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House of Commons Hansard
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Oral Answers to Questions
19 March 2015
Volume 594

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Efficiency

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1. What steps he is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency [908193]

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11. What steps he is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency [908204]

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Making households more energy efficient is the surest and safest way to reduce energy bills. Thanks to the energy companies obligation and green deal schemes, more than 1 million homes have been made more energy efficient, helping households stay permanently warmer for less. In Luton North, more than 2,726 households have been helped by ECO alone, which is nearly the twice the national average in respect of households.

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The truth is that millions of low-income families are still living in poorly insulated and cold homes, and paying very high fuel bills. Cuts to the energy companies obligation have meant that nearly half a million fewer households will receive vital upgrades to make their homes warmer and cheaper to heat, and, in any case, half of that budget goes to households that are not in poverty. Have this Government’s policies not been a failure, leaving millions of families too cold in their homes, struggling to pay heating bills and in need of a Labour Government to make their lives better?

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I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. Fuel poverty under this Government has gone down. The changes to the ECO specifically took £50 off the bill, but reserved the amount that was to help the vulnerable and those on low incomes. So we have continued to focus on low-income and vulnerable people, to ensure that they are the first households to be made warmer for less.

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With one in 10 green deal companies being struck off, what assurances can the Minister give constituents of mine, and people across the country, who might suffer as a result of lower standards and shoddy workmanship?

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I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to address this matter. The fact is we have very tough consumer protection in this area. One in 10 have been struck off, but that is not necessarily to do with any criminal behaviour; it is to do with their not engaging properly with the certification process. It is because we have a tough certification process, which is in line with other organisations’ arrangements, that some have been struck off in order to protect the consumer better.

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Many household electrical appliances use up far too much electricity. What progress has been made over the past five years on persuading manufacturers of these products to make them far more energy-efficient?

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I share my hon. Friend’s views on this issue. Some products do use far less electricity than others, and of course saving energy is the best way to save on people’s household bills. I am happy to say that the EU product regulations have been helpful in implementing this and we will continue to be able to do that.

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The Minister will know that rural homes are often some of the worst in terms of energy efficiency. The renewable heat obligation should help with that. Unfortunately, I have encountered constituents who have installed a wood-burning boiler and been granted the renewable heat incentive payments, only to have them removed later on the spurious grounds that the boiler may be able to burn logs as well as pellets. Is that not illogical?

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The scheme has been successful and we will continue to support it. On his specific question, may I suggest that he writes to me about the particular example and I will certainly look into the matter?

Low-carbon Energy Sources

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2. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. [908194]

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4. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. [908196]

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6. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. [908198]

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13. What recent assessment he has made of trends in levels of investment in low-carbon energy sources. [908206]

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On 24 March, we will be publishing a detailed report on the progress this coalition is making on investment in low-carbon energy, but let me now share two findings from that report ahead of next week’s publication. First, for the second year running the UK has invested more in clean energy than any other country in Europe, Secondly, Bloomberg new energy finance data show that last year was the UK’s best ever year for new-build renewable energy finance, placing the UK in the global top five. I promise, Mr Speaker, to give each Member in turn a new statistic showing how the UK is doing so well on low-carbon energy investment.

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More than 50 companies called on the Secretary of State to implement a 2030 decarbonisation target. They warned that the absence of a specific carbon-intensity target was undermining investment. Does he regret not joining the 16 Members from his own party who rebelled against the Government and voted for this target?

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The hon. Gentleman knows that my party and I are in favour of this target, which is why we legislated in the Energy Act 2013 to put one in and it will be in our manifesto. But he is wrong if he thinks this target is some sort of panacea for low-carbon energy investment. We were told by the Labour party that if we did not do this, we would not see the supply chain growing. But here is a statistic for him: the supply chain in the UK for low-carbon energy investment is booming. We have had the massive investment from Siemens and Associated British Ports in Hull, transforming that city, and we have seen what MHI Vestas has been doing in the Isle of Wight. Under this Government, low-carbon energy investment and the whole supply chain are booming.

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I am sure that the Minister will be pleased to know that Northumbrian Water has an advanced anaerobic digestion plant in my constituency that is not only producing green energy from the sewage treatment process but injecting it into the gas network. However, according to the Environmental Audit Committee, investment in clean energy is running at only half the rate needed if we are to meet our binding carbon emission commitments. Will the Minister explain why he is failing to generate the investment that we need?

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Let me give a statistic to the hon. Lady: the annual rate of renewable energy investment in this Parliament is more than double the rate that it was in the previous Parliament. From 2010 to 2014, low-carbon investment has amounted to more than £40 billion. That is a record of which we are very proud.

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What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the impact on employment in the onshore wind industry from the effective moratorium on onshore wind? He will probably know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) and I recently visited West Coast Energy in my constituency, which employs many people developing onshore wind. The organisation is now threatened by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, who is blocking wind farms. Surely the right hon. Gentleman does not support him in that.

