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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2023

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Costs: Support for Businesses

The energy bill relief scheme provides discounts on the wholesale element of gas and electricity bills to ensure that all eligible businesses are protected from high energy costs over the winter period. The support is applied automatically to bills.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. The Government have already awarded Cummins, the engine maker in Darlington, £14.6 million to develop a hydrogen combustion engine, which will help the road haulage industry to decarbonise and reduce business energy costs. Does my right hon. Friend agree with me that investment in alternatives such as that will benefit businesses into the future, will he look at the regulation to enable this technology to be exploited and will he visit Darlington to see Cummins?

I think the answer is three yeses. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the importance of that hydrogen technology; it is one of the reasons the UK has a global lead. I am looking very closely at how off-road hydrogen vehicles could also be a big part of our decarbonisation strategy.

Some 440 redundancies have just been announced across Liberty Steel, including 185 in Rotherham. It cites soaring energy costs as a major factor behind the decision. It is no surprise that its announcement comes just days after the Government said that they were going to start withdrawing support for business energy costs, and inflated energy markets have placed British steelmakers at a profound disadvantage. When will Ministers step up and address this, as our competitors’ Governments do?

As the hon. Lady will know, I am of course very concerned about the Liberty Steel position, and I am working very closely with it and everyone else involved. There has been £18 billion of support to business, and we have just announced a further £5.5 billion specifically on energy bills. On energy-intensive industries, there is further support through an 85% measure, which we are also reviewing to take up to 100%. We will work very closely with the company, and I will undertake to work, with my Ministers, with her as well.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, in addition to the excellent solution proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Peter Gibson), now is the time for the Government to exploit this country’s technological lead, and build a fleet of small modular nuclear reactors as part of our Great British Nuclear programme? While I am at it, is it not time that the Labour party apologised for 13 years of bone-headed hostility to any new nuclear power in this country?

I think it is fitting if I start with the apology, because I inadvertently airbrushed my right hon. Friend out of a picture on Twitter last week. I think my team were confused: I simply told the team that he needed hair brushing, not airbrushing. No one did more to progress space than my right hon. Friend as Prime Minister, and although the space launch was not successful last week, I know it is the start of a very important new sector for this country.

On my right hon. Friend’s point about small modular reactors, he is absolutely right. We will be announcing the creation of Great British Nuclear very shortly, and small modular reactors—Rolls-Royce and the others—will play an amazingly important part in this nuclear mix, which will get us back up to 25% of our power being from nuclear.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion) said, high energy costs and competitiveness were cited by Liberty Steel when it also announced the idling of the Newport site, which is really hard news for the dedicated and skilled workforce there. No more warm words from the Government: what will the Government practically do to work in partnership with our industry, as other European countries are doing—and they are far more generous, which is the point here—to ensure that this key strategic industry is competitive?

The Government have worked very hard with the steel industry, to the sum of hundreds of millions of pounds, and will continue to do so. We do recognise the strategic importance of steel, and we also recognise that energy prices are very high. As I mentioned to the hon. Member’s colleague, the hon. Member for Rotherham (Sarah Champion), a moment ago, we have already consulted on and will be in a position to say more soon about greater discounts in the energy-intensive industries, but we need to work together to make sure we can deliver that, and I look forward to extending the invitation to her as well.

Last Monday the Government presented the next stage of their energy support scheme, but it got a decidedly mixed response. The Federation of Small Businesses calculated that it is worth just 2p per kilowatt hour of electricity to the average small business, which it says is not enough to be material to a business’s decision to close or not, despite that element of the scheme costing £2 billion of taxpayers’ money. The worst of all worlds would be a scheme that costs a large amount of money, while failing to improve the situation facing businesses in any significant way. Will the Secretary of State respond to that criticism and explain the Government’s thinking behind the design of that stage of the scheme?

The hon. Gentleman will know that UK gas wholesale prices—the forward price—peaked at £600 in August. I looked this morning before coming to the Dispatch Box, and it is currently at 136p per therm, which is a massive reduction. We are very much of the view that we must continue to provide support to business, on top of the £18 billion, which is why the Chancellor has announced up to another £5.5 billion. We also recognise that prices are lower now than they were before the invasion of Ukraine, so we will track the issue carefully and continue to provide that support to business.

As we heard from colleagues, energy prices are inextricably linked to our country’s competitiveness. Last week, Make UK published a survey of manufacturing businesses. That report was damning, with businesses saying that under the Conservatives they pay a premium for doing business in the UK. They can see that the political instability caused by this Government has driven investment away from Britain, and after three Prime Ministers, four Chancellors and three Business Secretaries last year, it is hard to disagree. Does the Secretary of State accept that the low investment the Conservatives have presided over is at the heart of our economic problems? What is he planning to do this year finally to change that?

No, I do not accept the hon. Gentleman’s analysis. He must recognise that in countries such as Germany, for example, where he is right to say that energy costs for business are lower, that cost is reflected in typically higher costs for domestic bills, and he would need to say whether he supports that. In addition, £18 billion is a huge amount of support. Taxpayers are having to pay that money, and it is a question of getting the right balance between the taxpayer and industry. I have already explained the ongoing support we will put in, in addition to the energy-intensive industry consultation that has already gone out, and we will say more about that shortly.

