House of Commons
Thursday 25 June 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
Cross-Departmental Environmental Agenda
On 5 June, I marked world environment day by visiting the Thames barrier, an important defence and an iconic part of London’s landscape. When designed, it was expected to close once or twice a year, but has closed 61 times in the last five years alone, clearly demonstrating the impact of climate change. We are determined to protect and enhance our natural environment for everyone and pass it on to future generations. That is why my Department is leading the cross-Government work to push for a strong global deal in Paris, and ensure that we are the greenest Government ever.
I thank the Secretary of State for that answer and welcome her to her post, to which I know she will bring great expertise and passion. It is especially pleasing to have a Conservative Secretary of State for this Department—for the first time in 18 years. Which Departments has my right hon. Friend had discussions with and why are the discussions important?
My hon. Friend is of course right. Cross-governmental work is incredibly important for delivering our ambitious targets. It is already happening, including between my Department and the Department for Transport through a joint unit on ultra-low emissions vehicles. There is also DECC-Department for Communities and Local Government collaboration on energy efficiency in homes, and DECC-Department for Business, Innovation and Skills collaboration on helping businesses to save money on their energy costs by cutting their energy use. Government policies have contributed to an overall 22% decline in energy intensity since 2004—more than for most comparable economies.
May I echo the congratulatory comments made to the Secretary of State? In my Bath constituency, an incredibly active climate change lobby is working very hard day to day to educate young people about the impact of climate change on future generations. Will the Secretary of State update us on proposals to work with the Secretary of State for Education to ensure that climate change is taught as part of the national curriculum?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Making sure that the dangers of climate change are communicated to the next generation remains an important part of our plan. We work closely with the Department for Education to ensure that that happens. I recommend to my hon. Friend and to other Members the global calculator, which demonstrates to people what levers need to be pulled and what changes need to be made in order to achieve our climate change targets. We have a particularly user-friendly children’s version, which hon. Members might choose to show at their schools.
What is the Conservative Government as opposed to the coalition Government policy on carbon capture? There are three deep-mine pits left in Britain, and they are going to close within the next 12 months unless something is done on that front. The Conservatives always say that they differ from the coalition Government, so I want to test this new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Will she save those three pits? The last Government took £700 million out of the miners’ pension fund. Let us give some of it back, apply for state aid, save the three pits in question and save a lot of jobs.
The hon. Gentleman made an interesting point on which we can agree—that carbon capture and storage could and should be a very important part of our future. If we are to achieve our climate change targets and reduce emissions, we must have success with carbon capture and storage. We are committed to continuing to spend on and invest in CCS, and we hope that it will yield a positive result for our targets in the 2020s.
I welcome the Secretary of State to her new job, but want to press her on this. Could we see more sign of joint research and development innovation with Departments such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs? At the moment, I am getting very little response from DEFRA on squaring up to the fact that climate change is changing the nature of the plants we can grow in this country, which is a great challenge to our economy.
The hon. Gentleman is right that we need more joint working. The ambitions we have to address our climate change targets require joint working. I will meet my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in order to work more closely with her. If we are to protect our environment from dangerous climate change, all Departments need to play an active role—and I will ensure that they do so.
As the hon. Lady may know, the most recent step we have taken to support renewable energy deployment is the introduction of contracts for difference, which give companies the certainty they need to make long-term investments. This has helped us to drive down costs and focus on best value for consumers by requiring renewable technologies to compete for support for the first time.
We do not accept that we have missed it. Our interim reporting covers the period to the end of 2015, and we believe that we are on track to meet that target.
The important point made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in her announcement last week was that we do not want to over-deploy onshore wind, because only a certain amount of subsidy is available to meet the requirements of decarbonisation while keeping bills down. Any over-deployment of onshore wind could cause other, important, technologies to lose out.
It is pleasing that the Secretary of State recently granted development consent to the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon. Does the Minister agree that tidal lagoons offer the potential of not only reliable, large-scale renewable generation, but a world-beating British industry?
My right hon. Friend is right: this is an exciting new opportunity. It is at a very early stage, but it is a perfect example of the newer technologies that the United Kingdom should support and promote when it has the chance to be a world leader, and we are certainly doing that.
The tidal lagoon project in Swansea will undoubtedly generate renewable energy, but the payment that the Government will guarantee for that energy will be three times the current market price. Does the Minister think that that is a good use of public money, and does she think that it is good for our energy competitiveness?
The hon. Gentleman must recognise that a diverse set of energy sources is vital not just to our energy security but to decarbonisation, and to our ability to keep consumer costs down. The Government are looking into the different opportunities presented by different technologies. The price of the lagoon project is a long way away from being agreed, but we are keen to promote new ideas and new technologies, and we want the United Kingdom to be at the forefront of that.
The announcement that the renewables obligation for onshore wind will be closed early has caused huge uncertainty and anxiety in the renewables sector in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom. With that in mind, will the Minister tell us when the timetable for the next contracts for difference allocation round will be published?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we called time on the renewables obligations for onshore wind early as a result of the success of its deployment, and we are now thinking about what to do next. We are considering all our policies, including those relating to CfDs. We have the tools that will enable us to meet our manifesto commitments on onshore wind, and we will present proposals on the new CfD round in the near future.
The Minister’s response suggests that uncertainty still reigns. The Green Investment Bank, whose headquarters are in Edinburgh, is to be privatised by the Government. How will the Minister ensure that the original purpose of the bank, which was to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon economy, will be maintained when it is in private hands?
Conservative Members are delighted to learn that owing to the success of the Green Investment Bank, which was only created under the last Parliament, it is now in a position to expand even further by means of private sector investment and access to capital markets, and to do yet more to support and improve the emergence of a green carbon economy. The hon. Gentleman should join us in welcoming that announcement, rather than expressing concern.
I apologise for the fact that my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) is at a hustings in Scotland this morning, and is therefore unable to be present. As this is the first session of Energy and Climate Change questions of the new Parliament, let me take the opportunity to welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister to their positions.
Will the Minister explain how, given a fixed renewables target and a fixed budget, replacing the cheapest renewable electricity technology—which is onshore wind—with more expensive technologies can possibly lead to lower bills for consumers?
I welcome the hon. Lady to her position.
We have explained time and again that the bill payer’s subsidy is there to promote emerging technologies in the low-carbon and renewables sector. It is not there to give long-term support to different projects. Interestingly, representatives of the industry to whom I have spoken in the last few days think that, in the near future, they could envisage contracts for onshore wind with no subsidies at all, and that is exactly where we want to go.
I thank the Minister for that response. She wants to decarbonise at the lowest possible cost but is effectively banning the cheapest renewable technology; she wants to help boost our economy but is thwarting a sector that contributes £1.7 billion in gross value added; and she wants a good relationship with the clean energy sector but could soon find herself being sued by two of its primary industries. Is it not the case that the only conceivable reason for that policy is to placate Conservative Back Benchers?
I really do fail to understand why Opposition Members keep insisting that onshore wind should be the only game in town. Onshore wind employs 19,000 people; offshore wind, 14,000; solar, 34,500; and biomass and bioenergy, 32,000. What about the whole range of energy sources that we want to promote? We cannot simply keep putting up the costs to the bill payer. My Department’s priorities are to keep the bills down while decarbonising at the lowest cost possible, and that is what we will do.
Paris Climate Change Conference
I can assure the House that securing a global climate deal in Paris is my highest priority this year. Within the first two weeks of becoming Secretary of State, I attended the Petersburg dialogue in Berlin, and G7 Climate Ministers recently reported on the shape of the deal in their meeting. We will take every opportunity to press for an agreement that is ambitious, with regular reviews to further increase ambition and effective rules to allow us to track progress. I should also like to thank my predecessor, Ed Davey, for the leadership that he brought to this critical issue.
I, like other Members, was delighted to welcome constituents led by Christian Aid, in my case from Cardiff North, to talk about climate change last week. I spoke to members of Beulah church about the importance of the Paris conference and, in particular, about ensuring that countries such as China and India are brought along. Will the Secretary of State update us on that?