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The right hon. Gentleman will know that onshore wind has boomed under this Government. There is no moratorium, so what he said was wrong, but it is true that there are Conservative colleagues who do not share my enthusiasm for onshore wind. I recently opened the largest onshore wind farm in England, at Keadby, and I was able to grant, after the recent very successful first auction of contracts for difference, 15 out of 27 contracts to new onshore wind farms. That sounds to me like we are going ahead fast.

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When the Government cut the feed-in tariff for solar, we were promised a scheme that would “serve the many, not the few”. Will the Minister help us to understand why the number of households getting solar halved between 2012 and 2014?

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I simply do not recognise the hon. Lady’s statistics. Let me give the House one statistic: 99% of the UK’s solar installations were put in under this Government. We have seen more than £11 billion invested in solar, which is a fantastic record.

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Without doubt, investment in low-carbon energy is booming, thanks to the bold reforms of this coalition Government and our long-term economic plan. But one of the unsung success stories of this Government has been the renewable heat incentive. Will the Secretary of State update us on just how many thousands of commercial, industrial and residential installations there now are?

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In answering my right hon. Friend’s question, may I pay tribute to him for the role he played in this boom, particularly in the renewable heat incentive? We have seen more than 25,000 domestic installations. I cannot give him the figure for non-domestic installations, but we are seeing a big increase. Now that this renewable heat scheme has really got going, the next Parliament will need to build on our success.

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Every few months, the consultancy firm EY publishes its renewable energy attractiveness index. This month, the UK fell yet again. In November 2013, we were fourth in the world. In February 2014, we fell to fifth; in May 2014, to sixth; and in September 2014, to seventh. This month, the UK fell to eighth, which is a 12-year low. The Secretary of State’s sole solution to our broken energy market is telling people to switch. In order to reverse that appalling record, is it not time we switched to a Labour Government so that we can drive the investment, create the skilled jobs and produce the clean energy that our country needs to succeed?

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The hon. Lady has scored a massive own goal. She trailed us going down the attractiveness index for future investment, but she should realise that the closer we get to the election, the more worried investors are. Members do not have to believe me about the potential threat of a Labour Government to investment; they can believe the Secretary-General of the OECD, Angel Gurria, who said that Labour’s energy price freeze could bankrupt investors. That is why the index is going in the wrong direction. The hon. Lady might also want to know that that index was prepared as a snapshot before the recent successful contracts for difference auction, which saw 27 new renewable energy plant contracts issued. This Government are seeing huge investment. The only thing that can stop that investment is the election of a Labour Government.

Energy Supply Market

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3. What recent steps he has taken to increase competition in the energy supply market. [908195]

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We have made it quicker and easier for consumers to switch supplier. Now 10% of dual-fuel customers use one of the 21 independent suppliers in the domestic retail market, which provides more competition and more choice for consumers.

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It really saddens me that Labour’s misunderstanding of markets meant that it backed the big energy businesses and drove the smaller ones out of operation. If we are to have a healthy energy market, it seems to me that what we need is more competition and faster switching so that consumers can enjoy lower prices and better quality services. Does my right hon. Friend agree?

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My hon. Friend is completely right. We have halved the time it takes to switch. Our Power to Switch campaign is now up and running. I myself am going to switch energy supplier today as part of that campaign, and I look forward to saving serious amounts of money as a result. I urge all Members, and indeed all consumers, to consider switching, because the power of competition is one of the best ways to get energy bills down. Instead of the big six that Labour created, we now have 21 new independent suppliers.

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It might be better if the right hon. Gentleman switched party, rather than energy supplier. Is not part of the problem with cost down to the fact that we have companies that generate electricity selling it to themselves, which allows them to hike the prices paid by consumers? People need those prices to come down in order to heat their homes. Why not just split those roles completely to ensure that we get an honest broker in the middle?

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First, we got the Competition and Markets Authority to look into that matter, because it had not been investigated under the previous Government. The CMA’s initial conclusion was that we have a competitive market at that level, so the precise detail that the hon. Gentleman sets out is not the problem. The remaining problem in the UK’s energy market is that it needs to be more competitive in order to get a better deal for customers. The last thing anybody needs is for prices to be frozen at the high levels at which Labour proposed to freeze them.

Household Energy Bills

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5. What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. [908197]

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10. What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. [908203]

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15. What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. [908209]

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Energy bills are a significant and important part of people’s household budgets. The Government have delivered, on average, a £50 reduction in energy bills, boosted competition in the energy market and ensured that fairer tariffs are in place. Last year alone, 3.1 million people switched energy supplier, and we are helping more consumers to save up to £200 or more through our Power to Switch campaign.

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Wholesale gas and electricity prices have fallen by some 20% over the past 12 months, yet household bills have gone down by only 5%. Is that fair, and what is the Minister going to do about it?

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We are taking action on that. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor led on that by calling in the big six to speak to them about it, and that was followed up by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. We have seen reductions. All I can say is thank goodness we did not have the freeze that Labour proposed in September 2013, because we would then have seen no reduction at all. We do not take anything for granted, which is why we are supporting the CMA review into the market. We eagerly await its results at the end of the year, when we can take action.

