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Commons Chamber

Volume 607: debated on Thursday 24 March 2016

House of Commons

Thursday 24 March 2016

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock

Prayers

[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

New Writs

Ordered,

That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough in the room of Harry Harpham, deceased.—(Dame Rosie Winterton.)

Ordered,

That the Speaker do issue his Warrant to the Clerk of the Crown to make out a new Writ for the electing of a Member to serve in this present Parliament for the County constituency of Ogmore, in the room of Ifor Huw Irranca-Davies, who since his election for the said County constituency has accepted the Office of Steward and Bailiff of Her Majesty’s Manor of Northstead in the County of York.—(Dame Rosie Winterton.)

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Indebted Prepayment Customers

The Government want energy bills to reduce for all consumers, and one of the best ways to achieve that is by switching supplier. However, the hon. Member for Coventry North East (Colleen Fletcher) has raised an important point by highlighting the barriers that indebted prepayment customers face in doing so. The Competition and Markets Authority’s report on provisional remedies rightly includes a recommendation that Ofgem should take steps to address those barriers, and I will consider the issue carefully following the publication of its final report.

The Competition and Markets Authority’s proposal regarding a safeguard price control for prepayment customers is welcome and will go some way towards redressing an inherent unfairness that affects the most vulnerable people, but the authority and the Government should go much further. Will the Secretary of State commit to ensuring that prepayment customers are prioritised during the smart meter roll-out?

I share the hon. Lady’s support for the CMA’s proposal for the most vulnerable customers, a larger proportion of whom are on prepayment meters, and we welcome that approach to ensure that we look after those people. On smart meters, while some energy companies are prioritising prepayment meters, we are not obliging them to do so because the roll-out of smart meters is so inherently important to managing people’s bills.

Will the Secretary of State tell the House, so that I may inform the 9,255 of my constituents who have prepayment meters, why her Department will not bring forward its fuel poverty strategy for another two years?

The Department and the Government take fuel poverty very seriously and we take steps to address that issue. We are reforming the renewable heat incentive and the energy company obligation to focus more on those most in need, who are those in fuel poverty. I ask the hon. Lady to reassure her constituents that we are absolutely committed to doing that and that we will continue to address the issue.

The CMA report exposes one of the biggest scandals of this generation: the £1.7 billion that customers are being overcharged. The recommendations in the report will not kick in until 2018, by which time people will be overcharged by £2.4 billion a year. The Secretary of State must oblige energy companies to roll out smart meters now, especially if the Government are to achieve their own recommendation of all households having smart meters by 2020.

I reassure the hon. Lady that rolling out smart meters is an obligation on energy companies, which are being regulated by Ofgem to ensure that every household has a smart meter by 2020. The CMA’s recommendations observe that competition is the best way to deliver lower prices. We are making sure that more competition enters the market so that customers such as her constituents can have access to that and to cheaper bills.

Prepayment customers are among the most vulnerable in our society. They have fewer tariff options and find switching more difficult. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to remove barriers such as debt issues so that it is easier for these people to switch and get a better price?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The CMA investigation represents the biggest investigation into the energy market since privatisation, and the Prime Minister promoted it by referring the market to Ofgem and on to the CMA. The CMA has focused specifically on indebtedness. We will look at its recommendations to ensure that the most vulnerable customers also have the option to switch and are not excluded from competition within the market.

But the CMA found that 70% of customers were being overcharged, while those on prepayment meters represented only 16%. It found that there had been overcharging of £1.7 billion a year since 2012, rising to £2.5 billion in 2015. A cap is available for those on prepayment meters, but what about the rest of the 70% of customers who are being overcharged? What will happen for them, apart from urging them to switch?

It was, of course, disappointing that the Labour party opposed referring the energy market from Ofgem to the CMA. It is the CMA that has come forward with the recommendations, which I think is a welcome development. The right hon. Lady asks what can be done for other customers. The answer is that more competition in the market will allow people to switch so that her constituents will be able to have access to cheaper bills. I hope she will welcome the reform in the market that has allowed more competition to develop, resulting in lower bills for her constituents and everybody else.

Order. The right hon. Lady certainly should not accuse anybody of misleading the House—[Interruption.] Order. I do not require any advice from other Members. I am perfectly capable of dealing with these matters. If the right hon. Lady wants to insert the word “inadvertently”, that would make it moderately less disorderly, although she still should not chunter from a sedentary position in evident disapproval of the stance taken by the Secretary of State. That is rather beneath the dignity of a distinguished former Minister.

I welcome the action that the CMA recommended for prepayment customers, but I urge the Secretary of State to heed the words of my hon. Friends who urged her to go further. I am sure that she is as angry as I am about the treatment of these customers. I am sure she is also as angry as we are about the treatment of 70% of customers who have been overcharged to the tune of £1.7 billion a year. The Energy and Climate Change Committee said that the Secretary of State’s

“Sudden and numerous policy announcements…lack of transparency…insufficient consideration of investor impacts…Policy inconsistency and contradictory approaches”,

coupled with the

“lack of a long-term vision”,

have raised the cost of investing in UK energy by £3.14 billion a year. Given that she is costing bill payers almost twice as much as the big energy companies, will she refer herself to the CMA?

Let me start by answering the key point that the hon. Lady makes about the 70% of consumers who are not on prepayment meters and are overpaying. The central way to address the 70% is to make sure that there is more competition in the market. When we came into office in 2010, there were six suppliers; there are now 31 new independent suppliers. Switching times are now down to 17 days and, with Ofgem’s guidance, we hope to move to same-day switching by 2018. All those measures will enable consumers to access a competitive market.

The hon. Lady’s comments regarding the Energy and Climate Change Committee are a random selection of some of the Committee’s thoughts. I do not share its views. In fact, I have been advised by a number of people who have attended the Committee and by major investors that they take great comfort from the clear direction that has been set out from the Government Benches for future energy policy.

It is extremely disappointing that after this lengthy investigation, the Secretary of State has decided to blame customers for not switching and to let energy companies off the hook, so perhaps I will try another one. The CMA inquiry has also found that price comparison websites are taking tens of millions of pounds a year in commission from the biggest energy companies. In 2014 alone, they were paid £24 million. Following her announcement that she will not hesitate to take forward the CMA’s recommendations, does she plan to implement the recommendation to allow the same websites to now deliberately hide the cheapest deals from customers?

The hon. Lady has misunderstood me. There is no blame on customers and no blame is being apportioned. We are saying that the CMA has provided a wake-up call to the energy companies, which now need to take action to address competition within the area. We are confident that its recommendations will be key to delivering the competition and low prices that Labour so clearly failed to deliver before 2010.

We already have a price comparison website to which we refer people. The “be an energy shopper” website will then give customers a choice. I urge the hon. Lady to take a look herself and perhaps consider switching.