Household Energy Bills

The Government are supporting households with their energy bills through the energy price guarantee, the energy bills support scheme, and alternative fuel payments for households that use alternative fuels such as heating oil to heat their homes.

Will the Government take action to decouple the cost of gas supplies from renewables, because that is a way to get the cost of renewable energy down, helping households and also helping the taxpayer fund the important package of support that the Government have introduced for energy bills?

My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point, and it is noticeable that gas prices are high, but the price of renewables is typically much lower. Indeed, for a whole load of days in a row more than half our electricity has been provided through renewables, in particular offshore wind. That decoupling is important, but it is also not straightforward, as my right hon. Friend will know. It is something that the Minister for Energy and Climate and I are actively working on.

Eastleigh has a diverse housing mix that includes pensioners, those living in park homes and lower-income families, who are all struggling to pay their energy bills. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to pass on any falls in wholesale energy prices to consumers, so that they pay less as prices come down?

My hon. Friend raises a good point. What concerns me is the idea that when wholesale prices go up we get a rocketing in domestic prices, but as wholesale prices fall again, as they have done, we get a sort of feathering down, very slowly. I am concerned about that and I have written to Ofgem asking it to look at the market. Energy companies are forward buying their energy by several months, but we need those changes to come through in reductions to households, and we will be pressing to make sure that happens.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the support the Government have provided to households to help with their energy bills will continue once current arrangements come to an end later this spring, and until international energy markets have fully stabilised?

I am pleased to confirm that the energy price guarantee has been extended to April 2024, so that support will continue. As I mentioned earlier, we are seeing some of the prices moderate, but the problem is that that combination of higher prices could still continue to lead through, which is why we will keep the energy price guarantee in place.

May I ask the Secretary of State about two groups who have not had much support so far? One group is households on a communal heating scheme who get their heating bills from their landlord. The Government have announced measures to rectify that situation, but could registered housing providers such as housing associations and local authorities be allowed to apply jointly for their tenants, to ease them into the scheme? Secondly, people on housing benefit do not get the additional help for being on a low income that those on universal credit receive, because housing benefit is not a Department for Work and Pensions benefit. Why is there discrimination against housing benefit recipients? It really is unfair, is it not?

I know that the hon. Gentleman and the whole House recognise how complex it has been to put in place the schemes to pay money to people in a system that is usually meant only for people to pay money to energy companies. That has been easy to resolve through the simple direct debit billing method but much more complicated in edge cases including combined energy and heat power and other off-grid measures. It is probably best if I ask my right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Minister to speak to him specifically about the cases that he raised, because they are so complex that that probably requires a meeting and a further clarification letter.

Domestic energy companies are routinely raising people’s direct debits above the level of energy that they use and need to pay for. In the process, they are building up credit balances—sometimes of hundreds of pounds of people’s money—when those people cannot afford that. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how to hold the energy companies to account and ensure the automatic repayment of overcharging?

I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman. I have had the experience myself where the energy company arbitrarily decided to put an outrageous figure into the direct debit. Once someone challenges that figure, the company will fall back from that—but that is if they can get through on the helpline.

I absolutely share the hon. Gentleman’s concern and will offer him a meeting with the Energy and Climate Minister specifically on this matter.

I wonder what discussions the Secretary of State has had with the energy companies following the report last week from Citizens Advice showing that hundreds of thousands of customers are being forcibly moved on to prepayment meters. Has he had discussions with his colleagues in the Ministry of Justice? Forcible entry to make hundreds of these changes is being approved on an industrial scale in minutes flat in magistrates courts. It is a real scandal. What is he doing about it?

The hon. Gentleman is right on that point. My right hon. Friend the Energy and Climate Minister and I have instructed our officials to draw up measures that could be helpful. We also have a letter to go to Ofgem once we have that advice. I am very concerned about this happening through an enforced process. We are on the public’s side and trying to fix it.

The alternative fuel payment scheme is being applied to people’s electricity bills where they have their own direct supply, but, for people in park homes or on houseboats without their own electricity, such support is difficult to access, and they are often the types of people who struggle to get online. Will the Secretary of State consider a better public information campaign for those households and support with access to applying for the scheme for those who struggle to get online?

The hon. Lady points out another one of the edge cases in park homes. Many hon. Members have park homes in their constituencies, including me, and it has been more complex to get the money to them. She will be pleased to hear that the pilot scheme to get that money out to them launched yesterday. It will be a process through the local authority, and we are making sure that it is expedited as much as possible.

According to Citizens Advice, someone is being cut off from their energy supply every 10 seconds. With millions unable to afford to top up their prepayment meters, self-disconnections have rocketed. Is it not the Government’s and the energy regulator’s responsibility to ensure that people are not sitting at home in the cold and in the dark? As temperatures once again reach freezing point across the UK this week, will the Government introduce an immediate moratorium on the forced installation of prepayment meters while their use is reviewed?

It is a matter of considerable concern that anybody should be removed from their power or heating. We have specifically asked the energy authorities not to go down that line and asked Ofgem to do the same. As I mentioned just moments ago, officials are actively working on this issue, with a letter ready to go to Ofgem as well. She is right to highlight this issue. We do not want to see people cut off during this cold weather. We will return to the House with more detail.