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The Ministers’ words will ring very hollow indeed in many of our rural communities, where people are off-grid and rely on domestic oil for heating. I ask the Minister not to quote what the price happens to be this week, because we know that, like gravity, domestic oil prices go up and down. Will she tell us why the Government have not listened to MPs from across the parties who have asked for domestic oil to be put under the regulator Ofgem?

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We have put in place a fuel poverty strategy, which will address some of the issues the hon. Lady raises. We are liaising with Ofgem and are encouraged by the early results from the CMA, and of course we will be taking them up further when they come through at the end of the year.

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Despite the rosy picture that the Chancellor wanted to portray yesterday, fuel poverty in Wales has gone up by 18% since 2011, and 90,000 people with children cannot afford their energy bills. When are the Government going to take real, tangible action to fight rip-off bills from these energy companies?

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The hon. Gentleman may know that the Big Energy Saving Network is active in Wales. That is an initiative from this Department that instructs and funds third parties to go out and help people to switch and to access the warm homes discount. Yesterday in the Budget, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced further funding for the Big Energy Saving Network, and that will go exactly to the cause that the hon. Gentleman raises, which we care about as well.

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Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Clwyd South (Susan Elan Jones), many, many people in rural areas like mine are dependent on fuel oil or liquid petroleum gas and have seen their costs go up inexorably over recent years. Even in an unregulated market, is there any way in which the Minister can ensure that the prices now fall commensurately with the fall in oil and gas prices, and do so promptly?

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As the hon. Gentleman observes, the price has been falling, and we will keep a careful eye on it to make sure that it continues to fall. I would hope that it should fall at a greater rate than the major energy companies’ bills, because gas prices have been falling at a greater rate.

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Recently the hon. Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee), a respected member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, admitted that the Conservative party had no clear energy policy and had been relegated to “second fiddle”. Helpfully, he added:

“If I’m honest, I don’t think we’ve done particularly well.”

If Government Members do not have any confidence in their own party’s energy policy, why should the British people?

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I will be answering a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bracknell (Dr Lee) later, and I look forward to that opportunity. I think that our energy policy is absolutely clear and is delivering what we set out to do. To be honest, the lack of clarity and the chaos is only on the Opposition Benches, because we remain completely confused about the Opposition’s policy towards Ofgem, which they claim to want to amend, on the one hand, and abolish, on the other. As for the price freeze, I think I will hear about that later from my hon. Friend.

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I am afraid that there will be nowhere to hide in the forthcoming general election as regards the coalition parties and their energy policies. The facts speak for themselves: energy bills £300 higher; three out of four households being overcharged by their energy supplier; the number of families with children who cannot afford to heat their homes at the highest-ever level; and, as we have heard today—it has been reconfirmed—a Government who, for five years, have just told people to shop around. Does not this show that the only way to help households with their energy bills is to elect a Labour Government to freeze energy prices until 2017 while we reform the market and give the regulator the power to cut bills in time for Christmas?

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That is further chaos from Labour about a cap or a freeze—we have no idea which they would do. Let me point out to the right hon. Lady that during 2013 the UK had the lowest household gas prices and the fifth lowest household electricity prices in the EU 15. In no way are we complacent about what has been achieved in helping people; that is why we back the CMA’s reforms. It is very disappointing that she does not back the CMA’s approach, which will give us an independent review that we look forward to enacting at the end of the year.

Wholesale Energy Prices

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7. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent trends in wholesale energy prices on household energy bills. [908199]

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12. What assessment he has made of the effect of recent trends in wholesale energy prices on household energy bills. [908205]

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All the major suppliers have announced reductions to their standard variable gas tariffs in recent weeks in response to reductions in the wholesale gas price. The price of fixed-term deals has continued to fall, with the cheapest deal on the market £100 cheaper than the cheapest deal a year ago. The Competition and Markets Authority has made it clear that it will be looking further at the relationship between wholesale costs and retail prices as part of its investigation.

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I thank the Minister for her reply. The news about prices and bills is all very welcome, but does she agree that the next Conservative Government—as I hope and expect it will be—should concentrate primarily on energy efficiency? This would bear down on household bills and, indeed, bills for businesses, while also conserving our planet’s finite resources and helping to secure this great nation’s energy supplies in future.

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On this account, my hon. Friend is absolutely right: energy efficiency is indeed the best way to help people and that is why it has been a Government priority for the past few years. He is also absolutely right that the benefit is not only in keeping bills down, but in conserving our resources.

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Is my hon. Friend as surprised as I am that the Labour party is still pursuing its policy of a price freeze? If a price is frozen at a high level, surely the danger is that when the market settles at a lower level, my constituents will end up paying more than they are now.

