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House of Commons Hansard
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Commons Chamber
06 November 2014
Volume 587

House of Commons

Thursday 6 November 2014

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

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On the front page of today’s Order Paper, it is noted that:

“On 6 November 1914 Captain the Hon. Arthur O’Neill, 2nd Life Guards, Member for Mid-Antrim, was killed in action at Zillebeke Ridge, Flanders.”

Captain O’Neill was the first Member of this House to die in action in the first world war. Today we remember him.

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Framework for Energy and Climate Policies

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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!

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

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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

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2. What recent assessment he has made of the security of the UK’s energy supply. [905916]

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6. What recent assessment he has made of the security of the UK’s energy supply. [905922]

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18. What recent assessment he has made of the UK’s energy security. [905936]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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?

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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)

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

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4. What steps he is taking to encourage businesses to increase rooftop solar energy deployment. [905919]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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5. If he will take steps to tighten the regulation of fracking in the UK. [905921]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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7. What steps he is taking to help households manage the cost of energy bills in winter 2014-15. [905923]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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8. What steps he is taking to help off-gas grid consumers manage energy bills in winter 2014-15. [905924]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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10. What steps he is taking to increase the number of new nuclear power stations. [905926]

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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.

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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?

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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

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

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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12. What steps he is taking to promote investment in energy generation. [905928]

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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.

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

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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.

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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?

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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

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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

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14. What recent steps he has taken to help households with energy bills. [905930]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [905905]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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Don’t come to my constituency with that—

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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?

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We have a stronger regulatory system than in the United States, and I think that is a good thing.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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rose—

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Order. I am sorry, but we must now move on.

Business of the House

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Will the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

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The business for next week will be:

Monday 10 November—Consideration of a Business of the House motion, followed by motion to approve the draft Criminal Justice and Data Protection (Protocol No. 36) Regulations.

Tuesday 11 November—Remaining stages of the National Insurance Contributions Bill, followed by debate on a motion relating to the medium-term financial plan for the House of Commons and draft estimates for 2015-16. The subject for this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Colleagues will also wish to be reminded that the House will meet at 12 o’clock on this day.

The business for the week commencing 17 November will include:

Monday 17 November—Remaining stages of the Childcare Payments Bill.

Tuesday 18 November—Remaining stages of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill (Day 1)

Wednesday 19 November—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill, followed by Opposition half day (10th allotted day, 1st part). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 20 November—Debate on a motion relating to devolution and the Union, followed by general debate on money creation and society. The subject for both debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 21 November—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 24 November will include:

Monday 24 November—Remaining stages of the Recall of MPs Bill.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 20 November will be:

Thursday 20 November—Debate on the first report from the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, followed by debate on the ninth report from the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee on carbon capture and storage.

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I thank the Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Deputy Leader of the House on his promotion in the fallout from the spectacular exit from the Home Office of the right hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker)?

On Sunday, I will attend a remembrance service by the war memorial on Egremont prom in New Brighton, overlooking the River Mersey. On that day, we will remember all the men and women who have given their lives to protect our country. Does the Leader of House agree that such events will be especially poignant this year, the centenary of the start of the great war? I note that we are commemorating on the Order Paper the Members who gave their lives in the great war. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should also find an appropriate way to commemorate all House staff who lost their lives in that war?

A week on Monday, we will debate the remaining stages of the Childcare Payments Bill. The Bill is too little, too late for parents for whom child care costs have risen five times faster than pay since 2010. They do not want to wait until after the next election for the Government to do something about it. Surely the answer is to nearly double the hours of free child care for three and four-year-olds.

Every week in Wallasey, I meet people struggling to feed their families at the end of the month, despite the fact that they are in work. Thanks to this Government, more than 12,000 people were forced to rely on food banks in the Wirral last year alone. This is living wage week, which Opposition Members are proud to support. Twenty-eight Labour councils are now accredited living wage employers, and Labour-run Brent council is putting our policy into practice early by incentivising local employers to pay the living wage. Does the Leader of the House remember his fight to prevent the introduction of the lower but statutory minimum wage, and does he remember declaring that it would price people out of work? Will he now apologise for getting it so wrong, and will he tell us why he is proud of an economic recovery that is leaving so many hard-working people behind?

As Tory Back Benchers continue with their never-ending plots to drive Britain out of the European Union, it is clear that the German Chancellor is losing patience with the Prime Minister’s desperate attempts keep his party together. She let it be known this week that tinkering with free movement was a point of no return for Britain’s membership. Yesterday, all the Prime Minister could do was to attempt an in/out hokey cokey that fooled no one. Before the Leader of the House is tempted to follow in the Prime Minister’s footsteps and quote extensively my deputy, my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), will he tell us if he agrees with his Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Stourbridge (Margot James), who this week wrote that

“the anti-immigration and EU minority tail, is wagging the majority British dog”?

May I thank the Leader of the House for heeding my call last week and for announcing that we will vote on opting back in to the European arrest warrant on Monday, just 10 days before the Prime Minister’s self-imposed deadline? Will he confirm troubling reports that the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has in fact refused to approve the draft regulations because they are riddled with errors? Lords rules dictate that a statutory instrument will not be taken unless it has been approved by the Joint Committee, but the Government are now so desperate to get this vote out of the way that they appear to have scheduled the vote in the Commons before they are sure that they can get the Joint Committee’s consent. Will the Leader of the House explain what he will do if the Joint Committee rejects the proposals after the House has voted on them on Monday? Will he admit that Ministers should have been spending less time worrying about the revolt on their Back Benches, and more time ensuring that the Home Office got its drafting right?

I understand that after business questions last week the Leader of the House and his fellow Tories travelled to the Prime Minister’s constituency to shed the accusation that they are out of touch and privileged by recreating the Bullingdon club at a £200-a- night hotel. Apparently, it was billed as a “How to beat UKIP summit”, but the campaign effort appeared to consist of knocking back free champagne and cognac until 3 am. The Chief Whip played a special game of “I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue”, but we know that already. The right hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Sir Alan Duncan) unveiled an excruciating painting of the Chancellor naked and brandishing a carrot, and some after-dinner jokes were in such dubious taste that Bernard Manning would have been embarrassed to use them. I know the Leader of the House is a man of the people, so will he confirm that he had his usual 14 pints?

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On that point, I had one pint actually, which another hon. Member paid for—it is a fine Yorkshire tradition that somebody else buys the round—so I do not know where that comes from. I have had to cut back quite considerably since the days of having 14 pints.

The hon. Lady is quite right, of course, to refer to the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, which makes this year’s remembrance services especially poignant, exactly as she said. We will all have that in our minds as we attend local or national remembrance services this weekend. There was a service in the Undercroft yesterday, which you attended, Mr Speaker. It is important for us to commemorate on the Order Paper the sacrifices of House staff as well as former Members, and I am sure we can all join together in giving further thought to how to do that.

On Commons business, the hon. Lady asked about next Monday’s debate. The Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments has not completed its consideration of this statutory instrument, which is a substantial one, because it brings together all the measures necessary for opting in to those of the 35 measures that require regulation to be passed. It is substantial, and I understand that the Committee will return to this on Tuesday. It is not unprecedented for the House to consider a statutory instrument—[Interruption.] It is unusual. It has not happened in this Parliament, but it has happened in previous Parliaments. [Interruption.] I am assured that it has happened in previous Parliaments, and I think the assurances I have received should be good enough for the rest of the House. There is no barrier and no ruling to prevent this from happening. We will do so on Monday—subject, of course, to the Joint Committee completing its consideration on Tuesday. Our rules are different from those of the House of Lords in that respect. By having the debate on Monday, provided that the business of the House motion is carried at the beginning of the day, we will be able to have a full day’s debate—a much longer one than would be usual on statutory instruments. We are also able to ensure that the issue can return to the European Council agenda, for which we need to give 16 days’ notice before 1 December—and there are very good operational reasons for us to have completed our consideration before that date. [Interruption.] I am explaining to hon. Members on both sides why this is being timed when it is, and why it is important to do this on Monday. We shall do so, subject to the clearance of the JCSI the following day.

The hon. Lady asked about a number of other subjects, including the cost of living, food banks and the living wage. I remind her that this Government have cut tax for more than 26 million people and frozen fuel duty for the rest of this Parliament. We have helped to freeze council tax for the fourth year running, when council tax doubled under the last Labour Government and energy bills increased hugely. Town hall charges doubled and fuel duty was increased 12 times, so when it comes to the cost of living, the Opposition have nothing to teach us.

The hon. Lady asked about the minimum wage. Government Members have long supported it, and if everybody is to apologise for past errors, we are waiting for some very big apologies from the Opposition. Perhaps the hon. Lady will supply them on one or two of these occasions.

She asked about the article by my Parliamentary Private Secretary, which strongly supported the immigration policy of Her Majesty’s Government—she can be assured of that. I commend the shadow Leader of the House—I try to find some way to do so every week—for being so cheerful about the situation of her party. An examination of this morning’s media shows that their election guru is losing patience with Labour. The Opposition have had a reshuffle in order to forestall a coup—and things are getting pretty bad when that happens. The editor of the New Statesman, the only publication to support the Leader of the Opposition when he was elected, has now disowned him. One shadow Cabinet Minister said to the newspapers:

“Morale has never been lower”.

Another said that they were all “very concerned”. On the subject of real congratulations this week, however, we have a special guest appearance by the shadow Deputy Leader of the House for sheer honesty. Because he is not really allowed to speak at business questions, I will helpfully read out his words for him:

“The state that the Labour party is in right now is we are in a dreadful position. And we’ve got to be honest about ourselves…The electorate looks at us and has no idea what our polices are. We have a moribund party in Scotland…And we have a membership that is ageing and inactive.”

That is the hon. Gentleman’s own description of his own party—to which he assents, for he is nodding. It will take a lot more than a reshuffle to forestall the judgment of the voters on that party next May.

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May we have an early debate on the costs of paying in-work benefits to foreigners? The Migration Advisory Committee said this week that the cost just of paying tax credits to foreigners is £5 billion a year. I tabled a question to the Department for Work and Pensions asking for more information, but so far I have received only a holding reply. I think this is an issue of increasing urgency, and I hope my right hon. Friend agrees with me.

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As my hon. Friend will know, we have cracked down on the number of benefits to which European Union jobseekers can gain access. There is now a three-month delay before they can receive jobseeker’s allowance, child benefit or child tax credit, entitlement to housing benefit has been removed from them, and we have taken a number of other measures. The benefits bill is being reduced in that respect. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend will receive a detailed reply to the question he tabled.

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More and more Members are becoming frustrated at the length of time Departments take to reply to our constituents’ inquiries. Will the Leader of the House present a report to the House, naming and shaming the worst-offending Departments?

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It is very important for Departments to answer letters promptly. When I was Foreign Secretary, I took a good deal of action to ensure that the Foreign Office improved its performance in that regard. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Procedure Committee reviews the issue each year and, I believe, publishes data, but if he has a problem with a particular Department, I should be happy to help him pursue it.

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In his written ministerial statement on the northern powerhouse, which was published on Monday, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:

“The Government will now prepare legislation to enable these changes”.—[Official Report, 3 November 2014; Vol. 587, c. 37WS.]

Now that the House’s appetite has been whetted by the prospect of more local government legislation, will my right hon. Friend tell us when we will see the Bill? Will it appear before the curtain falls on this Parliament?

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My right hon. Friend knows very well that current Session is now pretty full of legislation, and there is, of course, further legislation to come, on counter-terrorism powers, which I hope will receive wide support from Members on both sides of the House. My colleagues in the Treasury are considering the legislation that will be necessary to make the changes outlined in the written statement, and will introduce it when parliamentary time allows.

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Did the Leader of the House see a television programme entitled “Baby P: The Untold Story” last week? If he did, is he as concerned as I am about the role of those who save and protect children in our country, and does he agree that there are great lessons to be learnt? Lessons about the behaviour of Ofsted might actually lead to an inquiry, but, in the short term, may we have a full debate on the real story behind Baby P? Many people wrongfully lost their livelihoods and their reputations.

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I did not see the programme, but Members in all parts of the House will of course be very concerned about that and related issues. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to take the issue further on the Floor of the House during questions to the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on Monday—I know that he is always assiduous in asking questions to a wide range of Departments—and he could also promote it by means of Adjournment debates and Backbench Business motions. I have no Government time to give away in the next couple of weeks.

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Yesterday I visited Chatsworth primary school with the aviation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Scarborough and Whitby (Mr Goodwill), to hear about the impact of Heathrow airport on the learning and development of the young pupils, who spoke of suffering sleep deprivation because of the aircraft that arrive throughout the night. The Airports Commission is due to report next year, but it has said that the options are Heathrow and Gatwick. Will my right hon. Friend arrange a full and frank debate, in which we can discuss what is best for the United Kingdom and take account of the views of residents?

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My hon. Friend always speaks up strongly for her constituents on this matter. The impact on residents is of course one of the issues that the airports commission is considering in its review. It is crucial that we take long-term decisions on our aviation capacity that will keep Britain competitive for years to come. As she knows, the commission will make its final recommendations in the summer of next year, and I am sure that hon. Members will have many opportunities to make their views on this issue known and to represent the views of their constituents in the coming months.

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A constituent of mine found that his payslip showed a deduction of £50. When he asked why, he was told that it was for making toilet visits. It appears that call centre staff, who are provided with copious amounts of water to keep their voices lubricated, are also being fined for going to the toilet. May we have a debate on the toilet tax?

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Well, that is a new proposition for the House. I am sure that the hon. Lady will wish to pursue the matter directly with the company concerned—

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indicated assent.

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I see that she is doing so. If this were a widespread problem, there might be demand for such a debate, but I hope that she will be able to resolve the matter for her constituent without us having to debate it on the Floor of the House.

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May we please have a debate on green belt policy and on the threats posed by greedy developers and the local councils that wish to profit from their actions? Residents in my constituency have been appalled to discover plans by the neighbouring Cheshire East council to allow 2,500 houses to be built on green fields opposite the Marks & Spencer store in Handforth Dean. If that were allowed to happen, it would have a massive impact on local traffic volumes across my constituency and on the A34 in particular. Will the Leader of the House join me in condemning those who seek to exploit valuable resources to the detriment of local communities?

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I will make it crystal clear, as the Government always do, that the green belt must be protected from development so that it can continue to offer a strong defence against urban sprawl. Recently issued rules have strengthened those protections further to ensure that, whether a project involves new homes, business premises or anything else, the developers first look for suitable brownfield sites. Those rules exist in addition to the range of other measures that the Government have taken to protect the green belt, and I hope that they will be of help to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

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My hon. Friend the Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) recently raised the question with the Prime Minister of the firefighters pension dispute. May we have a statement from the Department for Communities and Local Government on why the dispute has been settled in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales but continues in England, given the optimism that met the arrival of the new fire Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt)? Her appointment heralded the possibility of the dispute being looked at with a fresh new pair of eyes, and a real hope that the matter could be dealt with.

