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Topical Questions

Volume 731: debated on Tuesday 18 April 2023

Since we last met, the Department has been active in, for instance, publishing the “Powering up Britain” document. In the last week, I have been in South Korea and Japan, where we negotiated with the G7 an update to the climate energy security plan, and a large number of our partner G7 countries expressed the view—not always recognised throughout the House—that this country leads when it comes to the green transition in energy.

Energy costs remain a major concern for many businesses. In particular, as has been recognised, the tying of electricity prices to the price of gas is raising energy prices to unnecessarily high levels, which is deterring investment in electrical technologies and forcing businesses to continue to invest in gas-powered technology. Will my right hon. Friend tell us when the decoupling of electricity and gas prices will actually happen?

This decoupling is a particularly complex matter, but we are absolutely into the detail of it. As my hon. Friend knows, the connection between electricity and gas prices is to do with the way in which the contracts have been written. We are conducting a review of the electricity market, and we are also looking at the way in which some of the existing standing costs are allocated between gas and electricity, with the aim of achieving precisely what my hon. Friend is after.

Today’s announcement on prepayment meters is simply not good enough. The new rules ban forced installations for only a very narrow group and do not do so for what is called the medium-risk group. I am reading from the document here. That group includes

“those with Alzheimer’s, clinical depression, learning difficulties, multiple sclerosis…the elderly up to age 85, the recently bereaved, and those with the youngest children.”

How has the Secretary of State allowed this to happen?

I think the House recognises that we have moved very fast on prepayment meters—[Interruption.] The same rules were in place when Labour was in power for 13 years. We are the ones—[Interruption.] I am reminded that the right hon. Gentleman probably set the rules in the first place, but I will have to fact check that for the record. We have taken a number of steps to relieve that pressure and I am pleased to see the Ofgem announcement today. We will keep this matter under review and go further if required.

What a completely hopeless answer. There is a high-risk group for whom a ban is being put in place and a medium-risk group for whom the Government are leaving this at the discretion of the energy companies, which is simply not good enough. Will the Secretary of State now instruct the regulator to keep the forced installation ban in place until he meets the promise he made—which is being broken today—to protect all vulnerable customers?

It is an Ofgem announcement today, which I welcome because I asked Ofgem to go away and come to a voluntary agreement. It is actual action that makes a difference. What the right hon. Gentleman needs to explain is how, if we did not have some sort of measure in place to allow people to install meters to manage those finances, he would deal with all the additional cases that would end up in court. As ever, he gives simplistic answers in a complex world that I would not expect him to even start to address.

T6. Potton island and Foulness island in the Rochford district would very much like to see onshore wind farms. What incentives can the Government bring forward when onshore wind comes back online? (904560)

The Government want communities to participate in and benefit from onshore wind proposals for their areas, and we will shortly issue a consultation on onshore wind partnerships in England to enable supportive communities hosting new onshore wind infrastructure to enjoy the benefits of doing so, exactly as my hon. Friend says, by getting developers to support local energy discounts, new community infrastructure projects and the like.

T2.   Energy-intensive businesses need Government support to transition to a low carbon economy, including the Vauxhall van plant in Luton South, yet last month’s “green day” saw only weak reannouncements on carbon capture and storage and nuclear, and no new money for industry. Can the Minister explain why the Government are failing to help our motor manufacturing industry to decarbonise? (904556)

We have announced an unprecedented £20 million investment in the development of carbon capture, utilisation and storage and a £185 million extension to the industrial energy transformation fund, and confirmed the first winners of the £240 million net zero hydrogen fund. In addition, this Government have provided more than £2 billion since 2013 to energy-intensive industries to make electricity costs more competitive.

T8. Maximising investment in renewables is vital to bringing new jobs to coastal communities such as Lowestoft. I would be grateful if my right hon. Friend confirmed that he is working closely with the Treasury to prepare a comprehensive fiscal strategy that will form part of the autumn statement, and that it will include tax incentives, the reform of capital allowances and measures to unlock private investment in ports. (904562)

My hon. Friend will be pleased to hear that we always work closely with our Treasury colleagues. We launched the floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme—FLOWMIS—on 30 March, which is worth up to £160 million and will support investment in port infrastructure precisely to unlock floating offshore wind investment and deployment. The spring Budget set out the Government’s plans to launch the refocused investment zones programme to catalyse 12 high-potential growth clusters across the UK.

T3. The Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) has just mentioned the Government’s ambitious plans for CCUS. The Petra Nova carbon capture facility in the US was meant to reduce carbon emissions by 90%, but it achieved only 7% over three years and allowed the continued extraction of fossil fuels. What will he do to ensure that UK Government investment in CCUS goes only to truly net zero projects? (904557)

The hon. Lady is right to highlight the technical challenges. The Labour Government said in 2003 that CCUS implementation was urgent. No one thinks there is a route to 2050 without CCUS and, as she says, it is important not only that we make the investments we are making, but that we do so in a way that is compatible with the highest possible capture percentage.

The Government’s commitment to park home payments is welcome, but residents in Eastleigh are still awaiting their payments because the council says it does not have access to Government systems. Will the Minister make sure her officials speak to Eastleigh Borough Council today to get this sorted? Will she commit to writing to let me know what has gone wrong so that we can get my constituents the payments they need?

All the councils that are able to participate in the scheme have received the money from the Government, with 99% of local authorities onboarded so far. Ninety five per cent. of councils are processing claims, with the majority of applications having been accepted and paid. However, we are working to understand the specific problem in Eastleigh, and I will update my hon. Friend as soon as I can.