Onshore Wind

2. What estimate she has made of the number of onshore wind applications made since June 2015. (904291)

My hon. Friend will be delighted to know that we are delivering on our manifesto commitment to end new subsidies for onshore wind and to change the law so that local people have the final say on onshore wind farm applications. As of 14 March, 64 onshore wind farm applications above 1 MW had been submitted across the UK since 18 June 2015, only five of which were in England.

As the director of the national anti-wind farm campaign, I obviously declare an interest. What impact is this change to the subsidy regime having on ensuring that emerging generation technologies can come forward, which ultimately is what the subsidies are intended to encourage?

My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Government want to promote a wide range of energy sources, including renewables, to help us to meet our de-carbonisation targets, while keeping the lights on and bills down. For example, the Chancellor announced in the Budget our intention to hold three contracts for difference allocation rounds over this Parliament, allocating £730 million of annual support over the three auctions for new and emerging technologies such as, very importantly, offshore wind. As he rightly points out, however, as the cost of technologies comes down, we will make sure that subsidies do so as well.

Does the hon. Lady agree with me and many of my constituents that it flies in the face of Ministers’ claims to be the greenest Government ever when local people have a veto on onshore wind, but that when it comes to fracking, particularly for my constituents in Lancashire, local views are not heard or represented?

The hon. Lady is of course completely wrong, because all shale applications are subject to the local planning system, so communities absolutely do have a say on every planning application for hydraulic fracturing.

In my constituency, we have had many applications for wind turbines, both on land and in the sea. As an alternative, SeaGen has a marine project harnessing tidal wave power. When it comes to alternatives that protect the environment, does the Minister agree that such projects should be given prominence?

The hon. Gentleman is exactly right that there are huge prospects for marine and tidal technologies, but they remain very expensive. The Government have supported some demonstration projects and are looking closely at all the possibilities. As they become good value for bill payers, we will bring forward proposals for how we can support them further.

Does the Minister expect the number of onshore wind applications to fall in the coming year, and what impact will that have on renewable wind’s proportion of the electricity mix?

I can tell the hon. Lady that a lot of onshore and offshore wind projects are in the pipeline, so we expect renewables’ share to increase in the coming years. She will be aware that we have announced further CfD auctions specifically to support offshore wind, so we expect further increases in the deployment of offshore wind as the costs come down. That is an absolutely key requirement. As the costs have come down significantly, I certainly expect that it will be possible to deploy onshore wind farms, if communities want them, and without bill payer subsidy.

We need to speed up a tad, and I am sure that we can be led in our mission by the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton).

Energy-saving Products: VAT

3. What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies on energy efficiency of EU proposals to increase the level of VAT applicable to energy-saving products. (904292)

The UK has applied a reduced rate on 11 different types of energy-saving materials since 2001. That remains in place and unchanged—and that is where we want it to stay.

For 13 years, Gordon Brown laboured to reduce VAT on energy-saving materials in the face of EU opposition, even getting President Sarkozy onside in 2007, but to no avail. With VAT on installations set to increase to 20% after the European Court of Justice judgment, does the Minister agree that the most likely route to allow the British Government to incentivise energy saving in the interests of British consumers and the planet is to vote leave on 23 June?

Let me take issue with my hon. Friend’s first point, which was that there will be no changes. If he checks the Finance Bill, which is published today, he will see that VAT is not rising as had been foretold. One reason why is the Prime Minister’s VAT action plan: he was able to go to Brussels and negotiate a better relationship so that countries can have their own VAT rates stayed. It seems to me that that is a very good example of the EU working for this country.

I would like to follow up on that. It is just two days since the Government accepted the amendment that I and my hon. Friends the Members for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) and for Salford and Eccles (Rebecca Long Bailey) tabled to the Budget resolution. The Chancellor was the first in history who had to accept an Opposition amendment to his own Budget, and that was within a week of its delivery. Now we discover that the Finance Bill makes no provision whatsoever regarding VAT on energy-saving products. In fact, it is worse than that, because my hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles has just received a written answer from the Financial Secretary stating that the Government are “still considering” their policy, and that the lower rate of VAT will continue only “in the meantime”. Will the Secretary of State tell us whether there is a now a U-turn on the U-turn?

Thank you for that advice, Mr Speaker.

Let me point out to the hon. Gentleman that while it might be only two days since the amendment was moved, Government Members have been aware of the problem and have been engaging with Brussels, as was declared previously at the Select Committee, so we are clear that this approach is in the interest of the industry. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s rather belated support for it.

Gas-fired Power Stations: Capacity Mechanism

5. What steps she is taking to ensure the effectiveness of the capacity mechanism for new gas-fired power stations. (904296)

New gas is already coming forward. Since 2010, six new combined cycle gas turbines have been commissioned, representing over 8 GW of capacity, but we will need more new gas as we close our coal-fired power stations as part of our decarbonisation objective. We have announced changes to the capacity market to buy more capacity, and to buy it earlier, thereby ensuring security of supply during the transition, as well as promoting investment in new plant such as gas.

Given that Rugeley power station, which is coal fired and based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling), is scheduled to close, may I suggest that Rugeley would be an ideal site for a new gas power station?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) for her excellent work in representing those affected by the closure of Rugeley. The decision on how to use the site is obviously a commercial issue for ENGIE, but I encourage the company to discuss its plans with the Planning Inspectorate, which can clarify the process for building a new gas plant, and particularly how long it might take to do so.

Yesterday marked the end of an era with the sad closure of Longannet power station. I put on record our thanks to the countless folks who worked there and kept the lights on in Scotland for over 40 years. When does the Minister expect new CCGT gas in Scotland to replace Longannet?

I, too, wish to express enormous gratitude, on behalf of Conservative Members, for all the work that has been done at Longannet over the past 47 years. It certainly is the end of an era. It is astonishing that the plant was expected to last for only about 25 years, and the extension of that to 47 is pretty impressive.

As I have said, the capacity market needs to buy earlier and buy more capacity at a time when wholesale prices are so low and various plants are struggling, partly to ensure that new gas is available. The location of the combined cycle gas turbines will, of course, be a matter for individual developers.

It will be a matter for developers, but one of the biggest hurdles to new CCGT in Scotland, and one of the reasons for the early closure of Longannet, has been the imposition of transmission charges, along with the additional costs that are levied on generators in Scotland, primarily owing to their location. Margins are tight, and they are getting tighter. Can we remove this barrier to new gas generation?