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Of course we all want to see that matter resolved, and the Prime Minister commented on it yesterday. There will be questions to the Department for Communities and Local Government on Monday, which will provide a further opportunity to question the responsible Ministers about the issue.

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One of the untried technologies that we are not getting right in this country is wave power. There are two opportunities to use it in Sedgemoor in my constituency, but the money we need for the studies to find out whether it would work is not available. Will the Leader of the House find time in the next couple of weeks for us to discuss this matter? We have the opportunity to produce energy through wave power around the country, but we are unable to get the technology right.

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That is an important issue for the future of our country and its energy supplies. My hon. Friend will actually have a good opportunity to raise the matter further in a couple of minutes, when we have the annual energy statement.

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May we have a debate on the impact of the Tory obsession with leaving Europe on the family of nations throughout the United Kingdom? If big brother England votes to leave the EU but the smaller members of the family vote to stay, we will be treated like upstart children, told what is good for us and dragged out of Europe against our will.

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The Conservative party is advocating that the people should make the decision in a referendum. I thought that the hon. Gentleman and his party were in favour of people being able to make decisions in referendums, but, evidently, he does not like the answer that the people give. When we come to have that referendum it will be one of and for the whole of the United Kingdom, of which the people of Scotland have voted to remain a part.

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Following on from that, the European Union (Referendum) Bill passed this House by 283 votes to nil—the biggest majority for any private Member’s Bill—yet the Leader of the House has still not tabled the money resolution. We are led to believe that the Liberal Democrats are blocking it, though they did not have the courage to vote against the Bill. May I suggest to the Leader of the House that he brings in an emergency statement tomorrow and introduces that money resolution, so that it can be debated and the Bill makes progress? If the person sitting to the right of him, the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) wants to leave the Government at that stage, so be it.

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My hon. Friend rightly says that that Bill was carried by a very large majority, and he and I both voted for it. He asked about the money resolution, but, as I explained last week, there has not been agreement in the Government on money resolutions for two private Members’ Bills: the Affordable Homes Bill and the European Union (Referendum) Bill. Such a resolution can be moved only if there is agreement in the Government on it. But what he says is further evidence that only the Conservative party will and can deliver in the future an EU referendum.

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This week is national youth work week. May we have a debate about the utter destruction of youth services across the country because of Government cuts, so that the Minister can explain how, despite the cuts, he is making sure that local authorities can and do fulfil their statutory duties to provide a sufficient youth service?

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There is a lot of demand evident today for DCLG questions next Monday. The hon. Lady is asking about local authorities’ obligations, which are a matter for the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and so she will be able to ask him and Ministers about that on Monday. During the short recess next week, we will also welcome here the Youth Parliament, where young people will be able to discuss in here these and related issues, and I will join in welcoming them. I encourage the hon. Lady to raise these concerns with the relevant Ministers.

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May we please have a debate on the effectiveness of our international aid budget? Recent research by the TaxPayers Alliance has shown that of 20 countries in receipt of UK aid 10 had shown little or no improvement in the amount of political, economic and press freedom they enjoyed and five actually enjoyed less freedom.

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I am sure that my colleagues in the Department for International Development would welcome a debate. We have, of course, had a good deal of discussion about this issue in the debates on another private Member’s Bill and on its money resolution, carried just a few days ago, and in DFID questions just yesterday. Investing in overseas development is creating a world that is healthier, more stable and more prosperous, but that does not mean that the issues about freedom and human rights to which my hon. Friend refers do not remain. Development does not always deal with those.

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Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Mary Macleod), may we have a debate or a statement on accountability within British airports, as London City airport is planning to spread misery among my constituents by changing the flight paths and the concentration of flight paths over my constituency?

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Those are legitimate things to debate and to raise with Transport Ministers. Of course, changes in flight paths have a major effect on constituents, particularly those in London. The hon. Gentleman can pursue that issue through Adjournment debates or through the Backbench Business Committee, and he is entirely entitled to do so.

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My constituent, Christine Solley, has raised concerns about the sale of offensive and illegal weapons such as knuckledusters over the internet and through popular online auction sites. May we have an urgent debate on tackling the sale of illegal weapons online?

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My hon. Friend raises an important matter, but the position on that is already clear. The legislation says that the sale, importation or possession of such weapons is an offence for which there is a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment. All concerns about the sale of knuckledusters or any offensive weapons should be reported to the police or local trading standards department. If the seller of those things is based abroad, then concerns should be reported to the helpline run by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. So we already have a clear position on those things.

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Post-polio syndrome is a neurological condition suffered by 80% of all polio victims nationwide—100,000 people—yet awareness in the primary care system, especially among GPs, is very low, and there is no national strategy in the NHS to recognise the condition. May we have an urgent statement to the House on what the Secretary of State will do to remedy that?

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Awareness of such issues is important. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is doing his bit to increase awareness by raising the matter in the House today. I will contact Health Ministers so that they can judge how best to respond to his point.

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May I bring to the attention of the House early-day motion 455, which stands in my name?

That this House believes that the UK’s air passenger duty is acting as a barrier to allowing hardworking families to take holidays abroad, when the majority already have to pay a premium due to school term-time restrictions; and calls on the Government to reduce the financial impact on hardworking families by scrapping the air passenger duty applicable to children.

Currently, all children aged two and over flying from a UK airport pay the same amount of air passenger duty as an adult. That puts a significant amount on the cost of flying for families and the policy is out of line with most taxes, including on clothes and books, where children are exempt. British families face the full whammy of paying full APD on all flights plus a premium for taking their children on holiday out of school time. May we please have a debate on the amount of tax levied on children’s flights in the UK?

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The right time to debate air passenger duty is after the Chancellor presents his autumn statement or his Budget each year. My hon. Friend will recall that the time when the House decides whether to pass what the Chancellor proposes is after the Budget each year. Of course we will take what he has said as a Budget representation. He will remember that the Chancellor recently simplified air passenger duty. I think that that will have been of assistance to a lot of people, but it did not deal with the point that he has raised.

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May we have a debate in Government time on the state of local government? Coventry, Birmingham and the rest of the west midlands are facing horrendous cuts and redundancies. Why do we not have a proper debate on local government and treat it with the respect that it deserves?

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We do debate in different ways the condition of local government. Sadly, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government had to make a statement about Tower Hamlets earlier this week. Again, there are further opportunities to raise such issues in questions to him next Monday. It is also open to the hon. Gentleman to apply to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate.

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The European Commission unveiled its latest forecast on Tuesday, predicting that the UK economy would grow 10 times faster than that of France. May we have a debate on why the British economy is winning the European growth race, on what lessons we can learn, and on what lessons the Leader of the Opposition might choose to learn?

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Again, we might well want to debate such matters at the time of the autumn statement, which is only a few weeks away. As my hon. Friend says, the British economy—according to the European Commission —is growing 10 times faster than that of France. It is only two years since the Leader of the Opposition said:

“What President Hollande is seeking to do in France…is to find that different way forward. We are in agreement in seeking that way.”

That is the policy of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

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There is a crisis on our high streets throughout the country, as anyone who attends the all-party group on town centres will testify. May we have a debate on the impact of VAT rises on small businesses in our constituencies, so that the Prime Minister can make clear the Government’s position, which, again, he did not do yesterday?

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The Government’s commitment to small business is clear and strong. We removed £2,000 from employers’ national insurance contributions, which means that many small businesses, including some high street businesses, do not have to pay any such contributions at all. There is a good case for debates not just about VAT, but about a changing economy and the impact of social and economic trends on the retail world. The appropriate time to debate VAT and other taxation matters is around the autumn statement and the Budget.

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May we have a debate on the Youth Select Committee’s recommendations in its report launched yesterday “Lowering the voting age to 16”? The inquiry was carried out by many young people. Some 478,000 young people voted to select the topics debated by members of the Youth Parliament last October in this Chamber, and votes at 16 won the day. Does the Leader of the House agree that we should debate the committee’s well considered findings?

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I am sure that this will be debated in many different ways. It is one of the issues that the UK Youth Parliament itself will debate in this very Chamber. Members of the House have strongly held and opposing views on the issue. They were aired here in the debate brought forward by the Backbench Business Committee in January this year. Our noble Friend Lord Tyler has introduced a private Member’s Bill in the other House on this issue and tabled amendments to the Wales Bill. I am sure that there will be opportunities for further debate in this House.

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Further to what was said earlier about the so-called northern powerhouses, I urge the Leader of the House not to forget that cities elsewhere in the country, such as Bristol, would very much benefit from devolution of powers, particularly on issues such as transport and housing. May we have a debate on that, and perhaps discuss the issue of elected mayors at the same time, as we might have some salutary lessons for our friends in Manchester?

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The Government are conscious of this issue, and since 2010 have set out on more decentralisation than has happened for decades to many cities and towns in the UK. I think, from memory, that Bristol has entered into a city deal. There are further opportunities to push that forward. When we have the debate that the Backbench Business Committee has nominated for two weeks today on devolution and the Union, it will be entirely right to raise those issues.

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Many residents in the village of Bishopstone, just 5 miles from Salisbury, have been cut off without a landline for most of the last three months. That is a massive challenge when so many of them are elderly and there is no mobile signal. Unfortunately, BT has given conflicting advice about when the problem can be resolved. Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on how we can avoid such a thing happening in future, and how better connectivity can be achieved in rural areas?

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I can understand my hon. Friend raising this in the House when people have been cut off from their telephone service for so long, which is obviously not good enough. This year, Ofcom introduced a series of performance targets for providers—in particular for Openreach—which they are required to meet or they will face penalties, including fines. This year, Openreach announced the creation of 2,400 new engineering roles. I hope that providers will listen carefully to what my hon. Friend has said, so that the problem will be rectified and we will not need to have a debate on it in the House.

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There are hundreds, if not thousands, of sub-postmasters in this country with an air of criminality hanging over them based on the outcomes of the Second Sight report into the Horizon computer programme. On behalf of cross-party MPs, may I urge the Leader of the House to seek agreement from his Cabinet colleagues to publish in full Second Sight’s final report into the Horizon computer scandal so that these people can move on and clear their names?

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I will certainly inform colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that the hon. Gentleman has raised this matter. They will be answering questions in the House on 20 November, so he will have a further opportunity then to raise it with them directly. I will tell them of his concern in advance.

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As my right hon. Friend well knows, the Pitcairn Islands are one of the most remote British overseas territories, and their environment is pristine. Will he consider making time available for a statement from our right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on establishing a marine environment protected zone around the territory’s thousands of square miles, as supported by the people of the Pitcairn Islands?

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We have a strong record of not only giving stronger and more coherent support to the overseas territories over the past four and a half years than ever happened in the previous decade, including taking a great deal of care over the Pitcairn Islands, but of advancing marine protected areas around some of them. What my hon. Friend asks for is absolutely in line with that, so I will encourage colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to provide more details.

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Given the current uncertainty about the future of Long Products UK, may we have a statement from the appropriate Secretary of State outlining what the Government are doing to ensure that foundation industries such as steel are there as a bedrock for future manufacturing success?

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The steel industry is very important for this country. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that steel production here has risen in recent years. The Prime Minister commented on the matter recently at Prime Minister’s questions and there was an urgent question within the past two weeks on the future of the industry. It will remain an important topic of discussion in the House. As I said, BIS questions will be on 20 November, which might be the next opportunity to pursue the matter.

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A continuing concern in our country is the disparity in infrastructure spend between London and the English regions—roughly speaking, it is a ratio of 10:1 in terms of spend per capita. Much of that has been driven by Crossrail 1. Will the Leader of the House give an assurance that Crossrail 2 will not have significant sums spent on it without a proper series of debates in this House?

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Debating infrastructure investment in many different places and in many different ways is very important for the House, so I can assure my hon. Friend that there will always be plenty of discussions on these matters. He will also be aware that part of what we are trying to do with our regional growth fund and city deals is ensure that there is investment in infrastructure, transport and science across the regions of the United Kingdom. We now have the largest rail modernisation programme taking place since Victorian times. We are investing nearly £800 million in superfast broadband. There are many infrastructure developments benefiting the whole of the country, and we must ensure that they continue to do so.

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When will the Leader of the House schedule a debate on the third report of the Committee on Standards, “The Code of Conduct and the Guide to the Rules”?

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That important report has only recently been published. I have read it. I have not been able to schedule it for the next two weeks, but it is important that the House debates it, so I will get back to Members on that.

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May I tell my right hon. Friend that I am a member of the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and that I was present at its meeting yesterday? I can confirm that there was only a slight administrative delay, as he has told the House, due to the length and complexity of the measure, not because there were any specific problems. Also, my understanding is that on at least one occasion in this Parliament the House has debated a statutory instrument before the Joint Committee did, and I seem to recall that it had Labour support.

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I am sure that there was a request for a statement or debate somewhere in the interstices of the question and that we just did not find it.

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Indeed, my hon. Friend is right that there have been previous cases, including in this Parliament—for example, the debate on prevention and suppression of terrorism on 10 July last year. I am grateful for what he says about yesterday’s deliberations by the Committee, and we all hope that it will complete those deliberations next Tuesday.

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As my right hon. Friend knows, I am the Government’s pharmacy champion. Plymouth’s Peninsula medical school is very keen to have a pharmacy school attached to it. May we have a debate on pharmacy schools and on the much wider issue of pharmacies as a whole and their contribution to the national health service?

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My hon. Friend does a very good job of representing these issues. Pharmacists do indeed make a crucial contribution to the health service, and it is very important that we have well-trained pharmacists for the future. I cannot promise him a debate, although of course he can pursue one in all the normal ways, but by raising the issue today he has already drawn attention to it very successfully.

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In Harrogate district there are nearly 800 charities and voluntary sector organisations making a difference in their communities every day. Last week, the work of the volunteers was recognised at our volunteer Oscars organised by local councillor John Fox. May we have a debate on what more can be done to better recognise and celebrate the work of the voluntary sector bodies and charities that are so active in all our communities right across the country?

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We cannot do much better than my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of volunteering and the voluntary sector and does a great deal of it himself. He draws attention to the sheer scale of such activity. The figures show that last year 74% of people volunteered in some way—an increase from 66% just four years ago. We recognise the tremendous contributions that people make through the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service, the Big Society awards, and the Points of Light awards. I hope that all hon. Members will join in that effort, with or without a debate.