Small and Medium-sized Businesses

It is absolutely right that we direct support where we can to our SME community. We have reversed the national insurance rise, saving SMEs approximately £4,200 a year on average; provided £13.6 billion of business rates support over five years; cut fuel duty for 12 months; and raised the employment allowance to £5,000. The energy bill relief scheme is also protecting SMEs from high energy costs, as will, from April, the energy bills discount scheme.

Before Christmas I held a session with hospitality businesses in my constituency. Although they were appreciative of the energy bill relief scheme, they expressed some concern that they were not necessarily seeing it reflected in their bills. What assurances can my hon. Friend provide to ensure that companies, such as Hop and Vine in Ruislip High Street, see Government support reflected in reduced energy costs?

The £18 billion energy bill relief scheme is set out clearly in legislation, so it should be applied in a uniform way by all licensed suppliers. The regulations include a robust monitoring compliance and enforcement regime. Suppliers are required to inform customers about the details of support, including the amount of the discount and the supply price, to ensure transparency. That will also be the case with the energy bills discount scheme, which starts in April.

Many SMEs are facing increasing pressure to agree lengthy payment terms of up to 90 days as a prerequisite to securing contracts with larger firms. That has significant cash-flow implications for businesses that already operate on a tight margin. To support further SMEs such as those operating across Erewash, will my hon. Friend commit to working with Treasury colleagues to review the UK’s payment terms regulations with a view to reducing the maximum credit period, as has happened in Germany?

I thank my hon. Friend for raising that point. This is a very significant problem for many businesses, particularly micro-businesses. Our prompt payment and cash flow review will examine business behaviours and small business experience of late payment and long payment terms, to help ensure that the UK has arrangements in place to best support small businesses. It will include looking at the payment reporting obligations and a review of the role of the Small Business Commissioner.

Wimbledon’s clubs and pubs are at the heart of our community and, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (David Simmonds), several have asked me how the Government will ensure that the scheme meets the needs of hospitality. Will my hon. Friend ensure that Ofgem takes action against suppliers whose actions damage small businesses in my constituency and across London?

My hon. Friend raises a very important point. My r hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Climate and I recently had a roundtable with energy suppliers to discuss exactly that point: ensuring that the support the Government are providing is passed on to SMEs. The energy suppliers assure us that that is happening. We have asked Ofgem to take a closer look at that and it will report back to us shortly.

Britishvolt, the once valued £3.8 billion site of national importance for the production of electric vehicle batteries in our country, is today going into administration. Does the Minister agree with me that the future of UK car manufacturing relies on UK battery production? If so, what is he going to do about it?

The hon. Gentleman raises a very important point. It is important to note that we have not withdrawn any money from Britishvolt, but clearly British taxpayers’ money is important and it is important that we dispense that money in a responsible way. There are clear milestones that we expect anybody in receipt of public money to hit. We are looking at the situation very carefully to make sure that they are doing so.

In Chester, we are fortunate to have a high street full of wonderful small and medium-sized businesses. The Chancellor’s announcement of cuts to the energy bill relief scheme from April will be devastating to many of those businesses. The cost of living crisis continues, yet the support is being pulled. Does the Minister agree that businesses need support to continue driving our economy?

I do agree that we need to continue to support businesses. The £18 billion energy bill relief scheme package was very generous. We are now seeing prices moderate, which will help lots of SMEs, and particularly the high street businesses to which the hon. Lady referred. The replacement scheme—the EBDS—is another £5.5 billion of taxpayers’ money. We have to be careful in terms of balancing the books and being responsible with the public finances, but I absolutely agree that businesses need continued support, which is what they are getting from the replacement scheme and from several other measures I mentioned in my first answer.

In the next few months small businesses will, like many others, face massively increased council tax bills here in Great Britain and rates bills in Northern Ireland. Does the Minister agree that the early payment discount scheme should be looked at and revised to 4% or 5% across both domestic and non-domestic council tax and rates payers?

Most of the businesses that we deal with pay business rates rather than council tax, but we nevertheless have to make sure that the schemes are as affordable as they can be, which is why we have stepped in with £13.6 billion of business rate discounts, targeted at SMEs. We have to look at the ongoing situation and make sure that support is available, as we are doing in many different respects, not least by helping those small businesses that have premises.

AMLo Biosciences is a Newcastle University spin-out whose groundbreaking research will save lives by making cancer diagnosis easier and more accurate. AMLo spends millions on research and reinvests all its research and development tax credits into R&D. The Government’s tax credit changes will halve what AMLo can claim, meaning less research and fewer new jobs. Its investors may ask for it to move abroad, where R&D is cheaper. Many Members have similar examples in their constituencies. Will the Minister explain why the Government issued no guidance, gave no support and had no consultation on the changes to SME R&D tax credits? Does he accept that whether in respect of hospitality heating bills or spin-out science spend, the Government are abandoning small businesses?

Clearly, we have to balance the interests of the taxpayer with the interests of small business. We have to make sure that the money that is being utilised for R&D is properly spent, and there were concerns about abuse of the small business R&D scheme. It is good that the Treasury is now looking into the matter and looking to move towards a simplified universal scheme, which I would welcome and on which there is a consultation. I absolutely agree that we need to make sure we have the right support for research and development in this country, not least for SMEs.

