House of Commons
Thursday 17 September 2015
The House met at half-past Nine o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
On the front of today’s Order Paper, it is noted that on 23 September 1915, Captain Harold Cawley, 6th Battalion The Manchester Regiment, Member for the Heywood Division of Lancashire, was killed in action at Gallipoli, Turkey; on 30 September 1915, Captain The Hon. Thomas Agar-Robartes, 1st Battalion The Coldstream Guards, Member for St. Austell, died of wounds received in action near Loos, France; on 2 October 1915 Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Ninian Edward Crichton-Stuart, 6th Battalion The Welch Regiment, Member for the United Boroughs of Cardiff, Cowbridge and Llantrisant, was killed in action at Loos, France; and on 6 October 1915, Lieutenant The Hon. Charles Thomas Mills, 2nd Battalion The Scots Guards, Member for the Uxbridge Division of Middlesex, was killed in action at Hulluch, France. We remember them today.
Business before Questions
Transport for London Bill [Lords]
That the promoters of the Transport for London Bill [Lords], which was originally introduced in the House of Lords in Session 2010–12 on 24 January 2011, may have leave to proceed with the Bill in the current Session according to the provisions of Standing Order 188B (Revival of Bills).—(The Chairman of Ways and Means.)
To be considered on Thursday 15 October.
Oral Answers to Questions
Energy and Climate Change
The Secretary of State was asked—
May I start by welcoming the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) to her Front-Bench role?
We estimate that closing the renewables obligation early to large and small-scale solar PV projects will reduce costs to the levy control framework by between £180 million and £280 million per year. The estimated saving of closing the RO early to new onshore wind is up to £270 million per year. The details of those cost estimates are published in impact assessments that are available on DECC’s webpage.
Does the Secretary of State agree that publishing impact assessments two months after decisions have been taken is unacceptable practice? Does she acknowledge that, using the alternative methodology in the impact assessment, the net present value of deciding to close the RO early turned out to be minus £100 million? That means that we are £100 million worse off as a result of her taking that decision, instead of allowing the RO to continue. If she had had the impact assessment to hand when she took the decision, might she have made a different decision after all?
What the hon. Gentleman fails to address in his question and does not seem to absorb from the steps that we have taken to address the costs is that at the centre of everything this Government do is the impact on consumer bills. We had a commitment to limit the levy control framework to £7.6 billion by 2020. When it became apparent that we were way in excess of that, but were still meeting our renewables targets, it was right to limit the amount of money we were spending. That is why we took action quickly to do so.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the action she has taken, particularly in relation to the wasteful onshore wind turbines that are blighting many areas of the countryside. In June, when she made her original announcement, she suggested that some of the RO money might be diverted to other forms of alternative power generation. Is she in a position to say what those alternatives may be?
The key reason for reining back on onshore wind was its very success. The Government are absolutely committed to supporting renewable sources of energy, and onshore wind has been very successful. On the use of funds that may have been saved, I come back to the point that the Government are committed to staying within the levy control framework budget as far as is possible. That is the key reason we are taking steps to limit spending. Any further spending commitments, as my hon. Friend will be aware, are up to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
I thank the Secretary of State for her kind words. It is a pleasure to speak from the Dispatch Box today and a privilege to follow in the footsteps of my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint), who has been a fearless advocate for consumers and the environment in recent years.
My right hon. Friend will be as dismayed as I am that this week it was announced that, for the first time, the UK is no longer one of the top 10 countries in the world for investing in clean energy technologies. The Government have ruled out new onshore wind farms, slashed solar support and left onshore wind farm companies with an uncertain future. The only new nuclear plant that seemed to be proceeding is delayed and in doubt, gas investors do not have the assurances that they need to invest, carbon capture and storage has stalled, and other clean generators have been hit with new taxes. What exactly is the Government’s plan to cut carbon pollution and keep our lights on?
I, too, am sorry that the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) is no longer on the Front Bench. She and I used to have regular, robust exchanges, and she had a realistic approach to energy security, describing nationalisation proposals as “turning the clock back”. How much I agree with her.
The hon. Member for Wigan mentioned investor confidence, but perhaps I may ask her to look within her own team as there are real concerns about the Opposition’s approach to nuclear power—who knows their position ahead? The Government are committed to a mix of energy supply and to ensuring that nuclear power, which she mentioned, is part of that mix. It is so disappointing that under the previous Labour Government there was no planning or looking ahead—
I was going to thank the right hon. Lady for that answer, but I do not think I will.
Investors looking at the UK are scratching their heads. On the one hand the Government say that they are trying to reduce the cost of energy for working families, but on the other hand they say that they want to go for shale gas and CCS, which are unproven markets. We have
“new nuclear build and offshore wind which are substantially more expensive than renewables such as onshore wind and solar PV. Investors don’t know what the government is trying to achieve.”
Those are not my words; those are the words of Ernst and Young’s energy analyst in a report that was published this week. When will the Government return with a plan to keep our lights on, cut pollution, and get energy bills under control?
The hon. Lady is entirely wrong. This Government have a clear plan, and in a way she summed it up in her conclusion. We are committed to ensuring that energy security is at the forefront, to carbon reductions, and above all—a feature that never appears except on the Conservative Benches—to keeping consumer bills down.
Low-carbon Energy Generation
I welcome the shadow Secretary of State to her position, and in particular I welcome Otis, who I gather was born only a few months ago. That is fantastic, and I congratulate the hon. Lady on being here so soon afterwards. I wish her every success in her new role.
The Government remain totally committed to our green energy future and to tackling climate change. The success of our renewables programme has exceeded expectations, which means that we are on track to meet our targets comfortably. A key priority for the Government is to keep consumer bills down and limit the cost to hard-working families, while ensuring that the UK remains an attractive location for all forms of low-carbon energy.
The Government are axing support for onshore wind earlier than expected, cutting feed-in tariffs for solar, and ending the exemption for renewables from the climate change levy. If renewables really are the future for our energy supply, what action will the Government take to repair investor confidence?
That is an incredibly important question. More than £42 billion has been invested in renewables, nuclear and CCS since 2010, and 2014 was a record year with more than £8 billion being invested. The Government remain committed to our long-term, low-carbon future in all areas of low-carbon generation. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, we must also consider our other priorities, such as keeping bills down for consumers. The policy reset that we are undertaking is about ensuring that through our success in generating renewables, we do not impact in a devastating way on the bills of hard-working families in this country.
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Government are incredibly keen on those new technologies, and we are looking closely at that tidal lagoon and doing our due diligence. The Government would like to support that project, but it must of course offer value for money. It has gone through the first stage of the process and it will take some time, but I assure the hon. Lady that that project, and other firsts for the UK, are on this Government’s agenda.
East Anglia Offshore Wind, which will be developing the UK’s largest offshore wind farm, has the objective of being subsidy-free by 2023. Can the Minister confirm that the Government will set out a clear vision that will enable the industry to plan properly for the future, both to achieve this goal and to maximise the creation of British jobs?
As I am sure my hon. Friend will be aware, the UK is the world’s No. 1 in offshore wind. We are fully committed to the continued growth and development of that sector. As part of the spending review, we need to look at the impact on consumer bills and make sure that we can manage the ongoing development to reach that subsidy-free point while not impacting too much on the bills for hard-working consumers. We will set out our plans later this year.
Does the Minister agree that the progress so far on new renewables sets the scene for even more investment in research and development, and that we need to have a clear pathway for that to happen so that we can encourage more investment, the strengthening of supply chains and the export of these technologies?
Yes, my hon. Friend is right. That is exactly what we want to do. We want to continue to support the growth of the renewables sector. I have already explained that there has been £45 billion of investment since 2010 in this sector and we want to encourage it further. We have to do that in the light of what is affordable for bill payers. At the same time we want to encourage new forms of renewables and keep Britain at the forefront of renewables technologies.
Will the Minister explain how she can possibly think that investor confidence will be enhanced by taking yet another wrecking ball to the British solar industry with the enormous subsidy cuts, alongside ending pre-accreditation? On the latter issue, the Government’s own consultation concedes that her Department has not even bothered to estimate the likely impact on deployment. With tens of thousands of jobs at risk, will she withdraw this now and stop all the waffle about consumer bills? If she were serious about consumer bills, her Government would not be subsidising fossil fuels and nuclear to the extent that they are.
I am afraid the hon. Lady has not done her homework. She should be aware that it is a requirement of EU state aid that we regularly review the subsidies to ensure that we are not overcompensating the sector. That is exactly what we are doing. We are now in a consultation which closes on 23 October. I am sure she will give her response to that. As I keep repeating, we want to ensure that we are not impacting negatively on consumer bills, but at the same time we are supporting this very valuable and growing sector to become subsidy-free within the next few years.
I welcome the Minister’s earlier replies, but she will know that there is a lack of confidence and certainty in the offshore industry, which is vital to the future economy of my constituency. Can she assure me that when she visits north-east Lincolnshire later this month, she will have a positive message for the industry representatives?
I can assure my hon. Friend that I will always have a positive message. I am very much looking forward to my trip to Humber and Lincolnshire. While I am there I will seek to reassure investors and project managers that it is our intention to continue to support and promote the very important renewables technologies in which, particularly in offshore, Britain is world No. 1.
May I add the welcome of the SNP to the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy)? We look forward to working together where there are shared interests.
On the renewables obligation for onshore wind, it will come as no surprise to the Minister that the SNP is opposed to that closure. The implementation of the Government’s policy is causing additional and unnecessary difficulties through lack of finance owing to the lack of clarity about grace periods. Will she clarify when her Department will produce the grace period provision clauses to the Energy Bill, and will she consider a flexible approach where there is an element of community ownership involved in a project?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, we are looking very carefully at the consultation responses on the grace periods, and we intend to publish our response as soon as we can. That will be within the next few weeks, as part of the process of the Bill’s passage through the Lords. As he will realise, around 30% of the total support under the RO goes to Scottish projects, and we are delighted that Scotland still forms part of a GB-wide energy sector. That is very important for Scotland and for the whole UK.
It is estimated that 22,000 jobs could be lost as a result of swingeing cuts of up to 87% in the solar industry. Will the Minister confirm that the potential loss of jobs was not taken into account in her decision to cut support for solar power? Can it be right or proper for a formal consultation to ignore such harmful effects on the industry and on the thousands of families whose lives will be affected by these changes, including, as both Ministers have mentioned, their ability to pay their energy bills?
The hon. Lady is completely wrong to say that we have not considered all aspects of the consultation on reducing subsidies. She will appreciate that, because it is a consultation, it is only as a result of that consultation—which, as I say, closes on 23 October—that we will be able to assess the impact properly and then to make a decision. As I have said a number of times, we are fully committed to the ongoing development and progress of this very important sector. All jobs in the sector are of course extremely important and we will be doing everything we can to ensure that it continues to grow.
Carbon Dioxide Emissions
As our manifesto made clear, we are determined to meet our climate change commitments. We will do this as cheaply as possible and in the interests of bill payers, hard-working families and businesses. The policy announcements that this 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. We will bring forward further proposals on how to meet carbon budgets over the course of next year.
In its June report to Parliament, the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change said that stronger action was needed to meet the carbon budgets for 2025 and 2050. Since then, as we have heard, the Government have cut support for solar and onshore wind, extended the climate change levy to renewables, and weakened housing standards. Will the Secretary of State go back to the Committee and ask it to make a new analysis, taking account of those policy changes?
I repeat to the hon. Lady that we are committed to meeting our climate change commitments. She will be aware that there are some areas of this that are more challenging than others. For instance, we still need to work up and make more progress on heat. As far as the relationship with the Energy and Climate Change Committee is concerned, she is right that we are in regular contact. I believe it will shortly be publishing a response to some of the changes we have made and we will have more comment to make on that in October.
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the main factors accounting for the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions since 1990 have been the recession, the dash for gas and the outsourcing of the manufacture of carbon-intensive products to China and other third-world countries? The huge expenditure on trying to reduce CO2 emissions by renewables has had far less impact. Is she therefore not right to try to pare down the cost of this rather ineffectual policy?
I have to confess that I do not agree with everything my right hon. Friend has said, but I agree that our energy needs a mix of policies. The bringing on of more gas has certainly been a successful way of reducing carbon emissions. With the development of shale, we believe that that will continue to happen.
Surely the Minister realises that if we are to have a cleaner and better environment, we also need to balance that with consumer interest in energy security. We need high-quality innovative technology—in which I have a long-term and registered interest. Many big environmental companies with leading technology have been absolutely alienated by the Government’s policy and are ceasing to invest.
I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation of what has happened. The Government are completely committed to innovation and are absolutely admiring of the areas in the industry where innovation is changing things. For instance, I named storage, where we think there will be great opportunity for more solar deployment.
Despite the Government’s policy announcements, investor confidence in green energy in the borough of Kettering appears still to be high, because, much to residents’ alarm, fresh applications for solar farms are being submitted to the local council. What can the Government do to get solar energy out of our agricultural fields and on to the big roofs of warehouses?
My hon. Friend raises a key point. It is the Government’s aim to ensure that subsidy support is only temporary, and we are hearing that solar could soon be without subsidy, which is something we want to encourage. Finally, just to agree with him, we much prefer, and will try to encourage, roof-top solar, rather than solar in fields.
Climate Change Conference
Securing an ambitious global climate change agreement is crucial, and I am taking every opportunity to press for an agreement that is ambitious, legally binding, has mitigation commitments from all parties and includes a set of robust rules that allows the world to track progress. Over the coming weeks, at meetings in China, India and the US, I will be making the case for an ambitious climate change deal to my international counterparts that helps deliver on these key objectives.
No other country has yet passed climate change commitments to match those in the Climate Change Act 2008, which we passed nearly 10 years ago now. Indeed, globally we are seeing a resurgence in coal, led by countries such as Germany, which is replacing low-carbon nuclear with coal. Does the Secretary of State believe that the Paris process will result in a more level playing field? Without that, the prognosis for energy-intensive industries in this country, which employ 900,000 people, is bleak.
I do not accept that we are acting unilaterally. The fact is that the UK is a leader, which is a good thing when we are trying to be ambitious in this area, and we are finding that other countries are increasingly working with us. I believe that Paris will be critical to getting an international level playing field and, to return to earlier questions, supporting investor confidence.
Given that so many of the intended nationally determined contributions submitted so far, particularly from developing countries, are conditional on international finance, what efforts has the Secretary of State been making with her counterparts in Europe to ensure that Europe’s contribution to a financial pot to meet those contributions is fulfilled?
I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about climate finance, which is key to getting a successful deal, and I am happy to say that I have been playing a leading role in that, chairing climate finance committee meetings with our international counterparts to ensure the transparency and confidence necessary to bring developing countries into the final deal.
Does the Secretary of State accept that global warming can, by definition, only be tackled globally, and will she confirm that the UK is responsible for about 1.5% of global carbon emissions? Will she therefore agree that although unilateral action might make a few people feel good about themselves, in terms of changing the world’s climate, it is completely and utterly futile?
The green economy is a fantastically growing opportunity for employment and businesses, and I hope my hon. Friend would agree that it will become even more important if and when we get a deal in Paris, because countries internationally will want to invest in the green economy. They are all making it a priority, as the UK has done.
The Secretary of State is meeting her EU counterparts in two days, and she has the Opposition’s full support in negotiating a tough deal ahead of the historic Paris conference later this year. It is clear from recent analysis that the national climate plans do not currently offer sufficient ambition to reach climate safety. She talked about the UK’s being a leader, which was extremely welcome, but what concrete action is she taking to ensure that the UK pushes us further on an international stage and plays a leadership role in the talks in Europe?
The hon. Lady raises one of the most important questions and challenges facing us this year, and I am encouraged to have her support. We are playing a leading role in Europe—I referred earlier to the role I have been playing not just in Europe but internationally to help broker support from the developing and developed countries. It is important to play that role to make sure we get the right outcome, and we continue to be ambitious in the EU, but in truth the EU is committed to this; it is bringing in the other countries that is so challenging.
I am grateful for that answer, but the Secretary of State will be aware that, outside this place and in the wider world, there is real fear that we will not reach climate safety through these negotiations. Will she commit to push the EU to go beyond the existing target of a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030, to secure a provision in the agreement that international goals will be increased every five years and to ensure that the UK acts as a force for higher ambition both in Europe and on the international stage?
May I gently point out to the hon. Lady that it is not the EU that is the issue; it is making sure that the other international large emitters participate in the process? China, for instance, produces 26% of the world’s emissions, which is more than the US and EU combined, so the real challenge is to ensure that we get other countries on board. She is right that we are also pushing for, and hope to get an outcome on, regular reviews. If the final outcome will not put 2° immediately within reach, we need to ensure that the ongoing process—the reviews—does.
Ensuring that hard-working families and businesses across the country have secure affordable energy supplies that they can rely on is our top priority. The Government have worked closely with National Grid to put in place an effective plan, which worked well last winter. Last week, I met Steve Holliday, the chief executive officer of National Grid, to discuss its readiness, and he confirmed that it has everything it needs to manage the system this winter.
Last month, Scottish Power announced the closure of the Longannet power station, citing a disproportionate transmission charging system in which Scottish electricity generators pay substantially more than their counterparts south of the border. The charges were forecast to increase from £40 million this year to £51 million next. With up to a fifth of UK generating capacity expected to close over the next few years, does the Secretary of State agree that an unfair disproportionate regime is punishing operators in Scotland and undermining UK energy security?
I do not agree with that assertion. The fact is that Scottish taxpayers and bill payers have exactly the same needs as the rest of us in the UK—and that is to have secure and affordable energy. We spoke to National Grid about Longannet and we were reassured that it has the resources in place to ensure that we continue to have a secure supply of energy.
We understand that due to the failure of the policy of previous Governments, it is necessary for National Grid to buy in from mainland Europe electricity supplies to keep the lights on in Britain. What is not acceptable is for the Grid to run massive pylons from Richborough in Kent across to Canterbury, which is totally unnecessary. If the Grid can bury cables in the New Forest, it can bury them in the garden of England. Will the Secretary of State please make sure that that happens?
The report “The Size and Performance of the UK Low Carbon Economy” from the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills estimated that there were over 34,000 jobs in the UK solar sector in 2013. Our consultation on the feed-in tariff review reflects the need to balance sector support, while keeping bills down for consumers. We strongly welcome evidence from the sector during this review consultation, which ends on 23 October, and only then can we begin to analyse the impact on jobs.
Estimates suggest, as we heard earlier, that over 20,000 jobs are at risk. Some companies are already giving notices to workers, and projects such as the Greater Manchester community renewals project, which is planning to install solar roof panels in schools in my constituency, will become unviable. How can the Secretary of State fulfil her promise to “unleash a solar revolution” when she undermines jobs and investment in this way?
Jobs are always an important priority for this Government. Under the last Government, of course, we created 2 million jobs and we are expecting, hoping and planning to create another 2 million under this one. Solar is a great opportunity for consumers and for businesses, and I believe it will continue to flourish. As the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) said earlier, we had to do this as part of the European Commission’s requirement for a proper review to make sure that we get the right balance between bill payers and producing more solar. I hope it will reach subsidy-free status soon.
I very much welcome the review of feed-in tariffs. We should be working towards a zero-subsidised solar industry, but does the Secretary of State not agree that the way to deliver zero subsidy is to have a slightly more tapered reduction so that we continue to have a vibrant solar industry and also make sure that we do not deliver a huge rash of applications over the coming months?
I know that my hon. Friend takes a particular interest in solar power. It is too early to say what the outcome will be—we are the middle of our consultation—but we are receiving some very helpful replies from businesses and other participants, which will help us to work out the correct level of support. We want to be careful with bill payers’ money, while also ensuring that we support the solar industry.
While the world embraces solar power, here the Government change feed-in tariffs, thus costing jobs—20,000 in the United Kingdom, as we heard earlier, and 25 from BayWa r.e. in Machynlleth. That may not sound much, but the vast majority of those who are employed in Machynlleth earn less than the official living wage. Will the Secretary of State agree to table, on behalf of the Government, a prayer in the names of the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and me to annul the Feed-in Tariffs (Amendment) Order 2015, which amends the preliminary accreditation arrangements, so that Members can debate the issue rather than rushing into economically damaging implementation?
Oil and Gas Authority
8. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policy of (a) the findings of the Oil and Gas Authority's “Call to Action” report, published on 25 February 2015, on employment in the oil and gas industry and (b) that report's other findings; and what steps she plans to take to support employment in that industry. (901439)
The Government are fully committed to the oil and gas industry. In fact, the first visit that I made as the Minister was to Aberdeen. The industry is vital to our energy security, and it supports about 375,000 jobs across the United Kingdom. We fully recognise the huge challenge presented by lower oil prices, and accept the Oil and Gas Authority’s Call to Action report. The OGA is working with groups such as the Scottish Energy Jobs Taskforce to encourage companies to consider all possible alternatives to redundancy, as well as ensuring that we keep the vital skills that we will need in the future.
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the legislation to establish the OGA formally is currently being dealt with in the House of Lords. The authority’s key responsibility will be to maximise the economic recovery from the North sea basin, and it is already fully employed in that respect. The Government have made some fiscal changes to promote investment, and, importantly, we have also invested £20 million in seismic surveying of under-explored areas in the North sea basin to try to identify new opportunities for businesses that are based there, in order to encourage the investment that we so badly want.
17. Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am sorry; I was slightly thrown.I would appreciate it very much if the Minister would tell us what action the Government are taking to ensure that decommissioning is delayed for as long as possible. A total of 375,000 people are employed in the industry, directly and indirectly, and many of them are based in my city of Aberdeen. (901450)
You threw me as well, Mr Speaker, but I get the point.
I am entirely sympathetic to what the hon. Lady has said. We all agree on the need to avoid decommissioning for as long as possible. The OGA is working with operators throughout the supply chain to try to increase co-operation in relation to, for instance, supply ships, and to ensure that they share resources rather than saying, “That is mine, so you cannot have it.” A great deal of work is being done, but key to this will be looking at the long-term possibilities for new exploration. I hope the hon. Lady welcomes the new Culzean project near the Shetlands, which has just been given the go-ahead. That is a good example of what we can do if we all work together.
May I commend you, Mr Speaker, for the element of surprise that you are introducing to our proceedings?
According to the OGA’s report, more than 5,000 jobs were lost in the sector last year, but analysis carried out by Oil & Gas UK suggests that the wider impact on the industry could involve the loss of some 60,000 jobs. The industry’s calls for support must be listened to. A survey of 450 industry leaders, conducted by the Press and Journal’s Energy Voice, found that there was an overwhelming demand for tax breaks to boost exploration in the North sea, and those calls were echoed yesterday by the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport workers. Does the Minister agree with me, and with industry leaders and trade unions, that the Government must provide incentives to encourage exploration and protect jobs?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Chancellor introduced some strong fiscal measures in the March Budget to maintain and build investment, including a reduction in the supplementary charge, introducing a new investment allowance and a reduction in the petroleum revenue tax from January 2016, and we will continue to look closely at what else we can do to provide that fiscal support for further exploration and to keep the oil and gas sector thriving in the North sea basin.
Green Growth: China
The UK and China enjoy strong and growing co-operation on low-carbon policies and green technologies. This includes working together on the means of financing renewables and low-carbon infra- structure and a cost-effective response to the challenge of climate change.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that minimum import price fixing is having an adverse effect on the solar industry because of the trade dispute between the European Union and China? Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the matter is raised with the Chinese President when he visits this country next month?
We are indeed aware of that, and we are trying to address it. The cost of solar panels has fallen dramatically, but we would like it to continue to fall. I am working with my colleague the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills on this issue, and I can confirm that we will continue to press the EU on this matter.
10. What assessment her Department has made of the potential effects in different regions of the feed-in tariff review. (901441)
The FITs review covers a wide range of technologies for which deployment across the UK varies depending on the specific benefits of that region. For example, there is more solar deployment in the south-west and more wind in Scotland and the north. The effects of the review will therefore affect all in different ways, and the impact assessment acknowledges this.
Just this week the National Farmers Union Scotland expressed deep concern that the FITs proposals will have a damaging impact on those looking to diversify. Why did the Government not consider a steady and more gradual reduction of FITs for small-scale solar and wind as recommended by the industry itself in a strategy published last year?
As I think my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have made clear, this review is required under EU state aid rules and it is now out for consultation. We hope the NFU and other organisations will feed in their response to the consultation, which closes on 23 October, and only at that point will we look at the right balance between keeping bills down and continuing to support the industry.
Many people in Cornwall feel we have been overrun by wind turbines and solar farms, and may I assure the Minister that the recent changes announced have been warmly welcomed by many people in Cornwall? Does she agree with a constituent of mine who recently wrote to me asking me to thank the Government for their recent decisions because they have saved Cornwall?
Cornwall is a beautiful place and all of us will probably have had fantastic holidays there and would not like to see it overrun by something unsightly, so I can sympathise with my hon. Friend. I am always grateful for thanks; we do not get much of it in government, so I ask him to thank his constituent for thanking us. We are still in a consultation period, however, but this is an important sector and we want it to continue to be successful.
Let me tell the Minister, in case she is not aware, that the north-west of England is a beautiful region as well.
Green energy is vital to our economic future and I am afraid that companies such as Natural Energy Sources based in Bromborough in my constituency simply would not recognise the Government’s account of what they have done, given the risks they have created for the solar industry. I ask the Minister to think again, do as so many Members have suggested, and restructure this change to feed-in tariffs.
I understand what the hon. Lady says, but there has been a lack of understanding about what we are trying to do. We have been enormously successful in supporting renewables. The generation, particularly of solar energy, has far exceeded expectations, and we are on course to meet our legally binding targets, so in a sense we are victims of our own success. As the hon. Lady will appreciate, in this country we have the trilemma of energy security, decarbonisation and keeping the bills down. The problem is the more we subsidise and the longer we subsidise excessive deployment, the more it costs the bill payer.
Energy Supply Market
There are 31 companies supplying households in Great Britain, providing greater competition —that is an increase from the 13 in 2010.
Labour’s price freeze plan discouraged the cost of capital and investor decisions in the competition marketplace. What steps will my right hon. Friend take to encourage smaller entrants into the marketplace, in order to make up the £30 billion or so shortfall between what we need to spend and what is planned to be spent on our pipes and our pylons in the next 10 years?
My hon. Friend raises the important issue of electricity transmission, and I intend to publish proposals later this year to enable the competitive tendering of certain onshore electricity transmission assets. Initial estimates show that these competitions could bring savings of at least £380 million in the first 10 years.
What assurances can my right hon. Friend give community trusts such as that spun off from Transition Belper, in my constituency, that they can continue being supported in their pre-accreditation bid towards the use of hydro power, which has been four years in production?
I know that my hon. Friend has taken a particular interest in community energy. I acknowledge that this change could make it more difficult for community energy projects to deploy, but we had to remove pre-accreditation as a matter of urgency, in order to safeguard spends under the scheme while we carry out the feed-in tariff review. But as part of the review, we are seeking views on whether the scheme should be focused towards specific groups or sectors, which might, for example, include households or communities.
My constituency is one of the coldest in England—it might not be as cold as parts of Scotland—so energy prices make up a significant part of the household budget there. I hope that my right hon. Friend shares my belief that increased competition will help to keep prices down and make energy much more affordable for constituents in High Peak and those across the country.
I share my hon. Friend’s views; keeping bills down is a key priority for this Government, and competition is absolutely one of the ways to achieve that. An unprecedented number of companies have entered the supply market since 2010, challenging the big six and providing customers with more choice. We expect that trend to continue, enhancing competition and keeping bills down.
I welcome the Minister’s replies, but solar energy companies are having to reconsider their business plans in the light of Government decisions to eliminate subsidies to the sector. That is creating difficulties for solar companies in my Lewes constituency. What steps is she taking to ensure that all energy companies compete on a level playing field?
I thank my hon. Friend for her question, and I know she has a particular interest in solar companies in her constituency, having brought them to my attention before. The sector has, of course, been a great success and has deployed at significantly higher volumes than we anticipated when the subsidy schemes were set up. That is why we are looking again at the right level of subsidy, to ensure that we continue to have a thriving solar industry while ensuring that the bill payer is not disadvantaged.
I welcome my hon. Friend the Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) to the Front Bench and wish her all the best. I thank her for her kind words, as I thank other colleagues across the House for theirs.
Of course competition should put downward pressure on prices. I have discovered, through a freedom of information request, that despite a tough letter from the Secretary of State demanding price cuts for energy companies in May because of low wholesale costs, responses have not been received from Centrica, RWE npower, E.ON and EDF. The Competition and Markets Authority interim report made it clear that the 70% of customers on their suppliers’ standard variable tariff are being overcharged and it recommended a better deal. Will the Secretary of State therefore join me in calling for the introduction of a protected tariff—a default tariff, as it is known—to make the energy market more competitive and give a fair deal to the consumers who are being ripped off?
I thank the right hon. Lady for joining me in making sure that consumers and bills are a priority. The CMA has recently reported—sadly, the Opposition opposed that reference at the time—and we are very interested in what it has proposed. It is just a report at the moment, but the principle of a safety tariff is a very interesting way of approaching the matter. I do feel that we need to take more action to support the vulnerable customers who are not making the switch and are missing out on those opportunities.
Scottish Islands Renewables Delivery Forum
This is a very important issue for those living on the Scottish islands, and I want to assure the hon. Lady of the Government’s support. The work of the Scottish Islands Renewables Delivery Forum was discussed by the Secretary of State and Fergus Ewing on 8 June and 24 June. I am looking forward to co-chairing the next meeting of the forum in Glasgow with Mr Ewing next Monday. My office has invited the hon. Lady to meet me there, and I look forward to seeing her if her diary allows.
In January, the Prime Minister committed to the deployment of renewable energy on Scottish islands, and the previous coalition Government pledged to publish information about the remote island wind contract for difference by July 2015. It is now the autumn and we have had no further detail on the CfD for remote island wind, which is critical to release the potential of remote island renewables generation. When does the Minister plan to publish those important details on the CfD scheme?
The Government are actively seeking EU state aid approval to ensure that we can treat remote island wind as a separate technology to onshore and offshore wind, as they operate in high wind areas with very challenging conditions. We are awaiting that approval, and, as the hon. Lady knows, we will be making announcements about CfD rounds later this year.
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.
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.
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 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 thebigdeal.com to sign up? (901379)
I believe that thebigdeal.com 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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?
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?
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.
Business of the House
The business after the recess will be as follows:
Monday 12 October—Debate on a motion relating to superfast broadband roll-out, followed by general debate on the political situation in Stormont. The subjects for these debates were recommended by the Backbench Business Committee.
Tuesday 13 October—Second Reading of the Immigration Bill.
Wednesday 14 October—Second Reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill [Lords], followed by debate on a motion relating to the Charter for Budget Responsibility.
Thursday 15 October—Second Reading of the Armed Forces Bill.
Friday 16 October—Private Members’ Bills.
I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 15 October will be:
Thursday 15 October—Debate on the ninth report from the Justice Committee on Prisons: planning and policies, followed by debate on the eighth report from the Justice Committee on the impact of changes to civil legal aid under part 1 of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012.
As you mentioned earlier, Mr Speaker, our Order Paper today pays tribute to four Members of the House who lost their lives in the service of their country a century ago. It is a sad fact that the first of them, Captain Harold Cawley, was not the only Cawley son to be killed—all three brothers died, two of them as Members of this House. Their shields stand here as a permanent reminder of the personal tragedy of war. I often think that we are not really worthy.
I thank the Leader of the House for his response. I pay enormously warm tribute to my irrepressible predecessor, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). I think she will be a very difficult act to follow.
I gather it has been rumoured that I turned down the job of shadow Defence Secretary because I wanted this country to invade Russia. I can assure the House that I have absolutely no intention, either in that job or this job, of invading Russia. In fact, the way things are going I do not suppose we would be able to invade Alderney.
Besides, I could not honestly think of a better job than this one, up against the right hon. Member for Epsom and Ewell (Chris Grayling). I confess that I have been wondering how exactly I should deal with him. Some have suggested that I should be quite aggressive and angry—and that is just his Back Benchers. I have decided instead to smother him with my love. I might even take him on a bonding session in a B and B, though obviously it would have to be one that accepts same-sex couples, and I am not sure he would like that very much. Let us see if all of us, together, can warm the cockles of his heart and even raise a little smile—it is just peeking out there now, I see.
Last Friday we had a very moving debate on the Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill. Eighty-seven Members put in to speak—the highest number ever. On Monday we had the Trade Union Bill, on which 67 Members wanted to speak, and on Tuesday we had the statutory instrument implementing the single largest cash change announced in the Budget. In each of these debates, dozens of Members were unable to speak because of the lack of time. In the case of the statutory instrument, the measure will lead to millions of families losing over £1,000 a year as a result of cuts to tax credits and gaining £200 a year, at most, from the so-called national living wage. Yet the Leader of the House allowed a mere 90 minutes for that measure when he could have provided for a full day’s debate before we took the statutory instrument itself.
I think the right hon. Gentleman is a decent man—[Interruption.] Yes, I do, honestly. I know he was a member of the SDP, but then I was very briefly a Tory in my exceedingly misspent youth, so I believe there is much rejoicing in heaven when a single sinner repenteth.
In all seriousness, I ask the Leader of the House, given the circumstances, to make provision for fuller debates so that Back Benchers can have a real crack of the whip. He has announced today a single day for the Second Reading debate on the Immigration Bill, but we have no idea what is in it and I am not sure whether it has even been published yet. Maybe it was published an hour ago, but it has certainly not been possible for anybody to scrutinise it yet. We know one thing for certain: this is the most contested subject in British politics today. Our constituents would expect many Members to take part in that debate, not just a smattering. Would it not be far better to have a two-day Second Reading debate on that Bill? If the right hon. Gentleman were to provide that, he would be the darling of the House.
As the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland made clear on Tuesday, matters in Northern Ireland are at an extremely critical stage. Let me make one thing absolutely clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Vernon Coaker), the shadow Secretary of State, made clear earlier this week: we stand four-square behind the principle of consent and a bipartisan approach to the peace process in Northern Ireland. We will do everything we can to help the Government ensure that the peace process remains on track. We are about to enter a three-week recess, though, so how will the Government ensure that all parties are kept abreast of developments? If necessary, will the Leader of the House, with your consent, Mr Speaker, recall the House?
The Leader of the House has said that he will bring his new proposals on English-only votes to the House before the end of October, but the House of Lords has now called for a Joint Committee to consider the implications of what we consider, and it clearly considers, to be half-baked plans to add four more stages to every Bill as it goes through this House. Can the Leader of the House recall any occasion when such a request from their lordships has ever been refused? Will he set up the Joint Committee as a matter of urgency and before we debate the matter in this House?
As you know, Mr Speaker, we have PQs, PMQs and WMSs, but I wonder whether the Leader of the House will allow us to set up MPAs—ministerial parliamentary apologies. Obviously, we would have to start with the Prime Minister, who could apologise to all the people of Yorkshire. The Leader of the House would obviously have to apologise to the people of Moss Side, about whom he was very rude a few years ago, and the Minister without Portfolio, the Mayor of London, would have to put in a daily—possibly an hourly—appearance.
The Prime Minister could also apologise for breaking his promise to the British people. In April he said he would not cut child tax credits. He said it on television programmes time and again, but this week he forced his Members to go through the Division Lobby to do precisely that. That is the kind of chicanery that undermines trust in politics. Surely the least the Prime Minister can do is to come to this House to apologise.
I hope that, between us, the Leader of the House and I, and all of us together, can help restore the Commons as a place of serious intellectual inquiry, with tough but fair scrutiny, proper respect for political difference and genuine open-minded debate. And maybe the Leader of the House will smile.
May I start by welcoming the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) to his new position and echo his words of tribute to his predecessor, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle)? I said in the House last week that she brought a certain style to business questions. We will miss her. She has gone on to an interesting portfolio. I wished her all the very best last week and echo the hon. Gentleman’s words this week. I very much enjoyed debating with her.
The hon. Gentleman and I were born in the same year, share the same name and were elected to this House on the same day. Notwithstanding his comments, we both agree that his party’s defence policy would be a danger to the security of our nation.
I also echo the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Members’ shields in this place. Their names are rightly commemorated on these walls as having done great service for this country. They played a vital role in protecting its security. We should always remember and honour them. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to refer to them.
Equally, it is also right to pay tribute to the victims of terrorism whose names are commemorated on the walls of this House, and to state that we as politicians—every single person in this House should state this, although that is not always the case—stand united against terrorism. It diminishes this House when that is not the case.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the debate on the statutory instrument two days ago. I actually agree with him. I think we should have had five days of debate on the changes that we discussed this week, and we did—as changes announced in the summer Budget, they were debated over five days, which is the right and proper way to deal with such issues. We take such issues seriously, and we provided the time to discuss them in the House.
The hon. Gentleman commented on the Immigration Bill, which has been published today. There will be extensive debate in this House, including in Committee and on Report, so I am absolutely satisfied that we will have adequate time for debate.
I remind the hon. Gentleman that one of the things we have done as a party in government is to provide much more time for the Members of the House to secure debates of their choice in their own time. I have just announced two sessions organised by the Backbench Business Committee on subjects of concern to Members. It is right and proper that we, as responsible stewards of the House, make time available for individual Members to secure the debates that they want.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments about the situation in Northern Ireland, which is a matter of great concern to all of us. I send very best wishes, as I am sure do Members from both sides of the House, to the Northern Ireland Secretary in her efforts to make sure that the situation is resolved as quickly as possible. I pay tribute to all those involved in stabilising Northern Ireland. The progress we have made must not be lost, and I sincerely hope that we can reach a resolution. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support.
I simply say to the hon. Gentleman that we will update the House on Northern Ireland as and when necessary. This Government will always take the view that if there are matters of sufficient seriousness, we will seek a recall of the House. Clearly, however, those matters have to be of sufficient importance for a recall to be considered essential.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about the Joint Committee. I simply say that I have noted the House of Lords motion, which we have considered and are considering carefully. I would also say, however, that the Standing Orders of this House really are a matter for this House.
The hon. Gentleman made comments about broken promises. I simply remind him that the biggest broken promise of the past 10 years was the previous Government’s promise that we would have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. They tore up and ignored that promise, so I will take no lessons on broken promises from the Labour party.
I am slightly disappointed about today. Yesterday, we saw a new approach from the Labour party, with a public consultation about what questions should be asked in the House of Commons. The hon. Gentleman sent an email yesterday, or a message via Twitter—
I do not know whether he sent an email as well, but he sent a tweet to all his supporters asking for suggestions about the questions that should be asked today. I have to say that we have heard none of those questions, so there must be a large number of disappointed people. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says that they were censored. I must say that one or two tweets about him were very unparliamentary. He referred to past events. One or two of them he may not wish to remember, but they were certainly highlighted on that Twitter feed. Let me do the right thing, however, and give a response now to Graham from Glasgow, who asked, “Do I like salt and vinegar on my chips?” I am afraid I prefer mushy peas and gravy.
May we have a debate on the co-ordination and efficiency of roadworks undertaken by the utilities? At the moment, Stafford is often brought almost to a standstill by necessary work that is not being done in the most efficient and effective manner.
I have every sympathy with my hon. Friend. I know that the Secretary of State for Transport has taken a lot of interest in that subject. The issue involves not just that point, but the quality of repairs. We as a House should always say to utility companies that when they dig up a road, we expect them to do a decent job of repairing it. Nine times out of 10 when our roads develop potholes and problems with the surface, it is where a utility company has passed by and not done a decent enough job of repairing it. They have a duty to help to keep this country moving, but they do not always fulfil it.
I thank the Leader of the House for outlining the business for when we return from the recess. I offer my congratulations to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), who is one of the few constants in the great Labour revolution of 2015. My colleagues and I on the Scottish National party Benches look forward to working with him in getting rid of Trident as early as possible and in our resolute opposition to Tory austerity.
We are going on recess again today, and we are only just back! This recess is called the conference recess. Apparently, it is designed to accommodate the conferences of the three main UK parties, but we actually return in the week when the third party has its conference. We are disrupting the work of this House to accommodate eight Liberal Democrats. I get the sense that we could just about muddle through without the contributions of those hon. Members, if they felt that they had to be at their conference. May we look at the ridiculous conference recess and decide that we should instead be in this House, addressing our many key responsibilities? Let us get rid of this silly conference recess.
Tomorrow it will be one year since the independence referendum. I am surprised that there is to be nothing in this House to mark that defining moment in UK politics. That experience certainly changed Scotland, if not the UK, for ever. Perhaps when we come back, we could have a State of the Union debate. I and my hon. Friends are in the Union-ending business, but we seem to have been joined in that mission by the Conservative Government. They seem to be doing absolutely everything they can to throw us out the door—making us second-class Members in this House and rejecting any amendment to the Scotland Bill. Perhaps we could have such a debate, so that the Scottish public can observe the Conservatives in action. Just about 50% of them are for independence. If they could listen to what the Conservatives are suggesting, perhaps we could get it up to 60%.
You will have noted, Mr Speaker, that we objected to the setting up of the Joint Committee on Human Rights. That is not because we have any issue with having a Committee on human rights, but we do have every issue with the membership of the Committee. Four Conservative and two Labour Members from this House will be joined by six Members from the House of cronors down at the bottom of the corridor. I do not know why, on such an important issue, there should be parity between that unelected House and this House. Within that Joint Committee we will find a Liberal, who comes from a party that has been overwhelmingly rejected, and an unelected Cross Bencher. Will the Leader of the House go away, have a think about the motion and ensure that the third party of the United Kingdom is included in what is such an important Joint Committee?
Lastly, as we go on the conference recess, the Leader of the House needs to promise that if there are any developments in the great international issues, such as the refugee crisis and the Conservatives’ desire to push us further towards conflict in Syria, he will recall this House, even if it might disrupt the eight Liberal Democrats.
I say to the hon. Gentleman that each of the party conferences could perfectly well take place over a weekend—something that some of us have long argued should happen. However, there will be a change of the kind that he wants only if there is consensus across the House.
I doubt very much that the attention of the nation will be on the Liberal Democrat conference next week. Indeed, I doubt very much that the attention of most Members of the House will be on the Liberal Democrat conference next week. I say to the hon. Gentleman that the job of Members also involves working in their constituencies. I suspect that next week, most Members of the House will be found not glued to the speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), but doing valuable work in their constituencies. I assume that the same will be true of Scottish National party Members, although they do have MSPs who do most of the work in their constituencies, so I can understand if they feel a bit under-occupied. Perhaps they will think of tuning in to the speech of the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the anniversary tomorrow of the Scottish referendum. The Scottish National party still has not quite come to terms with the fact that the Unionists won the referendum and the people of Scotland chose to remain within the United Kingdom. Every week is a bit like groundhog day with the hon. Gentleman as he talks about the tension between England and Scotland and—rather nonsensically, because it is not true—about our apparent attempt to turn the SNP into second-class Members. Of course, if he read the detail, he would know that that is all total nonsense. They simply have not come to terms with the fact that the people of Scotland—very wisely, in my view—voted for the United Kingdom and not against it.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the composition of the Joint Committee on Human Rights and the fact that it is balanced equally between the Commons and the Lords. I simply say to him that that is because it is a Joint Committee. It would hardly be a Joint Committee if all its members were Members of the House of Commons. I appreciate that he would like to change many parts of this place, but the workings of a Joint Committee have been in place for a long time, and they represent a balance between both Houses of Parliament. That is not something that we intend to change.
Finally, it has always been the policy of this Government, the coalition Government, and the Labour party in government, that if a sufficiently serious matter occurs, this House—subject to your consent, Mr Speaker—will be recalled. That has happened many times over the years since the hon. Gentleman and I were elected to this House, and it will not, and should not, change. The three weeks that lie ahead are an important part of our political calendar and give people time to do valuable work on behalf of their constituents. I know that is what most Members of the House will be doing.
There is a clear need for new investment in low-carbon technology, and the new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point is an essential element of that. Associated skills programmes are already running, and 25,000 jobs have been promised locally. Will the Leader of the House come to the House to update it about progress on this crucial power station?
It is essential that that project goes ahead, as its success will be an integral part of this country’s future energy strategy. We must ensure that we keep people’s houses lit and businesses running, and this morning we heard questions to the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. I assure my hon. Friend that the Secretary of State will keep the House regularly updated about progress on that important project.
Following the innovation of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, I have a question from Jane from Liverpool on the election of police and crime commissioners. As the Leader of the House will know, those elections are due to be held in May 2016, but signals coming from the Cabinet Office suggest that they are likely to be delayed until June 2016. Will the Leader of the House explain why that might be the case?
I suspect that Jane from Liverpool has a vested interest in the answer to that question. I encourage George from Knowsley to tell Jane from Liverpool that she should not believe everything that she reads in the paper until the Government make an announcement. If any decisions are taken that would change the timetable of those elections, I am sure that Ministers will first inform the House.
May I declare a potential financial interest? Is the Leader of the House able to persuade the Health Secretary to make a statement—even a written statement—on future research and the potential use of the precautionary principle, following recent research that was initially aimed at variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease prions? Sadly, that research indicated the potential for proteins related to Alzheimer’s to be transferred on surgical instruments.
That is obviously a matter of great concern. I saw those reports, and I know that the Health Secretary will have taken a close interest in the issue. We have Health questions two days after we return from the conference recess, and I encourage my hon. Friend to raise that matter. Alzheimer’s is a dreadful disease. I suspect that most of us in the House know family members or constituents who have suffered from it, and anything we can do to reduce its impact in the years ahead must be desirable.
Why did the Government abruptly cut the ESOL plus—English for speakers of other languages—mandation fund? That has put in jeopardy those who want to get jobs and learn English, as well as providers such as Walsall adult community college. May we have an urgent statement on restoring that fund, or at least a reply to my letter from the Minister?
I understand the concern and we seek to do everything we can to further education in this country. Our colleges do a great job for many of those who sought refuge in this country, and they help them to develop English language skills. I will ensure that the Minister of State for Skills is aware of the hon. Lady’s concern, and that he replies to her letter as soon as possible.
May we have a debate on coastal erosion? Although this is not a new phenomenon, it is occurring in East Yorkshire at an alarming rate. I accept that defending the coastline is not always economically viable, but the local authority needs to have sufficient resources to take whatever other action is appropriate, so it is an issue that needs to be addressed.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, as ever, in defence of his constituency. Coastal erosion has a real impact on many constituencies. The last thing we would want is to see his constituency disappear into the sea. I commend him, because I know that he has secured a visit from the Minister with responsibility for this matter. I hope that that leads to a dialogue that will improve the situation in his constituency.
I thank the Leader of the House for giving us advance notice of the business for 12 October, which is Backbench Business Committee-nominated business—debates on superfast broadband rollout and on the political situation in Northern Ireland. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the fact that following the misunderstanding last week, the Backbench Business Committee is reverting to meeting on Tuesday afternoons. That will help in the communication of information to us. During the recess the Committee will still be open for business and will welcome bids from right hon. and hon. Members.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his work and I am glad we have a good process going forward. I pay tribute to him for the work that he is already doing. I was very pleased by the selection of the situation in Northern Ireland for debate immediately after the recess. As the Government have given control of such a large block of time to both the Backbench Business Committee and the Opposition parties, there are times when, on a subject on which we would like to have a debate, the Backbench Business Committee does the job and picks that subject, which makes the Government’s job easier. Also, it makes sure that issues of vital importance to the House are brought before it at an early opportunity.
This year we celebrate 100 years since the Women’s Institute was formed. Yesterday was 100 years to the day that the first branch began. May we have a debate to celebrate the work of the WI and to recognise its valuable contribution to this country?
I echo my hon. Friend’s appropriate words of tribute to the WI. It not only plays an important role in voluntary work in my constituency, in her constituency and in the constituencies of Members across this House, but it played a vital role in wartime in this country—we talked about wartime earlier. The WI’s work is immensely impressive. On one or two occasions it even played a role in the political process. Those of us on the Conservative Benches remember warmly the meeting between a recent Labour Prime Minister and a group of WI delegates, which will remain etched on our memories. I say to every single member of the WI, “Thank you for what you do.” We have just had a conversation about the Backbench Business Committee. The work of the WI could be a topic that the House chooses to debate in recognition of that 100 years.
On Monday we had an important debate about the future of trade unions. In that debate it came to light that the vast majority of recent disputes occurred in the public sector because mayors and Ministers refused to negotiate. As a matter of urgency, may we have a further debate about the responsibilities of Ministers in disputes, and make sure that this happens before the Trade Union Bill progresses into Committee?
The hon. Lady and I might have different views about responsibility for recent disputes. Ministers become involved in discussions with unions when it is necessary to do so, but it is often better for those discussions to take place between the public officials responsible for those areas and the workforces who work for them, without politicians getting in the way of that discussion. It is always a matter of judgment as to what happens. However, I have little sympathy with those who argue in favour of a minority of trade union officials, who are often dominated by people with extreme views, of which we have seen quite a lot in recent months, causing massive disruption and chaos in the lives of the working people of this country in a way that is wholly inappropriate.
May we have a debate on the forthcoming plastic bag charge, which is not only yet another triumph for the nanny state, but absolutely ridiculous in the sense that it refers to single-use plastic bags and fails to take into account the fact that many people already re-use their plastic bags? According to the TaxPayers Alliance, it will cost residents £1.5 billion over the next 10 years. Tesco has already announced that it is going to charge 40p for every home delivery, even if people use only one or two bags. This Government should be on the side of hard-working people trying to bring down the cost of living, not unnecessarily increasing it.
I know my hon. Friend feels very strongly about this issue. Normally, he and I find ourselves with common views, but I am not sure I am entirely of the same view as him in that I recognise the very real impact on our environment of the number of disposable plastic bags that get into our ecosystem. My hon. Friends in the Department handling the charge will have heard his comments. It is absolutely important that we get this right, and I will make sure his concerns are passed to them. He will, of course, be able to use the usual methods to bring forward a debate, if he chooses to do so.
I am delighted that repetition is welcomed in this House. On 2 July, the Leader of the House told us that independent assessments have shown that the Scotland Bill is meeting the Smith commission recommendations. I have asked written questions, I have asked oral questions and, finally, I have resorted to writing a letter, but so far I have received only fluffy responses. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on whether Ministers of this Government should be able to back assertions made in the Chamber with fact?
I quote from a press release issued by the Law Society of Scotland:
“Following publication of the Scotland Bill today at Westminster, Alistair Morris, President of the Law Society of Scotland, said: ‘We welcome the introduction of the Scotland Bill into the House of Commons. It reflects the Smith Commission agreement and provides for further powers across a range of areas for the Scottish Parliament.’”
Last week, as my right hon. Friend may know, I launched a campaign to save the hedgehog. May we please have a debate on how we can save the hedgehog population and the role that badgers play in their decline?
This is one of the issues that tends to be avoided by those who oppose badger culls. There is a clear causal link in parts of the country between the growing number of badgers and the diminution in the number of hedgehogs. I am with my hon. Friend on this. I used to have hedgehogs in my garden when I was a child. The disappearance of hedgehogs in many parts of this country is a crying shame. We should do everything we can to help restore their population. Controlling the number of badgers seems to me to be a very good way of doing so.
May we debate Ministers meddling with the BBC? The Culture Secretary has just announced that the BBC’s “10 o’clock News” should not be at 10 o’clock. Would a debate about ministerial meddling not allow us to explore why a party that once was a supporter of public broadcasting and an independent BBC has been reduced to its Ministers just mouthing the mantras of Murdoch?
We strongly support the existence of public service broadcasting in this country, but it is also important that the BBC plays the right role in our society, leaves space for local media and competes fairly with commercial broadcasters. We want a fair environment for broadcasting, as well as an accurate and authoritative environment for broadcasting.
Many of my constituents are affected by poor mobile phone signals, on top of often very slow broadband. Since the summer, there has been a particular issue for the residents of Yateley who use O2. May we have a statement on what the Government are doing to hold mobile phone operators and broadband providers to account where customers are paying for a service but not receiving it?
I am sure my hon. Friend’s comments will be greeted with a degree of concern and interest by those involved. We have, of course, secured a very large investment programme in the spread of superfast broadband. That is absolutely right and proper, and work is taking place in many parts of the country. There is an opportunity to discuss this matter immediately after the recess in a Backbench Business debate on precisely the subject of superfast broadband. I encourage my hon. Friend to bring up this point at that debate. Ministers will, I am sure, listen very carefully.