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Order. The Minister must not be led astray, away from the path of virtue, by her hon. Friend. She will know that she must not talk about the policies of the Labour party. Her responsibility is with the policy of the Government. A brief and pithy reply on that matter would be in order, but nothing beyond.

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Thank you for that guidance, Mr Speaker. My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, revealing the confusion being caused among his constituents. I hope they will make the right interpretation and support him and this Government in the future.

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The drop in wholesale energy prices has allowed Governments around the world—including India, Indonesia and Egypt—to reduce the subsidies to fossil fuels in a way that is commensurate with the proposals of the United Nations framework convention on climate change and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, in yesterday’s Budget the Chancellor gave a £1.3 billion subsidy to our fossil fuel industries. What does the Minister make of that paradox?

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The hon. Gentleman, who is well respected in this area, should identify the difference between taxation and subsidy. The point of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s announcement yesterday is that North sea oil is an important part of our industry and employment. We still feel there is more to be done in the extractive industries and we should support them despite the fall in oil prices.

Renewable Energy

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8. What assessment he has made of the effect on (a) generating capacity and (b) the transmission network of an increased reliance on intermittent energy supplied by renewable sources. [908200]

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Electricity generation always needs to balance supply and demand. The transmission system clearly has to change to accommodate expanding renewables, and Ofgem’s new framework will help that happen.

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I note that my right hon. Friend does not give any costs for the extra capacity required for when the wind does not blow or the sun does not shine and the extra transmission lines required to transmit from long distance. Will he confirm that those costs are not included in the £7.6 billion levy control framework, despite the fact that the former power director of the National Grid puts them at £5 billion a year? If they were included, the potential total cost of all the subsidies could be £500 per household per annum.

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The levy control framework specifically controls the amount of direct subsidy, but a whole series of changes needs to happen to make sure that our transmission system can keep up with the distribution of energy supply as well as the demand. That includes changes to interconnectors—in other words, getting more of them—and making sure that we have a smarter grid and distribution system. It is difficult at this stage to calculate the cost of those changes.

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14. Does my right hon. Friend agree that one very effective way to address the issues raised by intermittency from renewable generation is greater use of demand-side management, which is both cost-effective and environmentally attractive? As we get more sophisticated in our use of demand response, the balance can be maintained even with intermittent peaks and troughs in generation. [908207]

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I pay tribute to the huge expertise of my parliamentary neighbour, who will step down from this House next week, in this area. He has reminded me of something I should have said in my previous answer, which is to include demand-side response as one of the many ways in which we need to help manage the transmission system with more renewables on the grid.

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According to National Grid, on 26 December less than 1% of power generated into the national grid in Scotland came from wind, meaning that electricity generated south of the border and the doubling of output from the coal-fired Longannet power station in Fife kept our lights on. The Minister will be aware that Iberdrola, the Spanish owner of ScottishPower, which operates Longannet, has decided not to invest to make it compliant with the industrial emissions directive and is now threatening to announce the closure of that power station next week, jeopardising hundreds of skilled jobs. Given Iberdrola’s public statements, what discussions has the Minister had with the Spanish power company or National Grid about the implications of potential closure?

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We have of course considered the implications of the closure of any major power plant. Alongside National Grid, we continually assess the security of supply risks across Great Britain, including in Scotland. We are confident that we have the tools to address any issues at Longannet and any other fossil fuel plant that may close. We will ensure that the procedures and policies are always put in place to make sure that the supplies of energy are secure.

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I thank the Minister for that reply, but he will be aware that various public claims have been made by or on behalf of Iberdrola ScottishPower about the impact of closure on both security of supply and group resilience, and that National Grid has rejected those claims. What assessment has his Department made of the claims and their implications? Given the conflicting statements made in the public domain, will he publish the assessment and advice so that the veracity of the claims and counterclaims can be properly tested?

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I have looked in detail at the claims, and they are not correct. National Grid’s assessment is that the closure of Longannet is not a threat to the security of supply. I think that we should trust the assessment of the transmission grid operator, rather than that of an individual company playing one small part in the operation. I will of course look at what we can publish to make those reassurances yet more concrete.

Unconventional Oil and Gas Exploration

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9. What recent representations he has received on the application of regulations to onshore unconventional oil and gas exploration; and if he will make a statement. [908201]

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We receive a wide variety of representations on onshore unconventional oil and gas, and we always listen carefully to the views expressed.

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The current regulations that apply to unconventional oil and gas exploration onshore have not yet been properly tried and tested. The protections given to national parks, sites of special scientific interest and areas of outstanding natural beauty were withdrawn in the Lords. Given that the regulations will not be published until July, what is the legal position on protections in or under national parks as regards any application that may be submitted this month?

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The legal protections are in the Infrastructure Act 2015, which my hon. Friend played a role in shaping as it went through this House. I want to pay tribute to her for her long service in this House to her constituents: she has been unending in her determination to support them. I would say that anybody looking to propose a development of unconventional oil and gas ought to act as though the provisions of the Infrastructure Act were in place. There will be a period before they are formally implemented, but we need to ensure that development continues in the assured and careful manner provided for in the Act.