I, too, met constituents and leaders from that climate change campaign last week, part of the “Speak Up For The Love Of” climate lobby, which demonstrates support across many sectors. Many MPs met their constituents to discuss the issue. I spoke to counterparts in India and China when I attended the Berlin talks last month, and I was reassured by their commitment to a successful outcome in Paris. We look forward to both countries submitting their intended nationally determined contributions as soon as possible, and we are pressing for them to be ambitious.
I know the Secretary of State will be familiar with Glenleigh Park school in Bexhill-on-Sea, which was the first school in the Schools Energy Co-operative and has the largest community-owned primary school solar installation in the UK. How important does she think it is that all age groups engage with the issue of climate change ahead of the Paris conference?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: Glenleigh Park school is an excellent example of the engagement of young people with climate change, because it has the largest solar array of any primary school in the UK, generating clean, green energy, helping to cut the school’s carbon emissions but, above all, showing children how important and easy it is to access green energy in their everyday lives.
May I welcome both Ministers to their new roles and wish them well in their jobs? In addition to the Paris conference, there is the important New York conference on sustainable development goals, including climate change and energy. Will the Secretary of State make sure that her Department works with the Department for International Development to ensure that those issues are high on the agenda and we do not have a missed opportunity for the next 15 years?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s commitment to ensuring that the sustainable development goals become as binding and successful as the millennium development goals. I am working with my colleagues at the Department for International Development to ensure that we make those commitments happen in New York.
In my constituency, many people are concerned about the impact of fracking on their area, as it has a direct effect on their lives. Will the Secretary of State present a detailed health and environmental impact assessment of fracking to the conference in Paris?
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that this Government have made a commitment to ensuring that we can extract shale and to do it in the safest and most environmentally friendly way. This country has a long history and record of safe environmental working in oil and gas. Let me reassure him that that will always be a priority in ensuring that we access the shale.
It is important that we make progress in Paris, and the EU must have a position on that. Is the Secretary of State concerned that no other country within Europe has made carbon reduction commitments that equate to what we are doing in the Climate Change Act 2008? In particular, I am thinking of countries such as Germany, which is now building unabated coal power stations at scale and whose carbon emissions are a third higher than ours per capita already.
My hon. Friend will be aware that Germany, despite that, has continued to reduce its emissions, but he makes the good point that we are ahead of our European counterparts. The great thing about that is that it gives us the leadership potential we need to make sure that the EU works as one unit and is ambitious in driving the agreement that we hope to get in Paris at the end of the year. It gives us that leadership opportunity.
Will the Secretary of State give us her assessment of the importance of Britain’s membership of the EU to our achieving a successful outcome at the Paris climate change conference? Following on from what she has just said, is she keen to see Europe agree an even more ambitious reduction in greenhouse gas emissions than the 40% already announced?
Let me take the opportunity to welcome the hon. Gentleman to his place, stepping in for the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who I understand had something else to do this morning. He is absolutely right to say that making these targets is essential to us. The leadership provided by this Government within the EU was an important part of uniting the EU to make sure that we made the targets which enabled us to provide international leadership. The leadership role we have been able to play in the EU will be crucial to getting the Paris deal, and hon. Members on both sides of the House will draw their own conclusions about how important that is in terms of delivering on this important issue.
I welcome those words from the Secretary of State, but she did not appear to want to make the specific commitment to a 50% reduction in Europe’s greenhouse gas emissions. She will, of course, be aware that our domestic interim target of a 50% reduction by 2025 is already tougher, so does she not agree that it would be in our best interests, as well as those of the EU, to commit now to tougher action?
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that we have reserved our position; having brought the EU to the agreement, we will make a 40% reduction by 2030. We would still like to see it go further, but we are not pushing for that at the moment because we are looking to hold the whole of the EU together. We are working to make sure that we can use that unity to get a global deal, but that proposal is still on the table as a possibility we may yet push.
Nuclear Generating Capacity
The Government fully support the expansion of nuclear generation. My hon. Friend might be interested to know that nuclear already supplies 19% of our electricity in the UK, which is broadly equivalent to the amount provided by renewables. It is therefore a key part of our base energy supply, and I am delighted that the industry has plans to develop approximately 16 GW of new nuclear power, across five sites.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her new position. Clearly there is a need to replace the ageing nuclear power stations that we already have in order to create the mixed environment to which she has referred. What plans does she have to accelerate the development of new nuclear power stations so that we have that proper mixed economy?
The Government and EDF are working together to finalise the Hinkley project documentation. EDF anticipates Hinkley Point C beginning production in 2023. I can assure my hon. Friend that we are committed to the next wave of new nuclear projects, and we hope to be able to meet 35% of UK power needs from nuclear by 2028.
Back in 2008, and in their manifesto, the Conservatives promised no nuclear subsidies on any account, yet the European Commission has granted a subsidy to the UK Government of £17.6 billion for Hinkley Point. How is it that we can subsidise nuclear to that extent yet the Government are cutting subsidies to renewable energy sources?
I think I have said a number of times that diverse sources of energy are vital for our energy security. Currently, 36% of our electricity comes from coal, and around 19% is from old nuclear, much of which will shut down in the next decade. It is vital that we look to new nuclear to provide the base energy supply to meet the bulk of our energy security needs. Other technologies are also vital for diverse sources of energy. That is the approach we are taking.
Wind Farm Applications (Subsidies)
As my right hon. Friend said during her statement to the House on Monday, we estimate that around 7.1 GW of onshore wind capacity proposed across the UK will not be eligible for the grace period and is therefore unlikely to go ahead as a result of the announcement of 18 June. That equates to around 250 projects totalling around 2,500 turbines.
Durham county has an excellent record on renewable energy development, especially wind farms. The issue now in the county is the cumulative impact of so many wind farms in a given area, and, because of that, the planning system is now working and further development is being rejected. If the planning system is working, why is there a need to have a blanket ban on wind farm subsidies, which will affect jobs and investment in the future?
As I and my right hon. Friend have said on a number of occasions, we believe that onshore wind has met our targets. Deployment will reach between 11 GW and 13 GW, which is within our target range. We want to keep bills down for consumers and to promote other sources of renewable technologies that will add to our energy mix. The hon. Gentleman must accept that, as the cost of onshore wind comes down, we do not want permanently to subsidise an industry that has the ability to stand on its own two feet.
Does my hon. Friend agree that we have heard an awful lot about the generation of power, but in my constituency of Tonbridge and Malling a lot is being done to insulate and therefore save power in a different way? Will she please tell us a little about what she is doing to bring forward the commitment to do more with 1 million homes?
My hon. Friend is right that energy generation is one part of the story but so too is energy use and ensuring that we have proper policies to try to manage the demand for energy. Our policies, such as insulating homes and the warm home discounts, are under review, and we will make a statement soon.
Will the Minister confirm that, under existing secondary legislation, her Department is obliged to issue renewable energy certificates to all applicants until March 2017? Will she also confirm that her Department will continue to issue renewables obligation certificates after March 2016 in the event that her proposed legislation to bring them to an end is not on the statute book by that date?
We intend to bring forward primary legislation in the Energy Bill to close the renewables obligation for onshore wind early. As my right hon. Friend said in her statement, that will mean that the grace period will be for those that already have planning consent, grid connection and land rights.
May I thank the Government for having the guts to get rid of the subsidy on wind turbines? If it does mean fewer applications, it will bring three cheers from the people of the Ribble Valley. Does my right hon. Friend agree that wind turbines have a visual impact, and is it not about time that local people finally had their wishes known as far as their siting is concerned?
I have had the pleasure of meeting a number of representatives of the renewable energy industry in my new role. I am delighted to hear how the sector is thriving in the UK, with seriously good prospects for new, emerging technologies, including storage, on the horizon.
Following the comments of Keith Anderson, the chief executive of ScottishPower Renewables, that
“if you prematurely bring onshore wind to a halt you will end up costing consumers £2bn to £3bn”,
does the Minister share my concern that the Government’s headlong rush to scrap subsidies for onshore wind will hit the pockets of consumers hardest?
As we have explained, the early closure of the RO for onshore wind will save consumers money. The subsidies in their bills, which would have gone towards an excess of deployment above our target would have cost consumers hundreds of millions of pounds more.
