933)

With permission, Mr Speaker, I will answer question 1 and questions 13, 19 and 21 together.

I am delighted to tell the House that European leaders recently signed an historic deal agreeing to cut greenhouse gas emissions by at least 40% by 2030, and that the UK played a crucial leadership role over two years to deliver that deal. It establishes EU leadership and influence ahead of negotiations for a global climate deal next year, and it provides business with additional certainty to help unlock billions for low-carbon investment. It reforms EU energy policy to give member states more flexibility so that they can go green at the lowest cost, and it helps to improve Europe’s energy security, sending a strong signal to Russia at a moment of heightened tension. I commend the EU deal on energy and climate change to the House.

The grouping is actually with questions 9, 15 and 17. I fear that the Secretary of State has not been as well served as he might have been. People must try to keep up.

In the light of that deal, I am sure that the Secretary of State will now be anxious to make the UK’s contribution by laying down the order for the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy supply to 2030. Will he tell me when he intends to lay down that order and, when he has done so, what he has in mind for the decarbonisation range that will be in it?

I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman asks that question because, having been an assiduous member of the Committee that considered the Energy Bill, which became the Energy Act 2013, he will know that we cannot lay down that order until the fifth carbon budget, which is due in 2015-16. He will also know that this Government have met the first carbon budget and are on track to meet the second and third carbon budgets, and that in the summer I confirmed the fourth carbon budget at the ambitious levels we have set. We are meeting our Climate Change Act 2008 obligations.

The Labour party has already set out its position on carbon capture and storage as a vital part of our future energy mix. Is the Secretary of State concerned that Europe appears to be falling behind on CCS, and does he agree that his Government need to do more to stop that happening?

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for asking me about CCS. This Government are actually leading Europe on CCS; we have the only two commercial-scale CCS projects, one of which was the only such project to get funding from Europe. It was because of the UK Government’s actions that the conclusions of the recent energy and climate change deal included CCS. Like the hon. Lady, we are a strong supporter of CCS.

Given the non-binding EU targets on renewables and energy efficiency, does the Secretary of State agree that the Government now need to demonstrate how we can use that flexibility to increase the UK’s low-carbon programme, especially as it is being undermined by other Departments—for example, by stripping farmers of their common agricultural policy subsidies for solar farms and by rejecting applications for onshore wind farms? What will he do to encourage the Government to support renewables?

No Government in history have done more for renewables than this one. We have seen renewable electricity generation more than double; we have a much better record on this than the last Government. We have also seen renewable electricity investment more than double, with a huge pipeline of investment in renewables, including onshore, offshore, solar and tidal power.

More than 50 companies have called on the Secretary of State to implement a 2030 decarbonisation target, including Asda, Sky and PepsiCo. They have warned that the absence of a specific carbon intensity target is undermining investment. Does he regret the fact that he did not join the other 16 hon. Members of his own party who rebelled against the Government to vote for the target?

It is interesting that not a single Labour Member has got up to congratulate the Government on leading in Europe and securing an historic deal to cut greenhouse gas emissions in the EU, which is Europeanising Britain’s Climate Change Act 2008. It is absolutely pathetic that they are not prepared to show that they support the Government on this historic deal. As Secretary of State, I introduced into the Energy Bill—now the Energy Act 2013—the power to bring in power sector decarbonisation, and we will do it. The Liberal Democrats will support that policy at the election, and I hope that Labour will too.

The Secretary of State will know that there are times when many European countries have a surplus of electricity from renewable energy but cannot do anything with it because of failures in the energy market and a lack of interconnectors. Is that not the kind of issue the entire Government—not just him, but the Prime Minister as well—should be trying to sort out in Europe, rather than banging on about referendums and European exits?

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that question, because it dealt with one of the big issues we were working on in the negotiations for the 2030 deal. I worked well with my Spanish and Portuguese colleagues, because one of the biggest blocks on renewable electricity flowing through the single energy market in Europe is on the Iberian peninsula because of France’s unwillingness to have investment in interconnections. The European Council’s conclusions were very positive on this, and we will continue to support the case for greater interconnections, both in the Iberian peninsula and, particularly, in central and eastern Europe and the Baltics.

On reflection, will the Energy Secretary now condemn the Thatcher decision to shut not only the pits, but the clean coal technology plant in south Yorkshire? She was so determined to smash the National Union of Mineworkers that she closed that plant as well. When he thinks about it—the late ’80s—does he condemn it? Come on, stand up!

With reference to the EU 2030 framework. [Laughter.] I look to the Secretary of State now to deal with the matter pithily.

It is difficult to find any relevance in the hon. Gentleman’s question to the 2030 deal. Like him, I did not always agree with the late noble Lady, but I have to say to him that he is very backward looking in his approach to energy policy.