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The Leader of the House will recall a memorable visit to Cleethorpes around the end of 2009, when he launched a policy document called “No Longer The End Of The Line” outlining policies that would re-invigorate seaside towns. May we have a debate to review those policies and to outline what future Government initiatives await us?

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I do remember visiting Cleethorpes in 2009. Actually, I also remember visiting Cleethorpes around about 1966, when I was five years old, so I have many fond memories of Cleethorpes. Like my hon. Friend, I very much believe in the future of our seaside towns. This is an important topic for debate, and I encourage him to pursue it through the Backbench Business Committee and other opportunities.

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rose

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rose—

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What a delicious choice! I call Mr Philip Hollobone.

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This morning my right hon. Friend has shown his appetite for reviving obscure parliamentary procedures by asking the House to vote on Monday on a measure that will not have completed its other Commons stages. Will he therefore revive the obscure parliamentary procedure of debating Opposition policy in dedicated Government time? Given the importance to our democracy of having a healthy Opposition, and as a reward for the refreshing honesty of the hon. Member for Dunfermline and West Fife (Thomas Docherty), who said that the public have

“no idea what our policies are”,

may we test the proposition that this House has identified Her Majesty’s Opposition’s alternative programme for government?

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That would be a fascinating debate. Perhaps the shadow Leader of the House could lead it for the Opposition in order to clarify and expand on all the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about Labour being a “moribund” party, rather than the Leader of Opposition leading it and demonstrating that it is a moribund party.

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Yesterday I had the honour of captaining the House of Commons bridge team in our annual match against the other place. I am happy to report that we successfully retained the Jack Perry trophy with an outstanding victory. Sadly, I was the only sitting Member participating and I had to enlist a number of ex-MPs— former distinguished Members of this House—to join me. Even more sadly, UK Sport refuses to recognise bridge, chess and other mind sports as sports. May we have an early debate, in Government time, on ensuring that there is recognition of those mind sports, which are important for sporting purposes in schools and for older people, so that we can encourage participation in them?

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I am sure the House is pleased to learn of the hon. Gentleman’s prowess and distinction at the bridge table. It is a prowess and distinction of which I was hitherto unaware, but I am now better informed.

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I was also unaware of it, Mr Speaker, and I congratulate my hon. Friend. To defeat the House of Lords at bridge is no small matter, although I do wonder how many former world champions he recruited to his team in the absence of any other Members of Parliament. I hope hon. Members will join him in future years so that the title can be retained. He makes an important point about the importance of games such as chess to the development of young people. I would certainly welcome a debate. I am not able to offer Government time for it, but I encourage my hon. Friend to pursue it in all the normal ways.

Annual Energy Statement

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Today I am publishing the Government’s annual energy statement and supporting papers alongside the annual update on electricity market reform. This fulfils the commitment set out in the coalition agreement to present an annual statement of energy policy to Parliament. This will be the last annual energy statement in this Parliament before the next general election. It sets out the significant progress the Government have made since 2010.

In 2010 it was not just the country’s finances that needed immediate action. It would be fair to say that back in 2010 the UK faced an energy crisis, too. There was an historic record of underinvestment in energy infrastructure that threatened our energy security. There had been a decade of rises in energy costs, with consumers getting a raw deal from the big six energy suppliers in a market that had too little competition. Even on climate change, there were plenty of legal obligations to cut emissions, but little practical policy to achieve them cost-effectively.

Today’s energy statement shows how we have turned that situation around. Given how fast bills had risen in the previous Parliament and how fuel poverty had increased under the previous Government, helping consumers has been a top priority, starting with those on lowest incomes. Payments to vulnerable people to help with bills have been protected and expanded under this coalition, with the addition of the warm home discount, which will mean a £140 cut in bills for 2 million households most in need. Despite all the pressures on energy bills, this policy and other Government measures have helped to cut the number of households in fuel poverty during this Parliament by more than 100,000 in England alone. I strongly believe, however, that we should be doing more to help people out of fuel poverty, and after this summer’s consultation we are finalising the first new fuel poverty strategy in more than a decade.

We also needed to help every household and that meant reform of the energy markets to promote choice and competition. Ofgem’s retail market reforms now mean energy bills are easier to understand and tariffs are simpler, providing consumers with a greater ability to shop around. Slow switching times were also clearly a barrier to competition, so those times are being slashed in half this year, and Ofgem is consulting on its road map for moving to 24-hour switching, with a decision due by the new year.

Thanks to our deregulation, there are now a dozen new suppliers taking on the big six, to give consumers more choice and competition. In the past, we had switching between the big six, driven by doorstep selling or, too often, mis-selling—switching that favoured the big six. Now we have switching that favours the consumer. Some 3.5 million people switched their electricity supplier over the past 12 months, with 1.2 million moving away from the big six to the smaller suppliers. The independents now boast more than 2 million customers and regularly top the best buy tables.

uSwitch has recently talked about a new atmosphere of aggressive pricing, proving that competition is indeed hotting up. Moreover, after years of rising bills, there have been no new price rise announcements from the big six this year, reflecting the increasing competition and the efforts the Government have made to reduce policy costs.

The latest review of prices and bills I am publishing today shows that this year we estimate that policy costs now account for 7% of an average household energy bill. That is down from the 2013 levels of 9% as a result of the package of measures announced in the autumn statement last year. I will place copies of the review in the Libraries of both Houses this morning.

Even those lower costs are, on average, more than offset by the bill savings that our policies deliver through energy efficiency. By 2020, household energy bills are estimated to be on average around £92 lower than they would have been if we had sat on our hands and done nothing. For example, three quarters of a million homes are already benefiting from lower bills, thanks to the Government’s energy efficiency policies such as the energy companies obligation and the green deal. We have also acted to help business with energy costs. Together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, we introduced a number of measures to help limit energy costs for those electricity-intensive industries most at risk from carbon leakage. That will reduce the impact of policies on eligible industries by up to 80% in 2020.

But we can and will do more, with policies ranging from our electricity demand reduction to our leading role in reforming Europe’s carbon market. Most importantly for consumers, however, as a result of the first annual competition assessment that I announced in last year’s annual energy statement, Ofgem has referred the gas and electricity markets to the Competition and Markets Authority. That is the right way to restore trust in our energy markets, and ensure that consumers get the best deals possible.

As well as affordable energy, people want to know that power will be there when they flick the switch. Ofgem’s report on energy security in 2010, “Project Discovery”, showed the sheer scale of the problem that we were facing, with a fifth of our existing power stations set to close by the end of the decade. It suggested that the mid-decade period we are now coming to would be particularly challenging as power plants came offline, but as today’s annual energy statement demonstrates, we have acted to turn around that dire situation. In the short-term, our plan ensures that we will comfortably meet supply security standards this winter and next. As National Grid confirmed last week, it has new balancing measures in place that will ensure that the risk of supply disruption remains at very low levels over the next few years, and well within reliability standards.

Looking further ahead at future electricity supply challenges this decade, as part of electricity market reform we are reintroducing a capacity mechanism to the UK. We have delivered all major electricity market reform milestones. The first allocation round for contracts for difference is now open for bids, and the first capacity market auction will take place in December. However, those measures alone will not guarantee the UK’s longer term energy security. For the next decade, we are building a diverse lower carbon energy mix—predominantly home-grown—that ensures that we will not be over-reliant on one source, one fuel, or one import market. With the Energy Act 2013 gaining Royal Assent on 18 December last year, we now have one of the best legal and financial frameworks to support the cost-effective growth of low-carbon electricity anywhere in the world.

Record investments of £45 billion in electricity generation and networks since 2010 have put us on target to meet our future low-carbon power requirements. Indeed, in four years under this coalition, the available evidence suggests that we have surpassed the total electricity investment in the whole of the previous decade under the last Government.

Average annual investment in renewable electricity has more than doubled this Parliament with 2013 being a record year. We now have more installed offshore wind capacity than the rest of the world. Onshore wind—the cheapest of the large-scale renewables—now supplies 5% of our electricity, and the good news is that we have a strong investment pipeline for more onshore wind, worth up to £5.8 billion to 2020. Solar power has had £6.4 billion of investment since 2010, and biomass and bio-energy £6.3 billion. Renewable electricity generation has more than doubled during this Parliament. Indeed, in the first quarter of 2014, 19% of UK electricity was provided by renewable resources. With our continued focus on renewables, from our community energy strategy to our work on tidal and marine power, that is set to rise much further.

It is not only renewables that have seen massive investment. More than £16 billion has been invested in onshore and offshore electricity networks since 2010. Interconnection projects worth £1 billion have been delivered, and projects in the pipeline aim to more than double our interconnector capacity by the 2020s. Those include another link to France with a cable in the channel tunnel, and a link to Norway’s hydropower capacity with what would be the longest subsea cable in the world.

We also have £2.5 billion in gas-fired power plants; more than £3.8 billion in gas transmission and distribution networks; more than £40 billion in the North sea, which is a doubling of private investment on the UK’s continental shelf since 2010; and development capital expenditure higher in 2013 than at any point in the past decade. Last year, the Government agreed key terms for the first new nuclear power station in a generation at Hinkley Point C, and the UK has Europe’s only two commercial-scale carbon capture and storage projects. We have a strong set of low-carbon electricity options. All that investment has been achieved in the face of considerable fiscal restraint, with largely private sector investment rebuilding our energy infrastructure.

Before I leave the subject of energy security, there is one international aspect I should raise with the House that has domestic implications, namely the response by the G7 and the EU to Russian aggression against Ukraine, and the increasing threats by Russia to use energy supplies as a weapon. It is vital that we co-operate internationally to help our allies, especially in eastern and central Europe and the Baltic, many of which are highly dependent on energy imports from Russia, but it is also vital that we remember how fortunate the UK is to have such diversity in its oil and gas supplies. We should therefore not turn our backs on the shale gas opportunity, for as we decarbonise our economy, we will still need large amounts of oil and gas in the next three decades for heating and transport.

The implementation of the Wood review, which I commissioned last year to maximise economic recovery from the North sea, remains an urgent task. I am therefore delighted today to confirm that Andy Samuel has been appointed as the new chief executive of the Oil and Gas Authority I am establishing.

Finally, we have achieved that turnaround in energy security and energy investment while continuing to reduce the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions. I was delighted to announce in February 2014 that the UK had met its first carbon budget, covering the period 2008 to 2012. We are also on track to meet the even more demanding reductions required to meet the second and third carbon budgets. I was particularly pleased, after a cross-Government review, to confirm that our ambitious fourth carbon budget would not be changed.

The Government have delivered on our commitments under the Climate Change Act 2008, but to deliver on climate change more broadly, we also need international action, so in September, I published the Government’s strategy for achieving a legally binding global climate change deal in 2015. With the successful agreement last month on the EU’s 2030 energy and climate change framework, which was based on the UK’s proposed blueprint, Europe is now well placed to lead on the world stage and secure the global deal that is so crucial for future generations.

Despite political differences, energy policy has enjoyed a high degree of cross-party consensus over the past decade or so. I am pleased that that remains the case today on the vast majority of our policies. The Energy Act 2013 enjoyed the same level of cross-party consensus that the Climate Change Act 2008 enjoyed. That is crucial for the long-term investment decisions that energy infrastructure needs.

Of course, differences between the parties remain. There is an anti-competitive approach towards the energy market in parts of the Labour party; an anti-renewables, anti-wind tendency in parts of the Conservative party; and all parties have members with a history of opposition to nuclear power. However, it is imperative that those tendencies are resisted, particularly in the run-up to the general election. Short-term populism is the most dangerous enemy that energy and climate change policy has.

After the hard-won gains for the UK’s energy and climate change policy of these past four years, I urge right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to cleave to the consensus we have achieved. That is the best way to keep energy bills down, to keep the lights on and to keep our pledges to our children to tackle climate change.

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I thank the Secretary of State for what I hope and expect will be his final annual energy statement. What a curious statement it was. He looked very satisfied with himself, but consumers worried about how they will afford their energy bills this winter are not satisfied with the Government; families living in cold and draughty properties are not satisfied with the Government; and businesses—people who want to invest in this country, create jobs here and put us at the cutting edge of innovation in new forms of clean energy—are not satisfied with the Government either.

Let me start with consumers and the energy market. In his statement, the Secretary of State seemed to suggest that the energy market has never been working better, but will he confirm that, with the exception of a brief spike at the end of last year that followed Labour’s price freeze announcement, switching levels are at their lowest point for almost a decade? If things have improved so dramatically, will he also explain why, according to Ofgem, in the past year the profits of the energy companies have increased, as have the number of complaints about poor customer service? Is that what a functioning competitive market looks like? For the record, will he also confirm that under this Government energy bills have risen twice as fast as inflation, four times faster than wages, and faster than those in almost any other developed country in the world? That is why, on the Government’s latest figures, fuel poverty is rising, not falling. Is that a record he can be proud of?

One of the reasons why households and businesses have been hit so hard by recent energy price rises is that we have such low levels of energy efficiency. Looking back at the annual energy statements delivered in this House in 2010 and 2011, it is very interesting to see what high expectations the Government had for their beloved green deal. Yet today, there was barely a mention. I think we all remember when the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) said that he would be having sleepless nights unless he achieved 10,000 green deals by the end of 2013. Well, maybe he left the Department to get a decent night’s sleep. So far, despite being billed as the biggest home improvement package since world war two, just 2,500 households and no businesses—not a single one—have had measures installed under the green deal. Does the Secretary of State also regret that, in his panicked response to our energy price freeze announcement last year, he announced sweeping cuts to the energy company obligation that will result in nearly half a million fewer households receiving energy efficiency improvements? Let me tell him that the next Labour Government will not make the same mistakes that he has, as will be clear when we publish our energy efficiency green paper next week.

Never let it be said that I am not a fair woman. Some things have moved slightly further forward in the past year. On oil and gas, we support the Government’s intention to implement the Wood review and establish a new regulatory body. A greater share of our electricity is coming from renewable sources. However, two thirds of the projects that have come online in this Parliament started under the previous Labour Government. The energy legislation we supported is now finally on the statute book. Progress has been made at Hinkley, too. Thanks to the European Commission, consumers will now get a better deal than the one the Government were able to negotiate. In a similar vein, does the Secretary of State agree that the National Audit Office should publish its analysis on the Hinkley deal before he finally signs the contract? Figures from Bloomberg New Energy Finance published just a few weeks ago show that investment in clean energy this year is substantially down on last year. After well-publicised spats and U-turns in Government—first on wind, now on solar—is it any surprise that Ernst and Young has downgraded the UK to seventh in its index of attractiveness for renewable investment?