Following the announcement of the closure of ROs for onshore wind, many renewables developers are worried about what else might be in the pipeline. Will the Minister give an absolute assurance that there are no plans to cut the funds available through contracts for difference for offshore wind developments?
The hon. Lady has already mentioned the Swansea Bay tidal lagoon, which is an excellent and very exciting project that will create thousands of jobs in my constituency. It is critical that the foot is kept on the accelerator; otherwise the timings will be seriously out, seriously jeopardising the future of the project. What discussions has she had with state aid officials in Brussels to ensure that the project is not held up there?
We are very focused on removing all the potential obstacles to the project, including by having conversations with the European Commission on state aid issues. Our foot is firmly on the accelerator and we will do everything we can to support the project.
Household Energy Efficiency
9. What steps she is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency. (900545)
I am determined to help keep homes warmer for less, save carbon and meet our important fuel poverty targets. We need a long-term, coherent and affordable policy framework that ensures that Government support is targeted at those who need it most. My Department is already working closely with consumer groups and industry alike to test and develop ideas based on evidence of what works, and I look forward to setting out our approach in the autumn.
More than 2 million households are in fuel poverty, including 4,259 in my constituency of Oldham East and Saddleworth. Energy efficiency is key to tackling fuel poverty, but with an 80% reduction in such measures in this Parliament, is the Secretary of State serious about doing that or is she just going to redefine what it is?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the previous Government redefined fuel poverty to the satisfaction of most groups, who agreed that we had proposed a better definition. She should be under no illusion: addressing fuel poverty will remain a priority of this Government. She is probably aware that the energy company obligation, or ECO, measures installed by the energy companies have been the most efficient way of delivering energy efficiency. In her constituency, 6,323 measures were installed to nearly 5,000 individual households and £700,000 was invested through the green deal communities fund. I hope that she saw some significant improvements under the previous Government and we will continue on that route.
In the coming years, there is a huge amount of proposed infrastructure investment in west Cumbria as well as a new academy school to be built in my constituency. We also have the new National College for Nuclear. What financial incentives and support will the Government provide to developers so that energy efficiency is central when we build these large projects?
The hon. Lady is right to focus on the need for energy efficiency in large buildings. I am delighted to hear about the infrastructure investment in her constituency. The National College for Nuclear will help the UK seize opportunities for economic growth in the nuclear industry and provide skills and jobs. I remind her that the DECC-funded Salix loan scheme provides public sector organisations with interest-free loans to make a range of energy efficiency improvements in their existing estates. The scheme has already supported more than 1,000 public bodies, so she might find it helpful.
Some 4,000 households in my constituency —that is one in 10—are in fuel poverty. The energy company obligation, which suffered severe cuts in the last Parliament, is due to end in 2017. How will the Government meet their responsibilities to people in fuel poverty once the ECO has ended?
The right hon. Lady is right that the ECO continues until 2017. Under the last Government, 2,000 measures were installed in her constituency, and the ECO remains a successful way of accessing homes in fuel poverty. Of course, we also have our fuel poverty commitments to ensure that, through five-year measuring plans, we deliver a C band for homes by 2030, with bands E and D on the way to getting there. There are many different ways of delivering efficiencies in homes to reduce fuel poverty, and the best thing we can do at the moment is take advice from industry and work with voluntary groups to work out what they think is the best way do that. We will come back to the House with the results of that.
I welcome the Secretary of State and the Minister of State to their new positions. They have made a good start, although “putting your foot down on the accelerator”—a phrase they have used repeatedly—is perhaps not the most energy efficient approach. Does my right hon. Friend share my astonishment at the ruling by the European Court of Justice earlier this month that effectively directs the UK to charge full-rate VAT on the supply and installation of energy-saving materials? Will she robustly, and jointly with the Treasury, challenge that ruling and impress on our European partners that if they are serious about energy efficiency, that is exactly the wrong way to go about it?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The ruling is unwelcome and we are considering the full implications. No one who has already pre-ordered or prepaid will be affected by the changes required as a result of the ECJ ruling, but we remain committed to tackling fuel poverty, and we will look at it very carefully.
Energy efficiency measures are the only way to prevent fuel poverty, and the levels of fuel poverty in the UK are a national disgrace. The Conservative manifesto promised that just 1 million homes would be insulated in this Parliament—a reduction of more than 80% from what was done in the last Parliament. At that rate, it will take more than 100 years to eliminate fuel poverty. That would be financially and morally wrong. What is the Secretary of State going to do to put that right?
It is disappointing that the hon. Gentleman fails to recognise the good progress we made in the last Parliament, both with the ECO and various grant groups that went out and reached people in fuel poverty. I was particularly pleased with the green deal communities programme, which went street by street to reach people in fuel poverty and was able to build community confidence in the programme—not everybody wants strangers coming to their door. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are engaging with industry and voluntary groups to make sure that the new proposals from this Government tackle fuel poverty in the most efficient way. We are also working with the Department for Work and Pensions to use, where possible, the data that it holds to target measures more efficiently.
Oil and Gas Industry
10. What steps the Government are taking to support the oil and gas industry; and if she will make a statement. (900546)
The Government are committed to supporting the oil and gas industry, which is vital to our energy supply, as well as supporting 375,000 jobs across the UK. We are establishing the new Oil and Gas Authority, which is already helping industry to drive down costs and improve efficiencies. The Chancellor has also introduced strong fiscal measures to maintain and build investment.
The Aberdeen and Grampian chamber of commerce oil and gas survey showed that the industry believes that more needs to be done to increase exploration drilling, without which there will be no new projects. Will the Minister engage with the industry to develop proposals to incentivise exploration and protect long-term employment?
We are absolutely committed to that. The establishment of the Oil and Gas Authority under Dr Andy Samuel is a vital part of that. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government have provided some money for seismic studies to identify potential new finds. I assure him that we and the Oil and Gas Authority will be doing everything we can to support the very important work to maximise economic recovery from the North sea basin.
The oil and gas industry in the North sea faces very challenging times, and it is very important to the East Anglian economy. New Anglia local enterprise partnership is creating an oil and gas taskforce to support the industry in these difficult times. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State arrange for her Department to be represented on the taskforce, alongside my hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis) and me?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning this to me. I had the great pleasure of speaking in Parliament at a recent east of England oil and gas meeting. I would be delighted to meet him to discuss this further, and if appropriate, we will certainly make sure that officials attend the meeting he mentions.
Renewable Energy Jobs (Scotland)
15. What estimate she has made of the number of jobs in Scotland supported by the renewable energy industry. (900552)
Renewable energy supported around 23,200 jobs in Scotland in 2013. As green energy is not about having wind farms
“any time, any place, anywhere”,
which is how the Scottish Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism once criticised the approach in Scotland, it is important to note that these jobs were supported across a variety of renewable energy technologies, and by supply chains.
We know that some jobs will be lost as a result of the Government’s decision prematurely to withdraw the subsidy from onshore wind farms. The Government were reluctant to tell us how many jobs they thought would be lost. Will they tell us what an acceptable price would be, in terms of Scottish jobs? How many jobs would have to be lost in the Scottish renewables sector before the price was deemed too high?
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised to hear me say that job creation and job support are incredibly important in Scotland, and in the UK overall. Renewable energy remains a growth area, with high employment and investment. Scotland has a number of employees in the offshore wind sector, which continues to grow. I attended a conference on the sector yesterday. It is beginning to have a serious impact on exports.
Of course, it is not only existing jobs that will be affected by the Government’s short-sighted policy on onshore wind; the opportunity to create further highly skilled and well-paid jobs will also be affected, perhaps even more so. As the Minister of State said, around 19,000 people owe their livelihoods to the UK’s onshore wind industry, but according to RenewableUK, that figure could have increased to as many as 37,000 by 2023 if Government policies had remained supportive. Is it not nonsense for the Government to turn their back on an industry with such enormous jobs potential?