Onshore Wind Farms

7. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the number of onshore wind farms developed in England since 2015. (903113)

Onshore wind in the UK has been a great success. It generates 25% of our total renewables, and since 2015 around 10 onshore wind projects, totalling 30 MW, have been given consent in England. We have made it clear that onshore wind is an important part of the energy mix and that we will now need more, which is why we are consulting on making changes to the national planning policy framework in England so that local authorities can better respond to the views of their local communities when they wish to host onshore wind infrastructure.

New onshore wind has been stymied since 2015, even though it is our cheapest renewable. Shire-counties conservatism has been put ahead of our national interest; weak policy has undermined the UK’s energy security, leaving us wide open to international shocks. Does the Minister not accept that all this has helped to cause family bills to skyrocket?

In a word, no. What has caused family bills to skyrocket is the international pressure on energy supply chains, the war in Ukraine and the economic sanctions in respect of Russia. I accept the point that the costs of onshore wind have fallen dramatically through our contracts for difference round 4. This is a UK success story, which is why we are keen to do more. The public-opinion data show that 78% of the public support onshore wind. We want to make sure that we do not impose it on local authorities and are giving them more freedom to make sure they can reflect local demand so that it is renewable energy led by communities with community benefit.

Looking out from the east of my constituency, one can see a number of offshore wind farms, which are more efficient and cheaper. The Government have done really well over the past 10 years by increasing the renewable generation of electricity fivefold; does the Minister agree that that not only helps to cut emissions but pump-primes new jobs markets in the generation of clean energy around the world?

As a BEIS Minister and as an East Anglian Member of Parliament, I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. The southern North sea is becoming the Saudi Arabia of wind energy, and the Norfolk and Suffolk coast and the new hydrogen freeport at Felixstowe and Harwich are part of the way in which we are growing the infrastructure for smart advanced wind and a linked hydrogen economy in the 21st century.

Advanced Manufacturing Sector

The Government support advanced manufacturing through programmes in strategically important manufacturing sectors such as aerospace, automotives and life sciences. We have committed nearly £650 million to high-value manufacturing Catapult centres, and £200 million to the Made Smarter programme.

Pramac Generac recently acquired Off Grid Energy Ltd, a highly innovative SME based in my constituency which makes high-tech power storage solutions to reduce fuel consumption and carbon emissions. Will the Minister join me in welcoming the high-quality advanced manufacturing jobs that it is providing, and may I invite her to visit Rugby to see the work that it is doing to provide more resilient, sustainable, efficient energy supplies?

I welcome the invitation, and it would be remiss of me not to wish my hon. Friend a happy birthday for yesterday.

We salute the great work that is being done in this firm and others throughout the country, and welcome the jobs that they provide. This is exactly why the Government’s £1.2 billion investment was set up for high-value manufacturing centres, to help manufacturers to bring advanced technologies such as these to the market. I look forward to visiting my hon. Friend’s constituency.

Not just the advanced manufacturing sector but many sectors throughout the country struggle to recruit staff with the skills that they need. I hope the Minister will support the initiative “Work Hull. Work Happy.” Its aim is to make Hull the co-working capital of the UK by encouraging businesses up and down the country to come and recruit the remote workers that we have in the city, because people should not have to leave the place they love for the job they want.

There is nothing I could disagree with there. It is absolutely right that we focus on the skilled workforce that so many of our manufacturing sectors are struggling to recruit, and any opportunity to show and share with the skilled workforces, or even help them to “skill up”, is welcome news.

Fuel Poverty

The latest statistics, published in February 2022, show that 3.2 million households in England were fuel poor in 2020. Updated estimates are due to be published next month. Fuel-poor households can benefit from schemes including the energy company obligation, the local authority delivery scheme and the home upgrade grant, which will help them to improve the energy efficiency of their homes.

According to the Fuel Poverty Monitor released by National Energy Action today, from next April onwards the number of households in fuel poverty in the UK could reach 8.4 million. What additional targeted support will the Government provide for those on the lowest incomes—particularly those who are not receiving benefits—when the energy price guarantee increases to £3,000 in April?

The Government are committed to tackling fuel poverty, and I welcome the work of National Energy Action, which published its Fuel Poverty Monitor today to highlight the difficult situation in which many households have found themselves. Just as we provided support during covid, we are providing it now. I believe that the report looked fundamentally at means-tested benefits, pensioners and those with disabilities. The Government have committed £26 billion for 2023-24, including £900 for households on means-tested benefits, £300 for pensioners and £150 for those with disabilities, as well as an extra £1 billion to allow the extension of the household support fund. However, I know that we will continue to do more.

Today a group of nearly 100 charities and other organisations, co-ordinated by Scope, wrote to the Chancellor calling for a social energy tariff to help low-income and vulnerable older and disabled households to heat their homes. A survey for Age UK suggests that 24% of over-60s are living in homes that are colder than they would like, rising to 27% for older people with a disability. Will the Minister commit herself to giving serious consideration to targeted support for those groups?