May I again urge the Leader of the House to ask the Attorney General to come to the House to explain the legal advice that led to a fundamental departure in UK policy, when two British nationals were targeted and killed by an RAF drone attack in Raqqa? This is particularly important now, given that in the past few days the explanation of the legal grounds for that move have become ever more murky.
The Prime Minister has explained in detail to the House the reasons for his decisions, and he will provide more information in confidence, as is normal, to the new Chairman and members of the Intelligence and Security Committee. It has always been customary practice when either party has been in power, and in the legal world, that legal advice is not published but a matter of privilege between a lawyer and a client. That is how Governments have always operated and how they will continue to operate. The difference in this place is that both the Prime Minister and the Attorney General are regularly before the House for scrutiny, and the hon. Lady will have opportunities to put questions to them.
My right hon. Friend will remember that I have asked for statements about the EU renegotiation. I am keen that the House should have the opportunity to understand that the Government are working energetically and wholeheartedly towards a fundamentally different relationship with the EU. We need to guard against any scurrilous suggestion that the Government might be heading towards some sort of essay crisis, so may I ask him again for a series of statements to help the House understand the EU renegotiation, which we all hope will lead to a fundamentally different relationship?
My hon. Friend and I agree that the status quo in our relationship with the EU is not in our national interest. It is essential that we pursue this renegotiation, put the new deal to the country and give it a choice between staying in and leaving the EU, and of course the Government are bringing forward that choice in a way that never happened under the previous Government. I absolutely understand his concerns, and he knows I believe radical change is necessary. The Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will be in the House regularly over the autumn to take questions from colleagues about what is happening, and I know my hon. Friend will be here to ask such questions. I know that many in the House are determined to see change. The interesting question is where the Leader of the Opposition stands. I have heard mixed messages this week
If 52,500 people were dying each year in road traffic accidents, the Government would have to respond to the public outcry and act. Last week, the Government revealed that 52,500 people were dying from air pollution every year in this country. The Supreme Court has found that the Government’s failure to prepare a plan to deal with that is illegal, and the UK now faces infraction fines. Will the Leader of the House make time for an urgent debate, in Government time, to set out the Government’s proposals to deal with this damage to the health of the British population?
There will be plenty of opportunities to question Ministers about this issue. It is a matter that the Government take seriously, but of course it is a challenge for any Government to deliver dramatic change to our society overnight. Ministers are working carefully on ways to improve the situation, and the hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to call a Back-Bench debate, either here or in Westminster Hall, bring a Minister to the House, and ask questions at one of the monthly Question Times.
On 15 July, the Foreign Secretary told the House that as part of the nuclear deal with Iran the International Atomic Energy Agency would agree a road map and a set of activities that need to be completed before sanctions can be lifted. He said that it would take about six months. Will the Leader of the House ask him to come to the House before Christmas to update us on progress?
I will certainly pass that request to the Foreign Secretary. We all take the situation in Iran very seriously, and we hope that the agreement reached will improve it. It was probably better than the alternative, even though many colleagues have expressed concerns about our ability to see it through. In the Government’s view, it is the best available option. We must be careful to ensure that the agreement is adhered to, while recognising that if the Iranians step back from where they have been, we should seek to improve our relations with them.
Developing the skills of local people in the renewables industry is vital to the economic future of the Humber area, so may we have an update statement from the Government about their proposals, announced a year ago, to establish a national wind college there and a timetable for its being established?
Network Rail is considering enhancements to the line between Yeovil and Exeter. If the improvements could be extended to Salisbury, it would enhance the service for commuters and local businesses. Will the Leader of the House make time for a statement from the rail Minister on these improvements so that we can consider their scope?
I will certainly make sure that my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary is made aware of my hon. Friend’s point. My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the potential for improvements if the route is extended to Salisbury. I will make sure that the Department for Transport gives the proposal due consideration. He is also right that the route has always been much slicker up to Salisbury and that improvements beyond Salisbury will be very welcome. I quite understand why my hon. Friend wants to see the whole route rather than part of it improved.
During a Westminster Hall debate on Tuesday this week, the Minister for Civil Society, the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson), appeared to confirm that after Scottish Government Ministers have had private meetings with overseas Governments it is common practice for Scotland Office civil servants to ask the embassies of those Governments for an account of their private conversations—without telling the Scottish Government. Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Secretary of State for Scotland to be brought here in person—not by proxy—to explain why his civil servants are routinely spying on our Government?
I do not think anyone is routinely spying on the Scottish Government. The Scottish First Minister denied emphatically that she had indicated that she wanted to see the current Prime Minister back in No. 10 Downing Street, and we absolutely take her word on that, although I would pay tribute to her if that was her view because it is quite clearly in the interests of the country. The Scottish Secretary will be here after the recess to take questions, and the hon. Lady will have the opportunity to put her point to him.
I have a question from Terry who lives in Whalley, but there could be a number of questions on the abuses of private car park operators. They include inflexibility when somebody wrongly enters just one character of their car registration, eye-watering fines that bear no relationship to the fees paid and threatening letters from enforcement agents who act like a paramilitary wing of the parking industry. They are not going to regulate themselves, so may we have a statement from a Minister with a view to reining in these abuses?
We see some extraordinary examples of abuse by some operators, although not all—there are good firms out there but there are, equally, bad firms. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I think all Members will have received legitimate complaints from our constituents. I will make sure that the Transport Secretary is made aware of my hon. Friend’s concerns, and I would also encourage him—I know he always would anyway—to raise the issue again when we have Transport questions in October.
In many respects, I am delighted that the new Labour leader and those who supported him are so dismissive of the traditions of this country. The reason I am delighted is that it means the people of this country who value those traditions, value our monarch and value our history will vote comprehensively to reject their offering in 2020.
Will the Leader of the House call on the Education Secretary to come to this House as soon as possible to make an important statement on the improvement of educational standards, so that all young people in our schools and indeed any adult learners who need help can learn the words of our national anthem?
It is now a matter of national priority. A few people might well be tested about knowing the words of the second and third verse of the national anthem, but I think most people would regard not knowing the first verse as a little disappointing, not least if that person happens to be the Leader of Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition—perhaps not that loyal.
Last week the Treasury decided that unrestored Scottish mines were purely a devolved matter. That seems to be further proof that we are neither “better together” nor seeing any sign of the “broad shoulders” of the United Kingdom that we were promised a year ago. Will the Leader of the House provide for a debate that would allow restoration options to be discussed and explored more fully, as promised in the Budget last March?
We are delivering substantial changes for Scotland. A devolution package is in train that will transform the powers of the Scottish Government. Discussions are taking place constantly between Ministers and officials here and Ministers and officials in Edinburgh, and the discussions will continue.
For several years I have been raising the issue of discrimination against the lettori, foreign lecturers in Italian universities. Despite the best efforts of consecutive United Kingdom Governments and our ambassadors in Rome, the issue remains unresolved. Next month, the Pontignano conference will bring UK and Italian officials together. May we have a statement from the Government on what we can do to ensure that this 35-year injustice is brought to an end immediately?
Like other Members, I have constituents who are affected by birth defects resulting from the use of hormone pregnancy tests in the 1960s and 1970s. Following a Backbench Business debate some 10 months ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences agreed to set up an expert panel of inquiry, which will sit for the first time on 14 October. It now appears that the panel’s terms of reference are at variance with what was promised in the Chamber. Will the Minister come to the House as soon as possible after the recess to make a statement explaining why?