As my hon. Friend the Minister of State pointed out, onshore wind has been a great success. If we continued to support it at the level that we had done over the past few years, there would be an impact on everybody’s bills, because we already have an aim for 2020 of getting between 11 GW to 13 GW from onshore wind; if onshore wind continues to be deployed at the level it has been over the past few years, that will contribute to an additional cost on people’s bills. I urge the hon. Member for Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East (Stuart C. McDonald) to think about his constituents, who would not welcome another £10 or £15 on their bills.
Has my right hon. Friend any estimates of, or would she care to hazard a guess, how much it would cost the average Scottish household if the ambitions of the Scottish National party to resume subsidising wind farms were realised, but the cost was met by the Scottish Government and Scottish taxpayer?
My right hon. Friend makes a very good point that highlights the impact on people’s bills of supporting these subsidies. We have the levy control framework to make sure that we provide for a cap. As for what it would cost the Scottish Government to reapply the subsidies, I urge them to look at that themselves.
19. The Secretary of State will by now have received a copy of a letter from the Binn Group in my constituency, with whom I met earlier this morning. It is involved in one of the £3 billion-worth of onshore wind projects that are in the planning pipeline and at risk owing to the Government’s recent decision. Will she confirm that her Department will consider that letter, to help protect at least 100 jobs at the Binn Group and ensure the creation of at least 100 more? (900557)
I thank the hon. Lady for her question. I have not yet seen her letter, but of course I will look carefully at what she has asked me to look at. I would, however, ask her, her constituents, and the developers who have obviously come to see her to bear it in mind that we have made our statement, and that our decision will be taken forward in primary legislation: we will end onshore wind subsidies.
Carbon Abatement Technologies
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position as Chairman of the Environmental Audit Committee. To meet our legally binding target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050 we are taking action right across the economy. This means delivering carbon savings through a range of technologies from nuclear and carbon capture and storage to low carbon heat technologies and energy efficiency measures in homes and businesses.
I welcome both Ministers to their positions. The fourth carbon budget report stressed the criticality of carbon abatement technology, and increasingly so post-2030, but the International Energy Agency report shows that if we fail, particularly on carbon capture and storage, the costs of decarbonisation and lower emissions could be up to 70% higher. On that basis, if the fifth carbon budget recommends greater investment in carbon abatement technologies and a faster trajectory to decarbonisation, will the Government accept those recommendations without reservation?
The Government have an open mind on the subject. We will put forward our policies towards the fifth carbon budget by the end of 2016. The hon. Gentleman is exactly right to point out the vital importance for the future of carbon capture and storage. He will be aware of the two projects—White Rose and Peterhead—that are currently under discussion, looking to achieve fulfilment so that we can prove the technology works. We hope to make progress on that.
Trees can play a very important part in combating greenhouse gases—the gases that we are all talking about which cause climate change. How much is the Department encouraging tree planting, especially in my constituency, Taunton Deane—where we have had terrible flooding and are dealing with the wider area—and worldwide? If we stopped cutting down the rain forest, that would have an enormous effect.
My hon. Friend is right to raise that point. She will be aware that tree planting has benefits not only for reducing carbon emissions, but for improving public health. In our environment it is vital to have trees and proper landscaping, so I can assure her that the Government are committed to such projects, and that the private sector, too, is pretty good at ensuring that its developments are properly screened and properly planted.
It is, indeed, still the Prime Minister’s view. The hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that in real terms between 1990 and 2013 emissions dropped by 30%. That is good. There is a lot more to be done, but we are making progress and we are fully committed to it.
Thank you for the encouragement, Mr Speaker. On the environment, since the Secretary of State said what she did about onshore wind, the industry needs to know what the Government intend for feed-in tariffs, contracts for difference and islands with regard to onshore wind.
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. He is right. We want investor certainty. Our priority for the Department is to keep the bills down, to keep energy security and to decarbonise. In order to do that, we recognise that significant private sector investment is needed. We want to give certainty as soon as possible, and that is what we will be doing.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight an issue that crossed my desk earlier this week. Tuesday was National Women in Engineering Day, and in a visit to National Grid I was pleased not only to see the robust arrangements that it has in place to ensure the security of our energy supply, but to meet some of its fantastic female engineers. We had an excellent discussion in which I heard their views on what more we need to do to encourage girls and women to become engineers, including identifying more role models and challenging stereotypes, which are often reinforced from a young age. Only 6% of UK engineers are female—clearly, too few. That demonstrates how much remains to be done, and I was delighted to meet this group of inspiring women who go out and act as role models.
The Competition and Markets Authority will publish its remedies for the energy retail market next week, but what does the Minister think should be done to address the persistent exploitation by the big six of their most loyal customers? New customers are attracted with loss-leading tariffs, whereas the most vulnerable customers are often kept on the highest tariffs. What consideration has the Secretary of State given to a proposal by Ovo Energy that Ofgem set a 12-month social tariff for which all the suppliers’ most vulnerable customers should be auto-enrolled?
The hon. Lady raises an important point. We have taken several helpful steps to encourage switching; we had a campaign to do that at the end of the previous Parliament, and we had outreach campaigns to support local communities in getting to the harder-to-reach people, so there are great opportunities for switching. However, I accept her point that there are still people on a default tariff, so something needs to be done to access them. That is why we referred this to the Competition and Markets Authority, and I very much look forward to its response and, hopefully, to taking its guidelines to ensure we address that.
T6. My constituency will benefit from the knock-on effects of the development of Hinkley Point C, the first new nuclear power station to be built in the UK for decades, which will bring with it a predicted 4,000 jobs across Somerset. Can the Secretary of State give assurances: a, that the project is progressing; and b, that the Government are working to enable and encourage other low-carbon industries to develop around it, as they will benefit not only Taunton Deane and Somerset, but the wider economy? (900531)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that important point. As she knows, the Government are committed to supporting new nuclear. Hinkley Point C is close to a final investment decision, and we are doing everything we can to push that as fast as we can. We are also excited about other opportunities for new nuclear, and we will be lending those as much support as possible.
The Green Investment Bank is a vital tool for boosting our clean energy generation. Thus far, the bank has used £2 billion of investment to leverage a further £6 billion of private capital. However, it has been shackled by the Government’s refusal to grant crucial borrowing powers. The Minister has confirmed that the Government will privatise the bank. What reassurances can the Secretary of State give that the Chancellor is not simply raiding the bank’s capital reserves and, in so doing, robbing the UK of a unique tool to power the clean energy sector?
As the hon. Lady is surely aware, the green investment bank has been very successful in unlocking private sector investment. It was set up by the Government in the previous Parliament, with £1.8 billion of Government money, and it has successfully become a market leader, located as it is in Edinburgh. In the previous Parliament the Labour party called for the bank to have more borrowing powers, but we have gone one step further and are now allowing it to raise more capital in order to take advantage of that. I can reassure her and hon. Members that the purpose of the Green Investment Bank is, and will remain, green investment.
The Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty and meeting the 2030 statutory target. We estimate that in 2013 there were around 3,300 fuel-poor households in Kingswood. By the end of March 2015 the energy company obligation had delivered over 1,600 measures in around 1,400 households in Kingswood, including 336 affordable warmth measures, which were targeted at low-income and vulnerable households. Keeping homes warmer for less and helping those who find it most difficult to pay are my top priorities.
T2. This week The Lancet commission on health and climate change stated that tackling climate change could be the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century, but it will require cross-Department co-operation and Government action. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give my constituents that there will be cross-Department Government action on the issue and that there will be support for Government health programmes such as those explaining the benefits of walking and cycling as part of the lasting legacy of Bristol being the green capital of Europe? (900526)
I congratulate the hon. Lady on representing Europe’s green capital city. I visited Bristol last year and saw the great initiatives that are being taken. I can reassure her that we are taking action to ensure that we remain at the forefront of green targets and campaigns. She should take comfort from the action that this Government are taking.
The United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority carries out fusion research on behalf of the Government. Its scientists and engineers are working with partners around the globe to develop that potential source of clean energy. It is an example of an exciting potential source of clean energy, and we are very keen to use our scientist and funds to back innovation to take our targets forward.
T3. The MOZES—Meadows Ozone Energy Services —community energy co-operative was to be at the forefront of the clean energy revolution in my constituency, but the Government have not delivered on promised support for the project, despite the best efforts of Greg Barker when he was a Minister in the Department, and it is now at risk of collapse. Will the Secretary of State agree to meet me and representatives of the project to see if a solution can be found? (900528)
I will of course meet the hon. Lady. She is right: there are measures in place to support community energy groups like MOZES. Community energy groups can now apply for the rural and urban community energy funds, which provide funding to support community electricity projects in England. I am pleased to say that the community energy sector is thriving, having attracted up to £29 million through community shares since 2012. I understand that the Government have provided financial support to MOZES and other community energy projects through the low-carbon communities challenge. I recognise the particular issues that the hon. Lady may have regarding the community group, and I will meet her to take the matter further if necessary.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that a vital part of the debate about how to address climate change is our energy consumption? In that context, people in Twickenham are very aware of the three Rs—reduce, reuse, recycle—but we do not have smart meters everywhere. I do not see a smart meter here; I do not have one in my office. How is the roll-out of smart meters going?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. It is incredibly important to reduce the amount of energy we use in order to be more efficient, pay lower bills, and reduce our carbon footprint. I can tell her that good progress has been made. The industry is making extensive preparations in meter procurement, in building and testing its systems, and in staff recruitment and training. Consumers are already benefiting from the roll-out. About 1.5 million meters are already operating under the programme, putting consumers in control, but the full roll-out is due to complete by 2020.
T4. The Secretary of State will be aware of the very serious pressures that Hatfield colliery in my constituency is under, partly as a result of the doubling of the carbon price floor earlier this year. May I urge her to work urgently with her colleagues at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that the mine can at least stay open until the summer of next year, as originally planned, because fairness to workers in industries affected is an essential part of a just low- carbon transition? (900529)
The right hon. Gentleman is aware that the Government agreed in May to provide Hatfield Colliery Partnership with the £20 million support it needed to continue operating until its planned closure in August. To protect the taxpayer interest, the repayable grant is available for drawing down in tranches subject to performance. To date, the company has drawn down £12.6 million. My officials are in regular contact with Hatfield and are fully aware of the situation.
During her visit to Bath prior to the election, the Secretary of State saw the sustainable energy plant, one of the UK’s leading centres, which is providing hot water to thousands of homes. What plans do the Government have for a roll-out across the rest of the UK?
I thank my hon. Friend for that question and, indeed, for the visit, when we saw an excellent example of industry and finance coming together to promote different innovations in this area. I would be delighted to hear more about progress that the initiative has made, because the fascinating thing about this whole area of energy use and development is that it is so fast-changing, and we need to make sure that we access all the innovations we can in order to deliver.
T5. There is a huge opportunity to increase renewable energy production and save public money by installing solar panels on public buildings such as schools. This has the added benefit of providing an opportunity for children to learn about climate change and to see at first hand how it can be addressed. Given the up-front cost of installation at a time when school budgets are already under pressure, what additional assistance can the Secretary of State provide to make it easier for schools and communities to generate their own clean energy? (900530)
I share the hon. Lady’s view. Having solar on schools is a fantastic way for young people to understand that energy can be collected from the sun, and they can link that closely to what they do in school. We in the Department are very keen to find ways to enable schools to do this. People will hear more from the Government very soon about the use of solar specifically on public buildings and on schools.
Last year there was a considerable increase in the amount of electricity produced from nuclear globally, but that was not the case in the UK. Do Ministers agree that it is extremely important that we make progress not just on Hinkley Point C, but on Sizewell, Wylfa and other stations, if we are going to come close to meeting our climate change obligations?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. About 19% of our electricity needs today come from old nuclear, much of which is due to shut down in the next decade, so it is vital that the Government set out a single, coherent energy policy that gets us to where we need to be: keeping the lights on, powering the economy with cleaner energy and making sure that people pay less for their bills. New nuclear is a vital part of the UK’s energy mix and we are absolutely committed to bringing it forward.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that there is cross-House agreement that unabated coal cannot continue. It is extremely high carbon-using and dangerous to human health, and there is a long legacy of coal, which is not desirable. We have invested to enable coal mines to close down in an orderly fashion. Where possible, we are looking at alternative solutions and, of course, we are bringing forward carbon capture and storage as a long-term solution.
Offshore wind has the potential to create many jobs in East Anglia and it is great news that two schemes—East Anglia One and Galloper—are now moving quickly forward. For the industry to realise its full potential, it is vital for it to have a long-term economic plan beyond 2020. Will my right hon. Friend work with the industry to put that plan in place?
I share my hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for offshore wind in terms both of generation in the UK and of the supply chain. It has fantastic potential for export. Yesterday I visited the offshore wind conference in London and it was buzzing with excitement and enthusiasm. I reassure him that we will provide that certainty in due course.
May I also wish the Ministers well for the future in their new positions? What steps are they taking to ensure greater collaboration between the agri-food industry and the renewable energy sector, particularly on solar farms and panels and on diversification for farmers?
The hon. Gentleman is right that there needs to be increased collaboration between the agri-businesses and my Department to ensure that there is no further friction on solar. Solar can no longer access the renewable obligation, which was for the large-scale solar farms, and we will review the best way to ensure that solar is used in the most efficient manner, including on public buildings and schools.
As the Member for Swansea East, where the tidal bay lagoon will be based, I know that there is a great desire to get the project up and running and delivering on what it promises. Will the Secretary of State give an indication of the timescales in announcing the conclusion of negotiations for the contract for difference?
I share in principle the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm, but there is a lot of due diligence to do first, in order to reach any final numbers. There is also the issue of state aid and of cost, as has been raised by the hon. Member for Aberavon (Stephen Kinnock), who is no longer in his place. Although we share in principle the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm, it is at an early stage and we cannot give a timetable at the moment.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. Does the Secretary of State share my concern that Maersk, in receiving a substantial tax allowance from the Treasury for its Culzean project, will place very few jobs in the UK? Will she meet me and representatives of the industry from my region to discuss how her Department can ensure fair play for the UK industry before she makes a decision or approves the fuel development plan?
The hon. Lady has, of course, long run the oil and gas parliamentary group. I look forward to working closely with her to ensure that the oil and gas industry gets fair treatment and is supported as much as it can be, given the situation with the oil price. We need to make sure that we give it as much support as possible. I will certainly meet her to discuss it further.
Fuel poverty in east Lancashire is linked to hard-to-treat cavities, and the Government’s changes to the energy company obligation cancelled a lot of programmes. There is a large stock of terraced houses in my constituency and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Blackburn (Kate Hollern). What policies are the Government going to introduce to deal with hard-to-treat cavities, after they effectively cancelled the previous programmes by reducing the subsidy?
I take issue with the hon. Gentleman’s description of us cancelling the previous programme. In fact, what we did was get the balance right to ensure that bill payers were not overburdened by the costs of ECO, while continuing to focus ECO on the most fuel-poor. That element was not changed. We recognise that cavity wall insulation and cavity walls in general are an important part of making homes more fuel-efficient. ECO carries on until 2017 and we will be coming forward with more suggestions before then.
The latest low-income statistics, based on the “Households Below Average Income” report, are published today, covering April 2013 to March 2014. They show that the percentage of individuals and children in relative low income is at its lowest since the 1980s. The latest figures also show that the proportion of people in both relative and absolute low income remained flat on the year for children, working-age adults and disabled people. For pensioners, there is a statistical change, but the proportion in relative and absolute low income has increased slightly.
The figures that I have quoted are measured against the retail prices index. As the House will know, the RPI has become a discredited measurement anyway, as the consumer prices index is used everywhere else in the world. Therefore, I have also taken the liberty of putting into the publication what the UK Statistics Authority has also produced: the effects when measured against CPI, which is much more widely used. Those figures are even more positive than the others we have seen today. Today’s figures demonstrate that if we deal with the root causes of poverty—as I believe this Government are doing—then even under a measure of poverty that I have consistently over the last few years described as flawed, we can still have an impact.
Let me remind the House of some of the important things that my Government have done to help families on low income through tackling root causes. In education, we have introduced the pupil premium and tackled failing schools with the free schools programme. There is our commitment to supporting families through the groundbreaking troubled families programme, which is turning really difficult families around in difficult communities. There is our investment in early-years support and childcare and our unprecedented back-to-work programmes that have helped support hundreds of thousands of people, once written off, back into work. We have also raised the tax threshold, which means that those on the lowest incomes often do not pay any tax, or if they do, they pay a lower rate of tax and keep more of their own income. Finally, there is our fundamental belief that the most powerful way to change lives is by creating a welfare system that makes work pay, writes no one off and supports people into work.
That is what we have been doing and what the left has failed to understand—particularly the Labour party. If you deal with the root causes of poverty, of which work is a critical component, many of the symptoms start to sort themselves out. Today’s figures show, I believe, how important it is to both balance the books and continue reforming welfare.
This morning’s statistics show a depressing slowdown in the progress that we should be making as a country towards the abolition of child poverty in the UK. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the numbers of children in absolute poverty have risen over his time in office? Will he confirm that last year, 19% of children were in absolute poverty, and that this year, 19% of children are still in absolute poverty? Will he also confirm that this year, 17% of children were in relative poverty, and that there are still 17% of children in relative poverty today?
Has the Secretary of State dropped the ambition to end child poverty by 2020? This is not a time for complacency. The Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission has warned that there is now “no realistic hope” of that target being met. The Prime Minister says that he will be
“judged on how we tackle poverty”,
so what is the Government’s plan to catch up on the lost ground? Will the Secretary of State pause and reflect on the fact that nearly one in five children in this country is still growing up without some of the basics? We are talking about the lives of children up and down this country—about whether their parents can put money in the meter to keep their home warm in winter, and about whether they have something or very little for their tea.
The Child Poverty Act 2010, which Ministers opposite supported, placed one of the most important duties on the Government: to ensure that in the 21st century, children do not grow up suffering deprivation or lacking the necessities that most of us take for granted. Yet progress has now slowed to a snail’s pace. Would it not be shocking if the Government departed from the consensus that children should be free from such disadvantage by the end of this decade? I therefore ask the Secretary of State to give a straight answer to the House today: does he remain committed to the Child Poverty Act or not?
Do not the Government need a serious strategy to address low pay and boost productivity? They should be providing incentives for a living wage and new opportunities for high-quality skills, as a more positive route out of poverty. But what does this Secretary of State do when faced with an end to the progress in reducing child poverty? He threatens to cut £5 billion from the tax credits of children, which would mean 3.7 million working families losing, on average, £1,400 a year. That will not address child poverty; it will add to it.
Does the Secretary of State realise that it is parents who are already working who would be hit by such a decision? How does it help to make work pay to pull the rug from underneath them in that way? Why is he trying to kid people into thinking that such a hit to incomes can be easily replaced? Unless he is planning a rise of 25% in the minimum wage, that will not happen.
Labour lifted more than 1 million children out of relative poverty and more than 2 million children out of absolute poverty. On the Secretary of State’s watch, progress has stalled. Is it true that, instead of developing policies to tackle low pay, the Government, faced with statistics that show such poor progress, will try to erase the figure altogether, redefine the measure and pretend that the problem has gone away? Is he really going to propose that statistical redefinition? The Conservative party manifesto promised that they would
“work to eliminate child poverty and introduce better measures to drive real change”.
Nobody realised that meant that they would just change the measure. Instead of shifting the goalposts when things get uncomfortable, Ministers should take responsibility and tackle low pay, not attack the low-paid.
The Opposition, and particularly the hon. Gentleman, have scored a massive own goal today. They tabled the urgent question before the statistics came out, so certain were they and their friends on the left that the statistics would show a massive rise. They were wrong. They cannot accept that our welfare reforms, which they never made in their time, are working.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that I am committed to the purpose of getting people out of poverty and ending the process of families being in poverty. Most of what I have done over the past 10 years has been dedicated to doing that. The trouble with the Labour party is that it is wedded to this income measure. Its whole policy was skewed as a direct result of that.
Our reforms have tackled the root causes of poverty. Employment is up by over 2 million since 2010. I remember the hon. Gentleman saying that employment would fall as a direct result of our changes. The level and rate of children in workless households is at a record low. The proportion of households in social housing that are in work is the highest it has ever been since records began. The rate and level of children in workless households is also at a record low. That is tackling the root causes of poverty.
The truth is that the Opposition have egg all over their face today. I find the hon. Gentleman’s comments close to rank hypocrisy, because they comprehensively failed to meet their own targets, despite dumping huge sums of money into the welfare system. They did nothing to transform people’s lives. They missed their own target to halve child poverty by 2010. Under the Labour Government, in-work poverty rose by 20%, even though they ploughed money into the welfare system, increasing welfare spending by 60%. Let me remind the Opposition how they did that. Tax credit spending rocketed in the years before each election. In 2003-04 it rose by 60%, and in 2004-05 it rose by 7.2%. Then, strangely, between elections it went flat and even fell slightly. Then just before the 2010 election, it rose by 14.4% and then 8.5%.
The reality is that we set out in our manifesto that we need to look at new measures of child poverty. Looking at life chances is the right way to do it, to get to the root causes of why people get into poverty. The current measures led the last Labour Government to a benefit system that gave families an extra pound here or there just to push them above the poverty line but did nothing to transform their lives.
Let me give an example of a family who are officially in poverty under those measures, with parents who have huge drug problems. When they go over the line, according to the measurement, they are not in poverty, but because the parents are likely to spend all their money on drugs, the children do not get fed. The reality is that the measurement is not of that family’s life chances but only of the income transfer.
At the beginning of the last Parliament, I started a debate about whether the current measures were a sensible way of directing Government efforts towards changing people’s lives. We undertook a consultation in 2012 and 2013 that received a wide range of responses, with a broad consensus that the current measures did not recognise the range of actions needed to improve children’s life chances. As a result, the Government have a clear manifesto commitment on child poverty—we will work to eliminate it and introduce better measures to drive real change in children’s lives by getting to the root causes.
I believe that we have a proud record of tackling the problem. We have raised the minimum wage faster and further than the last Government did and focused on supporting families, improving educational attainment, supporting people into work and allowing people to keep more of what they earn. Today’s figures are a vindication of our approach, and as the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Frank Field), whom I see in his place, said this morning:
“Most of the electorate…find the definition of poverty…as defined by academics and politicians to be utterly bewildering.”
I have always believed passionately in a welfare system focused on changing lives. Today shows that not only has Labour lost the election, it has lost the argument. No wonder it is referred to as the welfare party. [Interruption.]
Order. There has been a very considerable cacophony in the Chamber. I can advise the House that at least three dozen colleagues are seeking to catch my eye on this important matter. I want to try to accommodate the level of interest, but we have business questions to follow and then a statement by the Secretary of State for Transport, before we embark on a significantly subscribed debate following the Anderson report, so there is a premium on brevity from both Back and Front Benchers. I hope that we will be given a tutorial in that by Sir Oliver Heald.
I start by congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on the best figures in his and my time in the House.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is sad to see Labour concentrating on statistics and benefits when the central insight that the Government have had, which is working, is that this is all about work, education and tackling barriers to employment?
My hon. and learned Friend is absolutely right. We are determined to bring about life change to improve people’s lives in the poorest communities. I made the point that more households in social housing are in work than ever before, and that is life change. They are taking control of their lives.
May I congratulate the Secretary of State on the public relations success of winding up the media with the idea that these would be the worst figures ever published? Might that ingenuity now be applied to developing indices on life chances? What taxpayers are interested in is whether we can prevent poor children from becoming poor adults. Might he ask the Select Committee on Work and Pensions to undertake that inquiry and report to the House and then to his Social Justice Committee, so that the Government might act on it before the year is out?
May I just correct the right hon. Gentleman on one small fact? I have not spent my time winding up the media. With respect, I think he needs to look at those on his Front Bench, and some of their friends, who have spent the whole time winding up the media.
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his new post. He knows very well that the door is open, and I am happy to sit down and discuss that proposition, and, more importantly, what I believe should be in the measures.
I welcome my hon. Friend to her place. Yes, universal credit will reduce poverty, because it makes every hour of work pay. That means that going into work is no longer a tough decision: it becomes an easier decision and progressing into full-time work becomes much easier.