It is extraordinary that the hon. Gentleman should say that, because Scottish consumers are huge beneficiaries of locational charging. He needs to look at the situation in the round. Scottish consumers benefit from being part of a Great Britain-wide energy market. Had the Scots voted for independence, today would have been the day when they were on their own. Issues such as the price of energy and the locational pricing would have worked very much to their detriment without that GB-wide market.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) for raising the possibility of a gas-fired power station at Rugeley B if the existing power station is closed. Existing infrastructure with national grid connectivity and a highly skilled work force could be used in that event. What measures are being taken to encourage the development of gas-fired power stations on sites such as Rugeley B, where energy generation has been taking place for decades?

My hon. Friend has done a great job in promoting that idea, and, while I do not want to stray into the realms of telling a private company what to do, we would be very pleased if this company looked into the opportunities for establishing a new gas plant. The capacity market auction will give certainty to potential providers of new gas plants, and should lead the company to consider those opportunities very seriously.

Is it not very odd that the Tory Government never seem to talk about the 40 million tonnes they are importing from countries abroad that they cannot even trust? Rather than keeping the British pits open, this Tory Government have presided over even more coal imports. Which of the power stations will use that coal? They will not be using gas. There will have to be power stations to use that coal. Where are they going to be?

I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be pleased to know that a new opencast coal mine has recently started producing—

The hon. Gentleman must surely acknowledge that the time for deep coal mines is over, because of the health implications and the carbon implications.

The hon. Gentleman must be aware that my Department is committed to moving away from coal, through gas, to a clean energy future.

The Secretary of State has produced no impact assessment to accompany her proposals to bring forward the first year of the application of auctions to the capacity market, but all estimates confirm that the auction will have to clear at a far higher price than has hitherto been the case if any new capacity is to be produced by means of this device, with a consequent huge cost to bill payers—an extra £20, according to some estimates. What does the Minister think the additional cost to customers will be, and can she look me in the eye and tell me with reasonable conviction that she is sufficiently certain that the auction will lead to substantial long-term capacity agreements for new plant to make that huge cost anywhere near justifiable?

I can absolutely look the hon. Gentleman in the eye and tell him that bringing forward the capacity market a year early—I am trying to make serious eye contact with him; I am not looking away for a moment—is absolutely in the interests of consumers. He will know that, with wholesale prices where they are at present, old plants are struggling to continue. By bringing forward the capacity market, we are giving them the certainty they need to ensure security of supply. If you like, this is an insurance policy on security of supply, and it is absolutely in the interests of consumers.

Low-carbon Economy

My Department is committed to providing investors with certainty, and I set out a clear vision for this Government’s energy policy last November in order to achieve just that. In the past month, we have provided certainty on the capacity market, on contracts for difference auctions over the next four years and on taxation for the UK’s oil and gas industry.

As a result of changes in Government policy, Greater Manchester Community Renewables has had to scale back its solar PV project from 20 sites to four, meaning that 16 schools have missed out on solar panels and the local economy has missed out on more than £1 million of investment. It is estimated that there are 8 MW of stalled schemes in Greater Manchester, equating to about £10 million of investment. Is this not an indication that Government policy is in fact leading to a fall in investor confidence?

I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s interpretation. In fact, we have seen increased investment this year in solar and other renewables. We have changed the subsidies on solar, so solar will go forward only where it is well sited and makes a good return for the investors. That is what we have to do as a Government, because we want to strike a balance between supporting renewables and managing consumers’ bills.

Investors in low-carbon energy need clarity and confidence about the energy strategy for the next decade and beyond. The Chancellor could have provided that clarity by setting out the funding in the levy control framework beyond 2020 in last week’s Budget, as 15 of his Conservative colleagues reportedly urged him to do. Does the Secretary of State agree with them that he should have done that, as it would have improved confidence in low-carbon energy?

The hon. Lady will be aware that what the Chancellor did set out in the Budget was certainty on the amount and timing of contracts for difference, which was very welcome for the investment community. There will be further announcements on the levy control framework, but let us bear in mind that the LCF was the first of its kind and that it runs until 2020-21. We have said that we will set out how much will be available in future, but for now the hon. Lady will just have to be a little more patient.

Last September, the independent Committee on Climate Change warned that the Government’s stop-start investment profile was undermining investor confidence and increasing the cost of low-carbon generation. The Secretary of State ignored it. Last month, the Energy and Climate Change Committee reported its concern that increased policy uncertainty was leading to increased risk premiums for investors, which will result in consumers paying more in the long run. Can the Secretary of State look me in the eye and explain exactly how she thinks this ties in with the Prime Minister’s insistence that his Government are safeguarding the interests of future generations?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that I am quite capable of looking him—and indeed the whole shadow Front Bench—in the eye. I can also assure him that we are absolutely focused, as are the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, on delivering for the future generation and looking after bill payers. This is about getting the right balance and supporting renewable energy until it can stand on its own two feet.

Zero Emissions

7. What steps her Department is taking to enshrine the commitment to net zero emissions made at the Paris climate change conference of December 2015 in UK law. (904299)

As confirmed last Monday during the Report stage of the Energy Bill, the Government will take the step of enshrining into UK law the long-term goal of net zero emissions, which I agreed in Paris last December. The question is not whether we do it but how we do it.

I am sure we all welcome that change of heart from the Government thanks to the campaign waged by my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), but how does the Secretary of State think the Government’s antipathy towards the renewables industry—and the fact that she has a Minister who is actively campaigning for Brexit—will help to achieve that target?

There has been no change of heart. I was at the Paris climate change talks and we fought for a high ambition. We ran the high ambition coalition meetings and we are absolutely committed to delivering on our existing commitments and to looking further ahead. This Government are committed to that and we believe we can do it better by staying within the EU.

After we passed the Climate Change Act 2008, we hoped that other EU countries would follow with similar commitments: none did. Indeed, many countries, including Austria, Holland and Ireland, have made no emissions savings since 1990. We saw the result of that in the Paris COP 21 when the EU submission was significantly lower than the UK’s targets. Can the Secretary of State look me in the eye from her position and tell me that we will not be acting unilaterally this time?

Order. May we have an end to this rather tedious business of requests for looks in the eye? I say that in the context of answering the hon. Gentleman because the Secretary of State’s responsibility is to address the House. If she looks at anybody, she should look at the Chair. She certainly should not be looking behind her at the hon. Gentleman, a very agreeable sight though it may be.

Thank you for that guidance, Mr Speaker. May I point out to my hon. Friend that a positive element of the Paris deal is that other countries are now making commitments? I know that he is concerned that other EU countries are not making the same commitments as us, and it is correct that our Climate Change Act is one of the most ambitious, but I am proud of it and other EU countries are beginning to emulate it, although there is more work to do.

Since 2010, the Government have presided over a sharp reduction in the number of households receiving energy efficiency measures. Does the Secretary of State agree that meeting a net-zero emissions target will require a step change in the Government’s energy efficiency polices? If so, when might we see that?

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is aware of the EU directive coming in in 2020 to make all new houses nearly net-zero. We will be sticking to it, which will be a helpful addition to ensuring that new houses do not have the same problems that some have at the moment.

