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Topical Questions

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 28 February 2023

T1. I congratulate my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] Oh sorry, question 1. If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities. (903808)

I know my right hon. Friend is new to this House. This winter, as I mentioned, the Government have been paying half the energy bills of most British households. In these difficult times, that has been an extraordinary intervention that we are all very proud of. But it has taught us a valuable lesson—we can never again be held to ransom by energy tyranny. That is why we want to have the cheapest wholesale electricity in Europe, to be on a path to net zero, and to put Putin and his ilk in a position where they can no longer have any sway over our energy security.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his continuing commitment to Great British Nuclear, but is it not vital that we reaffirm the target of 24 gigawatts by 2050 and that we accelerate the tech selection process, so that small modular reactors, whether made by Rolls-Royce or anybody else—it would be wonderful if they came from this country—are on contract with Great British Nuclear by the end of the year, so we can get back to the nuclear tradition that this country once had and undo the baleful, luddite, “Atomkraft? Nein, danke” legacy of the Labour party? [Interruption.]

Order. I have the greatest respect, but these are Topicals and I want to get everybody else in as well. And I agree—nuclear reactors from Lancashire could be fantastic.

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He will know, as will the whole House, that every single nuclear reactor currently operational in the UK was given permission under the Conservative party. He is right to champion Great British Nuclear and we will get the nuclear industry going again. Indeed, I was the first Energy Secretary to put money—£700 million—into nuclear power since 1986. I have appointed our first ever—

Order. It is the same for the Secretary of State. It is everybody’s questions, not just yours and the former Prime Minister’s. Let’s go to Ed Miliband for a good example of a quick question.

It is important to welcome ex-party leaders to their place, Mr Speaker. My only advice is that it is important to not want your old job back.

Can I ask the Secretary of State to tell the House which member of the new Department’s ministerial team in April last year described onshore wind farms as “an eyesore” on the hills?

I was just having a debate about whether it was me or my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), the Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero. The point is that they have to be done with local consent. That is why a proper energy mix that includes not just wind farms but nuclear for about a quarter of our energy production is so important and why we have just appointed the first ever nuclear Minister, who some are calling “Atomic Bowie”.

The problem is that the right hon. Gentleman is not the cheerleader for clean energy; he is the roadblock. We have had three wind farms in the last eight years. His own Department says 79% of the public support onshore wind. Let me ask him, plan and simple: will he bring the local planning regime for onshore wind in line with all other infrastructure—yes or no?

The right hon. Gentleman calls me the roadblock, but perhaps he missed me saying that I was installing solar before it was fashionable to do so. I absolutely want more onshore and offshore wind in this country. We are ensuring that we are helping with that process, but it has to be with local consent.

T5. Safran Helicopter Engines in my constituency is a leader in developing sustainable aviation fuel use. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the changeover in departmental responsibilities will help such companies to progress? (903812)

My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that the Jet Zero Council, which I helped to co-establish, has already taken place since the departmental change. Indeed, on the first day in this job, I co-chaired the Jet Zero Council. We want to get to guilt-free flying that includes widescale use of sustainable aviation fuel.

T2. The Secretary of State did not answer the question earlier about compensation for vulnerable customers disconnected from prepayment meters. What is he going to do about it and will he promise that every single one of them will get compensation? (903809)

As I was trying to explain earlier, it is a work in progress. We will make sure that those who suffered are recompensed. What happened was indeed a scandal. I could not have acted faster in this job to fix it and I described the three different parts of activity I undertook, which brought it under control.

T8. Offshore wind is a great British success story, but fiscal and regulatory action is urgently required if the UK is to remain an attractive place to invest. Can my right hon. Friend thus confirm that, ahead of the Budget, he is working with the Treasury to introduce new tax incentives and to reform capital allowances so that the UK can compete with other countries, such as the US and those in the EU? (903815)

I am sure my hon. Friend is as delighted as I am that the United States and the EU are now following our lead in developing renewables, including offshore wind. We work closely with the Chancellor to ensure that the UK remains, as it has been consistently under this Government, the best place in the world in which to invest in offshore wind.

