Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 607: debated on Thursday 24 March 2016

Since we entered government in 2010, we have more than trebled our renewable electricity capacity. A total of £52 billion has been invested in renewables, and more than 99% of solar capacity has been installed. In 2010, renewables provided just over 7% of our electricity needs. That went up to nearly one fifth of the UK’s electricity needs in 2015, and we are on track to deliver 35% by 2020-21, exceeding our ambition of 30%.

At the last Energy and Climate Change Question Time, my hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) asked the Minister about the planned rise in VAT on solar, and she told us that the Government had “no choice” but to implement the European Court’s decision. On Monday, when the Financial Secretary was filling in for the Chancellor, he told us that they had decided not to go ahead weeks ago. Did she inadvertently mislead the House, or was she not kept informed by her colleagues in No. 10—I mean No. 11?

I think we should just welcome the outcome. It is always unwise to underestimate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who achieved a great victory for VAT and for solar at the Brussels meeting just 10 days ago.

T2. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best way for consumers to get the best deal on their energy bills is for energy companies to take seriously the possibility that consumers will quickly and easily switch to other suppliers? Will she therefore confirm that the Government remain committed to driving down the time it takes for people to switch? (904317)

I very much agree with my hon. Friend that reliable switching between energy suppliers underpins a competitive energy market and, above all, puts consumers in control. That is why the time it takes to switch has already been halved from five weeks to two and a half weeks. We do not want to stop there, which is why we are working with Ofgem and the industry to deliver reliable next-day switching for consumers, with an aspiration to do this by 2018. We will introduce legislation to achieve that.

With fresh doubts over whether a new nuclear station will ever be built at Hinkley Point C, it appears that Britain’s energy security is now in the hands of the French and Chinese Governments. If the French Government decide not to offer up more money for the Hinkley project, will our taxpayers be on the hook or does the Secretary of State have a plan B?

I can reassure the hon. Lady that this proposal in Hinkley Point will be going ahead. I do not share her doubts. To further reassure her, let me tell her that although Hinkley Point is an important part of our low-carbon future, it is not the only nuclear initiative. If she had paid attention during the Budget, she might have heard the Chancellor announce further support for small modular reactors, which could also be an important part of a low-carbon future.

T3. The Government’s affordable warmth obligation has enabled thousands of low-income households to upgrade and replace their boilers, but there is no obligation on energy companies to upgrade the rest of the heating system, which is often required to make the new boiler work. That has left a pensioner in my constituency with no heating over the winter. Will the Secretary of State look into this and ensure that when energy companies are upgrading people’s boilers, they are following through and not leaving people short? (904319)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. My Department is absolutely committed to taking steps to support those in most need. Since April 2015, boiler replacements under the affordable warmth obligation to which my hon. Friend has referred have come with a one-year warranty, covering the function of both the boiler and the heating system that it serves. I would encourage all customers who have faced problems to register a complaint with their installer or energy supplier so that remedial action can be taken. I hope that that assists my hon. Friend.

T4. In 2012, the Prime Minister stated that “we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 316.]This has not been done. The Secretary of State has 11,287 constituents who are on prepayment meters, at a loss of £3.3 million to the local economy. If she is reluctant to legislate or to oblige energy companies to roll out smart meters rather than dumb meters, will she at least agree to total transparency in the energy sector? (904320)

The hon. Lady should know that there is no reluctance on the Government Benches to take action where required. It was this Government who took action in referring the energy companies to the Competition and Markets Authority and this Government who took further action with initiatives to help the poorest customers. We will be supporting the proposals from the CMA on prepayment customers, helping my constituents and the hon. Lady’s.

T5. I congratulate the Minister on the progress made steering us towards a low-carbon economy. For business, this makes absolute sense, with many companies addressing the issue head on. The value of the low-carbon economy is now £122 billion, but we still need to make progress in tackling energy efficiency for our homes. Will the Minister please give us an indication of whether she might consider reintroducing a zero-carbon policy for our houses? (904321)

I thank my hon. Friend for her comments and I draw her attention to two things. One is the Bonfield review, which we announced in June 2015 and which will report shortly. It is looking at consumer protection in energy efficiency matters, which is a really important element of ensuring that the energy-efficient items that are taken forward deliver what they set out to do. Secondly, as I told the hon. Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds), the EU’s energy performance of buildings directive requires all new buildings to be nearly net-zero energy by 2020.

The Government have already offered ridiculously large subsidies to build Hinkley Point C. I bet the Secretary of State £100—proceeds to charity, of course—that that nuclear power station will not be built without even more public subsidy being offered. Will she take that bet?

Apart from looking people in the eyes, I am not in the habit of taking bets across the Chamber, but I am very happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that I am completely confident that the Hinkley Point C project will go ahead, and it will not be the only new nuclear reactor commissioned under this Government.

T6. As the promoter of the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, I am naturally disappointed that, some 15 years later, fuel poverty has not been eliminated. I know that my right hon. Friend is genuinely determined to eliminate fuel poverty, but will she continue to consult widely on energy efficiency measures, so that we actually meet those targets? (904323)

I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He was an early campaigner on the issue. My Department is putting in place the measures needed to meet our ambitious target for fuel poverty, requiring us to bring as many fuel-poor homes as reasonably practicable up to the band C energy efficiency standard by 2030. As part of that, we have proposed reform to the energy company obligation so that we can support those most in need, and we shall consult widely in the next few months on our proposals to reform the scheme.

Would the Secretary of State like to reflect on her earlier answer to a question, in which she may have inadvertently misled the House by suggesting that Labour did not support the investigation by the CMA? We did support that investigation, but before it was announced we also acknowledged that the majority of customers were being overcharged. Will she, for the record, acknowledge that the CMA reports have now twice confirmed what Labour said—that the majority of customers are being overcharged for their energy?

Like the right hon. Lady, I would not want the House to be misled in any respect, so let us be clear. Labour supported the referral to the CMA in 2013, but then argued in 2014 that another investigation was not needed. It is that investigation that has delivered the results, which we will be legislating for, that will make the most significant difference for delivering lower bills for consumers.

T7. I know the Secretary of State is aware of the horrendous flooding in Irwell Vale in my constituency on Boxing day. With that in mind, will she say what steps her Department is taking to ensure security of the supply of energy to flood-hit areas in Lancashire? (904324)

I took part in the Cobra meetings over Christmas, and it was devastating to see the distress and the awful problems that that flooding caused. As part of the national flood resilience review, we are working with industry to assess flood risk for energy infrastructure, and will be looking at options to improve resilience wherever we can. In addition, the Environment Agency is reviewing its advice on flood risk, and we are working with energy companies to ensure there is an appropriate response to any revised advice.

Last Christmas saw the end of deep-mined coal in this country, and during the past year 32% of the coal imported came from Colombia. Is the Secretary of State happy that, when coalfield communities are still struggling, her Government’s long-term economic plan is being fuelled on the back of child and slave labour?

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes that approach. He will be aware that domestic coalmining has been in decline for the past 60 years, that imports are a great deal cheaper, and that it is for private companies to decide to choose the cheapest options. The Government have done all we can to reduce the impacts of the most recent closures, by injecting up to £20 million to help the directors of Hatfield to manage the closure of the business and £17 million to help UK Coal deliver its two-year closure plan for Kellingley and Thoresby, and by agreeing to meet UK Coal’s concessionary fuel allowances.

I thank the Minister of State for the recent meeting she held with me in connection with the Able development in my constituency, which has the potential for 4,000 new jobs. Is there any news of the implementation of the memorandum of understanding with DONG Energy?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for continually holding my feet to the fire on this matter. I have had a number of individual meetings with developers to press for UK content as far as possible in the offshore wind sector, and I am getting some very good responses. In particular, he will be aware that there is to be a strategy review of the east of England, which will include the potential for the development at Able. I am very positive about the prospects.

Is the Minister admitting, as she seems to be doing, that this Government are more concerned about bringing in coal from Colombia because it is cheap, even though it is produced by child slave labour? She has a chance to amend that.

Private companies in the UK choose their suppliers. It is not Government bringing in coal. The hon. Gentleman must understand that. This Government urge all private companies to look very carefully at their supply chain. They will choose cheaper imports, but equally, they have to stand up and be counted for their own policies on the conditions at suppliers. The Government do not purchase coal. The hon. Gentleman realises that.

Many people in Cheltenham share my wish to see a strong and vibrant solar sector. Reducing the solar feed-in tariff is no doubt necessary and appropriate, given the plummeting cost of solar, but what reassurance can the Minister provide that the new price will continue to sustain jobs in this important industry?

I know that my hon. Friend has been a champion of the solar industry in his constituency, where there are a number of businesses that thrive on the solar sector. I reassure him that we are still seeing high levels of solar installation, but they will not be as high as they were when the feed-in tariffs were delivering such a high yield. It is right to get a balance between supporting solar—supporting renewables—which delivers important jobs, and looking after the consumer.

I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware that it is not for this Government to build Hinkley Point C; it is for EDF to build Hinkley Point C. That is why we have put the arrangement in place whereby we pay only when the electricity is generated. That is the sound arrangement that we have, and the plant is due to start generating that electricity, when we will start paying, in approximately 10 years’ time.

Will the Secretary of State confirm that in any assessment of the Hinkley Point project, she will look at the wider economic benefits to the south-west peninsula from what would be the largest civil engineering project?

My hon. Friend is right. There are wider benefits to Hinkley Point C going ahead—benefits in the form of low-carbon electricity, in meeting our targets, and in security, but he is right that there are also benefits in terms of jobs and developing skills. It is a great loss to this country that under Labour we did not develop more nuclear skills and nuclear reactors. We are putting that right.