Fuel Duty

10. What discussions she has had with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on the effect of the level of fuel duty on climate change. (904302)

Questions on the level of fuel duty are principally a matter for the Treasury. However, reducing emissions from vehicles is an important part of this Government’s approach to tackling climate change, and we are carefully considering how best to deliver that in a way that is affordable for consumers.

I do not often argue for price increases, but fuel is now cheaper than at any time since 2009—less than £1 a litre in most places—which is having a terrible impact on the environment. More cars on the road means more air pollution and, indeed, more accidents. Should we not be thinking very carefully about that?

I reassure the hon. Gentleman that we always think very carefully about such issues. Conservative Members believe it is right to protect family incomes and that it is welcome that the cost of fuel is down. However, we do not take it for granted that we can make changes to important vehicle emissions, so we are also investing in electric vehicles. For example, we have committed £600 million up to 2021 to support the uptake and manufacture of ultra-low emission vehicles, which is projected to save 65 million tonnes of carbon.

Biomass

11. What assessment she has made of the effect on the feedstock supply chain of her Department’s proposals to improve the sustainability of the use of biomass in the heat and electricity sectors. (904304)

May I gently point out, Mr Speaker, that as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are mothers, we have eyes in the back of our heads and are able to make eye contact right around the Chamber?

As my hon. Friend the Member for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) knows, mandatory biomass feedstock sustainability criteria came into force under the renewables obligation from 1 April 2015 and under the renewable heat incentive from 5 October 2015. The criteria will ensure that biomass is sourced from sustainably managed forests and provides a minimum 60% life-cycle greenhouse gas saving over our average fossil fuel mix.

I am grateful for that reply and congratulate the Minister and her Department on the UK’s sustainability criteria for solid biomass being among the most robust in the world, but why is the Department holding back from further deployment of this affordable, reliable source of low-carbon power?

On 17 March, the Chancellor announced that the overall budget for three CfD auctions in this Parliament will total £730 million of annual support. That is for pot 2, which includes biomass, combined heat and power, advanced conversion technologies, and anaerobic digestion. We see the use of biomass in coal conversions as a transitional technology, helping us on our path to a low-carbon economy. We have already made significant commitments to the sector, supporting 1.6 GW of biomass conversions.

I recently met a group of EU foresters—it was a very unusual meeting—at a symposium in Milverton in my constituency to discuss sustainable forestry. They expressed concerns that our growing biomass industry is putting pressure on many countries further afield to supply wood, possibly causing deforestation. Will the Minister assure us that sustainability is a key part of encouraging this exciting new biomass industry?

My hon. Friend enjoys that kind of meeting very much. I can absolutely assure her that we keep the whole question of sustainability under review. She will be interested to know that analysis of the 2013-14 sustainability data that companies report to Ofgem under the renewables obligation shows that all the reported biomass achieved the greenhouse gas saving target and met the land criteria, two years before they are mandatory. But we do keep this under review.

Shale Gas

12. What steps she is taking to prevent protected areas from being adversely affected by the development of shale gas. (904305)

Shale gas could become a valuable new industry and it is in the strong interests of the UK to explore its potential. However, we are determined to protect our most valuable spaces, and therefore it is our intention to ban surface-level drilling in the most precious areas, including national parks and sites of special scientific interest. We have also regulated to make sure hydraulic fracturing cannot take place at less than 1,200 metres under protected areas.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Although I am sure it will allay the concerns of some, does she believe that more can be done to extol the positive virtues of shale gas, including, for example, the new jobs and security of energy supply it will bring?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that there are lots of benefits of shale gas. The first is energy security, as we could be importing about 75% of our gas by 2030. The second is jobs, as the industry could mean jobs and opportunities for the UK, with a report by Ernst & Young estimating that a thriving shale industry would create up to 64,000 jobs. The third is benefits to communities, as those hosting shale developments will see a direct share of the benefits through an industry-funded package, and the shale wealth fund will mean that up to 10% of the tax revenues from shale gas deliver investment directly to local communities.

Renewable Energy: Subsidies

13. What assessment her Department has made of the potential effect of changes to subsidies on the predicted deployment rates of renewable energy by 2020. (904306)

The Government announced a package of proposed cost control measures last year to tackle the projected overspend on renewable support schemes. As the costs of technologies come down, as they have, it is right that subsidies do so as well. We are fully committed to supporting renewable energy, but will do so at least possible cost to consumers and businesses.

I regularly meet the great number of businessmen and businesswomen in my constituency who are engaged in the renewables industry. Does the Secretary of State agree that we must support this kind of innovation and entrepreneurship in the renewables industry?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, and the entire purpose of subsidies is to give new industry and innovations in the renewables industry a good start. Subsidies are not intended to be permanent; they are about getting these things started and giving them a good start so that they can then carry on and deliver secure renewable energy, subsidy-free.

Retail Energy: Switching Suppliers

14. What assessment she has made of recent trends in the rate of switching in the retail energy market. (904309)

My Department has taken action to make it simpler and quicker to switch supplier. I am happy to tell my hon. Friend that the number of households switching supplier is increasing—in 2015, it reached a four-year high. The latest figures released by Ofgem show that 6.1 million domestic energy supply accounts were switched in 2015, which is a 15% increase on the 2014 figure.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply and for her assistance in my work with the Behavioural Insights Team on trying to create the receipt of the winter fuel payment letter as a switching point for those who are retired. What further steps are she and her Department going to take to ensure that older citizens in this country are encouraged to switch, because they have traditionally been the hardest-to-reach group?

My hon. Friend is entirely right to focus on that older group, who sometimes are more resistant to switching. I thank him for the help he has given through his work with the Behavioural Insights Team and the Department on ways to encourage more elderly people to switch supplier through our communications to those eligible for winter fuel payments. The Competition and Markets Authority made proposals just last week that are designed to encourage all consumers to switch, including those over 65. The Government have committed to appropriate implementation of the recommendations, following publication of this report in full.

Oil and Gas

Last week, the Chancellor announced a £1 billion fiscal package to reduce the additional taxes historically imposed on the North sea as well as to introduce targeted measures to encourage investment in exploration, infrastructure and late-life assets. That builds on the Prime Minister’s January announcement of a £20 million package of new investment in exploration, innovation and skills; a new interministerial group; and funding for the £250 million Aberdeen city region deal.

I appreciate the Minister’s answer. Oil & Gas UK, the industry body, has said that we need a fourfold increase in exploration to ensure that the 20 billion barrels that are still there are recoverable. The extra funding for the seismic surveys has been most welcome and we appreciate it. Will the Minister expand a little on what other action the UK Government will take to increase the confidence in the industry and to encourage further exploration?

