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Topical Questions

Volume 701: debated on Tuesday 21 September 2021

Yesterday I updated the House on the UK gas market. As I said in my statement, protecting consumers is our primary focus and is shaping our entire approach to the issue; they must come first.

I welcome the new members of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy ministerial team. We had a great team before the reshuffle, but I am pleased that we have a good team with us today.

Over the summer, my Department has been abuzz with activity. We have introduced our innovation strategy and the hydrogen strategy, and outlined the new round for our contracts for difference scheme. It has been an excellent way to start and I look forward to continuing in that vein.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; for a minute, I thought you were going to miss me out!

I welcome the fact that the Secretary of State launched the Government’s hydrogen strategy in my constituency at ITM Power, which is a leading green hydrogen producer. The German strategy is totally committed to green hydrogen alone, and of course the Germans have put substantially more funding in than we have into this country’s strategy. The Government have an aspiration to replace all fossil fuel boilers in this country by the 2030s. That ambition is important for reducing carbon emissions and for the security of our energy supplies. Does the Secretary of State agree that we can deliver on that ambition only with a much more significant commitment from the Government to develop and install green hydrogen boilers across the country?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I make no apology for the fact that we have a twin-track approach in the hydrogen strategy. We have endorsed the production of green hydrogen, as he has described the German Government have done. We have also endorsed the production of blue hydrogen, because in the first instance, as he will understand, blue hydrogen is much cheaper than green hydrogen. In order to kickstart a hydrogen economy, we need a cheap source of decarbonised hydrogen. As such, blue hydrogen represents a transition to an economy that can be driven more by green hydrogen. The twin-track approach that we have outlined is certainly the best one.

T3. I recently held an event for leading Worcestershire businesses on the journey to COP26 and net zero, and was impressed with their plans for investment. Will the Secretary of State reassure the House that now that one in six cars purchased in this country are electric, the grid will be strengthened in rural areas to ensure the widespread adoption of this new technology? (903555)

I know, as a former Treasury Minister, that my hon. Friend is very focused on making the green transition as economically successful as possible. I and others in the Government are very focused on getting a proper electric vehicle charge roll-out, and I would be happy to speak to her to discuss the plans that we have adopted.

Families looking at soaring gas prices will be deeply worried about how they will pay their bills. One of the reasons UK households are particularly vulnerable is the Government’s failure on home insulation. Emissions from buildings are in fact higher today than in 2015. I am afraid to say that the Secretary of State’s record is abysmal, with the fiasco of the green homes grant, cuts to spending, a heat and buildings strategy originally promised for spring 2020 which is still not published, and no proper plan for retrofit. Will he admit that families this winter will be paying the price of the Government’s failure on home insulation?

I will not admit that at all. The right hon. Gentleman got the date wrong—it was to be published in quarter 1 of 2021. I was the Energy Minister who said that.

Yes, it is still late, and I want to publish it as quickly as possible. I can admit that candidly.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the green homes grant. I remind him that of the £3 billion that was sequestered—ringfenced—for the green homes grant, £1.5 billion was disbursed through Salix for public buildings, and that worked very well, while £500 million was disbursed by local authorities, and that was successful. The owner-occupier bit of it was a six-month programme—a short-term fiscal stimulus—that we have closed, and we are going to have a replacement imminently.

It is a complete fiasco. The Secretary of State actually cut the money that was supposed to be allocated to homeowners.

At least half a million families are going to be thrown into fuel poverty by the rise in energy prices. On top of that, along with national insurance rises, millions of families are facing a £1,000 a year cut in universal credit in just 10 days’ time. It is a Tory triple whammy made in Downing Street. Will the Secretary of State stand up for the millions of people who are deeply worried about their bills and tell the Prime Minister that he should cancel the universal credit cut?

I have a sense of déjà vu, as we addressed this issue directly yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman knows with his experience—I was going to say in government but I mean and in opposition—that universal credit is a matter for the Chancellor, in discussion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

T6. The space sector presents us with huge opportunities for the future prosperity of this country. What plans is my right hon. Friend developing with regard to the implementation, ownership, governance and funding of key elements of the national space strategy? (903559)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been a phenomenal champion of science and technology in space. I am delighted to say that the Government are very shortly to publish our national space strategy, into which we put a huge amount of work. In addition to the £1.4 billion that we spend on defence space activities in our innovation strategy, we are looking to make sure that we boost the wider science and technology applications of our £16.4 billion space sector.

T5. I was privileged to meet the international legend Doddie Weir before leading a debate on the petition he created on motor neurone disease in support of the targeted £50 million expenditure. I have certainly been convinced by his arguments, and we have heard cross-party support here today. Will the Secretary of State now commit to support this spending review bid? (903558)

Absolutely. In relation to this question, I pointed out that UKRI spent £15.9 million in the last fiscal year. The UKRI portion of our Department’s spend is being negotiated in the course of the spending review. I would be very happy to follow the guidance of the hon. Gentleman and make sure that we properly fund research into motor neurone disease.

T7. Cornish Lithium, alongside Geothermal Engineering Ltd, will play a vital role in levelling up across Cornwall with the economic and job opportunities that they can provide. Will the Secretary of State, or a Minister, commit to visiting Cornish Lithium and GEL with me in the near future so that we can show him why their project very much deserves to have continued support from Government? (903560)

My hon. Friend is absolutely tireless in promoting Truro and Falmouth. The project she mentions is very interesting. Last year, the new Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), made a successful visit to the site. Subject to diary commitments, I or the Secretary of State would be delighted to visit to see the latest progress, which is supported, in part, by our Getting Building fund.

Stockport has a vibrant high street with excellent retailers and independent businesses, but in recent years, and particularly since the pandemic, many have had to shut up shop and, like lots of other high streets, we have lost beloved names such as BHS and Debenhams after they went into administration and moved online. What steps is the Minister therefore taking to ensure that large online retailers do not undercut our high street stores?