Energy Policy (Regional Devolution)

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16. What assessment he has made of the potential merits of devolving energy policy to a regional level. [908210]

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We are proposing further devolution to Scotland and Wales consistent with the need for an efficient and good-value energy system throughout Great Britain.

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Is it not high time that the regions of the United Kingdom had a chance to have some power over energy policy? Yorkshire in particular, with its offshore wind power and its other resources, knows a lot about energy. Does not all the evidence show that if we grass-root energy policy, even at a community level, and give people ownership of it, perhaps through social systems of ownership, it works better? Taking energy policy down to the grass roots binds people into a good policy.

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No matter how great a county Yorkshire is—it is, indeed, a great county—[Interruption.] —we need to make sure that the system works on a GB-wide basis and that it is as efficient as possible. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the ability to access distribution networks and indeed the wider grid to ensure that those producing electricity can connect to nearby demand will enhance the ability of communities to play a part. I can see where he is going, but I am not sure that breaking up the GB-wide energy system is the best way to reach a solution.

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I note that a Lancastrian Whip blurted out what might be described as a competitive chant when the right hon. Gentleman was hailing the merits of Yorkshire, but I will not draw any further attention to the matter.

Tidal Power

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17. What support his Department plans to provide to the development of the proposed tidal lagoon project near Newport. [908211]

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I can confirm that the Government have announced that we are entering into a negotiation on a contract for difference for the Swansea bay lagoon to decide whether the project is affordable and represents value for money. I am strongly in favour of a tidal programme across the UK, subject to the usual planning permissions and to the lessons from the first project or projects being learned. Given that planning permissions are site-specific, the hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot give a view on the Newport project.

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The belated recognition by the Government of the enormous advantages of tidal power is very welcome. They should examine what has been taking place for the past 50 years at La Rance in Brittany, where the cheapest electricity in the world is being generated. Will the Secretary of State look at the other schemes? The schemes at Newport are far better value than the Swansea scheme. However, we all give a warm welcome to the Government’s recognition that tidal power is a British, eternal, clean, non-carbon and entirely predictable energy source.

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I think this is the first time that the hon. Gentleman and I have been in agreement on energy policy, so I would like to mark the occasion. He is right that tidal lagoon power presents a huge opportunity for this country. The Department is looking at it in detail. I hope that it will produce not only the clean energy that we need, but the green jobs that are so important in many parts of the country.

Solar Energy

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18. What steps he is taking to encourage businesses to install solar energy panels. [908212]

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The solar PV strategy, which we published last spring, sets out how we are maximising the deployment of panels on commercial and industrial buildings. We have taken a range of actions to assist owners of such buildings to deploy solar PV panels. To name just a few, we have consulted on allowing the transfer of panels without the loss of feed-in tariff accreditation; we have made changes to the feed-in tariff to protect the incentive for building mounted solar; and we are working with the property sector to remove other barriers to deployment.

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Vaillant in my constituency is a shining example in this area. It is energy efficient because it has so many solar panels. Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that after 13 years of Labour, just 6.8% of British electricity came from renewables, whereas since 2010, renewables generation has more than doubled?

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The hon. Lady is absolutely right. Renewable electricity generation has more than doubled. In fact, it has gone up by 165% in just a short time. Solar has played a key role in that.

Tidal Power

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19. What recent assessment he has made of the merits of proposals for the generation of electricity from tidal lagoons. [908214]

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I am delighted that we are back on tidal power. My considered view is that tidal energy has many merits: it is clean, renewable, predictable, home-grown and secure. Tidal lagoons can be built in numerous places in the UK and have the potential to meet up to 8% of our electricity needs. Tidal lagoon costs could fall significantly in the next decade, as larger, more cost-effective projects are deployed. With tidal lagoons having the potential to last 120 years, this is a future green energy technology that I hope all parties will strongly support.—[Interruption.]

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My hon. Friend the Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is claiming the credit for most of the Secretary of State’s answer. I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for the prospects for tidal power in the Severn estuary. When does the Minister expect the strike price to be agreed, which will help to spur the full commercialisation of the sector? Does he share the concern of organisations such as Citizens Advice that the current strike price for tidal lagoon power is higher than that for any major green energy project to date?

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The negotiations with the Tidal Lagoon Power company are bilateral, so they will set the strike price over months and we cannot give an exact timetable on how long they will take. I read the CAB report, but it was not as informed as it might have been. The first tidal lagoon power plant, which will be the world’s first, is likely to be a bit more expensive, just as when the UK had the first offshore wind farm it was a bit more expensive. Unless we invest in new technologies, we will not get the costs down. We have seen the costs of solar tumble. We have seen the costs of offshore wind tumble. We have seen the costs of onshore wind tumble. That has only happened because we have invested in new technology. That is the way that Britain—a world leader—should go.

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Untypically, we are ahead of time and can proceed with dispatch to Topical Questions.