Energy Security

Today we published our annual energy statement, which shows the action we have taken to deliver a secure supply of energy while reducing bills and carbon emissions, meeting the needs of households and businesses.

Given the approaching winter and the increasing uncertainty in our international relations, will my right hon. Friend tell the House what steps he is taking to secure energy supplies in the face of possible extreme weather and other external threats?

Of course, secure energy supplies are the most critical part of our responsibilities in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. We have taken steps to ensure that the market operates better, through the electricity market reform programme. We have also taken steps to ensure that there has been £45 billion of investment in energy infrastructure since 2010. This winter, we have worked with the National Grid Company to make sure there is additional capacity so that energy needs are covered no matter what the winter throws at us.

There has been much scaremongering in the newspapers and other media recently about lights being turned off and energy being switched off. The relevance of today’s annual statement to my constituents and those of Members across the House lies in the Minister’s assurance that the lights will be kept on and heating will continue to be supplied to constituents.

Indeed, and over the summer we also had some impact on our energy generation, both in nuclear and hydrocarbon generation. The fact that we got 15% renewable generation last year—double what we had in 2010—of course adds to energy security, but, crucially, we have to make sure that this and every winter we take the action necessary to have the energy supply that is demanded by consumers, be they households or businesses.

I would love to be able to praise the Secretary of State today, but I cannot because I have to ask him whether he can confirm that, under this Government, construction has begun on just one new gas-fired power station, and even that will not come online until after the next election. That compares with the 10 GW of new gas capacity built under the last Labour Government. I am very sorry that I cannot heap praise on him. I had to give him some bad news.

Well, the good news is that the rate of investment in energy infrastructure has doubled under this Government; there has been £45 billion of investment so far, but we have a £100 billion programme because of the massive underinvestment that occurred in the previous decade. It is regrettable that the previous Government did not take the action that was needed, but we have done so.

The Minister will be aware of the many developments on the Humber estuary, onshore and offshore, that will boost energy security. In particular, the Joint Committee recently approved the Able UK development of the south Humber energy park. I urge the Minister to visit the area and meet Able and other developers to see what a boost it is to the local economy.

I would be absolutely delighted to visit Cleethorpes and the Humber estuary, which is increasingly a crucial cluster for our energy supplies and energy security. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his activity, and for his promotion of Cleethorpes and the whole of Humberside, specifically with regard to the role that they play in our energy generation.

What role does the Minister see for the British deep-mine coal industry in future energy supply and future energy security in the UK?

I have been working hard with UK Coal to ensure that we can refinance it. The Government have put in a £4 million loan on a commercial basis, so we are working incredibly hard in that regard. The hon. Gentleman should also take up this matter with his own Front-Bench team who voted to accelerate the closure of coal-fired power stations, which would of course to help to undermine the coal mining industry.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery), last week the Minister stated in this House with his characteristic humility and good grace that he had

“secured the future of the existing pits.”—[Official Report, 28 October 2014; Vol. 587, c. 247.]

He knows of course that, welcome as it may be, the commercial loan from the Government is in reality a short-term measure. Hundreds of jobs have been lost at both Thoresby and Kellingley. UK Coal told me this week that, with the help of the Minister’s officials, it will submit an application for state aid clearance to his office by the end of next month. Given how pressing this situation is, will the Minister now give the House an absolute and clear commitment that he will ensure that his Department will reflect and decide on the merits of that application, and on whether to submit it to the European Commission for approval before the dissolution of Parliament?

Of course I will consider that submission, not least because we and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills put in a huge amount of effort to bring that about. We worked hard to secure a commercial loan to get us over the short-term cash-flow issues and to look at longer-term options. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for welcoming this work and for his support. It is good to know that there is support on both sides of the House.

Solar Energy (Public Sector)

3. What steps he is taking to encourage the public sector to increase rooftop solar energy installations. (905917)

The solar PV strategy set out how we will maximise the potential for deployment on mid-sized commercial and industrial buildings and on the public sector estate. We are taking actions to deliver on that ambition, including: making changes to the feed-in tariffs to protect the incentive for building mounted solar; consulting on allowing solar PV to transfer from one build to another without losing FIT accreditation; and working with the Cabinet Office on our ambition to see 1 GW of mid-scale solar deployed across the Government estate.

I thank the Minister for her encouraging response. The public sector, and the Government in particular, need to lead by example. Will she comment on the best practice by Colchester borough council, which already has rooftop solar energy installations on more than 1,000 houses and five public buildings, and more are planned, producing significant financial savings for tenants and the council tax payer?

I welcome the efforts made by Colchester borough council to promote the deployment of rooftop solar; it is to be congratulated on that. In our solar strategy, which was published earlier this year, the Government set out their own ambition to see 1 GW of mid-scale solar deployed across the Government estate. So far, a planning application has been made for an RAF location, and a pipeline of other potential sites is being developed.