It is a sad day for all of us when we come to this Chamber and hear that the Conservative Government wish to redefine child poverty. It takes me back to what we faced under the Thatcher Government at the end of the ’70s and the beginning of the ’80s, when they fiddled and changed the unemployment statistics. History is repeating itself. The Child Poverty Action Group in Scotland has said that on the basis of the £12 billion of cuts that are to come between now and 2020, an additional 100,000 children in Scotland will be pushed into poverty. It is an utter, shameful disgrace that that is happening today in a civilised society and wealthy country.
I see from the figures released for Scotland that 210,000 children in Scotland are living in relative poverty after housing costs—22% of children in the country of Scotland. After housing costs, 140,000 children are living in combined low income and material deprivation—an increase of more than 20,000 in the past year. That is the reality of what the previous Government’s economic agenda has done to Scotland, and we know there is more to come if the right hon. Gentleman and his Government get their way. [Interruption.] Because of the impact of the Government’s policy in Scotland—[Interruption.]
Order. Let me explain for the benefit of the House, because some people do not have long enough memories, that when the Liberal Democrats were the third party, in respect of urgent questions they received an allocation of time comparable to that of the person who tabled the question. Of course, the hon. Gentleman will wish to try to preserve the attention of the House, but the hon. Gentleman is enjoying the entitlement only that was previously accorded to third parties. I hope he will therefore be accorded appropriate courtesy.
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
As I was saying, the Scottish Government are having to intervene. We have funded poverty action campaigns in Scotland, with an additional £300 million, against the bedroom tax and other measures to try to alleviate some of the problems this Government are causing for our people. Is it not a disgrace that in my own constituency, for example, the biggest increase in food bank use has come from those who are in work? That is the reality of this Government’s policies and that is why, in the election campaign, the Scottish National party campaigned for a £2 increase in the minimum wage over the lifetime of this Parliament and the adoption of the living wage. It is unacceptable that anyone in this country should be living in poverty. Far too many families in Scotland, and throughout the UK, are having to make the choice of whether to heat their home or feed their children. That is morally unacceptable.
We believe the best way to deal with poverty is to have an integration of tax and benefits, leading to a ladder that would take people out of poverty, not the stigmatisation we see from this Government which punishes the poor in our society. I ask—
Order. When I am on my feet, the hon. Gentleman resumes his seat—that is the situation. I am trying to be helpful to the hon. Gentleman, but I fear that subtlety did not quite work. When I see a process of constant page turning, that is a source of anxiety to the Chair. I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that the thrust of the matter has to be a series of questions. Once we get beyond that to a series of comments or rhetorical questions, I feel that the hon. Gentleman, in the interests of the House and in the interests of himself, can appropriately resume his seat. We are very grateful to him.
I had been looking at those sheets of paper and assumed there was a bit more to come! I welcome the hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) to his post. I agree that there is always more to be done. We want to eradicate poverty and child poverty. I think the figures show that we have made good progress, but I am not complacent.
The Scottish nationalists have campaigned, obviously, for independence, but they have many of the levers in their hands, and if the hon. Gentleman complains about poverty and child poverty in Scotland, my question would be: to what degree have the Scottish Government acted to make some of the changes that he wants? He made a couple of points, but my point would be that employment in Scotland is at a record high, which has not been the case in the past after a recession. The work that we have done to get people back into work, including those in workless households and in social housing, has been a huge success. It is worth reminding the hon. Gentleman that across the board in the UK, some 800,000 fewer people are in relative low income before housing costs, and 300,000 fewer children are in relative low-income households.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about reforming the benefit system so that it has a connection with the tax system; I can tell him that universal credit is exactly what he is hoping for. So far, we have had a bit of resistance from his Government. I hope he will now go back and say, “Let’s go for this full time.”
Does the Secretary of State agree that working to support families to prevent family breakdown is critical to improving children’s life chances, especially as family breakdown hits the poorest hardest? Does he also agree that Labour singularly failed to address that when they were in government?
My hon. Friend is a doughty campaigner for families and for assisting families to stay to together. Many of our reforms are helping families to stay together. Our reforms to the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission—the Child Support Agency, as it was often known in the past—hugely offers families the chance to sort their problems out before they go through the system. We are now seeing record numbers of those making their own balanced arrangements. We have put extra money—millions of pounds—into counselling for families on the verge of break-up, and we believe that that is helping them. The troubled families programme is aimed at stabilising families.
Poverty in inner London after housing costs is the highest in the country, at a scandalous 33%. Does the Secretary of State share my disappointment that, while we all believe that work should pay and is the best route out of poverty for many, the numbers on low pay in London have risen for the fourth year in a row and a third of a million more Londoners are now on low pay than in 2010? Can he reassure me that the way to tackle low pay is not to cut tax credits?
What the figures show is that, as I know as a London MP, parts of London have particular and deep-rooted problems. We want to address those particular problems. First of all, it is true that people are better off in work than they would be out of work, because without work they would have no chance of raising their income. As I made clear on Monday, we also want companies to start paying people a proper wage. I have campaigned endlessly to raise the minimum wage. We have raised it, and the Government are committed to raising it further. I have said to companies, “It is time now that you pay more money to your employees, to rate them as they should be for the work that they have done.”
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the target-based culture of the left actually encourages dependency and makes people stay in poverty because that is the right incentive for them, and that his policies are offering a new opportunity, which is transforming people’s lives? He deserves the full support of the House and the country.
I thank my hon. Friend, who makes a critical point. If we set up a target process that deals with only one aspect of a symptom, we will not get to the root causes. We have set out to get to those families who are the furthest away from employment, and move them into independence through employment. The figures I have given on the number of people in social housing now back in work and those on the lowest incomes now back in work are dramatic. They are better than any other records previously established.
The Secretary of State has been in his post for five years. In that time, the number of households living in absolute poverty has gone up by 2 million and the number of children doing so has gone up by half a million. Is not ditching the relative poverty measure and moving to focus on absolute poverty a complete own goal?
Let me remind the hon. Lady of the statistics. There are 800,000 fewer people on relative low income, 300,000 fewer children on relative low income, 100,000 fewer pensioners on relative low income, 670,000 fewer workless households, and 390,000 fewer children living in workless households. Those are the real statistics. Let me make this point to the hon. Lady: it is far better for us to look at the real life chances of families that were left behind by Labour. Those families were trapped in poverty because they could not change their lives, but we are changing them.
I welcome my hon. Friend to the House, and I agree with what he has said. Let me tell him about a couple of record lows. The number of workless households has fallen by more than 670,000 since 2010 and there are 50,000 fewer households in which no one has ever worked. Those are people who were left behind by the Labour Government.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, given the limited powers of the Scottish Government, Scottish children cannot be protected from the extreme breadth and extent of the attacks made on the welfare system by successive Conservative Governments?
I welcome the hon. Lady to the House, but she cannot have it both ways. The Scottish Government demanded and were given extra powers relating to, for instance, taxation. They cannot turn around and say, “It is not our fault that we cannot change anything in Scotland.” If SNP Members want those powers, they cannot come to the House of Commons and complain because they cannot change anything in Scotland.
Poverty levels are at their lowest since the mid-1980s. That is good news, and it shows that work actually does pay, but does my right hon. Friend agree that the current poverty measure is out of date, and that we need a measure that highlights the root causes of poverty?
As the House will know, we began a debate about that back in 2011, and engaged in a full consultation not long before the last election. I have thought for some time that we need a better way of measuring what happens to families who are trapped at the lowest income levels and do not seem to be able to change their lives. The current measures are inadequate and give no indication of how that problem can be resolved. Life change is the key, and we need to be able to measure the way in which we can bring it about.
