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House of Commons Hansard
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Energy and Climate Change
12 May 2016
Volume 609

The Secretary of State was asked—

New Energy Technologies

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1. What steps she is taking to encourage innovation in new energy technologies which are both cheap and clean. [904987]

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Encouraging and supporting innovation is central to everything we do. The United Kingdom has a proud record of leadership in energy innovation, through, for instance, our success in driving down the costs of offshore wind technology. The Government took steps to build on that in last year’s spending review, more than doubling our energy innovation budget over the next five years to a total of £500 million. With that budget, we can continue to support the development of clean, cheap and reliable technologies.

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I recently visited two farmers in my constituency. J.C. Channing and Sons is generating electricity through anaerobic digestion, while Dale Aston of Brinklow Biogas is using the same process to generate and supply biogas via a connection to the national grid. Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating those entrepreneurs, who are demonstrating considerable innovation in the use of new technologies, and will she tell us a little more about how the Government are supporting the sector?

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My hon. Friend is, of course, right. One of the biggest challenges that we face is how to decarbonise our heat and electricity supplies over the coming decade. Anaerobic digestion has played an important role in meeting the challenge to date, providing low-carbon heat and electricity for consumers in the United Kingdom. I congratulate employers such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency who, by using food and farm waste, are helping to deliver the kind of renewable energy that we need.

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May I ask the Minister to get out a bit more? I walk around my constituency talking to environmentalists and to the big companies that invest in new technology, and they say that the stops and starts and changes in Government policy, especially in the Treasury, have deeply harmed innovation and research in this area.

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I am sorry to hear that from the hon. Gentleman, but the facts speak for themselves. Investment in renewable technology and energy is at a record high in the UK, and the Government are always careful to consult before making changes so that we take industry with us and deliver the stability that it needs.

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Far and away the most dominant form of low-carbon electricity in Europe is nuclear power. In the context of nuclear innovation, will the Secretary of State update us on the small modular reactor competition?

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My hon. Friend is, of course, absolutely right. Nuclear power is an important part of the energy mix that we continue to need, and the Government support advances that will enable us to replace our ageing nuclear fleet over the coming decades. Since we launched the SMR competition we have received 38 expressions of interest, and we will be working closely with those companies to ensure that the competition proceeds in the way that is most likely to generate investment.

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Late last month the United States Senate passed an energy Bill, in a rare occurrence of bipartisan co-operation. The Bill could unleash billions of dollars for research and development in new energy technologies, including energy storage, hydrokinetic and marine R and D, and advance the electricity grid in the US. Can we expect the United Kingdom Government to act in a similar manner, investing in the future and addressing the myriad problems that affect our energy infrastructure?

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The hon. Lady will know that the Climate Change Act 2008, which underpins the drive towards renewable energy in this country, was passed on a cross-party basis, and our work in developing a low-carbon future remains absolutely cross-partisan. This Conservative Government are committed to ensuring that we invest and plan for the long term, so that we can develop that renewable energy, while always ensuring that we do so at the least possible cost and put energy security first.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that supporting the innovative electric vehicles industry is an excellent way of protecting the environment while also backing UK businesses? If so, will the Government do all they can to support that new technology for the benefit of the environment and business?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The future for transport is indeed electric, and the Department for Transport has clear plans to develop and support the electric vehicles industry. I am proud to say that one in four of the electric cars that are currently being driven around Europe was made in the UK, and I hope that the UK will continue to be a leader in this developing industry.

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Will the Secretary of State update us on the strike price for tidal energy, and on the negotiations surrounding it?

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The hon. Gentleman may be aware that we have recently launched a consultation on tidal energy, headed by Charles Hendry. In regard to tidal stream, which he might also be asking about, we have yet to decide how the pot 2 allocation will be taken forward.

Smart Meters

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2. What steps her Department is taking to ensure that consumers’ data on smart meters are accessible to and controllable by those consumers; and how she plans to monitor the effectiveness of those steps. [904988]

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I welcome the hon. Member’s support for smart meters, and I am sure she will agree that their roll-out is a vital step towards putting consumers firmly in control of their energy use. Consumers will need to have ready access to the data from their smart meters if we are to achieve that goal. That is why all households will be offered an in-home display that will allow them to see the energy they are using in near real time, as well as its cost. We are also allowing suppliers to trial innovative technologies alongside that.