As I listed earlier—I do not wish to test the patience of the Speaker—we have focused on targeted support, but I also remind the House of the local authority delivery, which is focused on low income households and those homes that need energy efficiency upgrades. They have a grant ability of £787 million to provide the support that is needed. That is on top of the £26 billion that I mentioned earlier for 2023-24.

Energy Transition Projects: Scotland

The Government remain firmly committed to the low carbon industry across the UK, including Scotland. Our landmark North sea transition deal will support the offshore oil and gas sector, including its supply chain, for the delivery of low carbon hydrogen production and carbon capture, usage and storage.

Former mining communities such as my own in Midlothian contributed so much to the economy through our mining history, but for many years they have been left behind after the pits were closed. New opportunities are now widely available, especially in coalfield communities, so will the Minister commit to a clear road map to fast-track more geothermal energy projects and to use mine water energy to help in production, particularly to help regenerate coalfield communities across the nations of the UK?

We will continue to provide as much support as we can to ensure we are helping emerging technologies in the renewable sector, but the North sea transition deal will support 40,000 high quality direct and indirect supply chain jobs, and also generate up to £14 billion to £16 billion of investment up to 2030. This is good support and investment that is being provided to these communities.

Of course we all welcome the ongoing development and implementation of renewable and low carbon sources of energy, not only in Scotland but right across the United Kingdom, and especially in my constituency of Banff and Buchan, including carbon capture and storage, net zero thermal energy and a range of other sources, but could the Minister explain why the awarding of new oil and gas licences and producing our own domestic hydrocarbons is not at all inconsistent with our net zero objectives?

I think it is only being seen as inconsistent with some of the proposals provided by the Scottish Government. We will be investing £1 billion to support carbon capture and storage in four industrial clusters by 2030. My hon. Friend is absolutely right: for us to have an energy mix, we need oil and gas and we need it here in the UK, because obviously there is less of a carbon footprint if we are not shipping it in.

For a real energy mix we need dispatchable energy such as pumped storage hydro, and in Scotland we have such schemes ready to go, including Coire Glas, Cruachan and Red John, which between them could generate 2.5 GW of power—almost the same as a new power station but at a fraction of the cost. In the BEIS Committee, the Secretary of State told me that he had met representatives of SSE to discuss Coire Glas—a meeting so memorable that SSE does not seem to know anything about it. When are this Government going to get a grip and meet the industry to agree a route to market for pumped storage hydro?

I think the hon. Member is incorrect. I believe that the Secretary of State did indeed hold that meeting. What I find extraordinary is that the hon. Member will look at the energy mix but exclude nuclear, for example. We need to have everything in our energy mix, and the work that we are doing in the UK has shown that we are going on the right path. Our low carbon electricity sources such as solar, wind, and hydrogen, alongside nuclear, generated over 50% of the UK’s energy last year in February, May, October, November, and December, I believe, so we do have a path forward.

The reality about nuclear is that there is not one successful evolutionary power reactor—EPR—project in the world. Hinckley is a disaster and Sizewell C will not happen in time, if it happens at all. On the energy mix, the UK Government’s inaction has blocked pumped storage hydro, onshore wind was blocked for years in Scotland and we have had the rug pulled from under the feet of the Peterhead carbon capture project three times now. When will this Government finally support and give the go-ahead for the Acorn cluster, which is vital for reducing emissions in Scotland and the UK? Is not this cap-in-hand approach proof that Scotland has energy but not the power?

Order. The Minister must let the hon. Gentleman finish before she goes to the Dispatch Box. I cannot have both of you on your feet at the same time.

Forgive me, Mr Speaker. Just to clarify, the Secretary of State did meet that individual at COP. Within the hon. Member’s few sentences, I will address the issue of Acorn, which was a sensible point. The promise of Government is to progress carbon capture, usage and storage at pace, and Acorn submitted a bid into the track 1 sequencing process, forming the reserve cluster. Should either of the track 1 clusters not be able to deliver, we would call on the Scottish cluster instead.

Energy Bills Support Scheme: Alternative Funding

13. What assessment he has made of the adequacy of the energy bills support scheme alternative funding. (903119)

The energy bills support scheme alternative funding will provide £400 of credit to around 900,000 households without a direct relationship with an electricity supplier. This matches the energy bills support scheme in Great Britain, which is automatically delivering the discount to 29 million households.

My constituency is home to a number of residents who are waiting for the energy bills support scheme alternative funding. Despite the Government confirming alternative funding on 1 April 2022, not a penny has been paid to date. Why is this taking so long? When do the Government estimate the first payment will be received?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s frustration. It is complicated. We do not live in a database society, so finding and identifying these people without putting public money at risk has been challenging. I am delighted to say, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier, that a pilot programme using the Government portal, and a telephone support service for those who struggle to access the portal, went live yesterday. We aim to have the portal open at the end of the month. If all goes well with the pilot, payments will be processed by local authorities and will go out as soon as possible in February, and certainly this winter. That is our aspiration.

I am afraid the Government are testing the patience of park home owners in my constituency. I have previously asked the Minister whether he can confirm that payments will be made directly to park home owners, rather than park home operators. Can he confirm that point, and that payments will be made as a block sum? Or will they be paid monthly, as per the standard programme?

