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Topical Questions

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 June 2015

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.

T7. Improving home energy efficiency in my constituency is important for reducing fuel poverty. Will the Minister update me on the progress the Government are making in Kingswood in that regard? (900532)

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.

T8. Will the Secretary of State update the House on the progress being made towards developing fusion technology? (900534)

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.

If it is right and just to subsidise by billions of pounds French multinational energy companies, is it not right and just to subsidise the British deep-mining coal industry and save British jobs?

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.