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Smart meters can transform domestic energy consumption and help to save the planet, but only if consumers are given secure control and ownership of their own data. The display options that the Secretary of State refers to will still allow smart meters to be a back door into our homes for hackers, so will she overcome her ridiculous complacency and announce measures to give consumers the digital rights that they deserve before it is too late?

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The hon. Lady should know that privacy is absolutely protected and at the heart of the smart meter programme. She should be careful not to put fear into the hearts of people where none should exist. The data are protected, and they belong not to the Government—which some people might, not unreasonably, fear—but to the energy companies. We will always reassure consumers that privacy is at the core of delivering safe meters.

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The Competition and Markets Authority has recommended a temporary safeguard for vulnerable users who have pre-payment meters, which could result in savings of up to £300 million a year for those consumers. Will the Secretary of State commit to implementing that measure as soon as possible to protect those vulnerable users?

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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The preliminary report from the Competition and Markets Authority addresses head-on the difficulties and higher costs often faced by people on pre-payment meters, and, yes, we will be implementing its recommendations. We look forward to seeing its final recommendations over the next few months.

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According to the Government’s own calculations, they reckon that with smart meters installed. we as a nation could save some £17 billion on our collective energy bills over the next 15 years. Does the Secretary of State recognise that if consumers had access to their detailed data usage, it would put them in a good position to share those data with third parties, should they want to, and that that could improve competition, which the Government would obviously be glad to see?

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Yes, the Government are glad that the Competition and Markets Authority has said that it will make available in a controlled way the details of people who have not switched. We will have to ensure that that is done in a way that does not result in consumers feeling overwhelmed by suggestions. The Competition and Markets Authority has yet to come up with its final solution on this point, but I am confident that it will do so in a measured way and that this will help to ensure that people who have not switched will have access to switching and to the opportunities that it provides.

Offshore Wind: Scotland

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3. What steps she is taking to support the development of offshore wind energy generation in Scotland. [904990]

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The Government have announced up to £730 million of contracts for difference support for offshore wind and other renewables. The first auction later this year will offer £290 million, and I expect Scottish projects to bid. This is a huge opportunity for the UK supply chain, and I am doing everything I can to persuade developers to buy British.

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The Government have cancelled the contract for difference for the Neart na Goithe wind farm off the east coast of Scotland. Without that wind farm, there will be no such projects at all in Scottish waters. Will the Minister tell us why the contract has been cancelled? Will the Government commit to redeploying the funds to another Scottish project?

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It is not the Government who decide whether a delivery milestone is met; it is the Low Carbon Contracts Company that manages those contracts for difference. That cancellation was the result of the milestone delivery date not being met, and there are ongoing discussions about that. I recognise that the termination of a CFD is disappointing for all partners, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that there is quite a big project pipeline for Scottish offshore wind and I expect to see other projects coming forward at the next auction.

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rose—

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Order. I am happy to hear the mellifluous tones of the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), but his inquiry must relate to Scotland rather than to Cleethorpes.

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There is a direct link, Mr Speaker. Clearly, developments in the industry in Scotland will have an impact on the success or otherwise of the development of the energy estuary, which is the Government’s ambition for the Humber. Will the Minister give us an update on how developments in Scotland might impact on the Humber?

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Very neat!

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I commend my hon. Friend for both his tenacity and his command of the English language. Whether from Scottish projects or from projects in the Humber region, this project pipeline will benefit the UK supply pipeline enormously. That is what we really want. He will be aware of the ongoing east coast review, and I am talking with individual developers to try to ensure that we buy British wherever possible and use UK fabricators, and that the UK has the opportunity to get more of this valuable business, which has been a real success story for the UK.

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Scotland’s undoubted potential in offshore wind, and in renewables more generally, is being squandered by remote control from here in Westminster. When will the Department stop treating Scotland like an absentee landlord?