I have spoken on a number of occasions with my hon. Friend, and with colleagues on both sides of the House, about making sure these residents are not forgotten. We have worked hard to make sure we have a system that can stand up and deliver. We give the funding to local authorities and, as soon as they have gone through the process and made the necessary verifications for the payment to go out, a single payment will be paid directly into the bank accounts of the people concerned.

Floating Offshore Wind Manufacturing Investment Scheme

14. When he plans to make an announcement on the floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme. (903120)

BEIS is currently processing the information it was provided through the request for information process that ran over the summer, in which there was significant interest. We will set out the next steps on the floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme in due course.

I thank the BEIS team for attending last week’s reception held by the all-party parliamentary group on the Celtic sea. As they heard at the reception, sustained investment is needed in a number of ports across the region to ensure that we harness the full opportunity of floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea and meet the ambition of 50 GW of flow by 2050. Can my hon. Friend confirm that steps are being taken to invest in ports across the region?

My hon. Friend was welcome to host BEIS colleagues at her event. BEIS recognises the potential for floating offshore wind in the Celtic sea region. Following the request for information, BEIS is continuing to engage with ports on their development plans to understand their investment needs in more detail. I know she has liaised and corresponded with the Energy Minister, and a letter is winging its way to her.

Although the Government are rightly considering the advantages that can be gained from rural and offshore renewable energy, will the Minister also consider the possibility of using tidal power, and particularly tidal turbines? The United Kingdom has the biggest tidal range on Earth after Canada, and we are using nearly none of it. Is it not time to consider this innovative technology? Will she meet me and those seeking to get tidal energy out of Morecambe bay?

I believe that the largest number of contract for difference licences were awarded to tidal, and the Energy Minister will be more than happy to meet the hon. Gentleman.

Postal Services

Ofcom has a duty to ensure the provision of a financially sustainable and efficient universal postal service. Ofcom oversees Royal Mail’s contingency plans to mitigate disruption to universal postal services, and it continues to closely monitor Royal Mail’s performance.

Does the Minister share my deep concerns about the creeping increased shareholding in Royal Mail by Vesa Equity Investment, a company whose chief executive, Daniel Křetínský, has close ties to Russia? What guarantees can the Minister give about the future of our cherished, 500-year-old Royal Mail?

As I say, we have no plans to change the universal service requirements of the postal service. This Government are proud of their credentials on foreign direct investment, and we encourage foreign investment into this country. I notice from the global chief executive officer survey today that the UK is third in the world in terms of the places where people want to invest, and we want to make sure that that continues. We looked at this matter from a national security perspective and we did not feel there was an issue, so we welcome that investment.

Sadly, a long-established post office will be closing in my constituency in November, owing to an expansion of the pharmacy there, which is a success story. Many businesses locally, including the council, are desperate to take on a post office franchise. Will the Minister meet me to make sure we can secure Rochester’s having a post office after November?

Of course I will meet my hon. Friend; I have suffered closures of post offices in my constituency, so I know how difficult this is. We are committed to maintaining a network of 11,500 post office outlets and making sure that 99% of the population are within 3 miles of a post office. I am keen to meet her to see what we can do in this instance.

Maintaining the universal service obligation as affordable and accessible for all, ensuring a fair deal for workers and improving the service by Royal Mail are what it will take to ensure the quality of postal services that our constituents need and deserve. Astonishingly, last year the International Distributions Services board led the company to losses of £1 million a day, just six months after reporting huge profits and paying out £567 million in dividends and the share buy-back, putting at risk the stability needed to modernise and keep Britain’s Royal Mail competitive. Is this not so clearly the result of mismanagement at the highest level, and is it not now time for an inquiry into the actions of the board and the CEO and the risks facing the postal service?

The Royal Mail is facing a difficult year—there is no doubt about it. One reason quoted in the update from the Regulatory News Service—this is a regulator-issued news bulletin, so it has to be accurate—on why the company has gone from a profit to a loss was the industrial action by the Communication Workers Union, which is putting tremendous strain on the Royal Mail and its customers, many of whom are going elsewhere, and indeed on the post office network. Will the hon. Lady condemn the fact that this is causing extra difficulties for the Royal Mail and some of these financial problems?

Topical Questions

On Thursday, I will be flying our flag on the global stage for the CBI in Davos, making sure the world knows that Britain is the place to invest. At the World Economic Forum, I will be setting out a bold vision to scale up Britain, backing British business, empowering our entrepreneurs and driving disruption.

Will my right hon. Friend give further detail on whether the Government think that the non-domestic energy support package will help to provide a level playing field for British steelmakers?

My hon. Friend, who has done more than many others to fight for and support steel in her constituency, is right to highlight the energy bills discount scheme, but other schemes, including the one I was talking about, the energy-intensive industries scheme, where we have the consultation to take the level up to 100%, may in the end be much more meaningful. I want to assure her, Opposition Members and the whole House that the Government are very focused on this issue.

Tomorrow, the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill comes back before us. It will see vital employment rights such as holiday pay, TUPE and maternity protections scrapped at the end of this year if Ministers do not act. Labour Members believe in strong employment protections, so will the Government vote with us tomorrow to ensure that those vital rights are saved?

