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Topical Questions

Volume 592: debated on Thursday 5 February 2015

Since our last Department of Energy and Climate Change orals, we have seen significant progress for consumers on switching, energy prices and energy efficiency. Energy firms have responded to my challenge and halved the time it takes to switch, from five weeks last year to 17 days now. That is helping people to switch to get big savings on their energy bills, as the extra competition we have backed is now seeing bills being not just frozen, but cut. Figures to the end of November show that the energy companies obligation and the green deal have delivered new boilers, windows and insulation to more than 1 million homes, four months ahead of our March 2015 target. In introducing to the House today tough new regulations to require landlords to ensure that their properties meet minimum energy-efficiency standards, we aim over the next three years to help about 1 million private sector tenants enjoy lower energy bills and warmer homes.

The global calculator published by the Department last week found that reducing our meat consumption is essential if we are to reduce our contribution towards greenhouse gases. Everyone from the United Nations downwards has for many years been talking about the contribution of the livestock sector to global emissions. His Department has always ignored this issue, so I urge him now to take action and to tell us what he is doing to encourage people to reduce their consumption.

I think that is a little harsh. My Department published the calculator, so far from ignoring this, we are putting into the public domain not just a UK 2050 calculator but, having helped 20 other countries with their calculators, now a global calculator. It shows that people’s lifestyles—not just their meat-eating habits, but their transport and so on—all have an impact on climate change. The calculator enables people to look at the types of choices we may need to make in the future.

T4. What percentage of the domestic energy market was captured by the big six energy companies in 2010, and what is the percentage now? (907471)

In 2010, the big six, created under the previous Government, had a share of the retail market of more than 99%. As a result of the competition we have encouraged, there has been a big increase in the number of independent competitors, whose market share has increased from less than 1% to more than 10.5%, and is rising fast.

On 13 January, when answering an urgent question in this House on decommissioning at Sellafield, the Secretary of State said on three occasions that he would engage with the 10,000 people working at that complex site. What discussions have he and his officials had with those workers?

We are engaging with those workers through the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority and through Sellafield Ltd, and we stand ready to assist in the discussions to make sure they understand the implications of the changes to their livelihoods. As I said in response to the hon. Gentleman’s urgent question, we are talking about good news for workers at Sellafield, and indeed it was welcomed by the MP representing that constituency.

If it is such good news for the workers at Sellafield, I would expect the Secretary of State to be engaging with those 10,000 highly skilled workers, who are very concerned about what the impact will be on their jobs and their livelihoods. I can tell him that there has been just one local meeting with those workers in the past few weeks, and very many of their questions were not answered. He has had communication from their representatives. Will he now undertake to fulfil the promise he gave this House just three weeks ago to engage properly with those people, at a time of severe anxiety for them?

I absolutely will answer the questions put to me by the workers and their representatives, and I will ensure that the NDA and Sellafield Ltd make sure that they answer those questions, too. That is only right.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that maintaining high levels of generating capacity to meet peak demand, which may be for very short periods, imposes a cost on all consumers? Will he therefore undertake to look carefully at the capacity market mechanism next year to see whether a greater contribution can be made by demand-side response—the system under which consumers are incentivised to reduce their consumption at short notice during periods of peak demand?

Demand-side response currently accounts for around 1.8 GW of balancing services, and we expect it to rise to around 2.5 GW. I have met the demand-side response industry a couple of times, and we will ensure that we take into account its concerns as we review the operation of the capacity market, which was incredibly successful this December.

T3. The Children’s Society estimates that in Coventry South 3,200 children are living in families trapped in energy debt. It has been calling on the Government to increase support for those families by changing the Department of Energy and Climate Change strategy and policy statement to include families with children as a vulnerable group. That will ensure that Ofgem and energy companies do their part to give families the support they need when they fall behind with their energy bills. Will the Minister give that some consideration? (907470)

That is a very significant issue. When we were working on the fuel poverty strategy, using the analysis of Professor John Hills—the new method of looking at fuel poverty—we found that it uncovered a number of things that were not so obvious in the old method, such as people in off-gas grid homes being among the most fuel poor, and far more families being in fuel poverty as a proportion of the overall total. That is why the warm home discount is so important; it targets money on not just pensioners but low-income families. The fuel poverty strategy will now address that matter, too.

Earlier, the Under-Secretary of State said that, by 2020, we will see the availability of more advanced lower-cost solar panel technology, which will not require subsidy. Why not wait until 2020, rather than encouraging people to install high-cost, immature versions of that technology that will require us to commit to paying out subsidies right through to 2030?