The industry is vital for the UK, and we will continue to support it in every way we can. I have already mentioned some of the measures. Perhaps I will just reiterate that, in setting up the Oil and Gas Authority on Sir Ian Wood’s recommendations, we are establishing an authority that is welcome by the industry, that will improve the economic recovery of the sector, and that will ensure that we do not move to early decommissioning, which is all very good news for the North sea sector.

Tidal Lagoon Energy

16. What progress has been made on the independent review on tidal lagoon energy announced in February 2016. (904311)

My Department has made good progress in setting up the review team and we will shortly be announcing the name of the individual who will lead the independent review. The review is on track to start this spring and, we hope, complete in the autumn.

It has now been six weeks since the Department announced the independent review into tidal lagoon energy, and it is two weeks since the Minister assured me in Westminster Hall that the make-up of the review was being considered “right now”. Why, six weeks later, has the review not started? Although I appreciate that the Department is probably very genuine in its desire to get this work done, we need the work done urgently.

I appreciate completely the urgency of the situation. However, we want to get this right, so we have gone ahead in the Department with preparing for the review. It is a question of appointing the independent reviewer who will lead that and agreeing the formal terms with them. The hon. Lady should be in no doubt that we appreciate the urgency of this matter, that we are serious about the review and that we will move with all due speed and keep her posted.

Energy Storage Devices

17. What progress she has made on developing a legislative and regulatory framework for energy storage devices in the UK energy market. (904312)

Energy storage has been identified as one of the eight great technologies in which the UK can genuinely lead the world. More than £80 million of public sector support has been committed to UK energy storage research and development since 2012. Last December, my Department published the document, “Towards a smart energy system”, and we are urgently investigating the potential barriers to deployment of energy storage. We will be issuing a call for evidence in the very near future.

I welcome that statement from the Minister. However, regulatory barriers, some minor, are having a chilling effect on the roll-out of innovative energy storage technologies. Can the Minister give the House an assurance that the Government are approaching the removal of these barriers with the degree of urgency that is required if we are to remain a world leader in this field?

Yes, I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. Very recently, I held a roundtable meeting with players in the storage sector and heard at first hand exactly where they think the challenges lie. I can absolutely assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department is working very hard to try to ensure that we remove barriers in the easiest and quickest way possible.

Topical Questions

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.

Junior Doctors: Industrial Action

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health if he will make a statement on what steps he is taking to avoid further industrial action by junior doctors.

Yesterday, the junior doctors committee of the British Medical Association, in continuation of their dispute over how junior doctors should be paid for working on Saturdays, announced that they would be withdrawing emergency cover during two days, 26 and 27 April. If the BMA proceeds with this action, it will be unprecedented in the history of the national health service.

Let me be clear first about the impact on patients. We will do all in our power to ensure that patients are protected. However, given that patients presenting at hospitals in an emergency are often at a point of extreme danger, the action taken by the BMA will inevitably put patients in harm’s way. That the BMA wishes to do that to continue a dispute over how junior doctors are paid on Saturdays is not only regrettable but entirely disproportionate and highly irresponsible.

The hon. Lady asks what the Government have done to avoid industrial action. Let me be clear on this also. Consistent with our promise to the British people to reduce variations in care across the seven days of the week, the Government could not have done more in their efforts to avoid industrial action. Although both the BMA and NHS Employers believe the current contract to be seriously flawed, the BMA has walked away from negotiations not once, not twice, but three times—unilaterally thwarting the efforts, made in good faith, to come to a negotiated settlement on a better contract.

Time and again, the Government have implored the BMA to return to talks. Time and again, the Government have extended deadlines. Time and again, the Government have listened and responded to the BMA’s concerns, making agreed changes to the proposed contract. The Government have provided every possible means to ensure productive talks. We have charged the most experienced negotiators in the NHS to work with the BMA. At our invitation, we have discussed the contract at ACAS not once, but twice. We have asked one of the most respected chief executives in the service, Sir David Dalton, to attempt to reach a solution. Yet, despite all this, the BMA has set itself against talks, refusing to negotiate on the few remaining points of contention, even though it had previously promised to discuss them. We are in the very odd situation of being faced with a trade union that is escalating strike action, despite having been consistent only in its refusal to negotiate on behalf of its members.

The country cannot be held to ransom like this. At some point, a democratically elected Government must be able to proceed to fulfil the promises they have made to the people. Governments cannot be held hostage by a union that refuses to negotiate. That is why, having exhausted every single option open to us with the BMA—with the BMA refusing to talk—and having listened to the advice of Sir David Dalton and others to move on from the uncertainty that this dispute was creating, the Government have, to their regret, decided to move on and implement the contract.

We will very soon be presenting the new contract directly to doctors so that they can see for themselves that the new contract is safer than the one it replaces, is fairer than the one it replaces, is better for patients than the one it replaces and is better for doctors than the one it replaces. By seeing the detail of the contract for themselves, I am confident that doctors will see the strike for what it is: disproportionate, ill-judged, unnecessary and wrong.

The Minister has spoken for a number of minutes, but he has not answered the question. I asked what further action the Government will take to avert industrial action and the escalation planned for the 26th and 27th, and there was absolutely no response.

This is a worrying time for patients and the NHS, and it is nothing short of a disgrace that, yet again, the Health Secretary has failed to turn up. If this walkout goes ahead, it will be the first time ever that junior doctors have fully withdrawn their labour. Nobody wants that to happen, so let me focus my questions on how we might find a way through this very heated and deeply distressing dispute.

Yesterday, the Health Secretary was reported to have said that “the matter is closed.” May I urge the Minister to think again? He should think about how it will look to patients if the Secretary of State spends the next four weeks sitting on his hands, instead of trying to avert this action. Was the Government’s former patient safety adviser, Don Berwick, not right to have called on Ministers to de-escalate the situation? How does describing the junior doctor element of the BMA as “radicalised”, as the Minister did on Monday, help to de-escalate things? May I gently suggest to him that his tone and choice of words are making a resolution harder, not easier, to achieve?

The Minister is an intelligent man, and I know he will be talking to the same senior NHS leaders I talk to. Deep down, he knows that this contract has nothing to do with seven-day services and everything to do with setting a precedent to save money on the NHS pay bill—change the definition of unsociable hours in this contract and pave the way for changing it for nurses, porters and a whole host of other NHS staff. Am I wrong, Minister?

Finally, may I simply ask the Government to start listening to patients? The Patients Association has said:

“The Government’s decision to impose contract terms on junior doctors is unacceptable…It is clear that the acrimonious dispute…is unnecessary and damaging.”

National Voices, which represents 160 health and care charities, said yesterday:

“We are calling on government to drop the imposition of a new contract”.