Last week, work started to build the largest roof-mounted solar panel array in the UK—I am talking about the Marks & Spencer distribution centre at Castle Donington in my constituency. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a far better use of solar technology than seeing thousands of acres of productive arable land covered in solar panels?

I congratulate Marks & Spencer on its solar rooftop project at Castle Donington. That is exactly the kind of project that we would like to see. The solar strategy set out a number of positive initiatives to encourage rooftop solar including the recent Department for Communities and Local Government consultation on increasing permitted development for solar PV. I recently led round-table discussions to identify some of the issues for rooftop deployment from the perspective of the landlord-tenant relationship. I look forward to seeing more of the actions that we discussed going forward.

There are enormous technological breakthroughs in solar energy, which is really worthy of further investment, but they will not get us through this winter. In view of the Minister’s complacent answers to the last set of questions, if we have blackouts this winter, will Ministers on the Treasury Bench resign?

I do not accept the premise of that question. There will be no blackouts this winter, and Ministers will continue to deliver the renewable energy and the energy security that we so need in this country.

Rooftop solar is silent and invisible energy production, making it very attractive where we have unused roofs in urban and commercial centres where it is most needed. Will the Minister meet me and one of my constituents to discuss some sort of incentives to encourage landlords and landowners to use their roofs?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that rooftops are an ideal way to promote solar. We are working on a number of initiatives, but I am always open to suggestions and I will be delighted to meet her.

Fracking

It is incumbent on us to explore the potential of domestic supplies of shale gas safely and carefully. The UK has a strong regulatory system and we will be working closely with the public, regulators and industry to ensure that regulation remains robust.

There is legitimate concern about the safety implications of fracking. The Labour party has said that all proposed sites should have an environmental impact assessment. Do the Government agree with that approach?

I agree that it is important to ensure that as we explore for this domestic energy resource, we do so cautiously and carefully. Environmental impact assessments are an important part of the planning process. The House is considering the Infrastructure Bill and we will listen to the debates on that.

Does the Minister agree that any decision about the exploitation of shale gas should be taken by local councils, and that, once taken, those decisions should not be overridden by officials in Whitehall?

Local engagement is incredibly important, as, likewise, is ensuring that local communities benefit from the successful extraction of shale gas. After all, being able to get shale gas successfully out of the ground will bring a benefit for the nation in terms of energy security, but also a financial benefit. The Treasury, inevitably, is keen to make sure that it has a part of that, but local communities also should.

Notwithstanding the changes that have been made in clauses 32 and 33 of the Infrastructure Bill, which is in the other place, will the Minister confirm that anyone wishing to explore or take part in fracking will still have to obtain planning permission from the relevant local authority and that the Government have no plans to change that?

The fracking regulations relate mostly to exploration offshore. How can the Minister assure those living in Ryedale and Hambleton, who have seen seismic surveys being conducted this summer, that the regulations are fit for purpose and that there will be no pollution or contamination of water supplies?

Not only does the regulatory structure surrounding the exploration for shale gas apply offshore, there is also a distinct regulatory structure onshore, precisely to take into consideration the sorts of concerns that my hon. Friend understandably raises. One of my first acts in this job was to increase the protections for national parks, in order precisely to deal with the concerns of those who are worried about the impact of shale gas.

The historical birthplace of fracking onshore is Denton in northern Texas, where the people are familiar with its economic and job impacts. What does the Minister make of the decision this weekend by the people of Denton and the town council to ban fracking based on a public referendum? What discussions has he had with his officials on that?

The lesson to be drawn is that it is very important to have a strong and robust regulatory regime in place from the start. We have one of the strongest regulatory regimes in the world for onshore shale gas exploration, but nevertheless it is in our national interest to support the extraction of this gas in a careful and cautious way, and that is why there is cross-party support for it.

It is good to hear the Minister talk about a safe regulatory regime, so let me help him with that. In order for the public to have confidence that fracking is safe and environmentally sustainable, it is vital that we have baseline assessments before drilling begins. Otherwise, no one can know for sure what the effects of fracking actually are. The Royal Society is unequivocal about that: baseline assessments of the level of methane in the groundwater should take place at every fracking site for a full 12 months in advance. Will he therefore urge his colleagues in the other place to support Labour’s amendment on baseline assessments when the Infrastructure Bill is on Report next week?

It is important to have baseline assessments and to follow the evidence on what is required, and the debates on that will continue, both in the other place and here. We are listening carefully to all stakeholders, including Opposition Front Benchers.

Energy Bills

Despite the energy price freezes this year, which were delivered by competition, not regulation, energy bills remain a huge concern for many people this winter. That is why the Government have delivered a £50 cut in the average energy bill by reducing our own policy costs, why we have introduced the warm home discount, to take £140 directly off energy bills this winter for 2 million households on low incomes, and why we have permanently trebled cold weather payments, to provide £25 for every week of a cold spell.