I understand the Secretary of State has leadership ambitions. Does he agree with me, however, that those ambitions, and the investment climate for low-carbon generation, would be better served if he, like 16 of his Liberal Democrat colleagues, had supported a decarbonisation target for the power sector for 2030, as Labour proposed? The fact that we are missing out on this investment is not just a loss for the jobs and growth it would have supported but for our energy security, which the Secretary of State covered in his statement. As he said, this winter National Grid is taking precautionary measures to maintain the security of our energy supply, which, again, we have supported. However, is not the reason why those measures need to be taken precisely that we have seen so little investment in our energy infrastructure in the past four years? In our last few years in Government, construction on six new gas-fired power stations began, but will the Secretary of State confirm that under this Government just one new gas-fired power station, at Carrington in Manchester, has been commissioned and that even this will not be operational until after the next election?

One area on which there is greater consensus is international climate change. I welcome the progress made with the EU 2030 package last month, which, as the Secretary of State knows, we supported. I also send our best wishes to him and the officials who will be representing us in Lima as we build towards the Paris climate conference next year. In that regard, he has the full support of the Opposition, even if the same cannot be said for all Members on the Government Benches.

I am afraid that that is as far as my good wishes extend, because this time next year I hope that I will be delivering the annual energy statement, as part of a Labour Government who have capped energy prices and begun the work of reforming our energy market, ending the scandal of cold homes and securing the investment that our country badly needs.

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I thank the right hon. Lady for her reply, even if her last bit was slightly delusional, and for her support for things such as the Wood review, the Oil and Gas Authority and the European deal we secured and led on.

On the energy market, the right hon. Lady talked about switching levels. It is true that switching levels were higher under the last Government, but that was because there was an awful lot of doorstep selling and mis-selling. Does Labour plan to encourage doorstep selling to increase switching levels? Unfortunately, it was a very bad strategy. Under the last Government, we saw lots of people switching between the big six—the big six quite liked that approach to switching—but under this Government we have seen record levels of switching from the big six to new suppliers. That is why consumers are getting a better deal. Switching levels in this country are among the highest in Europe, and are higher than in telecoms or the banking industry, so I think we have a very good record here.

The right hon. Lady rightly talked about profits and complaints about energy companies. We are very focused on that, and it was one reason why I was keen to support the independent competition inquiry into the energy market—it is a shame that the Leader of the Opposition did not do the same when he was doing my job. Energy bills rose faster under the last Government than they have under this one. Between 2005 and 2010, they rose 10.3% in cash terms, whereas, under this Government, they have risen by 8% in cash terms. So she and Labour have a very poor record on electricity and gas bills.

The right hon. Lady talked about the green deal, but she did not mention the green deal home improvement fund, which was so successful it unfortunately ran out of money quicker than we expected, or the fact that in response we have announced another £100 million for the fund. She also failed to notice that the number of green deal finance plans being taken out is at long last beginning to rise.

The right hon. Lady’s characterisation of ECO will not be recognised by the hundreds of thousands of people benefiting from this scheme, which has been much more successful than its predecessor. As a result of the green deal and ECO, we are on track to install energy efficiency measures in 1 million homes. She also keeps making this astonishing request that the NAO audit a contract before it is finalised. It sounds like a rather odd approach for an audit. I have told the House before that, of course, I would expect the NAO to look at the contract after the deal has been agreed and that we would co-operate with it.

The right hon. Lady made some rather odd points about renewables investment. If the investment was all down to the last Government, why was last year a record year for investment and why do we have such a healthy pipeline set to more than double investment in renewable electricity? Bloomberg New Energy Finance, which she quoted, marked the UK down as fourth in the world in 2013 for clean energy transactions, with more than $21 billion of transactions. I think she was referring to the 2014 figures, which she says are coming out soon, but I am afraid she needs to check her facts, because there is a bit of a difference between raw data and model data. I am happy to explain that later, however, because it is an important debating point.

I was glad to have the right hon. Lady’s support for the 2030 deal—it was significant, as was the confirmation that we would keep to the fourth carbon budget, meaning that the Government have met their climate change objectives. She talked again about the power sector decarbonisation target and I have made it clear that the Liberal Democrats will pursue that. I also made it clear why I put in the Energy Act 2013 the power for the next Government to implement such a target.

The right hon. Lady also talked about gas stations. I can confirm that fewer gas stations have been constructed during this Parliament than were previously expected. That has been the case, by the way, across the whole of Europe, because of the changes in the relative prices of coal and gas, which have affected all European countries. That is one of the reasons why we were right to put in place a carbon price floor and reform the EU emissions trading scheme, so that we can get the incentives to move from coal to gas, as part of our climate change strategy.

But overall, I think I detected some consensus from the right hon. Lady.

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In the event that the positions are swapped for next year’s energy statement, I hope the Secretary of State agrees that it would be a shame if we went back to being 25th out of the 27 countries in the EU for renewables, as we were in 2010. However, my substantive question is about coal. Across the world we are seeing a renaissance in coal—I believe that last year coal increased by eight times more than renewables in absolute numbers. As the Secretary of State goes on trying to secure a worldwide agreement, does he really believe that we can make progress on this?

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My hon. Friend is right to focus on the last Government’s poor record on renewables. On coal, global investment in clean energy was outpacing global investment in fossil fuels last year and has been for the last few years, but he is right to warn about coal, because global coal prices have fallen, which has meant that some people are investing. That is one of the reasons why it is important that we have a price on carbon. We have policies such as contracts for difference, which give investors in low carbon security for the future.

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Prepayment meters are still causing problems for many of the most vulnerable customers. The problems include long delays in recalibrating the older meters when prices rise or fall, which leads to arrears or overpayments. The best deals are still not available for prepayment customers and many do not know that they can switch suppliers for a much better deal. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that these customers are fully informed and treated more fairly by the energy companies?

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The hon. Lady had a distinguished career working for Citizens Advice, which has been a real champion on this point. Its latest campaign on prepayment meters is something we are looking at seriously, and we are grateful to Citizens Advice for its evidence and research. Longer term, the introduction of smart meters will be important, because they will reduce the higher differential costs that prepayment meter users face, which is one of the reasons I called on the obligated suppliers to move further and faster to roll out smart meters for prepayment meter users. That is part of the solution, but no doubt we need to look at other issues as well.

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The deal in the EU on climate change shows the benefit of engagement and co-operation. How optimistic is the Secretary of State that that can be taken forward to Paris? In particular, does he draw any optimism from the fact that the Chinese are expanding renewables, experimenting with carbon capture and storage and also introducing pilot emissions trading schemes?

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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. Engaging in Europe over a period of time, building relationships and building trust, is critical if we are going to argue for British interests. The green growth group, which this Government set up in Europe to bring Ministers together, was critical in securing that deal. The green growth group will continue to help the European Union to lead at this level in the climate change talks ahead of us.

My hon. Friend is right to point to the action that China is taking. Indeed, I am more optimistic about a good climate deal in Paris 2015 than I have ever been, not just because of the EU deal but because of the actions being taken by President Obama in the United States and by the Chinese Administration and, indeed, the leadership that I believe Prime Minister Narendra Modi is showing in India.

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This winter many of my constituents in Blackpool will face poorly insulated homes and high bills because wholesale reductions in cost have not been passed on to consumers. Why did the Secretary of State not include any measures to bring that about in the Energy Act 2013, and what can he tell us about stopping the green deal becoming a snail race?

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I am afraid the green deal has in fact been hotting up—the hon. Gentleman obviously missed that. I can also tell him that, thanks to extra competition and choice and faster and easier switching, if energy companies are not passing on falls in wholesale costs to his constituents, his constituents now have the ability to move to companies that are. I urge him to look at the new fixed-price tariffs—and to show them to his constituents—which are enabling people to save money on their energy bills this winter.

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Given that the myriad tariffs and deals in many respects led to gross mis-selling on the doorstep, will the right hon. Gentleman never tire of reminding the electorate that one of this Government’s biggest achievements has been to oblige energy companies to be much more transparent about whether they are offering the best possible deal to their customers? Such transparency has helped many customers.

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May I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has done an awful lot in this regard? The Government have listened to many of his arguments, as I believe has the independent regulator, Ofgem. There has been a reduction in the number of tariffs—frankly, they led to obfuscation and got in the way of competition, on which the previous Government failed to take any action—and bills have become simpler, which all helps to promote competition. The fact that energy companies now have to tell their customers whether they have a tariff that could save them money is another step forward.

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Energy co-operatives such as Baywind Energy in the Lake district or Brixton Energy Solar in south London make a small but important contribution to meeting our energy needs and to reducing CO2 emissions. Given that a number of other countries have a far larger energy co-op sector, what further steps will the Secretary of State take to encourage the growth of energy co-ops in the UK?

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I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman. We have very much been going down this path. I urge him to read Britain’s first ever community energy strategy, which I published in January. Later, I am going to meet community energy groups, co-operatives and others that are working with the renewables industry on something called the shared ownership taskforce, which is launching its report today. With that we are ensuring that there is an option for communities to buy in to renewable projects in their area, thus extending the options for new types of energy co-operatives.

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Candu Energy is in talks with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to commission its new nuclear technology. If the talks are successful, it has indicated that it is interested in building a new nuclear power station at Heysham. Will my right hon. Friend use any means at his disposal to facilitate a new build for fission low-carbon energy at that site and secure jobs in my constituency for generations to come?

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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his information, but he will know that I cannot comment ahead of the negotiations or discussions that Candu is having with various stakeholders in the industry. At the moment, we are working at Heysham to ensure that EDF gets the reactors back on line.

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The Secretary of State talked about the amount of offshore wind that has already been installed. Despite the vast amount that has been put into nuclear energy, it seems to me that relatively little is going to offshore wind in the first CfD allocation round. In fact, I understand that it may be sufficient only for one major project, despite the fact that three are proposed off the coast of my constituency alone. Does he think that that is a sufficient incentive to the offshore wind industry to meet his offshore wind industry strategy?

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It is quite difficult to argue that this Government have not put huge amounts behind the offshore wind industry. We have more offshore wind installed and under construction than in the rest of the world put together. We are on track to meet 10 GW by the end of this decade, which is a huge amount. If, when thinking about the allocation of CfDs from the levy control framework—that is what lies behind the hon. Gentleman’s question—we had allocated all of it in the first round, there would have been less to allocate in future. One of the things the industry has said is that it wants a much smoother deployment of offshore wind. By the way, that will also enable us to get the benefit of cost reductions, which is vital for consumers.

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In two days’ time, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) will celebrate 41 years since his election in a by-election. I call Sir Alan Beith.

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Thank you for your kind comment, Mr Speaker.

My right hon. Friend has given welcome support in the European state aid negotiations for the Lynemouth power station’s conversion to biomass. May I stress that it is now becoming urgent to get a favourable decision, because the permission to continue to burn coal expires in June next year? May I ask for the Secretary of State’s continued help?

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Let me first mention that my first job in politics was working for my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith)—[Interruption.] I hear a comment from a sedentary position that it was downhill all the way from there, which may be right, but it was a great privilege to work for my right hon. Friend, whom I consider to be one of the greatest parliamentarians of our time.

On my right hon. Friend’s constituency project, my officials are very much engaged with the Commission. It is a new Commission, which has contributed to a little delay, but we are trying to push forward as rapidly as possible for exactly the reasons my right hon. Friend outlined.

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Last week, I had the pleasure of meeting Ovo Energy—an alternative supplier to the big six—which employs 550 people in Bristol. It tells me that it will pass on falls in wholesale energy prices to customers, so why can the big six not do the same?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. I think Ovo Energy has given a real boost to competition in the retail energy market—something that we have welcomed and, indeed, championed. I would say to the hon. Lady’s constituents and to those of every right hon. and hon. Member that companies such as Ovo Energy are offering good deals, although it is not the only company to do so. I urge people to look to those alternatives if their energy supplier is not reducing its tariff in line with falls in wholesale prices.

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I am delighted to hear about Hinkley C, although you would expect me to say that, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is important to recognise that we have all worked hard across the House with the Department’s officials, EDF Energy and Sedgemoor, not only to explain to Europe and the Irish why this is important but to take on Germany and Austria, which were very keen on making sure this did not happen. This shows that we understand the importance of energy security and that we can build a large-scale infrastructure project on time in the way necessary to keep the lights on in this country. Will the Secretary of State praise EDF and everybody else who has participated in this humungous project to get it to where it is today so speedily?

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First of all, I would like to praise my hon. Friend, who has shown great leadership. He is right that it has been a collective effort, and it is also right to say that we have greater consensus across the House on these issues. This sends out a strong signal to the European Commission and to other European countries. This is fantastic news for energy security in the 2020s, and fantastic news for our climate change objectives.

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The mitigation of the impact of the Government’s unilateral carbon floor tax has been too little, too late. In the light of that, will the Secretary of State and the Government look to bring forward support for energy-intensive industries in relation to the renewables obligation from 2016 to 2015?

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This Government have done more than any other to assist in these areas. I spoke to a group of manufacturers earlier this week at the Engineering Employers Federation, and I found there was real recognition that we had done a huge amount domestically and on the European front, with the 2030 deal and getting much more of a level playing field across Europe. The hon. Gentleman asks me to announce a new policy from the Dispatch Box, but I am certainly not going to do that. I can tell him that we keep this issue under close review and that I work very closely with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on this matter.

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I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the record levels of electricity generated from renewable sources, but those sources could be more diverse, which would benefit us all. What role does he see over the next 10 years for the construction of tidal lagoons to contribute to our renewable electricity generation?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is important to look at all forms of renewables to see whether they can provide a cost-effective addition to our low-carbon strategy. Tidal power and especially tidal lagoon power look increasingly attractive. It is clearly up to private investors and companies to come forward with their proposals, and I very much hope they will.

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There has indeed been a lot of progress made at the European level in the recent negotiations, but there were disappointments as well, one of which was the failure to have any binding targets at any level on energy efficiency. What is the Government’s approach to that issue, and if they agree that there should be more energy efficiency measures at the European level, what steps are they taking to bring them about?

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The Government were comfortable with a non-binding target, which is the type of target that was agreed by the last Government in the 2020 deal, but, like the last Government, we were concerned about having a binding target. We believe that our existing energy efficiency policies will be able to meet a non-binding target at the European Union level of 27%, because they are very ambitious. We also believe that should there be a review of that energy efficiency target— which there will be, according to the European Council conclusions—we shall need to look again at energy efficiency as one of the lowest-cost ways of going green as we develop our policies for the fourth and fifth carbon budgets.

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The Secretary of State has said that interconnector capacity should double by the 2020s. Would he be kind enough to give us more details? For instance, what is the size of the present interconnector with France and to what extent is it currently used? What is the capacity of the new channel tunnel cable and the new cable connecting us with Norway, and are there any plans for interconnectors with both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland?