Unemployment in Wales has clearly fallen, but a third of the children in Wales—200,000 children—are living in absolute poverty. What plans has the Secretary of State to tackle zero-hours contracts, insecurity at work and low pay, and does he think that cuts in child tax credit will improve the present situation dramatically?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, Wales has historically experienced deep-rooted problems. Some of its communities have often found themselves literally, physically, distanced from developments in other parts of Wales. However, we are working hard to ensure, through transport links, that people can travel to work more quickly, and can travel further to find jobs. As the right hon. Gentleman said, employment in Wales has improved, which it was not doing previously. We are working hard, but I should be happy to talk to him about any specific details, because I am determined to help Wales to improve even more than it has already.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that ensuring that all children are given a high-quality education and an opportunity to acquire vital skills is critical to enabling those who are growing up in low-income households to escape from welfare dependency and find well-paid jobs?
Indeed I do. My hon. Friend—whom I welcome to the House—is exactly right. We must work harder to ensure that the circumstances of families with deep-rooted and deep-seated problems are turned around, and that they can obtain work and become independent, rather than depending on what the Government do.
When the Secretary of State received the confidential Government assessment marked “sensitive”, which warned him that reducing the benefit cap could plunge up to 40,000 more children into poverty, did he stop to think about the consequences, or is he sticking to his insulting idea that people want to be on benefits, despite the reality that most people want to work but the decently paid work they need simply is not there?
I have never believed that people want to be on benefits; I actually believe the vast majority of people on benefits want to do something about that and change their lives. Everything I do is about trying to do that: every policy we have is aimed at getting the economy right and helping people get back into work.
The Secretary of State is right to stress that child poverty is a problem not just of income, but many families on low income need support—to make them work-ready, or those with mental health problems—and there are still many tens of thousands of children in this country with attachment problems. Although he rightly mentions the success of the troubled families programme, does he agree that we also need a pre-troubled families programme to tackle inherited problems at source, often involving attachment disorder?
I recognise and pay tribute to the huge work that my hon. Friend has done, and continues to do, to try to transform the lives of the most troubled families. The troubled families programme was a success but we are now extending it, and within that extension there is scope to do exactly what he wants to do.
Does the Secretary of State agree that all of us who want every child in our country to have a full and happy life do get worried about not just the issues in this morning’s debate, but the fact that responsibility for children is spread over so many Departments? There is no longer enough focus on children in a holistic sense. Will he lead the Government in doing something quite quickly about that?
The hon. Gentleman is right—I often find myself in agreement with him. I am now tasked with chairing the Social Justice Cabinet Committee, the purpose of which is to bring together all work on families and children and to ensure that we have a concerted, single approach to it. But he is absolutely right that that is half the problem in government.
Does the Secretary of State agree that today’s statistics, showing that the percentage of children in relative low income is at its lowest level since the 1980s, are proof that this Government’s policy is working not just in that area, but in terms of social justice as a whole?
I believe that is the case, but there is hugely more to do. I do not for a moment stand here today and say, “It is all brilliantly successful”—quite the contrary. This is a very difficult area, but we are dealing with and trying to turn around some of the most troubled and difficult families. My hon. Friend is right, but we have more to do, and that is my purpose and why I am here.
If the situation has, according to the Secretary of State, improved substantially, why are there so many food banks—a far larger number than previously? Is it not quite clear that some Tory Members have no idea at all about the amount of poverty that exists—in many cases in their own constituencies?
I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. Most of my colleagues are hugely involved in food banks and help them. I welcome food banks: I welcome decent people in society trying to help others who may, for various reasons, have fallen into difficulty. I do not accept that the single cause of that is welfare reform—quite the contrary. Food bank usage has been rising over a period. It was never part of the British system, but in Germany, where we can argue that their welfare payments are higher, 1.5 million people a week use food banks—much more than people do here.
Problem debt is a huge issue. With universal credit, through “Universal Support—delivered locally”, we are working with local authorities so that if people have a debt problem, we will continue to pay their rent but insist that, working with the council, they are put on debt programmes to help them manage their money and become independent. If they are in debt, they will not sustain themselves through work. That is the key thing to change; my hon. Friend is right.
Our purpose is to support people as they go into work and progress into full-time work—that is what universal credit is all about. I believe that what the hon. Gentleman will see as we complete its roll-out is that more families will benefit, to the degree of taking control of their lives and having that independence of a pay packet.
Does the Secretary of State share my desire to focus on those children in persistent poverty—those in that situation for three years out of four—many of whom are, sadly, in my constituency and face multiple disadvantages within their family? Does he agree that they were a specific group wholly ignored by the previous Labour Government’s anti-poverty strategy?
My hon. Friend has campaigned hard on this and he is right; one problem with setting a narrow measure such as this and then being governed by it is that it is all about rotating people at the top of the relative poverty scale and not actually dealing with the deepest and deep-set problems. Dealing with those is what our purpose must be as we go forward to look at new measures.
Blue-collar Conservatism did not last long. Instead of hitting hard-working families with billions of pounds-worth of cuts, driving up child poverty, why does the Secretary of State not instead shift the burden of deficit reduction to the very wealthy and implement sound Liberal Democrat policies, such as extending free school meals and childcare?
I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to his position. I simply remind him that for five years he was part of what we were doing, so I hope that he would welcome today’s figures. I am sure that he has a new set of policies and I am happy to look at what he has come up with.
Before the Secretary of State was in his post, I encountered a benefit culture in my constituency surgeries; people in families where nobody had ever worked were coming to my surgeries. Gradually, over time, that has shifted, with more and more people getting jobs. Is that not the root success story: if we can get people into work, we break the benefit culture?
That is exactly the point. It is work that takes people out of poverty. We must support those who are furthest away and have the greatest difficulty, but we want the rest of them to move into work. We want the barriers, the debt problems and all those issues to be removed and we want to get them into work. We want to improve their kids’ education and improve their life chances. My hon. Friend is spot on.
A failure to increase child benefit and child tax credit in line with the cost of living means that more than one in five families struggle to provide the basics for their children. Given that unacceptable situation, does the Secretary of State support the End Child Poverty campaign calling on the Government to give children’s benefits the same triple lock protection as the state pension?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post. May I say that the latest figures from Scotland show a fall of 40,000 in the number in relative poverty between 2012-13 and 2013-14? Our position is to help the worst-off, to support pensioners through the triple lock and to get all of them into a sustained life of good income.
This week, I attended the launch of Scope’s Extra Costs Commission, which is looking at the barriers faced by disabled people in entering the workplace. May I urge my right hon. Friend to do all he can to continue the Government’s strategy to ensure that more disabled people are able to enter the workplace?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. It is worth reminding hon. Members that, through our Disability Confident programme and the support we are putting in to get more people with disabilities back into work, there are now more people with disabilities in work than ever before. That is still not good enough—the line is still too far below the line for others in work. We want to halve that gap by the end of this Parliament.
The Secretary of State can use any definition he likes, but the root cause of child poverty in my area is the fact that a quarter of all the full-time jobs pay less than the living wage. What is this Government’s strategy on low pay and in-work poverty?
One of the greatest causes of difficulties for those families was the economy crashing and people losing their jobs. It is my Government who have raised the minimum wage faster and higher. Is it high enough? No, but we are committed to raising it again in October, and we want to drive it further up. I have made it clear that employers should be paying that living wage, as the Prime Minister has said. The hon. Gentleman will have to watch this space.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that we want to eradicate poverty and I even have it in my constituency of Twickenham? [Interruption.] I have seen poverty in different parts of the world, but I have not seen there the isolation of families who are relatively poor in my area. May I applaud the continuing plans for free childcare for two-year-olds? That is where I have seen part of the eradication of poverty—families coming together and being part of the community in Twickenham.
May I welcome my hon. Friend to her post? Opposition Members were making noise while she was speaking, but they should recognise that her back story is remarkable: the work she has done to help communities and families. I welcome her to the House. She is absolutely right. Getting those families who have educational difficulties and who are isolated from the community back into the community, and supported and helped back into work is absolutely key. She is right on the money.
The best thing we can do for those families is provide the support programmes that I have talked about. Those programmes are about helping those families get a better education, be more stable and get into work. Being in work and progressing in work is the greatest solution to poverty in the hon. Lady’s area, as it is in mine.
Clearly, one triumph of the coalition Government was the troubled families initiative, which concentrated resources on those most in need. Will my right hon. Friend describe the impact there has been on the child poverty aspects of those families who have been assisted?