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Topical Questions

Volume 599: debated on Thursday 17 September 2015

Since we last met, the Competition and Markets Authority has reported. We have concentrated, as always, on keeping our focus on consumer bills. We have engaged with it, and we will continue to ensure that we give it all the support we can to ensure that the focus stays on consumer bills.

This Government have form in chaotic solar consultations. They lost litigation in 2011-12. Will the Government please tell us how much they are paying in damages to solar companies as a result of their incompetence, and will they learn their lesson?

The Government have form in excelling at supporting solar and ensuring that the costs to the bill payer are kept down. I do recall that, in 2011, the reduction in the tariff was opposed by the Opposition, which is extraordinary and could have cost an additional £2.5 billion a year.

T2. I am particularly proud that Oxford is a hub of low-carbon research, but the recent Dowling review found that access to innovation support across Government is too complex. Does the Minister agree that, if we want to accelerate renewable research and achieve our climate change targets, we need to follow Dowling’s key recommendation to simplify access to research and development support for innovators? Will she investigate how she can work with the Business Secretary to achieve that? It will be essential in accelerating growth in our low-carbon economy. (901372)

I welcome the Dowling review report and agree that innovation is key to delivering future growth and productivity. I support the recommendation to make access to R and D support simpler, and my Department is working, as my hon. Friend suggests, with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Innovate UK and the research councils to make improvements to simplify access to innovation support.

Over the past 18 months, the Secretary of State and I have clashed many times, and I have genuinely enjoyed all of our exchanges. The issue that we have discussed perhaps more than any other is the desperate need for the UK to have a stable energy efficiency policy and for there to be some serious political will to tackle fuel poverty. This Government have already scrapped the green deal and zero-carbon homes. There is no taxpayer-funded fuel poverty programme and the Government’s manifesto commitment proposes a huge drop in the already inadequate levels of insulation measures delivered in the last Parliament. That lack of ambition is disastrous for the environment and for consumer bills. What do this Government intend to do to end fuel poverty?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I, too, have enjoyed our exchanges. He spoke as if it were our last one; I certainly hope that that is not the case. Fuel poverty is an essential part of what this Government are trying to address. As he knows, we set out new regulations under the previous Government for the private-rented sector to ensure that we reach new standards in houses by 2030, 2025 and 2020. We have more ambitious targets. We have committed to making a minimum of 1 million houses more secure against fuel poverty, and I will bring forward more proposals in the autumn.

T3. Like many colleagues, I have had correspondence from residents in my constituency about the consultation on the feed-in tariff system. So that I can inform them correctly, will the Secretary of State please tell me how much energy prices have fallen in the past three or four years and whether she expects the outcome of this consultation to see prices continuing to fall for consumers? (901373)

Gas prices paid by households have fallen by 4.5%. The best deals are available for customers who switch to low-cost fixed term deals on the market, which are up to £100 cheaper than they were this time last year. I certainly hope that that trend continues, but we cannot guarantee it. However, I can say that the Government will take all the action we can to keep bills low.

T5. Stability and simplicity are key for oil and gas operators to make investment decisions, but there have been more than 18 changes to the oil and gas fiscal regime in the past 15 years. Will the Secretary of State reassure me and the industry that there will be no tax rises for the industry for the remainder of this Parliament? (901377)

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that that is really a question for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, but I think he will accept that the Chancellor has taken great steps to try to improve the fiscal regime to encourage more oil exploration. By creating the Oil and Gas Authority, we have shown our commitment to trying to ensure that we maximise the economic recovery from the North sea basin.

T4. What assessment has been made in light of potential reductions to the feed-in tariff of the UK’s ability to meet its targets of cutting carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 and generating 15% of our energy from renewables? (901375)

As our manifesto made clear, we are committed to our climate change targets. The policy announcements the Government have made to date are consistent with those commitments. We are making good progress towards meeting our 2050 carbon target, with emissions already down 30% since 1990.

T6. In recent years, a Scottish Government Minister has joined the UK delegation to the United Nations framework convention on climate change climate negotiations. Will the Secretary of State assure us that an invitation to join this year’s conference of parties in Paris will be extended to the Scottish Government? (901378)

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question. I will have to look into the precedent, but if that has been the precedent I am sure that we will continue to do it.

I was grateful for the Secretary of State’s earlier reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone). My constituents share the concerns about large-scale solar parks on agricultural land. How is the Secretary of State co-ordinating with the Department for Communities and Local Government to see how the planning process can assist with rooftop deployment?

My hon. Friend is entirely right that the control of where such deployment takes place is not entirely under this Department’s authority. We engage with the DCLG, which has strengthened planning guidance so that projects must go through a stringent planning process. Decisions should be made locally with community engagement.

T7. The clean energy switch, being run by The Big Deal and 38 Degrees, is Britain’s first ever mass switch to clean energy. Will the Secretary of State place on record the cross-party support for the initiative and urge people to visit to sign up? (901379)

I believe that is one of many switching opportunities, so it would not be for me to prefer one over the other. We thoroughly encourage and support switching, which is a great way to reduce energy bills and I would encourage everybody to do so, including hon. Members.