There is absolutely no truth whatsoever in this idea that employment rights, environmental rights or other rights will be scrapped, and the sooner the Opposition stop peddling this stuff the better.

The levelling-up White Paper outlined that the new UK shared prosperity fund will support interventions that reinforce the Government’s commitment to net zero by 2050. That includes £2.6 billion of funding for investment in places, including for community infrastructure projects.

The calls that we have already heard to take action to support people on prepayment meters are echoed by more than 40 Members of both Houses on the all-party parliamentary group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency. They, too, are calling for a ban on forced installation of prepayment meters by court warrant and an end to unfair standing charges and price differentials. It is not good enough just to hear nice words from the Government; they have to require action from the energy suppliers.

We agree that the most vulnerable consumers in this country should be protected. Those duties already lie with Ofgem. I shall repeat what my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said earlier: it is completely unacceptable that vulnerable patients leave hospital and find that they have been automatically disconnected. We are convening a roundtable meeting and my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Minister for Energy and Climate are putting pressure on Ofgem to make sure that vulnerable consumers are looked after.

T4.   Wimbledon is one of the best places for young diverse entrepreneurs to start up. The recent London Chamber of Commerce and Industry report suggested that there were problems and additional problems for those entrepreneurs to access finance. What exactly are the Government doing to make sure that access to finance is open to as many people as possible? (903101)

The UK, including Wimbledon, is one of the best places in the world to start a business, as evidenced by the OECD report. My hon. Friend is right to raise the issue of access to finance, particularly for diverse groups. The Start-Up Loans Company has provided £1 billion of loans to around 100,000 businesses, including £2 million of loans to businesses in his constituency, and 40% of those loans go to people from a black, Asian and minority ethnic background.

There is an inconsistency in how the public sector is required to report greenhouse gas emissions. That makes it difficult to keep a track on progress as we approach net zero, and difficult for citizens to hold the public sector to account on delivery. What is the Minister doing to rectify that so that we can keep a proper track on what is happening?

May I take this opportunity, on behalf of the Department, to thank the hon. Member and the Public Accounts Committee for their report, to which we will very shortly reply? I am delighted to say that the public sector has reduced emissions by 44% since 1990 and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy by 70% since 2010. We appreciate her Committee’s point that the data—the metrics—have to be clear and coherent, and we are taking that on board.

T5. To help promote energy security and to protect the planet, what steps is the Minister taking to reduce UK energy demand by the 15% target by 2030? (903102)

My hon. Friend rightly highlights the target set by the Chancellor to reduce by 15% demand across our energy system. The energy efficiency taskforce is being established, with my colleague Lord Callanan as co-chairman. We will be taking a number of steps, alongside the additional £6 billion in 2025-28, on top of the £6.5 billion being spent on energy efficiency in this Parliament.

I am grateful to the Minister for Energy and Climate and his officials for their work on rolling out the energy payments in Northern Ireland, which started this week. Will he reassure us that he will continue to work very closely on the roll-out with the energy companies and the advice sector, ensuring that photographic ID issues and potential changes of address by property occupiers and park home owners are addressed so that everyone across Northern Ireland receives help, particularly the most vulnerable?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for so assiduously pressing the case, along with his colleagues, for Northern Ireland residents. I am delighted to see payments going out automatically to direct debit payers, and vouchers going out to others. He is quite right to focus on this. Suppliers have worked with the Post Office in trying to make sure that the right instructions are going out alongside the vouchers to help people get through this. To avoid scammers, I encourage people to go to the Post Office and, ideally, get this paid into a bank account. That will be £600 for every household and family in Northern Ireland, which will help at this time.

T6. What action is the Secretary of State taking to deal with the large number of house fires arising now because of malfunctioning solar panels? (903103)

Obviously, management of safety is not something for which I am directly responsible, but I am happy to follow up with my hon. Friend. I always thank him for giving me prior notice, which of course he did not do today.

The Secretary of State is well known for his airbrushing skills, but he cannot airbrush the fact that, of the top 10 economies in the world, the UK is the only one with a declining steel industry. When is he going to sit down with Tata Steel and the other businesses to do a deal on green steel for the future of our workforce?

We are working with the whole steel industry across the UK and regularly hold meetings. I do not think the question was posed in an appropriate way, because we are doing a huge amount of work to support the steel sector, including providing £800 million since 2013. We have provided a package of relief support for non-domestic users throughout this winter worth £18 billion. The report published by the BEIS Committee, which I previously sat on, also mentioned that any earlier bail-out for Liberty Steel, in particular, would not have been good value for taxpayers’ money.

T7. Last week I visited Duftons Plumbing & Heating Supplies, a leading local firm, and its tie-up with Daikin UK, a heat pump manufacturer. The importance of having trained engineers locally available to advise customers and install green heating technologies was clear. Will my right hon. Friend please advise what support there is for training those new skills? (903104)

My hon. Friend is right to highlight the need for skills and training if we are to meet our ambitious net zero targets. On 20 September, the Government launched the latest phase of the £9.2 million home decarbonisation skills training competition, which will fund training for people working in the energy efficiency, retrofit and low-carbon heating sectors in England. We are confident that there is enough training capacity to meet demand for heat pump upskilling as heat pump deployment increases.