As the promoter of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, I am very keen on any efforts to reduce fuel poverty. Given that switching energy suppliers could make a useful contribution to that end, will the Minister please update the House on how we are progressing with the policy of 24-hour switching, and might it exclude political parties?

First, may I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done on fuel poverty? It is something that is very close to my heart. We have done a huge amount in this Government. We will shortly be publishing the first fuel poverty strategy in over a decade. With regard to switching, we are seeing huge progress. I challenged the large energy companies to halve switching times by the end of this year, and that is on track. Indeed, some of the smaller companies will achieve that by the end of the year. Ofgem is currently consulting on an idea I have pushed for 24-hour switching, linked to smart meters, and we expect a decision next year.

19. Consumer electricity prices went up by 4.4% and gas prices went up by 3.5% between April and June this year, but the price paid by major energy firms for coal fell by 12% and for gas it fell by a massive 21% over the same period. Why does the Secretary of State not act to ensure that cuts in wholesale prices are passed on to consumers? (905937)

I share some of the hon. Lady’s concern about that. Sustained falls in wholesale energy costs should be passed on to consumers. While we have seen some fixed-price tariffs come down, standard tariffs in the main have not, which is why I supported the regulator’s warning to suppliers this summer. When the Leader of the Opposition was doing my job, wholesale electricity prices fell by 62.5%, and what did he do? He called a summit.

One of the best ways to help struggling households with bills is to improve energy efficiency, so will my right hon. Friend update the House on what progress is being made in implementing the minimum energy efficiency standard in the private rented sector?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, because that is something I have been pushing for strongly. We have had a consultation, which has now concluded, and we are analysing the responses, which have been very positive about our proposals for minimum energy standards in the private rented sector. We will update the House in due course.

The Minister knows that many of us think that smart metering can deliver real energy efficiency to the consumer, but are the Government not getting themselves into a bit of a mess? First, it will no longer be compulsory, so it will be more expensive. Secondly, will he be very careful, because the technology is changing very fast? Much of the early smart metering is already out of date because of the innovation of companies such as Nest and Hive. Will he look at that carefully in case we end up spending £20 billion on the wrong technology?

We have looked at this very carefully, taking on the programme started by the previous Government. The hon. Gentleman will understand that the smart metering equipment technical specifications—SMETS 1 for the first generation of smart meters and now SMETS 2—set a minimum floor for standards, but of course we are seeing energy companies, through the competition we put into the implementation, actually compete on improving the technology, so there is room for innovation over and above the standards that have been set.

What progress is my right hon. Friend making in addressing the particular disadvantages faced by park home owners, who are unable to access a social tariff or the green deal and yet are people on very low incomes, for the most part?

My right hon. Friend has been a huge champion of park home owners over a number of years, and I pay tribute to her for the work she has done. Partly due to the contribution she has made, we are looking at this issue in some huge depth. I hope to be able to report to the House before Christmas or early in the new year on the ideas that we have to tackle those issues.

One of the largest components of an energy bill is distribution costs, which are rising while other wholesale costs are coming down. The nations and regions across the United Kingdom have varying prices. Does the Secretary of State agree that there should be a smoothing of this so that we can have fair pricing across the United Kingdom, because many periphery areas, including mine, that produce the electricity are paying more for it due to these distribution costs?

As the Minister of State said to the departmental Select Committee, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, the Government believe that we should look at this issue. However, let us be clear: if we were to socialise the costs across the UK, other people would be paying more, so it is not quite as simple as he suggests.

Off-grid Gas Consumers

In addition to the measures that I described in response to the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), we have already taken action, but intend to take yet more action, to help off-gas grid customers. We support the Buy Oil Early campaign to encourage people to stock up at good times for price and quick delivery. As my hon. Friend knows, because he attended it, this week we held the fourth ministerial round table on heating oil and liquified petroleum gas to bring together the industry, consumer groups and MPs to discuss these issues. Our amendments to the ECO—energy companies obligation—affordable warmth scheme provide stronger incentives for energy suppliers to install energy efficiency measures in off-gas grid homes.

One of the benefits of being on the gas grid is that people get use of the suppliers’ vulnerable customer register. What more can be done to ensure that those using other fuels can also see the benefits of being registered as vulnerable customers with their suppliers?

That is a very important point that the ministerial round table discussed in some detail. The issue is not just price but resilience of supply of heating oil over the winter months, particularly when there is bad weather. That is one of the reasons why we have the Buy Oil Early campaign. My hon. Friend is right: we need to work with the industry to make sure that customers who are off the gas grid and could be vulnerable are registered.

Nearly 1 million measures have been installed under ECO to date, but fewer than 1,500 of those were installed under the rural sub-obligation—just 0.1%. That means that off-grid customers who have contributed £153 million towards ECO from their energy bills have received measures worth just £600,000. Do the Government agree that they have failed those people and that ECO is not fit for purpose?

No. In fact, the Government have reformed ECO to address that issue. As I would have thought the hon. Gentleman would know, analysis of our ECO reforms, particularly in relation to the affordable warmth scheme to tackle the issue of the fuel poor in off-gas grid areas, shows that we expect to see a 30% delivery of affordable warmth measures in off-gas grid areas compared with just 2% previously.

Nuclear Power

We strongly support new nuclear as part of a balanced mix of energy supply. Hinkley Point C is paving the way, with three consortia now moving forward with plans to develop new reactors on a further four sites.

I thank the Minister for his answer. Clearly, after years of prevarication from Labour, at last the coalition Government are taking decisions on replacing our nuclear power stations which are going out of action. As part of the balanced programme that we desperately need, what further measures does he propose to ensure that we get more new nuclear power stations to replace those that are coming off-stream?

This is unusual for me, but I think my hon. Friend is being slightly unreasonable to Labour Members, because, under the former Prime Minister Tony Blair, they did take the decision to restart a nuclear programme. Of course, it was slow going at first, and we have accelerated it considerably. This summer’s decision, announced on 8 October, was a big step forward that has demonstrated to other potential investors that this market in the UK is now open. We have eight approved sites in total, four of which have projects that are at various stages of development. New nuclear will play an important part in our future energy mix, and I am glad that it has cross-party support.

Carbon and Renewables Targets

11. What recent discussions he has had with his counterparts in European Union member states about carbon and renewables targets. (905927)

As my hon. Friend knows, I have been engaging with a large number of my EU counterparts over the past two years on these issues. By engaging in Europe—by building relationships and trust over a period—I believe that a UK Minister is better placed to win arguments in the EU that are in British interests.

That is what we have done over carbon and renewable targets, so now we have more ambitious carbon targets than many thought possible. We have an EU-wide renewables target, not a rigid member-state-based target, so European countries can cut carbon emissions using the lowest-cost technologies for them while still providing a strong signal to Europe’s renewables industry.

I agree that decarbonisation targets, not purely renewables targets, are a good way forward. However, the Secretary of State may be aware that the Government of Austria—a country that since 1990 has increased its carbon emissions, which are more than 25% higher than ours—have reportedly said that they are going to sue us over Hinkley Point C. Could the Secretary of State give us his perspective on their comments? Is there anything we can do to counter-sue carbon junky countries such as Austria that repeatedly fail to meet their emission targets?

I probably will not answer the last part of that question, because the Foreign and Commonwealth Office might want to have a word with me. On the first part of my hon. Friend’s question, Austria has reportedly been considering taking the European Commission to court, to judicially review its state aid decision. We are confident that that decision was taken in a robust way and we were very supportive of it.

Given that Germany obtains a higher proportion of its energy from renewables than we do, why is it that it has higher emissions per head and that those emissions are rising as it replaces nuclear with lignite-burning coal-fired power stations?

A number of final investment decisions were taken around 2007, before the 2020 agreement, and they are now resulting in some coal power stations coming online. Since then, however, almost all of the proposals for new coal power stations in Germany have been turned down. My right hon. Friend is right to say that there is an effect, but in the long term I am clear, from talking to German Ministers, that they will get their carbon emissions on a downward trajectory.

Energy Generation

We are working through our long-term energy plan for a further £100 billion investment in energy infrastructure up to 2020. Since 2010, we have delivered £45 billion of that, with much more to come.

Will the Minister give a bit more information about how much investment there has been in the energy sector under this Government?

With that £45 billion, the investment per year is at least twice its previous rate, as is our investment in renewables. Renewables investment has been a large part of that overall investment, not least as a result of electricity market reform and the support for renewables under this Government. That means that 15% of electricity last year was generated from renewables, demonstrating that we are meeting our goal of being the greenest Government ever.

My constituents would be keen to see more electricity generated via solar panels, but they would prefer to see those solar panels on the acres of warehouse and factory roofing in and around Kettering, rather than on the acres of green agricultural fields. There are currently three major planning applications in the pipeline for solar farms on agricultural land, but very few applications, if any, for solar panels on warehouse roofing. What can the Department do to encourage solar panels on industrial roofing?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We have changed the way in which feed-in tariffs work precisely to incentivise and support solar on roofs. Having said that, 1 million people now live under roofs that have solar panels on them. That is up from a very small number in 2010, which is a big step forward, and the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd) is putting enormous personal effort into driving it even further.