Although I appreciate fully the need to cut subsidies, the decision made on 9 September on pre-accreditation for the feed-in tariff will negatively affect my constituents, as well, as we have heard, as those of other Members. It sends a negative message to investors in the green economy, puts dozens of anaerobic digestion projects at risk and jeopardises the conversion of food waste to energy in Suffolk. Will the Secretary of State assure me that investments in green technology will continue to be incentivised?

I am sorry, we do not wish to deprive the Minister of her answer. I apologise that I was ahead of myself, but we will digest her answer, which I am sure will be brief.

I am grateful, Mr Speaker. As my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) will be aware, the feed-in tariff has been hugely successful in encouraging the generation of low-carbon energy for homes and businesses. We appreciate that pre-accreditation was widely supported as it enabled people to book their tariff, but the problem is that there is a tension between the cost to consumers and the value of the subsidies. We need to get that balance right.

Is the Minister aware of the concern among staff at the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority about changes to their pensions and will she agree to meet the relevant trade unions to discuss that?

The hon. Gentleman’s right hon. Friend Lord Hutton’s report on public service pensions was adopted by the Government in 2013 and set out the direction of travel for all public sector pensions. We are in close discussion with the NDA on how we can implement that, bearing in mind the particular sensitivities of Sellafield and other nuclear sites. I am very happy to meet the unions to talk about it, as I have previously.

Chinese steel dumped on the European market is bad not only for British business but for the environment, so does the Minister agree that the best thing to do for the environment and for securing greener growth is to buy British?

My hon. Friend makes a very good recommendation. Buying British is always a positive thing to do.

How can the Government justify slashing support for renewables while at the same time imposing a 16-week limit on councils, such as Leeds City Council, for considering applications for fracking?

Our energy security relies upon an energy mix. We therefore support shale and feel that the right way to approach it is to have a planning process that councils adhere to. We stand ready to help councils when they need it, and I hope that we will have the opportunity to do so.

After National Grid takes account of the various resources it has to add to capacity, that will be over 5%.

Given the concerns expressed today about the sustainability of the UK’s future energy markets, and also the investment required in renewables, what meetings has the Secretary of State had with smaller marine and tidal developers, particularly in the north of England, such as Solway Energy Gateway?

I have not met the company to which the hon. Lady refers, but I have met many other industry participants. If she wants to bring a particular group to see someone in my Department, or to write to me about them, I will of course pay attention.

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has heard the rumour from No. 10 that, in its desire to cut the cost of politics, especially when we are reducing the number of MPs, her Department will be merged with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. As a champion of cost saving, would she recommend that move?

My hon. Friend often teases me on that point. This is an incredibly important Department that is delivering secure, affordable energy. I would also like to scotch the rumour that the constituency of Wellingborough is in any danger.

David Attenborough, a former Cabinet Secretary and the Secretary of State’s predecessor have proposed a 10-year investment plan to make renewable energy cheaper than coal. The plan would see big increases in research and development, with the same spirit and ambition as the Apollo space missions of the 1960s. Will the Secretary of State do all she can to get this proposal on the agenda for this December’s climate change talks in Paris, or is she brave enough to disagree with Sir David Attenborough?

I cannot claim to be that brave, but I can say that I share the ambition to have more renewable energy and lower carbon and, above all, to reduce the reliance on coal for this country’s energy needs.

Notwithstanding the fact that the oil and gas industry is currently facing serious challenges, the southern North sea has the twin advantages of significant untapped gas reserves and a low cost base. Can the Secretary of State confirm that she will be bringing forward policies as quickly as possible that will meet the nation’s requirement for more gas and protect and create jobs?

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are doing everything we can to improve exploration of the further potential in the North sea, and he is right to point to the gas reserves in the southern North sea. Of course, the beauty of this is that gas is the cleanest fossil fuel, so it can also help to meet our decarbonisation objectives.

This week I had a meeting with Sustainable Energy 24, a community benefit society established to deliver solar panels on public and community buildings in my constituency. It told me, in relation to the cut in the feed-in tariff and the ending of pre-accreditation:

“It is hard to see how any community energy group can continue on this basis.”

Can the Secretary of State tell me why the impact on community energy companies was not considered ahead of the consultation and provide reassurances that the consultation response will address that very important issue?

I can assure the hon. Lady that community energy is a very important part of our energy sources. We have already contributed £25 million to supporting community energy projects. We will look carefully at the impact on community energy while working out what is the right price to support solar while looking after bill-payers at the same time.

By far and away the most dominant low-carbon technology is nuclear, yet these programmes require cross-party consensus. Is my right hon. Friend as concerned as I am that the leader of the Labour party has come out against nuclear power, because if that becomes policy it will make it impossible for us to meet our climate change commitments?

My hon. Friend is exactly right to point out that nuclear needs to be part of the energy mix. In fact, 20% of our electricity comes from nuclear, even today. We have ambitious plans for further nuclear and we sincerely hope that we will be able to rely on the Opposition to support us in that.