We have been cutting solar subsidies throughout this Parliament—indeed we have come under great attack for so doing, including from the Opposition. We are consulting on closing the renewables obligation system to the solar industry, and again that has led to a lot of criticism. However, I do not apologise for taking those measures, because it is important that we get best value for money for the taxpayer while encouraging the very important solar industry.

T5. Siemens is to start the production of offshore wind turbines in Hull, potentially bringing in thousands of news jobs to the city. Is the Secretary of State aware that the UK Independence party opposes that investment and those jobs coming to Hull, and that the Greens are calling for a boycott of Siemens locally as well? (907472)

I am glad that this is one issue on which the hon. Lady and I can agree. I recently went to Hull to see the latest development in the Siemens plan. The plan is very exciting and is crucial for Hull. It has been welcomed by business, education and the council in Hull. I agree it is astonishing that, locally, UKIP and the Green party are opposing the development. It is quite bizarre.

I very much welcome the Under-Secretary of State’s very positive response to my campaign with the Children’s Society to extend the warm home discount. Will she go a step further and seriously consider the auto payment of the warm home discount to these vulnerable families, in addition to the auto payment to pensioners?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We are all aware of the hard work she has done to support vulnerable people and to make such an extension happen. We are pleased that the warm home discount now extends to a broader group, which includes families with children, particularly those with children under five or disabled children. Data sharing is an important part of being able to find out how to deliver to the right people. We will of course keep those opportunities under review.

T6. Does the Secretary of State share the widespread disgust at Ofgem’s recent advice on paying energy bills, which included suggesting that families in fuel poverty should make packed lunches for their kids and cancel gym memberships? Instead of that insulting response, does he agree that the Government should consider changing the rules, so that Ofgem advises on energy efficiency and not on packed lunches? (907473)

I have not seen that advice. It is important that Ofgem focuses on trying to give the best possible advice that will help people who are struggling with energy bills. Government advice certainly includes practical suggestions on how to get the financial help that is available and to cut bills.

Shale gas has the potential to reduce energy bills and increase the security of supply. Will my right hon. Friend set out what steps his Department is taking to allay public concerns about fracking?

I am delighted that this question has come up although I am a bit surprised that it took until 10.29 to do so. It is also a bit of a surprise that the shadow Secretary of State is not attending DECC questions; I understand that she is campaigning in a Labour marginal seat. It is absolutely imperative and a duty on the Government to allow exploration for shale gas, which has the potential to be a significant resource, but to do so carefully and cautiously, and that is exactly what we are doing.

T7. What is the Government’s current position on constructing a Severn barrage lagoon to generate a substantial proportion of the nation’s electricity? If the Government are serious about their green ambitions, should they not be forging ahead with this project now? (907474)

The hon. Gentleman may be muddling up the barrage and the lagoon. We have said that we will look at any environmentally sensitive and affordable proposal for the Severn barrage, if the private sector wants to propose one. To date, that has not happened, although he may well have missed the fact that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made it clear in the autumn statement that we are looking seriously at tidal lagoons. I recently published a consultation on how we would go about agreeing a contract for difference for a tidal lagoon.

I think that my right hon. Friend is persuaded that new housing is an infrastructure priority for the UK, so will he argue for newly energy efficient housing to be accorded that status also?

I strongly believe that energy efficiency, related not just to housing but to other areas, should be a key infrastructure priority.

T8. Like every other Member here, I am deeply disappointed to hear about further job losses in the North sea oil and gas industry. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers has said that, for every offshore job lost, three jobs onshore are lost. Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to address this is to work together as a United Kingdom? (907475)

I entirely concur with the hon. Gentleman’s words, and I look forward to working with the Opposition Front Benchers and Labour Back Benchers and, indeed, with the Labour leadership in Scotland, to try to do everything we can to ensure that we have a strong and healthy offshore industry, because the jobs are not only offshore but throughout the whole United Kingdom.

T9. It is becoming increasingly clear that the UK Government have failed to agree the European structural and investment fund’s operational programme with the European Commission. What is happening? What is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that the skills funding needed to achieve energy efficiency objectives is guaranteed until an agreement is reached? (907476)

It is important that we get the details right and the programme will be forthcoming, but it is vital that we have the skills that come alongside energy development. We put a huge effort into getting that right, and I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will welcome the details when they are published.