Topical Questions

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T1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. [908182]

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Since the last oral questions to the Department of Energy and Climate Change, the first auction of low-carbon contracts for difference was completed. I was able to offer contracts for 27 new renewable power plants, including 15 onshore wind farms, two offshore wind farms, and five solar farms. The auction saw onshore wind prices fall by 17%, and offshore wind farm prices by 18%. Today I will publish the first annual update to our country’s first ever community energy strategy. That shows real progress in everything from district heating policy to grid connections, and from state aid clearance for the Green Investment Bank to lend to that sector, to our new water source heat map.

As this is the final DECC oral questions of this Parliament, I thank you, Mr Speaker, my Ministers and officials, Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition, and all right hon. and hon. Members for their help and advice—most of the time. The UK is now achieving on all our energy and climate change objectives, and I believe it is leading Europe on the path to a climate change treaty in Paris this December.

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I thank the Minister for that response. The community energy stuff will go down well in Bristol, which is European green capital of the year, as I think I have mentioned in every DECC questions. Although we welcome the measures in the Budget, what does the Secretary of State plan to do to diversify skills in the North sea towards low-carbon and renewable technologies, given that the North sea is a mostly mature basin? Does he agree that we need a long-term transition plan for places that are currently heavily reliant on the oil and gas industry?

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We are seeing a huge amount of activity in the North sea for offshore wind, and the beginnings for carbon capture and storage. About 18 months ago I brought together representatives from the oil and gas industry with representatives from the renewable industry working in the North sea. We need them to work together, particularly on issues such as regulation and the way infrastructure will develop. We need a longer-term plan, and we have been kicking that work off.

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T4. Will the Minister confirm to the House that it is not the policy of this Government, or indeed the next Conservative Government, to freeze energy prices just as the wholesale market starts to reduce in price? [908185]

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Absolutely. It is not the policy of the Government to freeze energy bills, not least at the level they were 18 months ago when we first received representations to do that. We have not chosen that path because we would end up with millions of consumers paying an average of £100 more for their electricity, and we would undermine investment, which is so critically needed, in the future of our energy system. It is a bad mistake and we will not do it.

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I join the Secretary of State in thanking you, Mr Speaker, and others. Thursdays have become the ticket to have in questions, and there is no doubt that over the past four years energy has been front and centre of pretty much every debate across the policy range. I wish those on the Government Front Bench a happy retirement.

On a serious note, the devastation wrought by Cyclone Pam in Vanuatu has reminded us that climate change is a national security threat, not just overseas but in Britain. It is vital that the UK plays a leading role to secure a binding global agreement to tackle climate change at the Paris conference later this year. Does the Secretary of State agree that we will secure influence abroad only if we show leadership at home, and will he reaffirm his support for Labour’s Climate Change Act 2008?

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I am grateful to the right hon. Lady, who makes a serious point about the impact of climate change on some of the most vulnerable people on our planet. We need to lead in the world, as indeed we are doing. She will also know that not only the Liberal Democrats but the Prime Minister, on behalf of the Conservative party, and the Leader of the Opposition recently signed a letter to confirm their support for the Climate Change Act 2008. That had huge consensus across the House—[Interruption.] As the right hon. Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr Lilley) notes, five people voted against it, and nine Members also voted against the Energy Act 2013, which I put through the House and is the practical way of delivering on the Climate Change Act 2008. It is important that the world should understand that across the parties there is a lot of agreement on this issue.

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T5. In my constituency, we have seen some dreadful flooding over the last decade, and I wanted to rise to thank the Department for making available the funds to complete the lower Thames flood alleviation scheme, which will save tens of thousands of homes and thousands of businesses and really help my constituents have a better quality of life with greater economic outcomes. [908186]

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rose—

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Order. I am tempted to think that that would ordinarily be a matter for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, but if ingeniously the Secretary of State can contrive to fashion a response that relates to his own important responsibilities, and if he can give us what he described a few moments ago as his “considered view”, the nation will be enriched.

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Mr Speaker, you are just too kind.

The Government, whether the lead has been taken by a different Department, such as DEFRA, or another Department, have done their best to deal with flooding issues. I speak as one of the Ministers with responsibility for flooding. We have done a lot of work in the south of London to assist with this matter, including on aspects of the Thames flood alleviation, but the real issue for me, as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, is that if we do not tackle climate change, this country will be badly hit by more flooding. We can build the flood defences we need, but in the long term if we are to reduce the cost of climate change to this country we need to tackle climate change itself.

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T2. Over the last five years, one of the biggest problems, particularly for elderly constituents of mine, has been complicated, high-tariff energy bills. On 17 occasions, the Prime Minister has said he would force energy companies by law to put their customers on the lowest energy tariff, but three out of four households are still on energy tariffs that cost on average £180 more than the lowest one. What are the Government going to do about that? [908183]

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We inherited an energy market that was completely broken and a situation where energy bills were complicated and opaque, but we and the independent energy regulator, Ofgem, have acted. We now have simpler bills, fewer tariffs and increased levels of switching, which are helping huge numbers of people. On the specific point the hon. Gentleman raises, Ofgem, in its retail market review, proposed the policy he refers to and is making sure it goes through, but if he has examples suggesting that any suppliers are not delivering on that new regulation, he should bring them to the independent regulator’s attention.

