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Topical Questions

Volume 609: debated on Thursday 12 May 2016

Our Energy Bill receives Royal Assent today. It is a vital part of our plan to ensure that our families and businesses have access to secure, clean and affordable energy. We are delivering on our manifesto commitment to end subsidies for onshore wind. We are also using the opportunity to support the Oil and Gas Authority with powers to drive greater collaboration and productivity in the industry. I thank the Bill Committee and my hon. Friend the Minister for making this possible and going through the Bill in such painstaking detail to deliver it.

Evidence from the Universities of Leicester and York has shown that sick and disabled people are particularly at risk of fuel poverty, especially after the recent social security cuts by this Government and the previous coalition. Will the Secretary of State approach the Chancellor again to look at better targeting of warm home discount funding, especially after her rebuff from him just before the Budget?

The hon. Lady will be aware that this Government, and this Department specifically, are refocusing our support, as far as possible, on to those who are most vulnerable. We have just closed the consultation on the warm home discount and we are looking at the results. She can rest assured that we will, as far as possible, target it at those who are most in need, which is the right thing to do.

T3. I have been contacted by a number of constituents who are concerned about fracking in Dorset. What reassurance can the Minister give to me and to my constituents about environmental considerations, about issues of public consultation and letting local residents have their say, and, importantly, about fracking being considered only in appropriate locations? (904979)

I can absolutely assure my hon. Friend that the UK has more than 50 years of safely regulating onshore and offshore oil and gas. We have the best regulatory environment in the world. The Environment Agency looks very carefully at any proposals for hydraulic fracturing, the Health and Safety Executive monitors all activity in that area, and of course local authorities will consult widely with their local communities. I am desperate for local communities to be given the proper facts—that is a really important part of the job for us and for local authorities to do.

I think that people across the country will be really concerned by the lack of an answer in the response just given by the Minister. They will also be looking very closely at Ryedale, where North Yorkshire County Council is set imminently to make a decision about whether fracking should be given the green light there. If so, will she extend the same courtesy to that community as she has extended to communities affected by wind farms and promise the people of Ryedale that she will not override their wishes and impose fracking against their will?

With regard to safety is absolutely paramount the industry for hydraulic fracturing. If there was any likelihood, chance or risk of any of the issues in the scare stories that the hon. Lady likes to propagate being real, this Government would not be looking at promoting this vital industry. We provide 40% of our own natural gas; the rest is imported from overseas. It is vital for our energy security that we continue to use home-grown resources wherever we can. It is also a massive jobs and growth opportunity for very many communities where employment is desperately needed, and she should take some interest in that.

The Minister, rather like the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner), cannot be accused of excluding from her observations anything that might be in any way, at any time, to any degree material. She is certainly comprehensive; we are most grateful.

T5. What progress has my right hon. Friend’s Department made in working with the big energy suppliers such as EDF Energy, partly located in my constituency, with regard to the roll-out of smart meters for the benefit of consumers? (904982)

I can assure my hon. Friend that we are working closely with all energy suppliers on those aspects of the roll-out to ensure that the consumer benefits are fully realised. Good progress has been made so far, with over 3 million meters installed, and there is evidence that those consumers are already saving energy. Recent research by British Gas shows that consumers with smart meters have reduced their energy consumption by around 3%, on average, for both gas and electricity.

T2. I hope that this will be a case of third time lucky. I have asked the Housing Minister this question twice, and I have also notified the Secretary of State’s office of the question, so I hope I am going to get a reply. What is the difference in the annual energy bill that a family in a zero-carbon home would have to pay as opposed to a family in a home that has the insulation and energy efficiency standards that the Government propose? (904978)

The right hon. Gentleman’s question starts from an incorrect premise. [Interruption.] I am trying to answer his question; bear with me. I think that he is referring to the zero-carbon proposal that was rejected by the other place last night, although it was agreed that a review would be ongoing. The problem with zero-carbon homes, as conceived in the Bill, was that they would add costs to the house. If we add costs to the house, we add costs, ultimately, to the house owner, the consumer and the bill payer. The problem with the allowable solutions portion was that it would act as a tax on home builders and, ultimately, it would be of no benefit to the homeowner.

T8. The Committee on Climate Change recommended in its 2015 report to Parliament that the Government produce an effective policy framework on aviation carbon dioxide emissions. Part of that plan was that UK emissions in 2050 should not be higher than those in 2005. Will the Department work with the Department for Transport to publish such an important policy before a decision on a new runway is made? (904986)

My hon. Friend has incorporated quite a few questions into that one question. What I can say to her is that the most important element of addressing airport emissions is to have an international agreement. We do not want to have a situation where the UK is trying to do something independently; it is important to have such an agreement EU-wide and internationally. We tried to get the proposal that she mentioned incorporated into the Paris climate change agreement, but it was not, so we are working with international partners through the International Civil Aviation Organisation to try to achieve an international agreement this autumn. I will certainly keep my hon. Friend updated.

T4. I am going to push the Minister of State further on fracking, because a week tomorrow an important decision will be made. In Ryedale, one energy company wants to frack the beautiful landscape just south of the North York Moors national park. More than 4,000 well- informed local people want to protect their local community and environment. Who should have the greatest influence? (904981)

I say again: the shale industry is vital to the UK’s energy security future, and we absolutely support the idea of local consultation and local people having their say, but as in all planning matters—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Wigan (Lisa Nandy) could just stop chuntering for one minute—every time I try to answer a question, she chunters. There is a balance between the absolutely right case that local people should have their say, and the national interest. That is why there is a very clear local consultation process, and that is why the people of Ryedale will have their views taken into account and the local authority will balance up those interests.

What progress has my right hon. Friend made in securing new nuclear power stations and, in particular, modular power stations of a smaller scale?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: new nuclear is an essential part of a secure, reliable energy system. We are supporting new nuclear, but we are also particularly enthusiastic about small modular reactors, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor doubled the funds for our innovation budget and we have launched our competition. We hope that it will bring forward a great array of different proposals so that we can take forward a number of them.

T6. Citizens Advice estimates that 7,300 households in Wakefield are paying over £400 a year more for their gas and electricity than they should be paying because they are stuck on prepayment meters. Last month, the Competition and Markets Authority recommended a price cap to protect my constituents from this indefensible overcharging. This week, we hear that the chief executive of the CMA is to be the Department’s new permanent secretary. Does that mean we can look forward to him implementing his own recommendations in the very near future? (904983)

Forgive me for making no comment about the appointment. I certainly share the hon. Lady’s view that prepayment meters need reform, that we need the safeguard tariff that the CMA has proposed and that it is unacceptable for the most vulnerable customers—usually those on the lowest incomes—to be stuck on higher tariffs. We will support the CMA to ensure that it delivers on that.

Cornwall produces the world’s finest china clay, but the industry faces a significant increase in its costs due to the proposed implementation of the EU emissions trading scheme. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should do all they can to make sure British industry is not put at a competitive disadvantage as a result of energy costs, and will she meet me specifically to discuss what we can do to support the china clay industry?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, who I know is a strong champion for the china clay industry in his constituency. The EU ETS provides an important role in levelling out competitiveness within the EU to make sure that our intensive industries are protected. I will meet him to ensure that his industry receives a fair settlement.

T7. The Minister will be aware of the devastating Super Puma helicopter crash in Norway less than a fortnight ago, which killed 14 people, including Iain Stuart from Laurencekirk. Super Pumas have ditched in the North sea three times since 2009, citing problems such as gear box and oil pump failure. We do not yet know the cause of the crash on 29 April, but 14 families, including Mr Stuart’s, will be desperate know what it was. Will she engage with her counterparts in Norway to ensure that any lessons learned from their investigations can be applied to offshore commercial helicopter flights in the UK? (904985)

We were all completely devastated to hear about that crash. Having been on one of those helicopter trips to an offshore rig, I have seen the amount of effort and the focus there is on health and safety, and that makes it doubly tragic. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the UK Civil Aviation Authority has grounded the helicopter model involved. I assure him that we are working very closely with it and with colleagues in Norway to understand exactly what happened so that we can make sure that it cannot happen in the future.

Does the Minister agree that historic market towns built for the horse and cart, such as Bradford on Avon in my constituency, could not cope, because they do not have the infrastructure, with the extra traffic that fracking will bring?

I absolutely think that is one of the factors any local authority planning committee will take into account. That is precisely the point of having local authority involvement and a community say, because local people of course know best what is suitable for their area. Local planning is one aspect of this, but the whole safety regulatory environment—the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency—is, nevertheless, absolutely vital. I assure my hon. Friend that there will be no compromise either on safety or on the view of the local community.

The Secretary of State will know that we now have scientific evidence that noxious fumes from diesel engines are poisoning our children and poisoning our air. Are those fumes also related to the deterioration in our climate?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns about pollution and air quality. It is because of those concerns that this Government are so committed to delivering on the Climate Change Act 2008. It is absolutely clear that the problem also derives from the support for diesel. Basically, we have all been misled on diesel, and I hope we can look carefully at how to make sure—for example, by ensuring no defeat devices are installed—that that does not happen again. I will work closely with the Department for Transport to make sure we deliver on that.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the continuing speculation about the Hinkley Point C project. Will she reassure me that, in any assessment of it, the Government will bear it in mind that it could create 25,000 jobs in the south-west during the construction period? Those are the skilled jobs that this economy desperately needs.

I thank my hon. Friend for that question and for giving me the opportunity to say how much this Government support the Hinkley Point project. We are delighted to be able to say that we expect it to go ahead and to deliver much-needed clean, secure, affordable energy. This Government are focused on a new nuclear programme, not only with Hinkley Point but with other new nuclear, because we are doing what the Labour party so dismally failed to do for 13 years, namely deliver on investment in infrastructure to the benefit of all consumers.