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I am unsure whether saying, “What rubbish,” is unparliamentary, but, frankly, that was absolute rubbish. There is no sense in which the UK Government treat Scotland as if we were an absentee landlord. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that 60% of the renewables obligation has gone to projects in Scotland, which has about 8% of the population. How on earth can he think that Scotland is somehow losing out? That is absolute nonsense.

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If we are not being run by remote control, will the Minister tell us how many times the Secretary of State has been to Scotland since the last election?

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I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I have been to Scotland a number of times.

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Answer the question.

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I do not know the answer, but I can write to the hon. Gentleman. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is absolutely committed, as am I, to the success of not only wind and the renewables sector in Scotland, but, importantly, the oil and gas sector. The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the hours that she and I have spent in this Chamber desperately trying to get the Oil and Gas Authority sorted out through the Energy Bill, which he and his colleagues have tried to delay and scupper at every turn.

Electricity Pylons: Sensitive Environments

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4. What steps her Department plans to take to (a) require the undergrounding of power cables and (b) mitigate in other ways the effect of electricity pylons on sensitive environments. [904991]

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It is quite right that network companies give proper consideration to the protection of communities and sensitive areas, and my hon. Friend is right to speak up for his local residents. I hope I can reassure him and his constituents that legislation already puts such a requirement on network companies. Local communities will always be properly consulted on how new transmission networks might affect their local environment.

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I am grateful for that reply. The Minister will be aware that many miles of new electricity cabling will be required across the country for new energy projects, including in my area of north Wales. When there is controversy, does she agree that the cost of delays to such infrastructure projects could far outweigh the cost of undergrounding sections of cabling in sensitive areas to help overcome such controversy? Does she also agree that planning guidance may need firming up to enable clarity around the requirement?

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I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that getting on with projects and avoiding delays is important, and I am sure he will appreciate that there is a balance to be struck. A recent independent study showed that the undergrounding of transmission lines can cost up to £24 million per kilometre compared with up to £4.4 million per kilometre for overhead lines, and such costs are ultimately paid through consumer bills. I reassure him that existing planning guidance will ensure that undergrounding is always fully considered.

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I want to ask the Minister about vertical infrastructure more broadly. We have pylons going through Cumbria, and my constituency has an awful lot of wind farms and telephone masts. How do we bring all of that together when we consider new planning?

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I hope I can reassure the hon. Lady that local authority planning processes do always take into account the cumulative impact of yet one more project getting under way. I suppose that this is a question for the Department for Communities and Local Government, but the existing planning arrangements not only allow for proper local consultation and proper consideration of all the alternatives, including undergrounding to take infrastructure right out of sight, but consider what one more project will do and whether things can be brought together. If an area is affected, different projects can be undertaken in the same place, rather than being spread out and ruining the landscape.

Energy Bills

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5. What steps her Department is taking to reduce energy bills for businesses and households. [904992]

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The best way to deliver on energy bills for businesses and households is to have a robust and competitive energy market. In 2010, the big six controlled 99% of the domestic retail market, but this year consumers can choose from more than 30 independent suppliers, who, between them, control more than 15% of the dual fuel market. Competition is improving, but we cannot be complacent, which is why I look forward to the final report of the Competition and Markets Authority and why I will continue to encourage consumers to switch.

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I agree with the Secretary of State on that and thank her for that answer. The best way for consumers to get a good deal on their energy bills is to consider switching. Will she confirm that the Government remain committed to driving down the time it takes for consumers to switch?

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My hon. Friend makes a good point. Consumers are sometimes put off from switching not only by the complications that they perceive, but by the length of time it can take. We are working with Ofgem and are confident that it will reach reliable next-day switching by 2018.

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My hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently visited the award-winning eco-house in my constituency, where heating and lighting bills are kept below £100 a year. What action is the Minister going to take to promote carbon-neutral homes?

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I thank the hon. Lady for her question. She is right to point out that some fantastic innovations are taking place through private sector business investment to make sure that innovations are delivered in this sector that will help to drive down bills. On zero-carbon homes, I can reassure her that a European Union directive, due to come in by 2020, calls for near-zero carbon emissions, which I believe will help to reduce people’s bills.

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important to give more power to price comparison websites to help consumers find the best deal possible? That was one suggestion put forward by the CMA.

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I agree with my hon. Friend that we have to have as many choices as possible for people, and the CMA has made some proposals, but we also have to be careful to ensure that this is addressed fairly, that the cheapest tariff is available and that there is full disclosure. I tend to encourage people to go to the Ofgem website beanenergyshopper.com.

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The Secretary of State is fond of telling us how keen she is to cut energy bills, but last Friday, when attention was diverted elsewhere, her Department revealed that families in this country will be asked to pay up to an extra £38 on their energy bills to fund her failure to get new power stations built. Can she confirm to this House that not only is she asking families to pay more to fund her policy of closing coal- fired power stations, but, at exactly the same time, she is going to ask them to pay more to keep them open?

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The hon. Lady is referring to the changes to the capacity market, and I am concerned that she has not grasped the facts of the situation, which are that wholesale prices have fallen, with the consequence being that coal prices, and indeed some gas prices, become uneconomic. Because the Government will take no risks with energy security and because we are absolutely clear that it must be the No. 1 priority, we have brought forward a new capacity market that will stop there being the sort of price hikes which are most unwelcome. My Department estimates that this will actually save consumers up to £46 on their bills.

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The absurdity of the situation appears to be completely lost on the Secretary of State, but as she has been on this panic spending spree recently perhaps I could ask her another question. She recently announced generous subsidies to EDF, the big energy company that operates Britain’s nuclear fleet. She has agreed to hand over £153 million in 2018 and a further £139 million the following year to subsidise nuclear power stations that would have been open in any case. Is she aware of the recent news that the cost of Hinkley Point C is set to rise to £21 billion, which is £3 billion more than was forecast? What is her estimate of the cost to bill payers and taxpayers in the UK of this new revised figure?

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I am concerned that the hon. Lady did not hear my answer to her earlier question. The fact is that energy security has to be the priority of government. In bringing forward changes to the capacity market, we have made sure that, with low wholesale prices, we have sufficient energy during the next two years. She just reveals her total lack of understanding of getting the right balance on secure electricity—nuclear and, yes, in the short term, coal—which supports our renewable investment, keeps bills low and ensures that customers always have a good supply of electricity.

Energy Tariffs

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6. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that energy consumers are on the best value energy tariff. [904993]

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The most effective way for consumers to ensure that they are on the best value tariff is by engaging with the energy market and switching supplier. I encourage all Members to urge their constituents to engage with the market and make use of the readily available Ofgem-approved price comparison websites. Meanwhile, we will continue to make it easier for consumers to switch, and we are working with Ofgem and the industry to move to reliable next-day switching by 2018.

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High Peak is probably one of the coldest constituencies in England in the winter, so our household energy costs are probably disproportionately high compared with those in many other areas of the country. Has the Secretary of State made any assessment already of the trends of people changing suppliers and whether they are actually changing suppliers to keep those costs down?

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I can reassure my hon. Friend that switching was at a four-year high in 2015, with 6.1 million electricity and gas switches across Great Britain—roughly a 15% increase on 2014. I am aware that some people are unable or unwilling to switch, which is why we have the big energy saving network programme. This year, that programme gave £10,000 of funding to two champions in High Peak who reached more than 350 customers directly, and trained 111 front-line staff. Over the year, more than 1,900 vulnerable customers were supported. It is important to reach all consumers.

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Only last week, the hon. Member for Lichfield (Michael Fabricant) owned up to having brought a hedgehog into the Chamber some years ago—I am pleased to say that it was not during my tenure of the Chair. With all the reference to price comparison websites, I am glad that no one has thought it necessary to bring a meerkat into the Chamber.

Pre-pay Meters

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7. What her Department’s policy is on the implementation of the Competition and Markets Authority proposals for consumers on pre-pay meters. [904994]

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The Government agree with the Competition and Markets Authority that consumers on pre-pay meters are getting a poor deal. Supporting such consumers was at the heart of our decision to support the CMA investigation in the first place. The hon. Lady may have seen the estimate by Citizens Advice that 23% of households in her constituency have pre-payment meters, which is above the national average of 16%. That is why it is so important that we take on board the recommendations of the CMA following the publication of its final report.

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In Wales, a staggering one fifth of households are on pre-payment meters, paying up to £330 a year more for gas and electricity than those on the cheapest tariff. It is particularly important for Wales, and for those 7,200 households in my constituency, that we know which recommendations the Government will be working on with the CMA and Ofgem and when constituents will start to see the benefit. Can the Minister be specific?

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We do not yet have the specific recommendations, but the hon. Lady will, like me, be aware that what we have had proposed so far in the draft recommendations is a safeguard tariff for those people on pre-payment meters. It is not clear yet whether that will be temporary or long term, but we will look carefully at the recommendations of the CMA to get the best outcome for the most vulnerable customers, which, I know, she desires as well.

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May I just push the Secretary of State once more on that, as the 4 million households who are still languishing on rip-off pre-payment meters would really like more detail from her? Given that the Government’s energy efficiency policies and fuel poverty strategy are in tatters, people would like more details on the timetable and when this will happen.

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It is typical of the Opposition party that it is unable to understand the concept of the CMA, which is preparing this report. It is up to the CMA to come forward with the final recommendations, and it is its recommendations that we will be following. I must take issue too with the hon. Gentleman’s reference to “tatters”. This Government are absolutely committed to helping the most vulnerable. We are proud of the work that we are doing to reform our various schemes so that we can support the most vulnerable, and that is something that we will continue to do to ensure that we always support the people most in need.

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May I press the Secretary of State a little further? My constituency of Heywood and Middleton is, sadly, in the top 50 for numbers of households with pre-payment meters, and my constituents are being ripped off. What can the Secretary of State tell me that I can tell my constituents about how long they will continue to be ripped off by pre-payment meters?

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I am sure that the hon. Lady has looked at the CMA’s report. It has a proposal for a safeguard tariff, and we welcome that. It is one of the key reasons why we were keen to propose this review by the CMA. We are expecting it to come forward with the final report soon. When it does so, we will act on the recommendations and hope that it will deliver what we and she hope it will, which is support for people on pre-payment meters, who are often the most vulnerable.

State Aid Clearance: Scottish Islands

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9. When the application for state aid clearance for the remote Scottish islands will be submitted to the European Commission. [904997]

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We have had extensive correspondence with the Commission during the pre-notification process. The Government will publish as soon as we can the decisions about the contract for difference allocation round for all less-established technologies in pot 2, including strike prices. We will take all the steps needed to deliver the allocation, including submitting any necessary notifications to the European Commission.

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I am grateful to the Minister for that answer, but she will know that the application for state aid clearance for the island strike price has been ready and sitting in the Department since the new year. The continuing failure to submit it is causing enormous uncertainty and a massive loss of confidence among renewable energy generators in the Northern and Western Isles. Will she agree to meet me and the hon. Member for Na h-Eileanan an Iar (Mr MacNeil), along with a delegation of local renewable energy developers, to discuss this so that she can hear from the horse’s mouth and understand just how serious it is for our industry and our islands?

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The right hon. Gentleman and the Chair of the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change met my officials only recently to discuss these issues. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that my officials have also met several representatives of the renewables industry specifically to discuss remote island wind. I will certainly be happy to meet the remote islands forum again to discuss our decisions once we have taken them.

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Does the Minister not agree that the very fact that we have to go begging to the European Union before we can help our fellow citizens in this country amply demonstrates why we would be better off, and why those citizens would certainly be better off, if we left the European Union, took charge and were able to decide for ourselves how we spent taxpayers’ money in this country?

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What I can say as an Energy Minister is that the Government’s position is that the UK should stay in a reformed European Union.