The UK imports all medical radioisotopes used for treatment and diagnosis, mostly from European facilities that are due to close down by 2030. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the need to ensure security of supply of nuclear medicines?

As the life sciences Minister I can say that we are working extensively with the industry to ensure that we have good equipment in our supply chains. I am not particularly aware of this situation, but I am happy to have a meeting or write to the right hon. Lady to see what exactly the problem is.

T8. The UK is a hub of privately driven research and development. I am proud that my Bracknell constituency is the silicon valley of the Thames valley and the home of fantastic companies such as 3M, Dell, Honda and Panasonic, which is also great for local employment. What steps are being taken to encourage more international R&D investment into the UK? (903105)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have the groundbreaking commitment to move from £15 billion to £20 billion a year of investment in public R&D over this comprehensive spending review, the creation of the National Science and Technology Council, the recent launch of our international science partnership fund, the ISPF, which I announced in Japan with a first tranche of £119 million, a series of strategic bilats and multilats, and, of course, our £7 billion ring-fenced for Horizon for three years—if we cannot deploy it through Horizon, we will deploy it in other ways to support UK R&D.

I recently wrote to all the major energy companies to ask about the shameful practice of obtaining warrants to forcibly install prepayment meters. The responses showed a lottery across all the companies, but British Gas told me that 7,500 warrants were obtained in 2020. That jumped to 24,500 last year, and one court in the north of England approved 496 warrants in three minutes. Ofgem has proven incapable of dealing with this scandal; when will the Government act?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for this question and for the numerous parliamentary questions he has also tabled, highlighting the need to ensure that vulnerable customers, including those on prepayment meters, are treated properly by suppliers. Where customers are not treated properly, those suppliers are in breach of their licensing conditions from Ofgem, which, as he knows, has investigated that matter, has found the suppliers wanting and is taking compliance action now. I share his frustration, as does the Secretary of State, to ensure that the system not only does what it says on the tin, but delivers in practice for people, including his constituents and mine.

T9.   After the price of energy, the second most common complaint from local businesses in Amber Valley is that they cannot work out how the tariff that they are quoted bears any relation to the wholesale price and the cap. They then cannot work out why all the additional charges are now, for no obvious reason, a multiple of many times what they were a year ago. Can the Minister ask Ofgem to cut down on those practices so that businesses can see a fair and transparent price that cannot be altered halfway through the year? (903106)

It is important to differentiate between the domestic market, which is much more heavily regulated and for which, of course, we have the energy price cap, and the non-domestic market, which is much more complicated and for which we have not felt that a one-size-fits-all approach would work. But my hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight issues where companies do not behave in the right way. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I are working with Ofgem to ensure that it fulfils its obligations. It may not be fully regulated in the same way, but it has licensed conditions and it needs to fulfil them.

Will the Minister confirm that post offices, which are at the heart of our community, will receive support for their energy bills so that they can continue to function for the rest of the community?

Post offices, like all non-domestic businesses and institutions, will benefit from the new energy price discount scheme, which follows the energy bill relief scheme, as announced by the Chancellor.

My right hon. Friend the Energy Minister is more than aware of the deep anger in my constituency and across the east of England about National Grid’s green proposals to put pylons across the whole of East Anglia. Will he give clear assurances that the Government will work proactively to explore offshore grid options—an alternative, basically—to deliver more resilience and capacity, and to protect our countryside?

I thank my right hon. Friend who, along with colleagues, has been assiduous in championing constituents’ interests and making sure that no infrastructure that imposes a burden on constituents goes in if it is not necessary. I am pleased to say that we have launched the £100 million offshore co-ordination support scheme, which provides funding to ensure a more co-ordinated approach. Although we recognise that we cannot forcibly change some contracts, we can—including with that funding—encourage developers to look at doing their infrastructure in the way that has the least negative impact on her constituents.

Last year, a pay transparency came into law in Colorado. It requires employers to publish the salary range when they advertise for jobs, saving considerable amounts of time, and sometimes costs, for would-be employees. Would such a common-sense rule not be good for British job applicants and employers, too?

That is an interesting point. We are looking at pay reporting, especially in larger companies. We want to minimise the burden of regulation on smaller companies, of course, but the hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point, and we will have a close look at it.

My right hon. Friend knows only too well our energy triple challenge of keeping the bills down, keeping the lights on and decarbonising. As chairman of the 1922 Backbench committee on Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, I draw his attention to the fact that we have just published a report on the future of energy. In my humble opinion, the report is packed full of incisive and actionable policy suggestions. May I invite him to meet me and my vice-chairs to discuss it and the implications for his Department?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right in her analysis: I have not yet read her report but I look forward to receiving a personalised copy of it, and I certainly look forward to meeting her, alongside the Minister for Energy and Climate, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart).

The west midlands has the highest fuel poverty in the country. How many west midlands homes will benefit from the new energy company obligation plus scheme when it comes online this year? Will the figure be nearer 4,000 or 20,000 homes?

I will write to the hon. Gentleman as I do not have those numbers to hand. I am delighted that we have gone from just 14% of homes being rated EPC C or above in 2010 to more than 46% now. That is not enough, but we have transformed the situation of UK housing stock that we inherited from Labour.