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T6. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the single biggest boost to the British and world economy has been the halving of the oil price, and does it not follow that forcing British industry to use energy that costs twice as much as conventional energy will have a depressive effect on the British economy? Why oh why is he insisting on our moving to wind, which costs twice as much, and this Swansea tidal power, which, according to the Financial Times, will involve a price three times that of conventional fuels for 35 years? Is that not going to depress the British and Welsh economies? [908187]

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I have a lot of respect for the right hon. Gentleman, who is known for his intellectual abilities and knowledge, but I am afraid that on this occasion they have failed him, and for this reason: we do not use oil to produce electricity—we haven’t for a long time. His point relates to transport. Oil is a substitute for transport fuels. I think he is talking about gas, but the price of gas has not come down by very much. Moreover, the fall in the price of gas was taken account of in the way we produced the levy control framework, which is the support for low-carbon electricity.

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T3. Earlier this month, I spoke at North East Call to Action’s time to act day, which brought together organisations and people from across the region who wanted the UK to lead in combating climate change through decarbonisation and to build a long-term sustainable economy based on clean energy, green technology and skilled jobs. When I reminded them of the Prime Minister’s promise that this should be the “greenest Government ever”, there was widespread laughter. Why does the Secretary of State think that was? [908184]

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Because some people have not looked at the facts. This is the greenest Government ever, but as I have said—[Interruption.] Well, we have seen massive increases in low-carbon energy and a big increase in energy efficiency, so I am afraid that the hon. Lady is completely wrong. Let me explain why some people laugh. It is because the bar for being the greenest Government was not very high—the last lot did such an appalling job. I want to make sure that if Liberal Democrats are in the next Government, it will be the greenest Government by a long way, which is why we have published proposals for five green Bills. We need to build on the success of this Government and go a lot further.

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T9. By when does the renewable energies Minister think it might be possible to generate solar energy without subsidy? [908190]

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Solar energy has been a great success under this Government. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State pointed out, 99% of solar energy developments have taken place under this Government, not least because of the great boost given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who put together the solar strategy in 2014, for which we are very grateful. The great news about solar energy is that it is likely to become subsidy-free in the next five years. That will be a classic example of investing in renewable energy and making sure that, as it increases, it becomes subsidy-free.

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T7. Hundreds of jobs are still waiting on a state aid application from UK Coal. The Minister promised an announcement would be made before the Dissolution of Parliament. Will he confirm when it will take place and whether it will be before the Dissolution? [908188]

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This is an important issue for the two coal mines owned by UK Coal—two of the three remaining deep coal mines. I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has been steadfast and hard working in delivering on this issue. There will absolutely be a decision before the Dissolution of Parliament.

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I warmly welcome the Government’s commitment to expanding renewable energy generation, but does the Minister agree that we should not tolerate the payment of renewables obligation certificates or feed-in tariffs to unlawful developments?

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T8. The Secretary of State will be well aware that he promised me at the last Question Time that he would come back to me on the report on vulnerable customers that I produced with the Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. Is this going to be another one of the Government’s unfulfilled promises, or will he come forward as soon as possible with a reply to this important report on how to ensure that vulnerable people will be taken care of when they most need help? [908189]

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I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman asked that question. He knows that I have read the report, because I have talked to him about it. I have told him in this Chamber that I wanted to respond to it. I thought that the reply had winged its way to him. If it has not, I shall chase it up. Let me say to him and the House that I read his report and thought it was very good.

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I recently met senior management at the Phillips 66 refinery in my constituency. The refinery has the lowest per barrel SO2 emissions in the country, but it fears that the continuing demands of the industrial emissions directive will increase costs with little benefit to the environment. Does the Minister share my concerns, and what action is he taking to protect the industry and the jobs?

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It is important to ensure that we have clean emissions and that we abide by our international obligations. None the less, I am looking forward to my visit to Cleethorpes and the refinery to see the impact for myself and to make sure that, locally, whatever changes need to be made will be implemented as carefully as possible.

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T10. An elderly constituent recently contacted me about her confusing energy bills. She had to make a payment, but the complicated bill structure meant that she had no idea of how the charges had been calculated, causing her some distress. It is obvious that Ofgem’s reforms to make bills simpler, clearer and fairer have not worked. Is it not about time that the Government started to stand up for consumers and treat ordinary people fairly and honestly by ensuring improved transparency in energy bills? [908191]

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I am surprised to hear the hon. Gentleman make that point. There has been a great improvement in bills, which are much simpler now. Furthermore, the energy suppliers must now inform consumers if a lower tariff is available, even if it involves different payment methods. However, if there is an issue I shall be happy to look into it. and the hon. Gentleman should also contact Ofgem.

One of our purposes in setting up and investing in the Big Energy Saving Network was to ensure that vulnerable people could obtain face-to-face advice, and organisations such as citizens advice bureaux, Age Concern and National Energy Action are funded and trained to deliver that advice.

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A few minutes ago, my right hon. Friend the Minister of State gave a very helpful answer to a question about demand-side response. In support of the Government’s fully justified claim to be the “greenest Government ever”, which I congratulate them on achieving, may I press him a little further? Is he aware that some people in the demand-side management industry are worried about the way in which the capacity market auction operated just before Christmas, and will he undertake to look into exactly how it is working in good time before the next auction, with the aim of establishing a level playing field as between different types of demand?

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I met representatives of the demand-side response industry in the autumn. I can give a commitment that we will review the way in which the market operates before the next auction, which we expect to take place this autumn.

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the Secretary of State? Although we are members of different parties, we have worked extremely closely, and I think that he has been a terrific Secretary of State. His support for the nuclear industry has been revolutionary, not least in his own party; his support for market-based solutions to renewable subsidies has been first-rate; and his support for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor’s proposal for a Swansea bay tidal lagoon has been exemplary. It has been a pleasure to work with him, and I wish him all the best.

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You will know, Mr Speaker, that I hate to be the curmudgeon at the party, but I must inform the Secretary of State that, according to findings published this morning by the Leeds university research team, we have entirely failed to meet proper carbon emission reduction targets, and must redouble our efforts if we are going to take account of all the goods that we import from China and other parts of the world.

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The hon. Gentleman has clearly not read the report, and he has clearly not read what the Chair of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, and indeed Greenpeace, has said about it. Not only are we more than meeting our carbon emission reduction targets, but as the hon. Gentleman will see if he reads the report, there are different ways of accounting—we have made that point a number of times—and we are accounting in the way that is internationally recognised. If the hon. Gentleman wants to change that system on the eve of climate change talks, he must be completely barmy.

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Does the Minister agree that, when the history of the coalition comes to be written, the Department of Energy and Climate Change will be seen as outstanding in terms of effectiveness and impact, and as a cut-out example of two parties, Conservative and Liberal Democrat, coming together to govern in the national interest? In that context, may I also pay tribute to the terrific leadership of the Secretary of State, his effective ministerial team, and the brilliant officials—[Interruption.]

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Order. I must say to the House, in response to a sedentary interjection from an Opposition Member, that the use of the word “barmy” is a matter of taste rather than order.

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Talking of taste, Mr Speaker, I thought that the question from my right hon. Friend for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) was very tasteful, and that he made a very sensible point. I am grateful to him. I think it is clear that, although there are some differences between us on some aspects of energy policy such as onshore wind, the two parties have been able to work together in the country’s interest to achieve our objective of providing affordable, secure, green energy. I am grateful to the Minister of State for what he said earlier, although he did make me laugh when he claimed that the Chancellor was the force behind the tidal lagoon.

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What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chancellor about the damage that could be caused to community energy co-operatives by the proposed exclusion of co-operatives from future tax allowance schemes?

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We have discussed the matter extensively with the Treasury, and we have introduced something called social investment tax relief. It is better than its predecessor, because it gives community energy companies tax relief not just on equity finance but on debt finance, thus expanding the instruments.

There is an issue concerning which types of organisation should be able to claim the tax relief. The whole purpose of supporting community energy is to support schemes that give real benefits to the community, and energy co-operatives do not necessarily do that, although they benefit their membership. However, we have been working with the community energy sector as well as the Treasury, and I think that if the hon. Gentleman reads today’s update, he will see that we have come up with a very effective solution.

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Before the last election the Prime Minister, when he was Leader of the Opposition, said:

“I think we all feel that when the gas prices or the oil prices go up, they rush to pass the costs onto us and yet when we read in the papers that the oil price has collapsed…we wait for a very long time before we see anything coming through on our bills, and I think the first thing you’ve got to do...is give the regulator the teeth to order that those reductions are made and that is what we would do.”

Why did he break that promise?

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That is exactly what is happening. At that time, in 2009, when the Leader of the Opposition was the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, nothing happened: bills did not come down and the Secretary of State did not lift a finger. Instead, this time I called in the big six and as a result they cut prices: they cut prices to pass on in full the wholesale reductions, and consumers benefit in a way that they could not if the energy price had been frozen at the high level suggested by Labour.

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At the Paris negotiations the central words will be “common but differentiated,” and while I entirely agree with the Secretary of State’s response on the subject of consumption emissions, does he accept that consumption emissions will play into that debate about common but differentiated responsibilities?

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I have met a range of climate change negotiators, particularly the Chinese negotiator Minister Xie, and interestingly they have never raised that issue. They have raised many other issues, but they have never raised that specific one, so it would be a first for the negotiations. There are other issues that we need to focus on, however, and we set out our position in a publication last September.

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rose—

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Order. I think we will leave it there. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but we have quite a lot to get through.