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My hon. Friend has asked very detailed questions. Let me refer him to two recent publications. At the end of last year I published a policy statement on interconnectors, because I think this is a critical issue that has been long overlooked, and Ofgem has published proposals for a new regulatory regime to facilitate investment in interconnectors. However, we will gather the information for which my hon. Friend asked specifically, and I will send it to him in writing.

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Finally, I call the irrepressible Thomas Docherty.

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Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker.

The Secretary of State will obviously be aware that ScottishPower, which owns Longannet power station in my constituency, has decided not to bid for the 2018 market at this stage. When I met representatives of ScottishPower last week, they expressed concern about German-owned RWE’s legal challenge to Project TransmiT. When does the Secretary of State expect that legal dispute to be resolved?

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I cannot, because I am not sure of the timetable, but it is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should raise the issue. When I spoke to representatives of ScottishPower about Longannet, I asked specifically what issues there were, so that we could ensure that Longannet was on the bars for security-of-supply reasons, because we had expected ScottishPower to bid for the capacity market initially. However, its representatives reassured me that it would keep the plant open, and they did not raise the issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised with me. I will ask my officials to look into it.

Backbench Business

Iran (UK Foreign Policy)

[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, UK policy towards Iran, HC 547 and the Government response, Cm 8920]

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The hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and I are grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for agreeing to the debate. The hon. Gentleman and I are joint chairmen of the all-party parliamentary group on Iran. Flagged on today’s Order Paper is the report on Iran from the Foreign Affairs Committee, published in July. I know that the whole House will be grateful for that.

The debate comes at an important moment. In less than three weeks, on 24 November, the deadline for the current phase of the E3 plus 3 nuclear negotiations with Iran will be reached. Before I say more about those negotiations, let me put the debate in context. Here in the United Kingdom, too little is either known or understood about Iran. With a population of 77 million, it is second in size only to Egypt in the wider middle east, but it is much more prosperous than Egypt. It is “middle income” on the United Nations’ GDP measure, ahead of Bulgaria, which is a member of the European Union. Iran has a distinguished three-millennium civilisation, with as many connections, cultural and political, to Europe as to its southern and eastern neighbours. Its language is Indo-European. The words “Iran” and “Aryan” share the same root. Although it is Muslim, it is Muslim in its own singular way, through its practice of Shi’ism. It is a great mistake ever to suggest to an Iranian that Iranians are Arabs. It may sound counter-intuitive today, but traditionally lran’s strongest links in the region had been with the Jewish communities of the middle east.

Iran’s relationship with the United Kingdom has over many decades been close but difficult. “Behind every curtain you’ll find an Englishman,” goes one familiar saying in Farsi. From an Iranian perspective, one can appreciate why. From the late 19th century onwards we saw relations with Iran in mercantilist, neo-colonialist terms only. Iran was divided into spheres of influence by Russia under the Tsar and the United Kingdom. In the early part of the last century, highly preferential terms for the D’Arcy petroleum company, the forerunner of BP, were extorted from the then Government. Subsequently, we were instrumental in removing the Qajar dynasty, putting Reza Shah on the throne. We jointly occupied Iran with the Soviet Union for five years from 1941 to 1946. We and the United States then successfully conspired to remove the democratically elected Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953.

We then continued this rather dismal record by propping up the Shah even when there was every indication, if only we had recognised it, that he was heading a decadent and decaying regime which was highly likely to collapse. A year after the Islamic revolution came the Iran-Iraq war, in which by common consent Iraq was the aggressor and Iran the victim, but the west, including the UK, sided with the aggressor.

At the end of this week we have our Remembrance Sunday, when we remember the fallen who gave their lives for us in two world wars. Those wars are part of the definition of contemporary Britain. Similarly, we understand nothing about Iran if we do not understand the deep and still contemporary trauma that the Iran-Iraq war inflicted on Iranian society—the near-million killed and the sense of isolation which that war reinforced as one western nation after another, the UK included, unworthily supported Iraq. With that isolation came the sense that Iran could rely only upon itself.

Despite its complex and difficult relationship with the United Kingdom, the US and other western nations, Iran principally looks west, not east or south, for its future. Of course, there are those in the system who define themselves against the “Satans” of the west and who have a vested interest in the status quo, including in sanctions, but there are many, many more who want a normal relationship with the west. It was that demand that lay behind President Rouhani’s surprising victory in the presidential elections in June 2013, and there are, indeed, more American PhDs in President Rouhani’s Cabinet than in President Obama’s.

In the 1980s—and under the cover of mutually rebarbative, but carefully controlled, rhetoric—the one country from whom Iran gained some understanding, and very significant arms supplies, was Israel. David Menashri, of Tel Aviv university, one of Israel’s foremost experts on Iran, subsequently commented:

“Throughout the 1980s, no one in Israel said anything about an Iranian threat”

to Israel. He continued:

“The word wasn’t even uttered.”

That, however, was all in the days of the cold war.

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I am listening intently and with great interest and I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. However, he will perhaps agree that it was not just a question of the election of President Rouhani; there have been attempts in the past by Iran to reach out. While accepting that mistakes have been made by both sides in this difficult relationship, one only has to think of immediately after 9/11 when the Iranians reached out, and the early days of Afghanistan when they tried to help and did, indeed, help, but were rebuffed by the “axis of evil” speech by President Bush, for example.

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I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I was heavily involved after President Khatami reached out to the United States in the moment of need. Iran provided significant practical help, without which it would have been far more difficult to remove the Taliban and to retake Kabul. Iran got no thanks for that, however. It was unnecessarily rebuffed by the United States at the time, as it was during the 2003-05 nuclear negotiations. It was also rebuffed when it sought a comprehensive bargain with the west. I am afraid that that prospect was greeted in parts of the United States with suspicion. In my view, there was a worry that if a deal was struck that resulted in the normalisation of relations with Iran, the part of the American system—and, indeed, the part of the Israeli system—that always likes to define itself against some kind of enemy would have had that enemy removed.

Twenty-five years after the collapse of the Berlin wall, the metrics of the middle east have all changed. The view of the Netanyahu Government in Israel, which is echoed by many in the United States Congress, is that Iran now poses an existential threat to the state of Israel because of the doubts as to whether Iran’s nuclear programmes have a military purpose. Those programmes are the subject of the intensive negotiations that will, we hope, have reached a satisfactory conclusion by 24 November.

As it was I, along with my French and German counterparts, who began the original E3 negotiations with Iran in 2003, I offer the following observations. Iran is not an easy country to negotiate with. That is partly due to cultural and linguistic problems and partly for historical reasons, but fundamentally it is a product of Iran’s complex and opaque governmental system, in which the elected President has constantly to broker decisions with unelected elements, including those in the revolutionary guards and those in the Supreme Leader’s office.

Unlike North Korea, which pulled out of the non-proliferation treaty, or India, Pakistan and Israel—all nuclear weapons states which have never accepted the treaty’s obligations—Iran has stayed within it. The treaty protects

“the inalienable right of all the Parties to the Treaty to develop research, production and use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes”.

However, the treaty is silent on the question—critical to the outcome of the negotiations—of the enrichment of uranium. The Iranians claim a right to enrich uranium for peaceful purposes, and I hope the whole House will support them in that. The interim agreement signed last November explicitly recognised that.

The last set of negotiations, which took place between 2003 and 2005 and in which I was directly involved, ran into the ground. The Bush Administration had undermined the Khatami Administration through the “axis of evil” speech, and they did so again by refusing to offer Iran any confidence-building measures until it was too late. By that time, conservative forces in Iran had re-gathered their strength, with President Ahmadinejad the result.

When parliamentary colleagues and I met Foreign Minister Zarif in Tehran in January this year, he pointed out that when I had been negotiating with him in 2005, Iran had fewer than 200 centrifuges. After eight years of sanctions, it now has 18,800. We should be careful what we wish for. The good news about the current round of negotiations is that both sides have kept them confidential. However, it is no secret that the Iranian Government cannot do a deal unless it includes a continuation of enrichment for peaceful purposes, and unless the scale of the programme allowed does not involve the Government having to make significant numbers of its scientists redundant.

The negotiations are predicated on the basis that, because of Iran’s past failures to make full disclosures to the International Atomic Energy Agency, there remain unanswered questions about the true intent of Iran’s nuclear programmes. None of us outside the inner workings of the Iranian Government can know for certain what this is. My own instinct is that after the trauma of the Iran-Iraq war, Iran probably did begin work on a nuclear weapons system. More recently, however, a 2007 US national intelligence estimate—which has been reconfirmed by the White House in the past two years—concluded that Tehran had halted nuclear weaponisation work in 2003. If that is the case, there is no reason why, with some flexibility on both sides, a deal should not be concluded. If that happens, the gradual lifting of sanctions—which Iran so desperately needs—will help to bring Iran back fully as a partner in the international community.

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I am listening carefully to the right hon. Gentleman’s well-informed speech, and I am impressed by it. In 2004, Hassan Rouhani, who was then the chief nuclear negotiator, stated:

“While we were talking with the Europeans in Tehran, we were installing equipment in parts of the facility in Isfahan…by creating a calm environment, we were able to complete the work”.

Is not that an ominous warning for the current negotiations?

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I have seen that quotation before. One of the truths about the Iranians is that they have a history of sticking to the letter of what is agreed while trying to make that agreement as accommodating to themselves as possible. They are not the only country to do that. However, it was Hassan Rouhani—now President Rouhani—sitting across the table and leading the negotiations, and I believed that he was a man with whom we could do a deal. I am glad that the present British Government self-evidently still think that; otherwise, they would not be sitting across the table from his representatives now. There is no evidence one way or the other that what was being installed at Isfahan was related to the weaponisation of the nuclear programme. I have seen no such evidence whatever, and Iran has a right to a nuclear power programme in the same way as any non-nuclear weapons state does.

My plea to the British Government is that they do not make the best the enemy of the good in these negotiations. Just as the world changed 25 years ago with the collapse of the Berlin wall, so it is changing again before our eyes, especially in the middle east. With chaos in Iraq and in Syria, many now see the potential of Iran to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. A deal that is good for both sides would have other benefits, not least for human rights. There cannot be anyone in the House who does not share the profound concern about aspects of Iran’s human rights record, including the recent incarcerations and executions.

One of the truths about Iran’s complex and opaque system of government is that the elected Government do not control the judiciary. There are other unacceptable elements of the regime. The more we are able to do a deal—of course on acceptable terms—the more it will empower the elected Government and the better able we will be to secure a resolution of the other concerns, including those on human rights. The reverse is also true.

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Has there been any evidence from the right hon. Gentleman’s past negotiations with Iran, or prior to that point, that any “give” on the part of the west has done anything to improve the lot of the people in that country? In my view, there is little or no evidence of any movement in relation to Iran’s human rights record.

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I think there is. For example, we can look at the human rights record under President Rafsanjani, and it got better under President Khatami. As long as President Khatami had power and authority in the extraordinary and very competitive power game that takes place in Tehran, he was able to do things. Moreover, the level of media freedom these days is infinitely greater than it was under Ahmadinejad. The licence to break the controls on the internet, including from President Rouhani himself, also illustrates that changes have taken place. There is a long way to go, however. I am certain that improvements in human rights will come about only through the empowerment of the forces for good in Iran and a diminution of those who are opposed to change. If there is no deal, the consequences are likely to be adverse not only for Iran but for the international community.

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The right hon. Gentleman knows my views on this. I support exactly what he is trying to do, and I take the view that the Government must, if they can, move all this forward. Does he agree, however, that one of the most difficult things in dealing with Iran is that, rather like China and Russia, it has absolutely no regard for the rules, other than the rules it chooses to set itself. The complications for America are shown in the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) just now, in that it is impossible to know whether or not the Iranians are going to abide by the rules, and that makes it much more difficult to reach a conclusion.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and I recognise the support he gives on this issue. I do not generalise between Russia and China; they have similarities, to the extent that they refuse to accept obligations, but they differ. These days we can see in China a real determination by many elements of its Government better to impose a rule of law. Going back to what I have said, those who have dealings, both diplomatic and business, with Iran say that the Iranians are very hard negotiators—and they are—but when, in the end, they have done a deal, they stick to it. It has to be said that there is no evidence that Iran has resiled from what it agreed on 24 November 2013; the IAEA reports that it has implemented what it has agreed.

If there is no deal and negotiations break down because of unacceptable red lines from some, but not all, of the six countries involved, over time the international consensus will break down. First China and then Russia will peel away, and then we are likely to see a reappraisal of policy within the European Union. That reappraisal will be fuelled in part by a belief that US sanctions against Iran have a greater effect extra-territorially, on European banks and trading entities, than they have within the domestic jurisdiction of the US itself. That belief is well founded, because the US authorities do provide greater certainty, and therefore greater protection from penalty, to US banks and entities trading with Iran than they do to similar banks and entities outside the US; I am talking about legal trade allowed under the sanctions regimes.

That may explain the curious irony about exports in recent years to Iran. Across the EU, such exports have slumped in the past 10 years, whereas in the US they are on a rising trend. Ten years ago, US exports to Iran were one ninth of ours, but now they are double. One reason for the fall in our exports, proportionately greater than any other western country’s, is that the UK is alone in maintaining a policy of not supporting any trade with Iran. I have heard no credible explanation for that, and I ask the Minister to have it revised.

I have to be brief, given the time, but the last matters I wish to raise are important and they relate to the reopening of the embassy. The Foreign Affairs Committee reported in July that the reopening was imminent, and indeed it was. As I understand it, that has fallen away not only for some practical reasons, but because of the Home Office’s refusal to accept the re-establishment of a visa regime without categorical undertakings from the Iranians about returns. Iran is difficult on the issue of returns of overstayers and illegals, but so are China, India, Nigeria and a long list of other countries. Iranians do not feature in the top 10 of foreign national prisoners here, or of returns. So I very much hope this is not an area where British foreign policy, and the importance of reopening the embassy fully, is being led not by King Charles street, but by 2 Marsham street, the headquarters of the Home Office. That would be an eccentricity which this House should not tolerate.

I have spoken for too long, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am very grateful to the Backbench Business Committee for the opportunity to have this important debate on Iran.

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I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) for securing this debate. I was delighted that the right hon. Gentleman, with whom I have disagreed over the years, although I have the highest regard for his intellect and his tone and approach to foreign affairs, started with the context in which we have to look at Iran, because that is incredibly important.

In a way, I see Iran almost as two nations, which are sometimes contradictory. Iranians are sophisticated and proud people—they do not want to be humiliated—and it is important to remember that they are Persians, not Arabs. Yet there is quite a strong liberal streak inside Iranian society. One very good example of that is the widespread acceptance of family planning. Iran has the most effective family planning regime in the world. In 1979, Khomeini wanted to expand the population of Iran to fight Iraq, but was told he did not have the infrastructure to support an expanding population. So a complete U-turn was done and Iran has stabilised its population growth, without any of the draconian methods that China, for example, has had to impose. Tehran university has more female undergraduates than male undergraduates at the moment, so there are indications that a young, youthful, well-educated society is on the way up, which may yet change the face of Iran. I am pleased to say that the Prime Minister was able to meet President Rouhani at the United Nations the other day and supported the conventional thinking that we need to keep the dialogue going. On the other hand, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn has said, Iran has the most appalling human rights record, with child executions, political prisoners, the presidential candidates from 2009 still under house arrest and almost non-existent press freedom.

Iran is a foreign policy nightmare: its support for President Assad in Syria, through Hezbollah funding and the positioning of the revolutionary guard in Syria, is causing immense difficulties; it is undermining the Government of Bahrain by support for the Shi’a minority there; it openly supports, and is funding, Hamas in its criticism of and aggression towards Israel; it is running a complex network of weapons-smuggling routes into Gaza, through Egypt, with the sole intention of attacking Israel—it is in defiance of four UN Security Council resolutions on that; it has engaged in the funding of and support for attacks on Israeli diplomats around the world; and its antipathy towards Saudi Arabia is legendary, although this goes both ways. I will return to that point in a minute.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions have serious implications for a number of different factions and groupings around the country. For the EU and the west, there is an impact on our security if the Iranians have a nuclear capability. There will also be economic consequences, with a loss of stability in the middle east. Israel is rightly concerned about Iran’s ambitions. The regional consequences are also serious, with Saudi Arabia now developing its own nuclear research programmes, as is Jordan—surprisingly. That just shows the nervousness in the region.

Iran has a complex and cumbersome structure of government, and one often asks oneself, “Who is actually running the show?” The ultimate power lies with the Supreme Leader, who does not exercise his power in an authoritative, dictatorial way, but does so in a more consultative way, with occasional nudging, sometimes aggressively, as we have seen in the nuclear negotiations. Just to add to the complications, the Supreme Leader at the moment is ailing and, as he has to make difficult decisions about the negotiations, that is not helpful. On the other hand, we have the President, who is more the chief executive, but a strong one, and he is the head of the nuclear negotiations.

When President Rouhani was elected to office—to the surprise of many as he was the most moderate candidate—we all said that he was a man with whom we could do business. He is a moderate who suits the situation. But we must judge him by his actions, not his words, and reining in a few hotheads in the revolutionary guard is about all we have seen, and we are still waiting for the beef.

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Is my right hon. Friend also aware that Ban Ki-moon’s annual report to the General Assembly in October highlighted the fact that President Rouhani was expected to be a very moderate leader, but in fact the number of executions, especially of juveniles, has increased? The expectation has not been borne out in his actions in the country.

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Yes, I am aware of that comment. However, the interpretation that my hon. Friend puts on it may be slightly unfair to Rouhani who does not necessarily control the judicial system or the sentences that are being handed down. The question is: can we trust him?

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I am listening with intent and interest to my right hon. Friend’s good speech. May I suggest to him that we should not look at this relationship just through the prism of executions and human rights? There are many of our allies in the region that have a similarly poor record, and yet that has not stopped us from calling them allies.

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I have great regard for my hon. Friend’s views, but there are not many countries in the region that have a human rights record quite as bad as Iran’s. None the less, he makes a valid point, and it has to be taken into account. The question I was asking was: can we trust President Rouhani? The right hon. Member for Blackburn, who has known him for many years, suggests that we can, and I hope that he is right. The question is: what if he is wrong? That is the challenge we all face.

Rather worryingly, the Supreme Leader has been interfering in Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with his call for industrial levels of centrifuges and nuclear material production, which caught the negotiators by surprise. When President Obama suggested enriching nuclear rods in the United States in 2009, the Supreme Leader pulled the rug from under that issue as well.

At the UN, President Rouhani suggested there should be a link between helping the west deal with the situation in Iraq and concessions in the nuclear negotiations. I have only one response to that, which is no, no, no. That cannot be the basis on which we proceed. To have a few more enrichment centrifuges for a bit of co-operation is exactly the wrong sort of deal.

Looking at the negotiations—the deadline is fast approaching—a number of deals have been suggested. Any settlement must have two main features. One is the break-out time. The Foreign Affairs Committee proposed a minimum of at least six months. The second is a verification programme that must be as robust as possible. That must be supported by a rigid inspections regime. It is critical that the International Atomic Energy Agency stays involved throughout the whole process and brings its professionalism to any verification and inspection. There is, in any settlement, a trade-off between reduction in capacity and the relaxation of trade sanctions as an incentive to encourage progress.

There is much talk about the number of centrifuges that can be used for peaceful production. I have been advised that the figure is somewhere in the region of 2,000 to 4,000, against the 18,000 currently in use. Obviously, the fewer centrifuges there are, the greater the time for break-out, and that has to be right at the centre of any negotiation settlement.

We also need to be satisfied that the objectives of the base at Arak, which is the home to the heavy water reactor, are peaceful. Iranians have yet to come up with a good explanation of those objectives. They argue that the facility is being used for medical research, but there is far too much capacity there for that, and no economic reason has been forthcoming.

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I am listening with interest to my right hon. Friend’s hugely impressive speech, particularly to the bit about the lack of inspections. I believe that the Arak facility was last visited in August 2011 and, despite repeated requests from the IAEA, no further visits have been allowed since.

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and that goes to this question of trust. If visits are prevented, how can we trust people when they say what is going on there?

As we approach the deadline, there is little sign of a deal. There is still prevarication. The Foreign Office should be prepared to sign up to an extension of the deadline if that is what is needed. The time is on the west’s side at the moment: the sanctions have had an impact, even though they are a crude weapon; the oil price is falling; and the Iranian economy is shrinking fairly significantly. This is the right time to do the deal, but the window is narrow, as the situation has become more complicated by the mid-term election results in the United States. An increasingly confident Republican-controlled Congress is set to make life more and more difficult for President Obama as he reaches the end of his presidency. Rouhani’s time is also limited, as he is trying to fight off the hardliners. If there is no deal, Rouhani will be weakened, the hardliners will be back and they cannot wait for this deal to fail, and the hostility to the west will grow.

If Iran gets a bomb, the middle east arms race will accelerate, and the security situation will get worse. Russia has a role to play. There were reports yesterday that some processing may be done in Russia, which is a great idea if it is possible and achievable. As has been said about Ukraine over recent months, we must keep the lines of communication open with Russia, mainly because they are a key player in settling the deal in Iran.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree —I tried to make this point to the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) —that, in the wider sense, the key to all this is confidence? In doing this transaction with the Russians, which is both sensible and welcome, we must ensure that, for the success of future negotiations, there is proper verification at all times and at every stage.

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My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. Trust and verification go hand in hand. Without good verification and trust, there will be no basis for a settlement.

I have spoken for far too long. We should not compromise on this matter because, at the end of the day, no deal is better than a bad deal.

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May I start by thanking my hon. Friend the Member for Wyre and Preston North (Mr Wallace) for his exceptional service until recently as the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on Iran? I was asked to replace him when he submitted to the purdah of the Government Whips Office. It is only fitting in this particular debate to describe his departure thus, given the root of the word “purdah”, which is the Persian for veil or curtain. I do not expect to fill his shoes easily. He is a source of considerable knowledge and wisdom on this subject and is always worth listening to, as is the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), whom I am pleased to join as co-chair of the group.

As the right hon. Gentleman said, Iran is for many of us a land of which we know too little. To create through a revolution a state in which citizens are required to accept one supreme source of divinely inspired authority, which fuses together religious, legal, social and political obligations, and in which the Head of State acts both as the supreme political “guardian” over the people and also as a supreme spiritual leader, while assuming the supreme command of all armed forces and also appointing the Head of Government may seem rather strange to us, or, on the other hand, it may not.

The motto, under the coat of arms of our own sovereign, “Dieu et mon droit”, makes an unvarnished claim of the divine right to rule. The state prayers from the “Book of Common Prayer”, which we repeat each day in this House Commons, make precisely the same claim by referring to our Father as

“the only Ruler of princes”.

The mace, sitting in front of us, which symbolises the authority from our sovereign to sit, and without which we cannot sit, has above the crown a Christian cross, connoting the fusion of supreme political authority with our state religion. Thus the idea that Government should be run according to God’s laws should not be strange to us.

Indeed, when my co-chair, the right hon. Member for Blackburn, was the Lord Chancellor, one of his jobs was to administer the oath for bishops of the Anglican Church, in which they

“do hereby declare that Your Majesty is the only supreme governor of this your realm in spiritual and ecclesiastical things as well as in temporal”.

The oath continues:

“I acknowledge that I hold the said bishopric as well the spiritualities as the temporalities thereof only of Your Majesty and for the same temporalities I do my homage presently to Your Majesty”.

It is therefore more than possible to build a society whose foundational cornerstones for its constitutional arrangements are deeply embedded in a religious tradition, and where the fabric of the state and the fabric of that religious tradition are so intertwined that they form an inseparable tapestry, and do all of this while still creating a space for human flourishing and freedom. That is what we seek to do ourselves. I dare to hope that as the Islamic Republic of Iran continues on its journey, it will weave the future strands of that tapestry in ways that are consistent with its Islamic traditions, and which respect and do homage to those traditions, and meet the needs and desires of its people.

The last time the House held a debate on Iran in February 2012, the motion, which was moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron), called for a recognition

“that the use of force against Iran would be wholly counterproductive and would serve only to encourage any development of nuclear weapons”. —[Official Report, 20 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 635.]

I think I am being fair to my hon. Friend when I say that he did not carry the House on that day. Indeed, among the many contributions, my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) said:

“I repeat that an attack is the least bad option”.—[Official Report, 20 February 2012; Vol. 540, c. 668.]

My hon. Friend did not carry the House on that day, but I read his speech again last night, and it repays re-reading. It was an excellent contribution and stands the test of time.

At that time, the prospect of military action against Iran seemed very real. There was a considerable increase in the level of rhetoric against Iran, particularly by the United States. The foreign policy analyst Trita Parsi suggested in his book “A Single Roll of the Dice” that relations between Iran and the west, particularly between Iran and the United States, had become so polarised over 30 years that it was no longer merely an antagonistic relationship, but had become “institutionalised enmity”—a set of behaviours so entrenched on both sides that the participants could not find a way out. The then US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, predicted that Israel would launch an attack on Iran by April or June 2012. The then Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond (Yorks) (Mr Hague), said at the time that an attack would not be wise and that it would have “enormous downsides”, but the option of military action was left firmly on the table.

I found all this rather puzzling. When I visited the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna later in the spring of 2012, I discovered that I was among fellow sceptics, including my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay. All the parliamentary colleagues on that visit—or at least, those who had been in Parliament at the time—had, as it happened, voted against military action in 2003 against Iraq. We met the nuclear inspectors who were visiting Iran, including Herman Nackaerts, the then deputy director general of the IAEA, who was quite explicit—while certainly also laying out a set of serious concerns—that

“We have no evidence of weapons grade material”.

Like the right hon. Member for Blackburn, I have serious concerns about Iran, including its approach to human rights. The right hon. Gentleman made the important point, as have others, that some of these issues are outside the control of Dr Rouhani, the President of the Islamic Republic. I believe than an Islamic Republic of Iran that felt more secure and respected, and less threatened and demonised, would also, in time, become a kinder Iran. My greatest single concern is that we do not lose the enormous opportunity that faces us. Unfortunately, there is form here.

The Iranian offer, which Tim Guldimann, the Swiss ambassador to Iran, carried to the United States in 2003 included an offer by the Iranians to end their support for Islamic jihad and Hamas and to pressure them to cease attacks on Israel; to support the disarmament of Hezbollah and to transform it into a purely political party; to put their nuclear programme under intrusive international inspections in order to alleviate fears about weaponisation; to provide full co-operation against all terrorist organisations; and perhaps most astonishingly of all, to accept the Beirut declaration of the Arab League—that is to say, the Saudi-sponsored peace plan from March 2002 in which all the Arab states offered collective peace, the normalising of relations with and diplomatic recognition of Israel, in return for Israel’s withdrawal from all the occupied territories, an agreement to share Jerusalem, an equitable solution to the Palestinian refugee issue and the adoption of the two-state solution.

What an opportunity that was for the world. But just as Israel’s late foreign Minister, Abba Eban, used to say of the Palestinians that they

“never lose an opportunity to lose an opportunity”,

so it took a very special combination of qualities in an American Administration to ignore such an offer. History produced just such a combination in Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush. The offer was spurned, and we have been living with the consequences.

Let us contrast that with the position today. As a distinguished group of diplomatists, including Javier Solana, Carl Bildt and Robert Cooper, suggest in The Guardian this morning, if a deal can be reached it could

“reshape the west’s engagement with Iran by opening new options for pursuing overlapping regional interests”.

As the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, if we do not get a deal, we will not simply go back to the status quo ante: as he pointed out, nine years of sanctions have produced a rise from 200 centrifuges to 18,000 centrifuges so, frankly, I do not think that sanctions have achieved their principal aim.

Seyed Hossein Mousavian, a former nuclear negotiator who is now at Princeton university, made a similar point when he wrote:

“The best strategy is to pursue a broad engagement with Iran to ensure that the decision to pursue a nuclear breakout will never come about. Iran and the United States are already tacitly and indirectly cooperating in the fight against the Islamic State…A nuclear agreement would be a great boost to mutual trust and provide greater options for dealing not only with IS and the Syrian regime but also Afghanistan and Iraq—where both Washington and Tehran support the new governments in Kabul and Baghdad”.

As Christopher de Ballaigue, one of the most acute observers of Iran has noted:

“It is one of the perversities of modern politics that the west does not have a decent working relationship with the most important country in the Middle East.”

It is in all our interests that this should change.

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It is a huge privilege to follow my hon. Friend and near neighbour, the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon), who speaks with huge expertise. It is a pleasure also to follow my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway) and the incredibly distinguished former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw).

We should not forget that our disengagement from Iran started with the dramatic events on 29 November 2011, when the embassy was ransacked and a number of staff had their lives put at risk. It was an appalling event, and we were obviously right to disengage from that moment onwards. Even now I pay tribute to the ambassador, Dominick Chilcott, and his staff for their bravery at the time, and for the incredibly dignified way in which they behaved in the face of this horrendous event. Since then, there have been some extraordinary changes.

I will focus my remarks on the reasons why we should re-engage with Iran. The first is the extraordinary changes taking place in that country. The right hon. Member for Blackburn spoke about our historical links with Iran and the importance of the diaspora in this country and elsewhere, for example in Switzerland and Canada. I have not visited Iran recently, but many of my friends have, and one of the observations I keep hearing is how much change there has been, even under the Ahmadinejad regime.

Huge amounts of petro-revenue are going into infrastructure, and not only in Tehran but in other cities such as Isfahan, Tabriz and Shiraz. Major investment on the ground, for example in social housing, is empowering a growing middle class. They want change, and they want better education. My right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South mentioned higher education. Some 55% of school leavers in Iran now go into higher education. Indeed, Azad university now has more than 100 campuses. Ambitions and expectations are changing.

Were we to talk to our average constituent about Iran, we might find that they have a vision of a fanatically religious state in which public executions take place in every city, with people being hanged from cranes. That is an absolute parody of what is happening there, and it is hugely misleading. Religion in Iran is on the wane. The mosques, far from filling up with people on the key days of the week, are pushed to attract the congregations they once had.

I entirely accept that there is a long way to go on human rights. Yes, there has been a release of political prisoners, but like others, I was appalled by the case of Mohsen Amir-Aslani, who was sentenced to death for insulting the prophet Jonah; and we have heard about the case of Ghoncheh Ghavami, the young British-Iranian woman imprisoned for a year for attending a volleyball match. There is still a long way to go on human rights, but since the election of Hassan Rouhani—like the right hon. Member for Blackburn, I welcome his election—there has been a very significant change indeed.

The second reason we should re-engage, and perhaps the most important, is the progress being made on the nuclear programme. Rouhani has driven that process, which culminated in the interim agreement in Geneva on 13 November. That was an extraordinary breakthrough. Yes, there is still some way to go, and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk, who is an expert on the matter, went into great detail—I shall not try to match him—but the IAEA has given assurances that Iran has complied with the terms of the agreement.

There is obviously now a need for a permanent solution. I echo what my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) said a moment ago about the need for trust and verification. That echoes the Foreign Secretary’s recent statement. There has been significant progress, and there is a need for patience. I certainly endorse the suggestion from my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South that the deadline needs to be extended. Linked to that is the reduction in the number of sanctions and the various reliefs announced by the P5 plus 1 on oil sales, frozen funds and humanitarian trade. Important and significant progress has obviously been made in that regard.

The third reason for the need to re-engage is what is happening elsewhere in the region. I will not go into too much detail, because we could spend all day talking about it, but I think that what is happening with ISIS/ISIL is incredibly worrying. That organisation’s desire to create a caliphate and step back into the dark ages threatens this country. We need only look at the number of jihadists going out there, the number who have been killed already and the number of radicalised youngsters who have gone there or may well go there in future. That affects Britain and other western countries. I think that we should give credit to Iran for the role it has played. It has been constructive in so far as it has helped to push out Maliki and bring in a new Prime Minister, Abadi.

Furthermore, I think that we should press Iran to play a role in trying to ensure that the different Shi’a militias are rolled up into the Iraqi security forces. Iran obviously has an important role to play in that regard, and we need to recognise and understand that role and be sensitive to it. We need to encourage it as much as possible, because Iran has a role to play in combating this wretched, vile, evil organisation—ISIS or IS.

The fourth reason we should re-engage—again, this is a regional point—relates to Afghanistan. We should look back and see how incredibly constructive Iran was about 10 years ago in a number of areas of our engagement with Afghanistan. We should now look to Iran to be a really positive voice in favour of national reconciliation in Afghanistan and to support the proposed peace settlement with the Taliban. The key point is that Iran can be a pragmatic and flexible actor in that process. I know that there are colleagues in the House who will say that Iran backed the insurgency that killed British troops and must therefore be condemned. Ultimately, we have to remember that Iran’s interests lie away from the Taliban in its present form and in favour of a stable and united Afghanistan, and we should bear that in mind.

The fifth reason we should re-engage is the need to look at the trade agenda. The prospects for the UK to do more trade with Iran are very significant indeed. We have to look after our interests in this world. It is very good news that our trade outside the EU has expanded and is expanding, but our balance of trade with Iran is, depressingly, about $200 million, despite very tight sanctions. The right hon. Member for Blackburn pointed out that US trade with Iran is about four times that figure.

The right hon. Member for Blackburn touched on another important reason why we need to engage with Iran: financial services. He did not mention Standard Chartered bank, but I shall mention it briefly. As the Minister will know, Standard Chartered was recently fined £670 million by the US authorities for breaching US domestic sanctions. I find that very worrying, because there is now a new investigation under way. The bank was punished for quite legally facilitating UK company trade with Iran. It did not break any UK or EU sanctions, or indeed any US sanctions, but it fell foul of some US domestic legislation. The issue, of course, was that a lot of those trades were denominated in dollars, which is the world’s reserve currency, and the US authorities latched on to that fact and threatened to withdraw the bank’s licence, which was quite outrageous. The bank—a world-class, British bank—decided to pay the fine. It is now under investigation again. I regard that as incredibly serious. It was basically threatened with financial blackmail.

What is the view of Her Majesty’s Government on that matter? Is the Minister aware that Andrew Bailey of the Bank of England warned of the consequences of such action? Is he aware that, at a time when we are trying to look proactively at re-engaging and increasing our financial trade with Iran, many companies will look at Standard Chartered’s experience and say, “We want to look at possible contracts in Iran, but we have to be financed by British institutions that will have dollar-denominated packages, so we could fall foul of US domestic sanctions as a result.” Will he look at that urgently? What discussions has the Foreign Office had with the Treasury on the matter? Can the Minister intervene to ensure that it is sorted out?

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I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. He may not have noticed a news piece on the Al-Monitor website that was published on 4 November—only the day before yesterday—with the headline “Direct US-Iran banking channel could cement nuclear deal”. US and Iranian officials refused to comment on that piece, which says that the Americans are considering

“the creation of what is known as a ‘blessed channel’”

to facilitate further, easier financial transactions.

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That is very interesting. On the one hand, this financial blackmail is taking place against various UK banks, but on the other, the US is trying to encourage and facilitate trade. This does need looking at, and I hope that the Minister will comment on it.

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rose—

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Order. May I help a little bit? We still have another debate to follow this, and a lot of Members to get in. I was hoping that I would not have to put on a time limit, but we are in danger of stretching that approach.

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I am grateful, Mr Deputy Speaker. So many points are being raised that I might not have time to cover them all.

My hon. Friend is aware that we are discouraging all trade with Iran because there is the bigger issue of trying to affect behaviour. That does not mean that we do not consider what trade can take place. Companies, including banks, are allowed to trade now within the confines of the sanctions that take place. I will certainly look at the banking issue, as he asks, but we are discouraging—

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Order. I will not have the Minister give his speech now. Interventions have to be short. You are knocking your own time off, and I do not want that. We have to be considerate to all the other Members who wish to speak in this debate, and, quite rightly, I want to hear them. I do not understand why they must have a reduced amount of time because people are taking advantage.

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I will therefore reduce my response to one sentence, Mr Deputy Speaker. When I was responsible for our relations with Sudan, we discouraged trade, but we also helped companies that had trading problems and looked at problems just like this one.

I conclude by saying that now is an ideal time for Britain to re-engage with a country with which we have historically had very close relations. I hope that by reopening our embassy we can look forward to a new era in those relations with an incredibly important country in the region.

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I should like to use the opportunity of this debate to raise the case of my constituent, Ghoncheh Ghavami, who has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). I think the case will be familiar to Members. A young woman—a British citizen— has been in prison in Tehran since the end of June for joining a group of women who wished to attend a volleyball match. I intend perhaps to be slightly less than forthright in speaking about this case because of its sensitivities. I will limit what I say to what is the public arena and to what I would like the Minister to respond to as regards the Foreign Office’s role.

As I say, I think the facts are relatively well known. Ms Ghavami was arrested on 20 June, released, and then rearrested 10 days later. She is charged with, and has now apparently been sentenced for, the offence of spreading propaganda against the system, but that arises out of the incident I described. She has been in solitary confinement. She has been on one hunger strike and is now on a second, more severe, hunger strike. There have been allegations of mistreatment against her during this period. She is a young woman of 25—a very bright law student with joint British-Iranian nationality who is resident, when she is the United Kingdom, in Shepherd’s Bush in my constituency with her brother. Her parents are resident in Tehran. A substantial amount of attention has been devoted to this case. The family, as one would expect, have acted in every possible way to try to secure her release, including lobbying the Iranian President in New York and lobbying and meeting members of the UK Government. Her family in Iran are doing the best they can. A petition calling for her release currently has more than 700,000 signatures.

I am not going to dwell too much on this aspect, but, for the record, I say to the Minister that I have not been impressed by the way in which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has dealt with the matter thus far. I think it uncharacteristic of the Minister to take three weeks to reply to a letter, to send that letter by post, and to say that because of the Data Protection Act he will not go into details without Ms Ghavami’s “express permission”. I am not quite sure how I was supposed to obtain Ms Ghavami’s express permission. However, during the course of this debate I have received a letter from the Foreign Secretary admitting that that was the wrong approach and saying that there will be full co-operation with my office, and with the family, from now on. I will therefore say no more about it. I welcome what the Foreign Secretary has said to me in that letter. I do not intend to go into the detail of it.

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I tried to catch the hon. Gentleman’s eye before the debate, and I am sorry that I was unable to do so. I am aware that we have had correspondence on this issue and that he is concerned about the latest correspondence I sent to him. If we can have a meeting about the case, I will be delighted to go into more detail.

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I am grateful to the Minister.

I think it appropriate that the House’s attention be drawn to this matter. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott) has tabled an early-day motion on it. It is a serious matter, not just to me as a constituency issue, but in that a British citizen is being treated in this way abroad. These matters can be better dealt with. I welcome the fact that the Minister is prepared to meet me and the family—that would be the right way forward.

I conclude by putting it on the record that the family have been clear throughout that this is not a political issue but a humanitarian one. It should not be tied up with wider geopolitical negotiations between the two Governments. The only relevance of that is that the thaw in the relationship—the more constructive relationship —between the two Governments should perhaps provide the opportunity for the early release of Ms Ghavami so that she can return to her life in the UK.

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It is pleasure to follow the remarks of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) about his constituent. Obviously, all of us in this House hope that the case can be resolved in a satisfactory way as soon as possible.

I have been hugely impressed by all the speeches I have been privileged to hear in the debate so far. We have heard from the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), my right hon. Friend the Member for Croydon South (Sir Richard Ottaway), and my hon. Friends the Members for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) and for North West Norfolk (Mr Bellingham). I am sure we will hear an excellent speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Sir Nicholas Soames) in due course.

What we have not heard, explicitly, is anyone saying that it would be completely unacceptable for Iran to have a nuclear weapon. That is the position that I stand by. I think it would be unacceptable to this country, and to the world, for a dangerous regime such as that in Iran to have a nuclear weapon. I do not particularly want to cast aspersions, but I suspect that some Members of this House would actually be content for Iran to have a nuclear weapon; indeed, I have heard Members say that. That is a perfectly defensible position, but I have not heard it put forward today.

What we have also not heard today is the Israeli perspective. Iran, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn said, is a country of 77 million people, second only in the middle east to Egypt’s 85 million. If we stack that up against the Israeli state, with 8 million people, we can see that from the Israeli perspective Iran is the biggest bully in the playground.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex said, it all comes down to a question of trust. Why should we trust Iran? I very much respect the judgment of Members of this House who know far more about this subject than I do, especially former Foreign Secretaries and hon. Members who have been to Iran and know some of these individuals. However, if I were a citizen of Tel Aviv, despite the huge respect I would have for the right hon. Member for Blackburn, I would say to myself, “Well, this gentleman obviously speaks with a huge amount of experience, and he has spoken to Hassan Rouhani and others, but what if he is wrong? What if the regime in Tehran is mad enough and bad enough to want a nuclear weapon and to use it?”

We had a similar debate when China was developing nuclear weapons and Mao Tse-tung said, “What does it matter if we lose several million Chinese people? We can take out our enemies in one go.” It would be possible to take out most of Israel with one nuclear weapon. The holocaust was not really that long ago in strategic terms. Half the Jewish population of the world was wiped out in Europe, supposedly under the safety of a Christian civilisation, so if I were an Israeli citizen, although I might respect the right hon. Gentleman’s wise words, I would be saying to myself, “What if he’s wrong? Where’s my insurance?”

That is why this House has to wake up, smell the coffee and realise that there is simply no way on earth that Israel is going to allow Iran to have a nuclear bomb. It represents an existential threat to half the Jewish population of the world. It does not really matter what we in this Chamber think about that; Israel, quite rightly, will say, “We are not going to accept this.”

The Iranians are going about things in all the wrong ways. We have heard that there are cultural aspects to that. We are told, for example, that the Iranian way of approaching the world is different from that of the west; that there are complications of language and history; that the only rules they want to stick to are those that suit them; and that we should look at this through a diplomatic prism. At the end of the day, however, we are talking about 8 million Israeli citizens who fear for their lives. They fear that Iran will get enough nuclear material to stuff into one of its Fajr-5 rockets and launch it at Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.

Iran is going about the negotiations in all the wrong ways, because it is doing all the bad things that none of us like. Iran is a major exporter of terror, not just to the middle east, but around the world. If it really wants to do a deal with the west, why has it not backed off from supporting Hamas or from stocking up an arsenal of 100,000 rockets in southern Lebanon? Another Israeli fear, of course, is not just nuclear weapons, but Hezbollah launching 100,000 rockets all in one go at the Israeli population. It does not matter how sophisticated Iron Dome is—it is not possible to take out 100,000 rockets launched in one go.

The exporter of this terror—its funder—is Tehran. These are not nice people. They might have gone to English universities and they might have an understanding with very senior Members of this House, but this regime is extremely unpleasant, not only to its own people, but to others in the region and further afield.

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Does the hon. Gentleman agree that one of the most important things the right hon. Member for Blackburn said was that we should be careful what we wish for? I think that some people sometimes wish for something that cannot be delivered. I strongly support the line taken by the hon. Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone).

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The hon. Gentleman and I both hope that the right hon. Member for Blackburn is right, but what if he is not? That would put Israel in a really serious situation.

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The hon. Gentleman has said that the Iranians are not nice people. Does he think it is wise to characterise an entire nation, and even an entire regime, in that light? Even within the regime there are different factions. Is it helpful to talk about them in those terms?

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The hon. Lady is quite right, to be fair. If I have implied that the Iranian people are not nice, I apologise. What I mean is that the regime is not pleasant. I perfectly understand that the Iranian people—the Persian people—are among the most sophisticated people in the middle east, and we have heard a lot about that in this debate. The hon. Lady is right to pick me up on that point. What I am saying is that the regime is extremely unpleasant and extremely bad and that some of its members are potentially mad. That is what worries the Israeli Government.

If I were an Iranian who wanted to impress the west with my intent and why I should be trusted, I would be keen to allow the nuclear weapons inspectors into my nuclear facilities. Despite repeated requests to access Natanz, Parchin and Fordow, inspectors have been either stopped or obstructed in undertaking their work.

Enrichment is also an issue. Iran has enough fissile material at 3.5% or 20% enrichment to be able to develop, if it has enough centrifuges, enough nuclear material at 90% enrichment for six nuclear bombs. That is the worry. The Supreme Leader has said recently that Iran has an absolute need for 190,000 centrifuges, which is 10 times the number it has at present. Any deal done on anything remotely like that basis would be a very bad one, because Iran would then have the ability to break out of any restrictions placed by any such treaty on developing the material for those six missiles. Of course, it already has the ballistic capability to deliver that material on to Israel or Saudi Arabia at very short notice.

The central question posed to all of us by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex is: can we trust the Iranians? My answer is that I have not seen enough evidence to suggest why we should trust them. Of course, the big problem is that, if we get the answer to that question wrong and if the Iranians really are not trustworthy, it is not so much us in the United Kingdom who will pay the price, although the situation will be bad for us. The people who will really be at peril are those of Israel, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the middle east, and there will be a nuclear arms race that will add fuel to the flames in an already volatile region.

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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate on Iran. If we look at the middle east today—which is at risk of conflagration from end to end, whether it be in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Israel-Palestine or even Afghanistan—we will see that Iran is a key player. If we are to resolve some of the issues, Her Majesty’s Government and this House must take a nuanced and sophisticated approach to our relationship with Iran. It is not helpful to talk about Iran, or even its regime, as a monolith. As most of us should know, there are separate and distinct factions within the regime that are jostling for supremacy at any given time.

I do not wish to take away from the seriousness of the human rights issues in Iran. My hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) has mentioned his constituent, Ghoncheh Ghavami, a British resident who is subject to imprisonment, apparently for a year, for going to watch a men’s volleyball match. I think that any British person would be shocked at any regime that treated somebody in that fashion. As we have heard, she is on hunger strike for the second time in protest against her illegal detention, and her lawyer has seen court documents stating that she has been sentenced to a year in prison. The prosecutors, however, have not confirmed her sentence, so she is in limbo. That is an appalling way to treat a young woman. Although I think it is correct that this particular case should not form part of the issues relating to international relationships and so on, she is a British resident who is being treated extremely cruelly and unfairly. This is an humanitarian issue and I want Her Majesty’s Government to do more to help this British resident, who is subject to a cruel and unusual punishment for doing no more than going to watch a sporting match, which British women do every day of the week.

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I apologise for missing the first part of the debate. I was part of the delegation to Iran, and I constantly raised issues of human rights and human rights concerns. Does my hon. Friend agree that as appalling as this case is, it is unfortunately not that unusual in Iran, and that any future relationship with Iran must include a tough human rights dialogue to insist that it signs up to and obeys all the human rights conventions and has a genuinely independent judicial system, so that such appalling travesties of justice cannot continue?

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It is very important that any negotiations with Iran have a human rights component.

In any agreements that we reach with Iran, it is important that we make due speed before the effects of the mid-term elections in the USA work through, because those results risk jeopardising the success of the negotiations. There are people in the US Senate who are desperate to see Obama fail, and who are preparing additional sanctions against Iran. They have just made enormous gains in the mid-term elections, and are emboldened. I believe that additional sanctions will be a disaster. They will play into the hands of hardliners in Iran, who have a vested interest in the status quo and no interest in Iran having relations with the rest of the world. Additional sanctions will kill the negotiations. The big players who have sponsored the new sanctions Bill are Kirk and Menendez. They are strong supporters of the state of Israel and also want nothing more than to inflict lethal damage on the Obama presidency. It is important that we make due speed on negotiations with Iran before American domestic politics intervene and make such negotiations impossible.

As some Members have recognised, there is a reformist wing within the Iranian regime—Rouhani, Zarrafi and others—who despite a massive uphill battle are challenging the conservatives, and have promised the Iranian people that better diplomatic relations will end the sanctions. If the US and its allies are seen to backpedal, that will prove the reformists wrong in the eyes of the hardliners, and set the situation back. Her Majesty’s Government must ensure that that does not happen and that domestic US politics do not threaten what the rest of the world community has patiently created, and there should be a strong message to that effect.

We must also offer a carrot to the Iranians, and not just sticks that reinforce the idea that the UK is siding with the US as an imperialist aggressor. One long overdue carrot would be to reopen the British embassy in Tehran, as was said earlier. It would be illogical to try to have open and honest dialogue with a country, or even to criticise it, if there is no diplomatic presence. We are shooting ourselves in the foot by not having a formal diplomatic presence, and we have left an open vacuum for Russia, China, India and the rest to fill. Furthermore, a British embassy is symbolic of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the people of Iran. As I have tried to say, one should not conflate the regime with the people, and we want at all times to make it clear that we as British people want a good relationship with the Iranian people.

My final point is one that was made earlier: the importance of dialogue and diplomatic relations. That is not just important for the nuclear deal, but it is in the UK’s national interest to have diplomatic and economic ties with Iran in terms of exports and our general economic interests. As I said at the beginning of my remarks, Iran has influence over Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine, and it might be key in defeating ISIS. It is probably the only player that can force Assad to compromise.

I am sorry to say this to hon. Members, but nothing is gained by simply regurgitating a cold-war narrative or realpolitik when it comes to “explaining” Iranian motivations in the middle east. It is one of the few countries in the region that has enjoyed a level of peace since the end of the Iran-Iraq war 25 years ago. It has developed into a nation comprised mostly of young people, with 80% being under 40, most of whom are urban—70% of Iranians live in cities—and far more progressive in relation to women than some of the regimes in the region to which we are allied, such as Saudi Arabia. For example, 60% of university enrolments in Iran are women.

While being clear and firm in its condemnation of human rights abuses in Iran, I urge the House to recognise that we are nearing an historic point. Sanctions have artificially stunted economic growth in Iran, and it would be a missed opportunity not to establish ties with it now. The regime is not a monolith, as I have said, and it has the second biggest reserves of gas in the world and the third largest oil reserves. It is in the interests of the British economy, British business and the British people, as well as of peace in the region, to try to establish a more sophisticated, nuanced and constructive ongoing diplomatic engagement with Iran than we have seen in the past.

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It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Hackney North and Stoke Newington (Ms Abbott), who made a thoughtful speech. I associate myself with her comments, and those of the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr Slaughter) about his constituent, which I think the whole House will endorse.

This is another debate that highlights the importance of the Backbench Business Committee, and I congratulate the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and my hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr Bacon) on securing it. As a Welsh non-conformist, however, I might be slightly more cynical about the concept of a state-sponsored religion—something that we dispensed with at the end of the first world war in a Welsh context.

This is an important debate, and we heard a superb contribution from the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, who is no longer in his place. It is important that the context for this debate includes that Committee’s report, which was published in June, and I argue that it is essential reading for anybody who takes an interest in the middle east.

This is undoubtedly an interesting time in the middle east. It is a period of huge unrest in the region, and it is right for us to discuss the UK’s position on Iran. There is no doubt that the way the whole western world has been almost traumatised by the development of ISIS has led to a discussion about how Iran can be brought back into the fold. However, although we might see the possibilities of working with Iran in the context of what is happening in Iraq, the situation is much more complex than that. In Syria, Iran is supporting elements that the UK Government would not be keen to support, and our support for the democratic statelet of Kurdistan within Iraq can be contrasted with the way that the Kurdish minority in Iran is treated. The complexities of the situation must be understood. We should be aware of the dangers of starting to argue the case on the basis of the old saying, “My enemy’s enemy is my friend”. It is important not to fall into that trap because time and again, history has shown that such an approach to international politics never leads to a good result.

This debate has rightly highlighted the many concerns held by hon. Members about Iran’s human rights record. I accept entirely the point that the human rights records of many states in the middle east leave a lot to be desired, but two wrongs do not make a right. The fact that we deal with allies in the middle east that have atrocious human rights records does not mean that we should forgive or forget the human rights situation in Iran. The report by the Foreign Affairs Committee stated clearly:

“No concessions should be made on human rights in the interests of making progress in negotiations in other fields.”

The Committee is not arguing that there should be no progress in other fields, but we should not turn a blind eye to Iran’s human rights record.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) spoke passionately and correctly about concerns in Israel, not least about the support given by Iran to Hezbollah and Hamas. It is difficult to deny that the strategic threat to Israel is not only the development of a nuclear capacity in Iran, but the daily threat faced by Israel from southern Lebanon and the Gaza strip. Clearly, there has been a degree of breach between Iran and Hamas, but the support to Hezbollah continues to be a strong element of Iranian foreign policy, which should concern anyone who wants a long-term settlement in the middle east, not least a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinian entity.

There are human rights concerns with the Iranian regime, but there are also concerns with the regime’s ability to destabilise part of the middle east and other parts of the world by sponsoring terrorism. From a UK perspective, we cannot deny that the question we need to ask is this: would it be in the UK’s national interest for Iran to develop nuclear capacity? We need to address that key question. It is currently difficult to argue that stability in the middle east would be enhanced by Iran’s ability to develop nuclear capacity. It is striking that political leaders and leaders in other middle east countries have accepted the claimed nuclear capacity of Israel—I say “claimed” with a smile on my face, because all hon. Members recognise that Israel has a nuclear capacity. Saudi Arabia and Jordan, for example, have not said that they need nuclear capacity because Israel has nuclear capacity, but those states have made the argument strongly that, if Iran develops nuclear capacity, they would need to have a nuclear warhead. We should take that seriously if we are trying to bring stability to such an unstable part of the world.

The right hon. Member for Blackburn made the important point that a sovereign country such as Iran has every right to develop a civilian nuclear strategy. I believe very strongly in the UK developing and investing once more in our civilian nuclear capacity. As a north Wales Member, I am keen for the development of a second power station in Anglesey. It is very difficult to argue with that case. However, my support for a nuclear power station in Anglesey would be somewhat tempered were Wales sitting on the second largest gas reserves behind Russia’s. If Iran has such large gas reserves, why is civilian nuclear capacity so important to it? I accept that the right hon. Gentleman’s point is a fair one—a sovereign country has that right. Therefore, as an international community, we need to ensure a settlement that allows that civilian capacity to be developed, but with assurances that it will not lead to a military capacity, which would further destabilise the middle east.

We must question seriously whether Iran has moved sufficiently towards giving assurances on whether its intentions are peaceful. The Foreign Affairs Committee, which has looked at the issue in detail, concluded:

“There is no convincing explanation for why Iran might need for civil purposes the stocks of enriched uranium which it held in January 2014. We believe that the primary reason for Iran’s decision to build such a capacity to enrich uranium and to amass stocks to current levels was to give itself the option to develop a nuclear military capability.”

The FAC is not renowned for highlighting dangers that are not reasonably identified. We should pause to consider those words when we think about how we deal with the negotiations that are supposed to conclude by 24 November.

In 2012, the Prime Minister highlighted the fact that the Iranian regime is currently flouting six UN resolutions —1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835 and 1929. His statement was clear:

“The regime’s claim that its nuclear programme is intended purely for civilian purposes is not remotely credible.”

In view of the developments of the past few months, do we believe that those words are not relevant? If they are relevant, it is imperative that any developments are considered carefully, and that we have assurances that concessions made to Iran do not allow the development of a nuclear military capacity.

As I have said, it is expected or hoped that the P5 plus 1 negotiations will conclude by the end of November. I accept that there is a possibility of a breakthrough, but certain things must be guaranteed in any deal. The British Government should be clear that, in any agreement, we need to ensure that Iran’s ability to develop a military nuclear capacity is not enhanced. We should consider the number of centrifuges—2,000 should be a maximum but, currently, there are 18,000, and Iran claims the need for 10 times more. We need clarity on that.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kettering highlighted that sources in the middle east have identified that the stockpiles of enriched material were sufficient for six nuclear warheads. The point has been strongly and passionately made that one warhead would be enough to wipe Israel off the map. Would hon. Members be comfortable with such a development? What will be done to ensure that Iran’s stocks of enriched material are dealt with?

On the Iranian enrichment programme, it is important that the 3.5% level is monitored. Despite the best efforts of the International Atomic Energy Agency, there are concerns over whether the Iranian regime is co-operating fully. I argue that there is a need for full and immediate compliance with the IAEA on the possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear programme. Inspectors should be given unfettered access to Iranian military installations because, if the aim or intention is for a sovereign state to develop a civilian nuclear capacity, one must ask why the regime would be reluctant to allow such an investigation. An investigation would give confidence to the UK and other states that the Iranian regime’s intentions are not in any way militaristic.

We also know that the Iranian military has the ability to deliver a nuclear warhead not only on Israel, but on a significant portion of Europe. We need to ensure that any agreement that allows the development of a civilian capacity takes into account steps to ensure that that ballistic missile capacity is not a threat to any part of the middle east or Europe.

We should grasp the opportunity to ensure that the sanction regime is monitored carefully as part of an overall package that allows the development of civilian nuclear energy capacity in Iran. The opportunities of trade with Iran that hon. Members have highlighted are also important. I agree that trading relationships often lead to better political relations. The opportunity is there, but it is important that the House sends a clear message that we are dealing with a regime that does not have a track record of good will. In any agreement, we need certainty that a compromise is not conceded without due care and attention.

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The House is sometimes criticised for not passing enough legislation and because the Government have allocated days for Backbench Business Committee business. This is a great example of a debate in which hon. Members can discuss a subject that we would not ordinarily discuss.

On 24 November 2013, it emerged that a deal had been reached between Iran and the five members of the UN Security Council—the UK, the US, France, China and Russia—plus Germany. The deal was the outcome of years of negotiations behind the scenes and a decade of public diplomacy following the revelations that there was a wide-scale uranium enrichment programme in Iran. The P5 plus 1 countries and Iran concluded an interim six-month agreement known as the joint plan of action, which was intended to restrain Iran’s nuclear programme in return for limited sanctions.

On 26 February this year, I led a Westminster Hall debate and raised the concerns of many people about the P5 plus 1 tacitly recognising Iran’s right to enrich uranium, which has been rejected by many people over the years. Another concern was relaxing some of the Iran sanctions. As we anticipate the final deal at the end of the month, it is worth hig