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Energy Costs: Support for Businesses

Volume 726: debated on Tuesday 17 January 2023

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.