T5. The experience of my constituents who are on prepayment meters is atrocious, and today’s announcement from Ofcom will do absolutely nothing to protect vulnerable groups such as those with Alzheimer’s, the under-fives and those who are over 75 but under 85. Will the Secretary of State answer the question he did not answer earlier, and say why he is not protecting the vulnerable from prepayment meters and the lack of energy support? (904559)

Just to correct the record, Ofgem is in charge. The measures it put out today, with industry agreement, will help to protect people. When a person’s payments are in deficit, they have to find a way out. The hon. Lady appears to favour a system in which, rather than installing a prepayment meter, people are immediately taken to court, which I do not think is a good solution. We will carry on working with Ofgem to make sure we put the best solutions in place.

Ministers will be aware that the Humber region has attracted £15 billion of private sector investment in carbon capture projects. Needless to say, there was widespread disappointment when none of those projects was included in track 1. Is the Minister able to give the clarity that the private sector needs?

My hon. Friend is right about the possibilities for CCUS. The £20 billion fund was competitive, and others, including HyNet on the east coast, won. When it comes to the Humber cluster, both the track 1 expansion and track 2 will happen later this year.

T7. British industry has supplied small modular nuclear reactors to the Royal Navy for more than 60 years, giving us a head start on the exciting commercial application of this zero carbon energy technology. Why is the Minister undermining and delaying its progress by going through an unnecessary so-called international competition, rather than backing British engineering excellence and British workers? (904561)

That is a brilliant question. What happened during all those years when the Labour party was against civil nuclear power? This Government are moving ahead, and we have set up Great British Nuclear and funded Rolls-Royce with £210 million and counting. I have already said from this Dispatch Box that we are starting a competition now to select a winner in the autumn. Where were Labour Members when we were doing all this?

I have already met the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero to discuss the National Fire Chiefs Council’s concerns about the use of lithium-ion storage facilities to get renewable energy to the grid. Will the Government review existing fire and environment regulations to ensure they reflect these deep concerns and risks, and help to ensure that renewable energy can get to the grid smoothly and in a timely manner?

Grid-scale lithium-ion battery energy storage systems are covered by a robust regulatory framework, which requires manufacturers to ensure that products are safe before they are placed on the market, that they are installed correctly and that any safety issues found after products are on the market are dealt with. I am meeting my right hon. Friend this week to discuss this in more detail and I look forward to that very much.

T9. The Minister must surely recognise that fuel poverty cannot be solved by threatening to send vulnerable people to court or imposing the installation of smart meters. When will he stop passing the blame to Ofgem? When will he really start to support vulnerable people who are facing fuel poverty? (904563)

It is incredibly important to this Government that we support vulnerable people. We are looking at all of the issues around prepayment meters, but we have provided £400 of support through vouchers and I encourage all Members to ask their constituents to come forward to get those if they have not already collected them.

In Rugby, we are proud of the rate at which we provide new homes. I recently visited Barratt Homes’ Ashlawn Gardens development, where I heard that intending purchasers of new homes now place an enormous priority on the size of their energy bills. Does the Minister agree that it is important for house builders to promote the thermal efficiency of their products?

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend on that. This is why we set up the energy efficiency taskforce, to work with industry to make sure that we take forward a tremendously transformed situation from the appalling one in 2010 and accelerate and move forward even more quickly in the future.

More than once this morning those on the Government Benches have congratulated themselves on the home insulation figures, but those figures could and should have been so much more impressive, if, after 2015, this Government had not abandoned Liberal Democrat policies to invest in renewables and insulate homes. The impact of that on my constituents has been fuel poverty. This winter, they are struggling to heat their homes, with still expensive carbon fuels, and there is a growing incidence of mould. When will the Government recognise that emergency insulation is needed?

We have worked very hard on making sure that homes are insulated. We have just announced another £1 billion for the Great British insulation campaign, which makes £12.5 billion over this Parliament and into the next one for insulation. That is one reason why nearly half of homes are now insulated, whereas the figure when Labour was in power was only 14%.

I welcome the £12 million from the social housing decarbonisation fund and the home upgrade grant for Darlington, which will help cut heating costs and carbon emissions, and reduce fuel poverty for my constituents. May I invite the Minister to visit the fantastic Darlington economic campus, where some of his team are situated?

I am very glad to hear about the successful funding bids in my hon. Friend’s constituency. These schemes will improve homes up and down the country, improving their energy efficiency and lowering energy bills. I am delighted to accept the invitation to visit the Darlington economic campus, although I can confirm that I have already visited it and was incredibly impressed by the calibre of the individuals working there to drive forward our ambition—

Minister, that is the last time you do that to me. Seriously, you are taking advantage of this Chamber too much. You were enjoying yourself earlier, which was fine, but I am not consistently having you dictate to the Chair. Do we understand each other?

With the Humber estuary responsible for 40% of all industrial emissions in this country, it beggars belief that it was not included in the track 1 for carbon capture. Will the Minister now guarantee that the Humber cluster will be included in the expansion that he just talked about, as it brings £15 billion-worth of private investment with it?

The right hon. Lady is absolutely right about the potential of the Humber cluster. I want to put that on the record, as well as the fact that track 1 and track 2 announcements will be made later this year. It is perhaps a testament to the amount of competition for carbon capture, usage and storage that this country has sufficient space to store 78 billion tonnes of carbon, which is the equivalent of about 200 years of all Europe’s carbon being stored in the North sea. There is just heavy competition for where it goes.