T3. The Rosebank oilfield in Scotland is the largest undeveloped oil and gas site in the UK. It is set to unleash 200 million tonnes of carbon emissions—the equivalent of the emissions of the 28 lowest-income nations across the world. It is marine-wrecking and climate-wrecking. Will the Government put a stop to it? (903810)

Seventy-seven per cent. of our energy today comes from fossil fuels. We will be using about a quarter of the gas we do today in 2050 under net zero. The idea that importing that, with higher emissions attached to it, rather than producing our own, is ridiculous environmentally, ridiculous economically and ridiculous in terms of maintaining the skills in the North sea that we are going to need for the transition, with hydrogen, carbon capture and other industries coming forward. I ask the Labour party to change its mind.

I have been hearing from Hillingdon Council and Harrow Council about their ambitious plans to improve my constituents’ access to electric vehicle charging. Does my hon. Friend agree that it should be a higher priority for the Mayor of London to improve access to environmentally friendly transport, rather than imposing a ULEZ?

I could not agree more. Frankly, if the Labour Mayor of London were to focus more on that, rather than imposing yet another tax on the hard-working people of outer London, he might actually not be failing this great capital and its people as much as he is, unlike the two Conservative councils that are acting positively to increase the availability of and accessibility to electric vehicle charging points across the region.

T6. I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State said about prepayment meters. Could he confirm that forced installations will not go ahead until the penalty on prepayment meters has been abolished— yes or no? (903813)

There has been a long-term difference in the price of prepayment meters, which I specifically asked Ofgem to look at. I am meeting the Ofgem CEO to discuss its response shortly.

The Minister will be aware that aspects of the tourism and hospitality industry, such as catering and leisure, are intensive energy users. Therefore, can he confirm that they will qualify for support under the energy and trade-intensive industries scheme due to be in place from April?

I thank my hon. Friend for his tireless work to support the hospitality and tourism sector across his constituency. The energy bill relief scheme has provided much-needed support for high energy costs over winter. We continue to work closely with the sector.

T7. Many families in my constituency who are terrified about their increasing energy bills cannot simply turn down the heat come 1 April. They include families with disabled children, whose winter payment will long since have been spent. Why do the Government think that it is acceptable for energy companies to continue to rake in sky-high profits, while families on low incomes with disabled children continue to struggle? (903814)

I sometimes worry that some Opposition Members do not properly set the context. The reason that we are paying sky-high bills is that Putin invaded a democratic neighbour, which pushed up energy bills. This Government have stood by the public by paying half of everyone’s energy bills. Judge us by our record. We will say more shortly.

Could my right hon. Friend include fertiliser manufacturers, such as Neatcrown Corwen Ltd in my constituency, in the Government’s support for high, intensive energy businesses?

Yes. Representing a rural constituency myself, I understand just how important fertiliser manufacturers are. The energy bill discount scheme will start on 1 April, providing eligible businesses with a discount on high energy bills until 31 March 2024. The list of eligible sectors has been published, and I am delighted to confirm that it will include manufacturers of fertilisers and nitrogen compounds.

T9.   Last summer, I attended the opening of Infarm, a vertical farm facility in Bedford, focusing on locally grown food to help us to improve our domestic food security and to reduce our carbon footprint. Within six months, the company announced that it was closing, citing energy prices, supply chains and the rising cost of materials. Given the empty shelves in our supermarkets, what action is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that businesses that are trying to ensure our food security can operate? (903816)

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman has not been listening to what we have been saying for the past hour. We are determined to ensure that we move towards net zero in a sensible and measured way, leading the world as we do so while ensuring food security across the country.

Contracts for difference have been successful in driving down the cost of renewable energies. However, industry bodies and developers are warning that the draft strike prices for allocation round 5 are too low. Can my right hon. Friend commit to a review of strike prices to ensure that the allocation round is a success for renewable energy technologies such as floating offshore wind?

It is worth reminding the House that contracts for difference has been a world-beating way of creating the world’s second, third and fourth largest offshore wind farms. There have been some pressures on the previous round, due to inflation because of the war. We will keep the next round in mind.

Can the Secretary of State confirm whether the responsibility for industrial decarbonisation rests with his Department or the Department for Business and Trade?

As with everything in government, we share responsibilities. The clue is in the name—the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

I welcome the Government’s inclusion of seafood processing in the energy bills discount scheme, which replaces the EBRS at the end of this month. Before the energy crisis, there was the energy-intensive industries extension scheme, which included poultry, pork and milled grain processing, but not seafood. Would my right hon. Friend or one of his Ministers agree to meet me and representatives from the sector to help to address the shortfall?

