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Topical Questions

Volume 587: debated on Thursday 6 November 2014

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.