The hon. Gentleman will know that his area has received £14.5 million from the future high streets fund, which will bring local projects to life to help revitalise the high street. In the meantime, we will work with the sector and across Government to ensure that we get the balance right between online retail and bricks and mortar, which bring community spirit and social value to areas such as his constituency.

T8. With gas prices soaring, as we have heard, will the Secretary of State please turbocharge plans for home insulation schemes not only to help bring down household bills but to make people’s homes greener? (903561)

That is absolutely right. I fully recognise, as my hon. Friend appreciates, that we have had huge success in decarbonising our power sector, but we need to accelerate the decarbonisation of our homes and buildings. As I pointed out to the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), we have had some success in decarbonising public sector buildings—particularly through Salix—but we now need to focus on decarbonising our dwellings and other buildings.

The Minister can play accounting games over the Cambo oilfield, arguing that it was licensed 20 years ago, but essentially its emissions will still drive climate change. New research shows that 60% of existing oil and gas reserves must stay in the ground if we are to stay within 1.5° C, and the International Energy Agency has said that there must be no new oil and gas development of any kind. With COP26 in just six weeks, with the Secretary of State trying to have international diplomacy, what message does he think is given out by the Government going ahead with more oil and gas?

With regard to Cambo, the hon. Member will appreciate that the decision has been scrutinised in the normal regulatory way. As an energy Minister I helped to negotiate a North sea transition deal, and key to that was the word transition. We need to transition our existing oil and gas sector to a decarbonised platform. What she and others like her want to see is a complete eclipse and shutting down of oil and gas, with 250,000 jobs vanishing overnight. That would be completely irresponsible.

T9. Retail accounts for 5% of our economy but pays 25% of all business rates. Yesterday, the British Retail Consortium published a report showing that 83% of retailers feel it is likely they will have to close stores should the burden not be reduced. Will my hon. Friend confirm that we remain committed to a fundamental review of business rates, and when we might hear more about that? (903562)

My hon. Friend is a real champion for his area, often talking about family businesses such as Strickland and Holt, which was established in 1854, and the contribution of such places to the economy. We expect the fundamental review of business rates to conclude in the autumn. Businesses benefited from 100% business rates relief until 30 June 2021 and they continue to benefit from 66% business rates relief until 31 March 2022.

Many people applying for jobs have to jump through a series of stages in the recruitment process before they find out what the salary would be were they to be successful. Is it not time that Ministers sat down with job application platforms such as LinkedIn and told them to require minimum salary levels in adverts?

We speak to the recruitment sector on a number of occasions. I will happily sit down with the hon. Member to discuss the matter further.

The resilience of our energy sector and our journey towards net zero are key matters for the House. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that nuclear power forms an important part of our future energy mix?

My hon. Friend is right. Nuclear power is a vital part of our future energy mix. We have committed to trying to achieve at least one more gigawatt power plant during this Parliament and we have set out plans for small and advanced nuclear reactors.

May I press the Secretary of State further on blue hydrogen? The source of blue hydrogen is natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, so how can a Government committed to net zero invest millions of pounds in new technologies based on fossil fuels? The Secretary of State has said several times that it is a “transition”, but since this is not a net zero technology, a transition to what?

We have spoken about this issue many times in this House, and the hon. Member will appreciate that carbon capture is a key part of our net zero strategy. I think that is widely accepted, particularly by the Climate Change Committee. With her knowledge of chemistry, she will also know that carbon capture works hand in hand with the production of blue hydrogen and that blue hydrogen is not particularly carbon intensive. The reason why countries such as Germany have not pursued a blue hydrogen strategy is that they do not have the physical infrastructure in the North sea to do it.

Renewable energy depends on increasing our grid capacity, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to do that?

There are robust processes in place for bringing forward new grid upgrades to meet demand. Smart electric vehicle charging and other smart technologies of course reduce the need for new infrastructure, and the recent smart systems and flexibility plan sets out the actions the Government will take in an area in which I know my hon. Friend takes an ongoing interest.

UK steel producers face dramatically higher electricity costs than our European competitors. How can the sector attract the investment needed to decarbonise when it faces a £50 million a year barrier to investment?

I have discussed with the sector the ongoing issue of electricity prices or energy prices for the steel industry. That is why one of the first things I did as Secretary of State was to resuscitate the Steel Council. We are coming up with ideas to try to create a sustainable steel sector on a decarbonised basis.

I welcome the Minister back re-energised to his place in the Department, and as today is Gloucestershire Day, can I ask him to look very closely at the bid made by Gloucestershire to support the development of a vital new technology—nuclear fusion?

On Gloucestershire Day, it is a great pleasure to take that question from my hon. Friend, and the answer is yes.

Renewables are very important everywhere across the United Kingdom, but one of the problems for renewables is getting access to the grid. The Electric Storage Company in Northern Ireland has told me that if that was improved, energy could be stored for access to the grid. Can the Secretary of State tell us what he could do to make that happen?

I would like to hear more from the hon. Gentleman about this, and I am very happy to meet him to talk about it.

It seems that legislation is the only way that the hundreds of postmasters and postmistresses who have had their lives destroyed by the Horizon scandal will get sufficient compensation in a timely manner. Will the Department look at legislation to deliver this?

I thank my right hon. Friend not only for his question, but for his meeting last week with my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (Lucy Allan) as well as Tracy Felstead, Janet Skinner and Seema Misra, and we cannot help but be moved by the harrowing tales that the sub-postmasters tell after 20 years of suffering. Yes, we will look at everything that is required to make sure that we tackle the issue of how all sub-postmasters can seek justice and request compensation.