The Government have 32 days to prevent a full walkout of junior doctors. The Secretary of State may think that the matter is closed; I say that that is arrogant and dangerous in the extreme. This is an awful game of brinkmanship and the Government must press the pause button before it is too late.

I thank the hon. Lady for her detailed questions, put with her customary grace—and I mean that. She raised a number of issues, and I will deal with her first point last, if I may. She mentioned the Secretary of State’s comments to the Health Service Journal earlier this week. We have been negotiating a contract for three and a half years and have reached the point where the counter-party—the British Medical Association—refuses to discuss the remaining 10% that is not agreed, despite the best efforts of the most experienced of negotiators and one of the most respected chief executives in the NHS. In his judgment, there was no further purpose to negotiations, because the BMA refused to discuss those points. The Government are therefore faced with a choice: either they allow the BMA, with that refusal, effectively to veto a contract, or they implement the 90% of the contract that has been agreed and make a decision on Saturday pay rates, on which they have provided considerable movement from the recommendations of the independent doctors and dentists pay review body. I suggest to the hon. Lady that it is not the Government who are causing or calling industrial action, but the British Medical Association.

The hon. Lady asks both in her urgent question and from her seat about our actions. All I can say is that I personally have implored the leaders of the BMA to come to talks on a number of occasions, but there is a point at which it is not possible to continue discussions, first because the counter-party refuses to talk, and secondly because the BMA has promised to talk on so many occasions, only to renege on that promise at a future point. We have to move ahead with a contract that is better for patients and better for doctors.

The hon. Lady asked about the reasons for the contract and claimed that it has nothing to do with seven-day services and something to do with the pay bill. Not only is this contract cost neutral, but transition payment is being funded from outside the pay envelope. This has nothing to do with the pay bill; it is about recognising a core concern of the British Medical Association, the Government and NHS Employers that the current contract is not fit for purpose and needs reform.

One of the many reasons for that is to make sure that care can be delivered more consistently across seven days of the week. It introduces for junior doctors terms for Saturday working that in several senses are more generous than those afforded to “Agenda for Change” employees. It could be a judgment for the House as to whether it is equitable for that to be the case, but that was the negotiated position, as far as we reached one, with Sir David Dalton. I ask the hon. Lady and junior doctors to think carefully about resisting a pay offer that is more generous in form and in number than the one that is given to porters and nurses working in the same teams.

The hon. Lady asked whether she was wrong to say that this was part of a wider narrative to reduce the pay bill for “Agenda for Change” unions. I say to her unequivocally that she is. This has nothing to do with the form or payment of “Agenda for Change” staff. It is to do with the terms of contract and employment for junior doctors. It is about making a contract that is safer and fairer for them and better for patients.

Finally, I return to the point that the hon. Lady made at the beginning of her question. It is not the Government who have caused the industrial action. We have bent over backwards to try to avert it, and I suggest that we have done more than some previous Labour Secretaries of State to avert industrial action. The one thing that will help to stop this industrial action is clear condemnation from the Labour party. There is one remaining question in the whole debate, and that is the position of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

The hon. Lady has been assiduous in holding the Government to account. She has been right to do so, and she has done so with the decency that has earned her respect on both sides of the House, but she has not yet told us what the Opposition’s position is. I can understand that, although I do not agree with it, when industrial action is to do with elective, non-emergency care. The call for strike action on emergency care is of an altogether different order, however, and it demands a response from the Opposition, because this is about emergency cover for patients. The Opposition need to say clearly whether they support or condemn the action. If the hon. Lady remains silent on the matter, I will only be able, as will the House, to draw the conclusion that she supports the action. If that is so, it is a very sad day for the Labour party.

Order. I gently say to the Minister, whose emollient and statesmanlike tone is widely admired across the House, that briefly to refer to the stance of the Opposition is legitimate, but dilation upon it is not. I know that he is drawing his remarks to a close.

I am glad to see, Mr Speaker, that you are in agreement with the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner).

We have mutual agreement, in that case. You were right to draw attention to this, Mr Speaker. All I will say is that the strike would be more easily averted if Her Majesty’s Opposition were to condemn it absolutely. If they do not, all that says is that Her Majesty’s Opposition are in thrall to the militants within the unions and are putting decent members of the Labour party in an impossible position.

There is much interest. I will start by calling not a medical doctor, but a generally brainy bloke, Dr Julian Lewis.

I am greatly obliged, Mr Speaker, as always. Will the Minister tell me whether, having quite rightly balloted its members on general strike action, the BMA has balloted the junior doctors on the withdrawal of emergency care?

My right hon. Friend raises an important point. I believe that the legality of the action is correct and that the BMA is within its rights to do as it is doing, but that does not change whether it is right or wrong. Many junior doctors who may have supported the BMA in the withdrawal of elective care will be profoundly worried about that escalation.

It is disappointing that, as both the Minister and the shadow Minister pointed out, negotiations are not currently ongoing. Junior doctors are rightly concerned. The Secretary of State has promised that more junior doctors will work at weekends, while, at the same time, no fewer will work during the week. The UK Government decided this week that the best way to reform disability welfare payments is to listen to disabled people. Will the UK Government now make a similar U-turn on NHS reform and concede that the best way to reform the junior doctors contract is to listen to junior doctors?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I suggest that listening to junior doctors on their need to have a better work-life balance, to ensure that the contract is safer for patients and to address their legitimate complaints about the way the existing contract works is significantly different from listening to the junior doctors committee, whose actions seem to have ulterior motives. All I would say is that we have listened consistently to the concerns of junior doctors both through the negotiators they have appointed and in relation to those they have raised on the ground. That is why we have come to an agreement on 90% of the contract.

Many of the issues settled within the contract were not requested by the BMA. For instance, one of the complaints made by junior doctors for many years is the fact that they have to book leave so far in advance that they often have to miss important family events. We sought to change that, and we did so in the new contract of our own accord. It is one of myriad changes that will make this contract better for junior doctors. That is why the sooner they have it in front of them—we are working very hard to make sure that happens soon—the sooner they will see that this contract is better for them and that they have been misled.

I thank the Minister for coming to the House today to set out the Government’s position on this dangerous and irresponsible strike. Quite frankly, I am appalled by the fact that the Labour party has not condemned these strikes. Throughout the negotiation, the Government’s door has been open, and the BMA was given more than enough notice before the Government were forced to impose the contract. In this negotiation, the BMA got 90% of what it wanted, so this strike is essentially about pay for working on Saturdays. What other essential public servants, from firefighters to the police, would get such terms for working on a Saturday? Will my hon. Friend please tell me what impact the strikes will have on patient safety?

We will do everything in our power to ensure that patients are protected. We have a very robust assurance programme, conducted by NHS Improvement and NHS Employers. We will do everything we can to ensure both that the number of elective operations cancelled is as low as possible, consistent with the needs of safety, and that emergency cover is provided. Withdrawing the number of doctors that the BMA will withdraw in this action means that there is an increased risk of patient harm, and I am afraid that the BMA and its members need to consider that very carefully in the weeks ahead.