Coal-fired Power Stations

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10. When her Department plans to start its consultation on the phasing out of coal-fired power stations. [904998]

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We are among the first developed countries to consult on phasing out coal. It is vital for our decarbonisation that we move away from the dirtiest fossil fuels, so holding a consultation is extremely important to make sure that we get views on how best to achieve our goal while ensuring energy security, which, as the hon. Lady will know, is non-negotiable. The consultation will begin in the near future.

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I am grateful to the Minister for her response. There are still many people in the UK, in Wales and, indeed, in my constituency of Neath, who work in or are connected with the coal industry. What assurances will the Minister provide that the consultation will be properly thought through and will take time to explore the issues thoroughly so as not to leave people unduly concerned for their livelihoods?

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The hon. Lady is exactly right to speak out for her community, which is precisely why we are undertaking the consultation. We want to take all the factors into account. I am sure that she and Opposition Members will agree that it is right that we move away from the dirtiest fossil fuels over time, but in a measured way, taking into account the impact on local communities and their livelihoods and what other opportunities there are for them in the energy space and in the workplace. I can totally assure her that we will consult carefully.

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rose—

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We would reach the question tabled by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling) anyway, but if she feels an irresistible urge to ask a question now instead, she can do so.

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12. If Rugeley B, a coal-fired power station in my constituency, shuts this summer, will my hon. Friend commit to working across Departments to ensure that any application for a new gas power station can be dealt with in a timely manner that will help to create future job opportunities for the highly skilled workforce at the plant? [905000]

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I congratulate my hon. Friend again on all the work she has done on that. I know it is an incredibly important constituency issue for her. I met her and a number of colleagues only recently to talk about the possibility of coal-fired power stations due to close becoming new combined cycle gas turbines. I welcome and encourage her efforts to support such an outcome. I have already told her that I will happily write to the Department for Communities and Local Government to ask what more, if anything, can be done to make it easier for planning permission to be granted for a new CCGT on the site of an old coal-fired power plant, and I will do that. She will be aware that DCLG is separately holding a consultation for those who are interested in making that transition, so that they can better understand the processes they would need to go through.

Renewable Heat Incentive

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11. What steps she has taken to ensure that the renewable heat incentive is cost effective. [904999]

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The renewable heat incentive is the world’s first long-term financial support programme for renewable heat, and is central to our efforts to deliver renewable energy to consumers and businesses across the UK. In March this year, my Department launched a consultation on measures for the RHI. As is the case for everything my Department is doing, a central aim of this reform is to ensure that the scheme offers value for money and allows us to make the transition to cleaner heating technologies in a manner that is affordable for the UK.

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I fully recognise the importance of supporting the biomass industry, but what assurances can the Minister give me and small businesses, medium-sized biomass firms and their local suppliers in my constituency?

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I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government are providing support for small and medium-sized biomass companies through a range of incentives, including the renewables obligation, the feed-in tariff and the renewable heat incentive. We expect biomass to play an important role in industrial processes and district heating, where there are fewer alternatives for low-carbon technologies, and we want to ensure that we bring forward deployment in these areas.

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The consultation that the Secretary of State mentioned reveals an intention by the Government to provide 55TW hours of renewable heat by 2020. That is 9% of UK heating, but it is 3% less than the original 2020 renewable heat target. How does she intend to hit that target, given that there is now a shortfall in heat and in transport?

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It is more about the number of houses or businesses that we support for the renewable heat incentive and not always about the pure cost. It is not necessarily about the league table of costs, but rather about the outcomes that we get. We are consulting on the renewable heat incentive to ensure that we deliver the best value for the taxpayer. I am committed to making sure that we use the money in the most cost-effective way.

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The Secretary of State did not address the question of the relationship of the renewable heat incentive proposals and finances to the UK’s contribution to the EU renewables target of 12% by 2020. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stalybridge and Hyde (Jonathan Reynolds) mentioned a moment ago, we are still short of that target. Is the Secretary of State confident that the measures and finances that she has suggested in the new RHI proposals will enable us to reach that target, or is she actively considering other measures to make sure that we do?

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The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the renewables target for 2020 covers building, heat, transport and electricity. The renewable heat incentive is a key part of that. That is why we have had the consultation. We will now examine those responses in order to ensure that we direct the funds that we have in the most effective way. We recognise that although we have made good progress towards the renewables target for 2020, there is more work to do. We believe that we have sufficient policies to address the need, but we are going to look at what else can be done, particularly in respect of buildings and transport, to make more progress from the halfway mark that we have reached so far.

Solar Photovoltaic Systems

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13. What assessment she has made of trends in the level of take-up of domestic solar photovoltaic systems since the relaunch of the feed-in tariff in February 2016. [905002]

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In the first quarter of our new, more sustainable cost control regime under FITs, six out of 11 deployment caps were reached, including the two largest of the four solar caps. Take-up of domestic solar photovoltaic systems is strong but still within the cap. We estimate that FITs will support over 178,000 new solar PV installations at domestic scale by 2018-19.

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Domestic solar installers in my constituency report that demand for their services has plummeted over the past year, and domestic solar installations across the country are down 80% on this time last year. Will the Minister now acknowledge that the new tariff is too low and that the disastrous approach that this Government are taking to solar energy is effectively stopping individuals who want to make a contribution to combating climate change in their own homes by installing solar panels from doing so?

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No, I do not recognise what the hon. Lady says. Solar deployment in this country has been amazing, and far in excess of all our expectations. Some 99% of solar installations have taken place since 2010—under this Government and the previous Government, not under the Labour Government. It has been a huge success story. As I have said, our subsidy regime takes into account the interest for the consumer who has to pay it and the developer who is continuing to build. Some of the caps have already been met and others are performing strongly.

Solar Thermal Support

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14. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of the proposed removal of support for solar thermal on the UK solar thermal and cylinder manufacturing industry. [905004]

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We launched a consultation in March with proposals for reform of the renewable heat incentive. As the right hon. Gentleman will be aware, the consultation, which closed on 27 April, included a proposal to withdraw RHI support for solar thermal technologies. We are looking carefully at all the responses. I can assure him that in coming to our conclusions we will consider all relevant factors, including the impact on the UK supply chain.

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Does the Minister accept that solar thermal has the lowest CO2 footprint of all heating generation technologies, has no significant ongoing fuel commitments, has relatively low space requirements and is ideal for homes for vulnerable people because there is no requirement for homes to be heavily insulated? Why are the Government proposing to cut support for solar thermal?

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I absolutely agree that it certainly plays a part, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that, as part of the reform of the RHI, we are trying to ensure that the budget offers the best value for money. Solar thermal requires the highest subsidy from the Government of all RHI technologies, and the evidence suggests that nearly 50% of RHI respondents said they would have installed it anyway, even without Government subsidy. We always need to look at the balance between keeping the costs down for the bill payer and supporting these technologies.

Green Research and Development

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15. What steps her Department is taking to encourage growth in the green research and development sector. [905005]

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With permission, Mr Speaker, I will take Questions 15 and 19 together.

The Government are taking steps to build on our proud history of energy innovation and are more than doubling our energy innovation budget over the next five years to a total of £500 million. With this budget we can continue to support the development of clean, cheap and reliable technologies and the growth of the green research and development sector across the UK.

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We would take this question with Question 19 if the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Glyn Davies) were here, but he is not, so we will not. I do not know what has happened to the chappie, but I hope he is all right.

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I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. With the new Rampion offshore wind farm being based in the Newhaven enterprise zone in my constituency, and with the recent opening of the university technical college in Newhaven, does the Secretary of State agree that Newhaven town has the potential to be a hub for green research and development, and could she outline how the Government can support that?

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I welcome the activity already under way in my hon. Friend’s constituency and will of course be considering opportunities to support research, development and demonstration across the UK as we develop our energy innovation programme. I encourage her to speak directly with low-carbon energy funding bodies, which stand ready to support innovation in the technologies that we will need in the future. I really welcome the development of the UTC, which is partnered with, among other companies, E.ON UK and EDF Energy. It has a specific focus on green engineering, so I think that there is a great opportunity there for Newhaven.

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The Government’s emissions reduction plan has been promised by the end of this year, and the Secretary of State has said that it will address the current 10% shortfall for the fourth carbon budget, which was set back in June 2011. Section 14 of the Climate Change Act 2008 stipulates that the Government must lay before Parliament a report setting out how they will meet each carbon budget

“as soon as is reasonably practicable”

after setting it. Five years later, does the Secretary of State consider that she is now in breach of the Act, or does she have an unusually elastic definition of the phrase “as soon as is reasonably practicable”?

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It is always a pleasure to receive such detailed questions from the hon. Gentleman. I can reassure him that I am fully aware of section 14 and the sections either side of it. I am clear that we will have an emissions reduction plan by the end of the year, as we have said, and that we have an obligation to come forward with our response to the fifth carbon budget. It is because we take these matters so seriously, and because this is a big, realistic and important challenge for the UK, that we are not rushing it.

Biomass Heating Industry: Renewable Heat Incentive

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16. What assessment she has made of the potential effect of changes proposed in the renewable heat incentive consultation on the biomass heating industry. [905008]

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My Department is currently considering responses to our recent consultation on reform of the renewable heat incentive. As part of this consultation, we have engaged extensively with the relevant trade bodies and industry stakeholders to understand the impact of the proposed reforms, including, specifically, the impact on the biomass industry.

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Currently, the biomass industry directly supports the jobs of 11,500 people, as well as 590 companies, across the UK. With that in mind, will the Minister explain the UK Government’s apparent lack of ambition with respect to the installation of biomass boilers, which will lead to job losses in this sector?

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I am aware of the importance of the biomass industry to the hon. Gentleman, his constituency and, indeed, Scotland overall. That is why we are consulting on the issue to make sure that we are fair with the money we have and that we deliver best value for taxpayers. Small biomass has an important role to play. The RHI budget is in fact trebling by 2020-21. We remain committed to developing the RHI and biomass, and we will come back with responses in due course.

Oil and Gas: North Sea

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17. What steps she is taking to increase exploration for oil and gas in the North sea. [905009]

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This year the Government have pulled out all the stops to support the oil and gas sector. This includes a fiscal package worth £1.3 billion over five years, £20 million for new seismic surveys and, of course, our core policy of establishing the Oil and Gas Authority, whose job is to maximise economic recovery from the North sea. This is a vital UK industry, and we are totally committed to keeping the UK continental shelf as an attractive destination for investment, securing hundreds of thousands of jobs.

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I thank the Minister for her answer, and I do appreciate the work that is being done. However, while the SNP welcomes the support announced in the Budget and what has been done, those who have lost their jobs in the north-east would not necessarily agree with her characterisation. It is essential that we listen to those in the industry who are calling for a strategic review of the fiscal and regulatory regime. What steps are being taken to review the tax rates and the investment allowance?

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As I said, the Treasury has already taken enormous steps through fiscal policy towards the North sea to promote further oil and gas exploration. It is constantly looking at that; in fact, I am having a dinner next week to talk again to the maximising economic recovery group of operators and investors, the Oil and Gas Authority and so on to look at what more we can do, and the Treasury plays its full part in that.

However, we have to be clear that the Oil and Gas Authority is already transforming things such as production costs and the level of co-operation between different operators in the North sea. This is an incredibly important area. We have an inter-ministerial group, which I think is meeting again next week to discuss what more can be done. We are pulling out all the stops for the North sea.

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Although I sympathise with the constituents of the hon. Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) who have lost their jobs in the North sea, would not the best thing for them be for us to create new jobs by allowing fracking in Scotland for those very people, with those skills, who have been denied the prospect of such jobs by the hypocrisy of the SNP Government in Scotland?

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I absolutely agree. Obviously, it is a matter for the Scottish Government to decide, but one of the policy options I am looking at in my Department, together with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, is what more we can do in the energy space for those who have lost their jobs. For example, an experienced offshore engineer may well be able to retrain to work with offshore wind or even nuclear. There are therefore other opportunities in the energy space, and I know the Scottish Government are looking at that. I would certainly be delighted if they wanted to think again about the importance of shale gas.

Topical Questions

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T1. If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities. [904977]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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]

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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.

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

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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]

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.