My hon. Friend will know that the energy-intensive industries discount of 80% has helped many very energy-intensive industries this winter. We have consulted on raising it to 100%, along with other amendments. I will be pleased to ensure that my hon. Friend has the appropriate meeting to discuss the matter.

The Secretary of State will be aware of the additional tax revenues that have come to the Treasury in recent months. Will he have discussions with the Chancellor to ensure that small businesses in particular, which face very high energy costs, remain as competitive as possible in the current environment?

It is absolutely right that our businesses need to compete globally. Again, Putin is the reason for these high energy costs. We have stepped in to support families. The money has to come from somewhere; our answer has been the oil and gas companies, but of course we need to make sure that the balance is right with the taxpayer as well. The hon. Gentleman can be assured that we are working on it with the Chancellor all the time.

Knauf, a major manufacturer based in Immingham, seeks to build a hydrogen-ready combined heat and power plant to reduce its emissions. The project may stall, however, because Northern Powergrid has told Knauf that it cannot provide a connection until 2031. Could the Minister intervene and try to overcome the problem?

Yes, I would be happy to intervene. I am very happy to meet my hon. Friend and the company concerned to see what we can do to resolve the issue.

As the proud host venue of COP26, the Scottish Event Campus in my constituency well understands the challenges of reaching net zero, but like many businesses in the events sector, it is facing astronomical energy bills. Would a Minister be willing to meet the Scottish Event Campus to discuss those bills and its ambitious plans for reaching net zero through investment in the campus?

I would be absolutely delighted to meet the hon. Lady and the Scottish Event Campus. We are doing everything we can to support businesses that are struggling with energy bills at the moment. It is just a shame that, as a result of the Scottish Government cutting local authority budgets north of the border, Glasgow City Council will not be able to do as much as it would like to support the Scottish Event Campus as we move forward.

Leisure centres such as Kidsgrove Sports Centre, and particularly those that have swimming pools, are feeling very nervous about the end of the energy support that they are receiving today. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Treasury to ensure that support continues so we do not lose these community assets?

I understand the concerns of all consumers dealing with high energy costs, but we have given over £7.2 billion towards this, and we will continue to do so.

In its progress report last June, the Climate Change Committee noted that only about 40% of the Government’s plans for getting to net zero were credible. In some areas, including farming and industrial electrification, they had no plans at all. What are the Government doing to develop credible plans in those areas?

We are under a legal duty to ensure that we move to net zero, and I am delighted that we are continuing to make progress. The hon. Lady will see announcements from the Government by the end of March on our net zero plans.

Domestic heating generates 14% of the UK’s carbon dioxide emissions, but blending natural gas with just 20% hydrogen would be the equivalent of taking 2.5 million cars off the road. We are already lagging behind Germany, France and Chile, which have decided to blend up to 20%, while Italy, Canada and Australia are close behind. Can the Minister assure me that the Government’s decision on blending hydrogen in our gas network will be a positive one so that we can stop tailing our European counterparts?

A plethora of announcements, on a number of issues, will be coming out of the Department in the coming weeks. Hydrogen is an important area in which we are a world leader; it is my intention, as I know it is my hon. Friend’s, to ensure that we remain in pole position.

Analysis by E3G has found that a third of the funding pledged for this Parliament to make buildings energy-efficient and to decarbonise heat has not been spent by the Government. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that that money is allocated and spent, and that leaky buildings are addressed swiftly?

As I said at the beginning of questions, we are working continuously to try to upgrade all buildings in this country, both domestic and non-domestic. We have a range of programmes; I will write to the hon. Lady with the full set of programmes that apply in non-domestic situations.

Does the Secretary of State, and do the Government, agree that leisure centres are critical to all our communities, and especially to young people? I understand that the cost of the energy for heating pools is hitting even the Prime Minister, with his very large pool in north Yorkshire. May we have some emergency action to help communities with energy bills that are likely to bankrupt them?

The energy support that we have been providing, including through the energy bills discount scheme, is designed to do exactly that, but we will keep a close eye on it to make sure that it helps in the right places. We are all suffering as a result of high energy costs. The reason is Putin, and we should never forget that while we build our own energy security in this country, with the cheapest wholesale electricity prices by the middle of the next decade.