It is clear that the Government are in a very difficult position, hence the Minister’s attack on Opposition Front and Back Benchers. I have to say that, from my experience of nine years on the General Medical Council, I do not recognise the various descriptions of the doctors’ profession that the Government have given over the past few weeks, including as being radicalised. We all know that this dispute should and will be settled not by imposition but by negotiations around a table. It seems to me that instead of using, at the Dispatch Box and elsewhere, rhetoric that has fired this up, Ministers would do much better to react to what the BMA said yesterday, which is that it wants

“to end this dispute through talks”.

Why do the Government not get on with it, keep us out of it and just do what people expect them to do?

Before the Minister replies, may I remind the House that this is an urgent question, not a debate under Standing Order No. 24 or a series of speeches? There seems to be predilection among colleagues to preface whatever question they ultimately arrive at with an essay first. A number of Members say, “Oh, I have to say this.” No, Members do not have to say anything; they have to ask a question, preferably briefly. That is all we want to hear.

The right hon. Gentleman should know that we have negotiated with the BMA for more than three years. We have a choice either to cave in, which would produce a bad contract—much like the 2000 and 2003 contracts, which we are trying to correct, because everyone agrees they are wrong—or to move forward, accepting the fact that 90% of this contract has been agreed. We believe that it is in the interests of patients and doctors to do the latter.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this time the BMA has gone too far, and will he join me in calling on junior doctors to reach beyond the BMA and put their patients first and the BMA leadership second? Junior doctors are the future of the NHS, and they must play their role in constructively solving this problem.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend, and we need this new contract to help junior doctors to achieve a better work-life balance, so that they can maintain their studies, training and experience in a better way than is currently allowed. We must also ensure that they are not exhausted by the contract, which is what happens under the current failed contract. It is in their interest for the new contract to be introduced, and I hope that in the coming weeks they will revise their view of whether this industrial action is truly necessary.

Thanks to the Welsh Assembly, my constituents will not suffer the anxiety caused by the future strike. Does the Minister expect the public to support doctors who dedicate their lives to the health service, rather than the nasty party that opposed the set-up of the health service, and whose support for it has always been half-hearted and grudging?

It is unfortunate that the hon. Gentleman needs to use such language. The Conservative party is achieving better outcomes for patients in every single metric than the Labour party in Wales, which is consistently letting down patients in the Principality—an appalling aspect for people who are in need of care in Wales.

It is hard to have any discussions on any matter with the BMA in good faith when there is an escalation to the withdrawal of emergency cover on a matter of pay only. That unprecedented situation makes our collective bargaining arrangements with the BMA very difficult.

The Minister is also on premium pay, and he would be on strike if other Ministers were getting more than him. Is he aware that nearly all patients who are in work and go to hospital to be treated by these doctors are also on premium pay at the weekend? Does he realise that the Government are not in a very strong position just about now? They have had to retreat on their Budget. Does he understand that in this world, where nearly everybody in a trade union gets premium payments on Saturday, the same should apply to those in hospital by the same amount? Then we should pay the nurses and all the rest of them an equivalent amount. That is the Minister’s problem—get weaving!

I have had this discussion with the hon. Gentleman before, and he is wrong. The Review Body on Doctors’ and Dentists’ Remuneration carefully considered this issue, and its proposals for Saturday pay for junior doctors were improved on by the Government unilaterally. We made a better offer than that in the review body’s independent report, which studied other comparable professions. This comes back to a question for the hon. Gentleman: will he really turn down better terms for junior doctors, in both term and number, than those for Agenda for Change unions? If so, that is a very sad thing for the Labour party.

Does the Minister agree that the most important people in this are the patients? They should be at the forefront of our mind, and it is for their sake that this wholly unnecessary escalation of action must come to an end.

I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend, which is why it would be helpful to have an unequivocal condemnation of the strike from the Labour party, which would send a message from this House that the withdrawal of emergency care is wrong.

A junior doctor at St Helier hospital states that

“this contract is unfair, unsafe, uncosted, unevidenced, ineffective, unassessed for impact and risk, and unnecessary.”

With doctors depressed and demoralised, and with the revelation in David Laws’s book that the NHS required £15 billion to £16 billion, does the Minister agree that the failure to resolve this dispute is putting a huge amount of unnecessary pressure on the NHS, and that the Government and the BMA must settle?

This is what the Liberal Democrats have come to: quoting the books of their own losing candidates—a very odd situation. I think it sad for the right hon. Gentleman to come to this House not having read Sir David Dalton’s letter, which refutes every single one of the points he quoted at the beginning of his question. The fact is that the contract will be fairer and safer—better for patients and better for doctors.

Does my hon. Friend share the frustrations of a former Health Minister, namely Nye Bevan? The BMA battled against him when he was trying to set up the NHS, leading him to state in this place that it was not his fault he could not agree with the BMA as the Government had never appointed a Minister who could agree with the BMA.

Reading Bevan’s remarks from 1948, as from 1946, are a revelation. There is so much truth in them. The fact is that there are parts of the BMA that want to come to a good and constructive deal with the Government. The general practitioners have just done so. It is just very sad that this once-respected trade union is being dragged to this position by the junior doctors committee. It is doing great damage to the reputation of the BMA, and, in allying themselves to that part of the BMA, great damage to the reputation of the Labour party.

If the Minister really wants to avert the strike, I suggest he writes to the BMA today with a list of the sticking points and dates on which to meet.

Sir David Dalton wrote to the BMA with precisely that list. The BMA refused to reply to him. He made the judgment that there was no point in continuing negotiations because it was refusing to discuss, in any event, the remaining matters. The Government have to move ahead. We have been on this for three and a half years and it is better that we move ahead.

It was with great sadness that I learned of the BMA’s decision, which is not in the interests of patients and not in the interests of its members. I urge it to withdraw the threat of action. At the same time, will the Minister consider pausing the imposition of the contract, so there can be meaningful discussions? Those discussions have to take place in the context of a withdrawal of strike action.

I say gently to my hon. Friend that meaningful discussions require both good faith and a will to talk from both sides. That is consistently the case on the Government side, but it has not been consistently the case for the junior doctors committee of the BMA. The fact is that this contract is better for patients, the patients he seeks to represent. It is better for doctors, the same doctors he seeks to represent. Therefore, any further delay would be bad for patients and bad for doctors. That is why we must move ahead with the implementation of this contract.

The Minister’s tone, language and approach today show how and why he has failed in these negotiations. I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Heidi Alexander) could easily teach him how to negotiate and how to avert the strike. Will the Minister please explain how he proposes to have more junior doctors working at the weekends, without having fewer working during the week?