Incandescent Bulbs

13. What progress he has made in negotiations with the European Commission on a derogation from the ban on the import or manufacture of incandescent bulbs for those with photo-sensitive health conditions; and if he will make a statement. (905929)

The European Commission has proposed changes to lighting regulation, including amendments to the definition of special purpose lights, but those have yet to be agreed. The Commission will be further reviewing lighting legislation, and we will continue to press for that review to take full account of any potential health implications of artificial lighting. That review is due to start in early 2015.

The Minister may—or may not—be aware that I have been pursuing this matter for some time, previously with a different Department, and it is important for that relatively small group of people to know that the Government will be pressing the matter. Can she give a more definite time scale for when she thinks there will be success?

I thank the hon. Lady for raising this issue. I am aware of how serious it is for her and her constituents, and of her history in this matter, and that is why my Department met the Spectrum Alliance in her constituency in September. We will do our best to press the European Commission for an early answer, and we will remain committed to the issue on behalf of her constituents.

Energy Bills

In addition to the average £50 off bills, the £140 warm home discount, and the trebling of cold weather payments that I set out in answer to the hon. Member for Southend West (Mr Amess), I point the hon. Gentleman to the big energy saving network we have established with the voluntary sector to help the most vulnerable get better energy deals. I also recommend to him the collective switching movement that I boosted when becoming Secretary of State, with the £5 million cheaper energy together fund. The Sun newspaper is now partnering with the Big Deal to help its readers come together to save money, and MoneySavingExpert.com launched its collective energy switching scheme this week.

But the Government must go further to support ordinary families who are struggling to pay their rising energy bills, because households in my constituency and across the United Kingdom continue to suffer from fuel poverty. According to the Scottish House Condition survey, 26% of households in my constituency are in fuel poverty, and an energy price freeze will save money for 27 million households. Will the Secretary of State finally recognise that we need a proper energy bill price freeze to help those struggling with the cost of living crisis?

The hon. Gentleman has not noticed that in the competitive energy market that we have helped deliver, the large energy companies are announcing price freezes that have been delivered by competition, not regulation. Moreover, a lot of smaller independent suppliers that have come into the market are offering good deals that people can switch to and save literally hundreds of pounds. I hope he will recommend those to his constituents.

According to Government figures nearly 2.5 million households are in fuel poverty in England alone, with 1 million more in Scotland and Wales. A written parliamentary question to me on 4 September revealed that the Government’s flagship policy—the energy companies obligation—will lift just 10,000 households out of fuel poverty between 2015 and 2017. Will the Secretary of State explain why out of a budget of nearly £2 billion, and with hundreds of thousands of measures due to be installed, so few people living in fuel poverty will be helped?

Fuel poverty increased massively under the previous Government and it is falling under this Government because of a range of measures that we are taking. We are about to publish—either this year or early next year—the first fuel poverty strategy in a decade. I think we have been very active, and I am totally committed to helping people in fuel poverty.

Under Labour fuel poverty fell by 1.7 million, but this Government have changed the definition of fuel poverty—that may be the reason for the answer given by the Secretary of State. Let me tell him why the ECO has done so little for the fuel poor. It is because nearly half the funding goes to people who are not in fuel poverty, and households in fuel poverty get only one measure, which is not enough to make a difference. Despite that, the Government have announced a further £100 million for the green deal home improvement fund—another scheme that goes to people with no assessment of their ability to pay or need for energy efficiency improvements. Is that just throwing good money after bad, and will the Secretary of State make a decision today to ensure that all that funding goes to the people who need it most?

Fuel poverty increased under the previous Government under both their measures. We changed the measure of fuel poverty after an independent review because the previous Government measured fuel poverty so inaccurately that the Queen was deemed to be in fuel poverty. We thought that needed to change. Under the right hon. Lady’s approach, a lot of the money she would have spent would have been wasted—it would not have gone to people in need. Under our more accurate approach, we are ensuring that the money goes to the right people. She should know not only that more than 50% of the ECO goes to those in fuel poverty, but that because we have protected the affordable warmth part of the ECO for fuel poverty until 2017, even more people will be taken out of fuel poverty.

Topical Questions

Since the previous Energy and Climate Change oral questions, we have made significant progress for consumers, with all the large energy firms confirming they will have met my target to cut switching times in half at the end of the year, and with the good news this week that some independent energy retailers such as First Utility have committed to halving switching times this year.

I can confirm to the House that the EU has agreed ambitious greenhouse gas reduction targets following two years of negotiations in which the UK played a leading role. Thanks to the Government’s long-term, medium-term and short-term plans, our energy security remains rated the best in the European Union and among the best in the world.

My constituent Sara Martin has been ripped off by Network Green Deal Ltd of Oakham, Rutland, a green deal assessment firm. She complained but her complaint has fallen because she did not take out the green deal itself. Her complaints to the regulator and the Department of Energy and Climate Change were brushed off, as were mine. Will the Secretary of State meet me to find an urgent remedy for my constituent and others like her who are victims of assessment firms that recklessly, or perhaps fraudulently, take money from them?

I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend. One design issue in the green deal was ensuring strong consumer protection. I do not know whether his constituent went to the green deal ombudsman, but I am sure we can look at those issues in our meeting.

Last month, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced that solar farms would no longer be eligible for common agricultural policy payments, under the guise of ensuring that more agricultural land is dedicated to growing crops and food. The Government have since admitted that they have made no estimate of the potential annual reduction in energy capacity; that they have no idea how many solar farms include livestock grazing; and that they do not even know how much arable land has been taken out of production as a result of solar farms. They do not like onshore wind and they do not like solar, so will the Secretary of State tell us whether they support any clean energy?

This Government are proud of our record on clean energy and renewables. Solar farms are not particularly welcome because we believe that solar should be on the roofs of buildings and homes, not in the beautiful green countryside. We are proud to stand on that record. I should take this opportunity to point out that this Saturday is the 25th anniversary of Margaret Thatcher becoming the first leader to speak at the UN on climate change. That was a very Conservative approach to ensuring that we preserve this planet, and we shall continue it.

T3. With several major oil and gas projects coming to fruition and a downturn in confidence in the industry, what will the Government do to encourage greater investment in exploration and production so that we can ensure the protection of the vital jobs that are supported by that industry? (905907)

As I am sure my hon. Friend is aware, Her Majesty’s Treasury is looking at the tax issues for the North sea and the UK continental shelf. It will report in due course, but he will know that the Wood review, which I commissioned last year, is pressing ahead with legislation. I can today announce the appointment of the future chief executive of the Oil and Gas Authority: a Mr Andy Samuel.

T2. As part of the discussions on further devolution, it has been suggested that the powers of the Department to grant licences for fracking in Scotland should be devolved to the Scottish Government. That seems an eminently sensible suggestion and I support it. Will the Government support it? (905906)

Of course we are looking at all issues around future devolution of energy policy following the referendum and the commitments made by the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister. On fracking, it is often not understood that the Scottish Government, the equivalent of the Environment Agency in Scotland and local planning authorities in Scotland already have a huge role to play in the development of fracking in Scotland.

May I commend the Secretary of State for the role he played, along with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, in securing a tremendous outcome on the 2030 package? Given that the agreement will mean we can drive an ambitious target through the most cost-effective pathway, will he look again at the Solar Trade Association path to zero subsidy? One of the most exciting things about solar is not only the opportunity for deploying on roofs, but the fact that it offers a near-term opportunity to get to a zero-subsidy world where we can really contemplate renewables at scale.

I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend, who has been a champion for both the climate cause internationally and solar. He is aware that solar offers the prospect, as indeed do other renewables, of a subsidy-free energy future. The cost of solar has plummeted in recent years and experts suggest that it will continue to fall. That is very exciting and he has been right to champion it. The Government also champion it.

T5. Consumers in both south and north Wales face higher electricity costs than most of the rest of the country. In his response to my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), was the Minister really suggesting that this is just too difficult to tackle, or will he now tell us more about what talks he is having with regulatory bodies on this problem and what his commitment is to trying to get a fairer system right across the UK? (905909)

It has long been the position that the higher costs of distribution in some areas of the country are in part paid by those who live in those areas. Actually, we have reduced the gap in costs between the most rural areas and the areas where it is cheapest to distribute electricity—that gap has shrunk. Whether we go to a single position across the whole country is worth considering. There may be benefits to remote areas that have the highest cost now, but there would be a cost to others because it has to be paid for.

In the very welcome mission for more renewable sustainable energy, what is the Minister doing to ensure that, in the rush, we do not commit to biofuel technologies that are not sustainable? What is he doing to ensure that residents, such as those in Avonmouth in my constituency, do not have to fear dangerous pollution from biomass energy production? Will he visit my constituency to hear their concerns?

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency and other constituencies in Bristol over the next six months. I pay tribute to her work on this front. Of course, making sure that energy supplies defined as renewable are indeed renewable and sustainable and have low overall carbon emissions is very important. We are working to ensure that that distinction is reflected in the Department’s policy.

T6. What is the origin of the £128 million funding that the Secretary of State has committed, over 40 years, to communities affected by the Hinkley C development? Will it come from the developer, as is the case with other technologies, or will it come from his Department’s funds or another Department’s funds? (905912)

There are two main sources of funds and I am happy to write to the hon. Gentleman with the full detailed analysis. Yes, money is coming from the developer, but moneys are also coming from business rates relief too. Business rates are being kept in the local area.

The Minister will have seen the Solar Trade Association’s standards for proposals for field-based solar projects. Does she agree that they should incorporate proper respect for listed buildings in our countryside? Will she encourage local councils to give short shrift to any developments that do not attempt to live up to the industry’s own standards?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. While promoting solar power, we need to support local communities and the local environment, and we are confident that our policies will continue to do that.

When he spoke to the all-party group on steel and metal related industry, Karl-Ulrich Köhler, the chief executive of Tata in Europe, cited the higher manufacturing energy costs in Europe compared with the rest of the world as one of the key contexts for putting the long products division up for sale. What will the Government do about the competitiveness of our manufacturing in relation to energy costs?

Europe has higher energy costs owing to European legislation. We have taken action— £7 billion of action—to reduce costs for energy-intensive industries, but of course, if there is more we can do, within the European rules, including through negotiating more competitive European rules, we will do it. There is no point simply moving carbon emissions out of Europe if that means that the same amount, or more, will be emitted in some other jurisdiction.

Just a few years ago, the country came close to a major national power outage because of a three-week blocking, high-pressure weather system that sat over the UK, resulting in lots of cold nights and very little wind. Has the Department modelled for such an eventuality again, given that the capacity gap is even smaller now?

Yes, we have. The capacity gap was actually smaller at the start of the last decade, but of course we have modelled for these things, and crucially, with National Grid, we have ensured that power stations are on standby to secure energy supplies this winter.

Does the Secretary of State get the message that most people in this country, including my constituents, are quite fair-minded about new ways of producing energy and know of its urgency, but that, be it energy from waste, solar or wind power, they want to know why the incentives and benefits for local communities cannot be more generous and are not more widely known?

This Government have done more than any other to enable that to happen: we have worked with industry to increase the community benefits on offer through the community energy strategy—Britain’s first ever—that I published in January; and we have set up several taskforces, one of which, the shared ownership taskforce, is reporting today and will enable the co-ownership of new energy by local communities. I therefore refer the hon. Gentleman to all the work we have been doing.

The world price of oil has fallen to $84 a barrel—almost a 25% reduction—yet it does not appear that the benefit is being passed on to consumers through domestic oil or other energy supply. What representations is my right hon. Friend making to ensure that consumers get the benefit of this welcome fall?

As my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said today, we believe that oil and petrol companies need to look at passing on these cost reductions, and we need to ensure proper competition in the market.

Oil and gas companies get tax breaks to exploit narrow seams of oil; renewables get subsidies; nuclear power gets subsidies; the only industry that does not get any help is the coal industry. [Interruption.] I put it to the Minister, who is anxious to get to his feet, that we need £70 million to save three deep mine pits. If they got that kind of money, they could exhaust all their reserves. The Government stole £700 million from the mine workers pension scheme last February. We only want £70 million. Come on, let’s have a bit of balance. When will he tell us he is going to hand over the money?

Last month, we put £4 million into keeping UK coal running, thank you very much, so of course we are acting on this, and we are working towards further support if we can make it state aid-compliant and if it provides value for money. As somebody who comes from Nottinghamshire coal mining stock, I am working to support UK Coal.

On the recent bans on fracking in towns in Texas, Ohio and California, the residents voted overwhelmingly to stop what they describe as noise, disruption and the constant traffic and fumes from wells and trucks in residential areas. Fifty million Americans live within a mile of an oil and gas well, so they know what it is like, but they were dismissed by regulators and energy companies as misinformed. How will the voices of local people who do not want fracking—they do not want to be paid off—be heard in their communities?

Had the Secretary of State accepted my invitation to Anglesey day last week, he would have seen a microcosm of the United Kingdom’s energy future. Will he genuinely thank the officials who helped with giving consent to the biomass plant, which will have an eco plant alongside it, creating real green jobs? Is not that the way forward for Anglesey and the United Kingdom?

I completely agree with the hon. Gentleman, both in thanking my officials, who are extremely hard working and talented people, and on the future of low-carbon energy on Anglesey. He has been a real champion of those sorts of projects and the Horizon project for the new nuclear power plant there.

Earlier in Question Time the Secretary of State made the point that the 2030 agreement was the export of our Climate Change Act across the EU. I very much welcome the 2030 agreement, but does he agree that the rate of decrease implied by that agreement is quite a lot slower than our Climate Change Act? Does he intend to harmonise the targets in the two agreements?

It is a little more complicated than sometimes the headlines show, because there is an effort-sharing decision that is being worked on. Some countries will take more of an effort share in reducing their carbon emissions than the 40% average and others that will take less, but I am happy to talk to my hon. Friend about that.

Last night, as we have heard, the planning committee in Bristol rejected an application for a controversial biomass plant. Is the Minister confident that Ofgem has sufficient powers to enforce planning conditions against wood-burning biomass plants that claim to use only waste wood but actually use virgin wood, for example by revoking their renewables obligation certificates?

Obviously I cannot comment on the individual planning decision, but I can comment on the general issue. This Government have introduced very tough sustainability criteria applying to biomass and they are a legal requirement.