The point of the new contract has, in part, been to try to achieve fairer rostering through the week and weekend. It is in response to the doctors and dentists pay review body, which took evidence from managers and senior clinicians within the service. It is their judgment that we, as Ministers, have to respect. It is not for us to make up new terms; it is to listen to those who have experience. We have been talking for three and a half years. Part of those talks were led by Sir David Dalton, who is one of the most respected people in the NHS. If he could not achieve a conclusion, I doubt very much that I, or any other Minister, would be able to do so.

How many junior doctors are members of the BMA? If the BMA is set on this activity, I encourage my hon. Friend to start talking to those who are not members. Perhaps he could talk to other health workers, too, including pharmacists, and get them involved in trying to deal with this.

My hon. Friend is right to point out that not all junior doctors are members of the BMA. In fact, a significant minority are not, which is why fewer than half have been turning out for industrial action. The number has been decreasing with each successive strike, and I have no doubt that as we move to the withdrawal of emergency cover, most junior doctors will say, “This is not something I went into medicine to do”, and will want to show their support for patients, rather than an increasingly militant junior doctors committee.

I plead with the Minister to respond to the comments from Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of National Voices, which represents 160 health and care charities and which has called on the Government to drop imposition and on both sides to get back around the negotiating table. In his words, if they do not,

“the only people who will suffer are patients.”

I disagree with the gentleman on two points. First, we have been trying to get around the negotiating table for over three and a half years, but it requires both sides to negotiate, and I am afraid the BMA has refused to do so. When only one party is at the table, negotiations cannot continue. Secondly, it is not just bad for patients; it is also bad for doctors in terms of their careers and what they want, which is to provide the best possible care for patients. That is why I urge all doctors not to withdraw emergency cover at the end of next month.

Does the Minister agree that whatever the dispute, the threat to withdraw emergency cover is one that nobody should condone, and will he join me in urging the BMA to withdraw the threat immediately?

I will join my hon. Friend. I only hope those on the Opposition Front Bench will also join him.

The Minister has described those seeking to protect our national health service and their own work-life balance as being radicalised. Will he apologise for this insult to junior doctors and the English language and urgently seek a more consensual and inclusive resolution?

If the hon. Lady had been at the debate, she would know that I did not say that. It is important to understand that there is a wide gap between junior doctors and a few of the people who seek to represent them on the junior doctors committee, who have taken an increasingly militant view and whose motives, I would suggest, are not entirely in the interests of their members.

(North West Leicestershire) (Con): Given the BMA’s completely irresponsible announcement yesterday that it was willing to walk out on even emergency patients, which seemingly shows that the doctors union is willing to put patients’ lives at risk, will my hon. Friend look at how the law on emergency medicine could be brought into line with that for the Army and other such services to prevent emergency doctors from taking such irresponsible and appalling action in the future?

The new trade union legislation does not apply to doctors in the way my hon. Friend suggests, but I appeal to them and their consciences not to withdraw emergency cover and put patients at an increased risk of harm.

In Northern Ireland, we have become experts in compromise and reaching agreement. We have had to come to terms with difficult issues and compromise on many things. The Northern Ireland Assembly Health Minister is in talks with the BMA and junior doctors to find a tailored solution for Northern Ireland that is affordable and has patient safety at its heart. Does the Minister not agree that it is time to get round the table, meet the BMA and junior doctors and realise that compromise between all parties can and often does reach a fair solution for all?

The contract is a compromise. We have compromised in a series of areas to try and reach a settlement, and 90% of it has been agreed with the BMA, but in the absence of talks—one party refuses to discuss the remaining items on a point of principle—we have to move ahead with implementation. That train has now left the station, and we will be bringing in the new contract later this year.

Seven-day working was a clear manifesto commitment, and the BMA’s position is highly regrettable, but to implement it we will clearly need more junior doctors to backfill rosters, rotas and all that goes with it. For the avoidance of doubt, will the Minister confirm to the House that he has enough junior doctors to do that?

We are increasing the number of junior doctors and the number of other doctors, consultants and nurses over the next five year years in order to meet the increasing challenges facing our national health service.

The Minister said that he had reached agreement on 90% of matters, including some that were not on the table, and he is to be warmly congratulated on that. Perhaps he has a future at ACAS. What my constituents would like, however, is for him to go back to negotiate the other 10%. Is it not the case that the junior doctors want a resolution and have said that they will negotiate? The Minister should square the circle: he says they will not negotiate; they say they will. Will he give it one more chance?

The credit that the hon. Gentleman has kindly given me is due to Sir David Dalton, who achieved the 90% agreement on the contract. As for the remaining 10%, his judgment was that the junior doctors committee would refuse to negotiate. At that point, the Government had to make a decision about whether to proceed or to cave in. We decided to proceed, which is why we will implement the contract later this year.

I worked for the NHS for 33 years, so I know that NHS staff do not take strike action lightly. The Government’s failure to negotiate has fuelled this crisis in our NHS. The BMA said in its statement yesterday that it wanted to end the dispute through talks. I implore the Minister to get back round that table for the sake of patients and every citizen of this country.

Back in November, the BMA said that it wished to discuss Saturday pay rates, and then went back on that promise—one that it had made at ACAS. That is something that, in my experience, normal trade unions do not do. In my experience, they hold to their word when they have made a promise at ACAS. Given that repeated breach of good faith, it is hard to understand how a return to talks would achieve what the hon. Lady thinks it would. That is why it is so important to move ahead with the vast majority that has been agreed, and introduce this contract, which is better for patients and better for doctors.

What an absolutely shambles of the Government’s own making! Will the Minister accept that in view of the language he is using today and the tone that the Government have struck—not just today, but throughout this week and before that—they have given the impression to junior doctors and the country that what they really seek is a fight and a confrontation rather than the resolution that the public deserve?

The hon. Gentleman is the last person to speak from the Opposition Benches. I note that he of all people—this saddens me—also fails to condemn this withdrawal of emergency cover. I am afraid that in the absence of that condemnation, the House will only draw the conclusion that the Labour party supports the withdrawal of emergency action in this strike.

That will come after business questions, and I feel sure that the hon. Lady will be in her place, perched and ready to pounce with her point of order at the appropriate moment. We will await that prospect, I am sure, with eager anticipation.

Business of the House

The business is as follows.

Monday 11 April—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

Tuesday 12 April—Debate on a motion on reform of support arrangements for people with contaminated blood. The subject of this debate was determined by the Backbench Business Committee. The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration.

Wednesday 13 April—Opposition day (unallotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 14 April—Debate on a motion on national security checking of the Iraq inquiry report, followed by debate on a motion on diversity in the BBC. The subjects of these debates were determined by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 15 April—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the week commencing 18 April will include: