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Commons Chamber

Volume 737: debated on Tuesday 19 September 2023

House of Commons

Tuesday 19 September 2023

The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

May I remind the House that this is the final performance of the Clerk of the House? This is the last time we will see him at the Table, but we wish you well, John, and do enjoy your new role.

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy Security and Net Zero

The Secretary of State was asked—

Contracts for Difference Scheme

1. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of the contracts for difference scheme in supporting low-carbon electricity generation. (906448)

2. What assessment she has made of the potential implications of the outcome of the contracts for difference allocation round 5 on the future development of floating offshore wind. (906450)

Our contracts for difference scheme is a UK success story, having contracted more than 30 GW of capacity, including 20 GW of offshore wind, since 2014. AR5 delivered a record number of clean energy projects, enough to power the equivalent of 2 million homes, and the Government’s commitment to offshore wind remains unchanged, which is 50 GW by 2030.

I welcome my right hon. Friend to her place. The great advantage of the CfD scheme is that with forward planning it has the flexibility to adapt to changing economic conditions. Can she therefore confirm that the Government will be working collaboratively and straightaway with industry to ensure a successful round 6 so that offshore wind can get back on track, and UK consumers and the UK economy can benefit from low-cost, low-carbon energy?

I thank my hon. Friend for his long-standing support in this area and I can confirm that we are wasting no time in engaging the sector in advance of AR6. I personally spoke to offshore wind stakeholders following AR5 and confirmed our commitment. The Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero held a roundtable with the sector on 12 September. We are listening to the sector and annual auctions mean we can respond quickly.

I know that as chair of the all-party group on the Celtic sea my hon. Friend is a long-standing supporter of offshore wind. We have announced that AR6 will open in March 2024 and we have published an indicative timetable. We are supporting research and development in floating wind technology via the floating offshore wind demonstration programme, announcing up to £160 million in capital grant funding.

Can we work to the order, as it is a grouped question? The question should not be answered in that way. Selaine Saxby should be asking a direct question.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I am keen to understand better what more can be done to assist floating offshore wind in AR6 following what happened in AR5.

I know my hon. Friend is a long-standing supporter of offshore wind. We have announced that AR6 will open in March 2024 and we have published that timetable. We are supporting floating wind technology through different programmes and manufacturing investment schemes too.

We also welcome the Secretary of State to the Dispatch Box. With many renewable projects built on the strength of contracts for difference, but with reports of many not invoking these contracts and instead benefiting from the higher energy prices, can the contracts in principle be invoked later, when prices fall, or could the Government enforce the invoking of the CfD contracts now, at the start of the generation of these projects, rather than their taking the high prices while they can?

The CfD programme has driven prices down over time to enormous effect, by 70% since they started, which is much more than people expected. I would be happy to take the hon. Gentleman’s particular point away but overall this is a successful programme, and our annual auction changes will also make a difference.

Given the unreliable and intermittent nature of both solar and wind-generated energy, we already have more of these projects than the grid can efficiently manage. Does the Secretary of State agree that what we really need is more reliable baseload capacity and that that can only be delivered via fossil fuels or nuclear?

We have a strong focus on energy security, and that means having a just transition to clean energy but also investing in nuclear. The hon. Gentleman may have seen that we have started the capital raise for Sizewell C, and we support the oil and gas industry as a just transition fuel.

I wish the Clerk of the House well in the future, and I warmly welcome the Secretary of State to her new role and congratulate her on her appointment to the Cabinet. I look forward to working together. Let us start with the truth. The offshore wind auction that she inherited was a totally avoidable disaster. It means another lost year for our country and another year of higher bills, and it is because Ministers obstinately refused to listen to warning after warning from industry. RenewableUK estimates that the auction failure will add £2 billion to bills. What is the Secretary of State’s estimate of the cost to families of this fiasco?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming me to my place. I am delighted to serve opposite him and face him at the Dispatch Box.

There are a couple of things I will point out. If we had tried to do what the right hon. Gentleman suggested, we would have delayed the 3.7 GW of clean energy that we secured, which is able to power 2 million homes. If we want to look at what is going to hurt people and their bills, I would point to his disastrous policies, whether it is the ultra low emission zone, which is hitting people who can least afford it, or his borrowing spree, which will raise inflation.

I am afraid the Secretary of State is quite wrong about that, because Ireland adjusted the price and had 3 GW of offshore wind. Let us talk about the way that this Government are jeopardising our energy security. They have delivered—[Interruption.]

Order. Mr Stuart, I know this is the last day before the recess and you are excited to get some freedom, but let’s save it.

This Government have delivered the worst cost of living crisis in a generation. There is a pattern here: they banned onshore wind and raised bills, they slashed energy efficiency and raised bills, and now they have trashed offshore wind, raising bills. That is why we are so exposed. I know that the right hon. Lady did not make those decisions, but now that she is the Secretary of State, she needs to tell us, after 13 years of failure, what is she going to do differently?

Let me tell the right hon. Gentleman about the last 13 years. We have decarbonised faster than any G7 country, while also growing the economy. We have grown renewable energy from 7% of our electricity when Labour left power to 50% now. I am proud of what we have achieved over the last 13 years. We have a proud record when it comes to climate change and a proud record when it comes to renewable energy, and I am proud to defend it.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her new role. I wish I could have welcomed her to her new role on 5 September, when we had the remaining stages of the Energy Bill, but she was not here. I wish I could have welcomed her on 7 September for the urgent question on the auction round 5 strike price, but she was not here for that either, so what has the new Secretary of State been doing in the midst of the chronic energy crisis facing our constituents and allowing her Department to see shovel-ready offshore wind go into abeyance? What has she been doing?

I struggle to see how that was directly related to the question, but let me tell the hon. Gentleman what I have been doing. I was here for the Third Reading of the Energy Bill; perhaps he was not. During this time, I have been moving forward with all the Government’s priorities on energy security and ensuring that we can move to a just, clean transition.

Forgive me if that rendition is not immediately recognisable in offshore wind projects from auction round 5. I hope the Department has learnt some salutary lessons from this mess, but it will be consumers who pick up the bill. Can I ask the Secretary of State for her personal intervention in pumped storage to introduce a cap and floor mechanism, which industry has been clear is absolutely necessary to get this vital baseload energy source into position? Will she intervene personally and get that moving, because it is blowing in the breeze just now?

I am absolutely focused on getting investment into offshore wind. One of the first things I did after AR5 was speak to investors from across the board, to make sure I was listening to their concerns, and there are multiple things they care about. One is having certainty; there was lots of welcoming of the move to annual auctions. The other is connections to the grid. I will be looking at all those things and making sure we can get the investment the sector needs.

Carbon Capture, Usage and Storage

3. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of carbon capture, usage and storage technology on economic growth. (906451)

We have committed £20 billion to the early deployment of carbon, capture, utilisation and storage, which will deliver economic growth and decarbonisation of our industrial heartlands. Our analysis has shown that it could support up to 50,000 jobs in 2030 and add up to £5 billion to the economy by 2050.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. Following the commitment in “Powering Up Britain” to provide up to £20 billion of funding for early deployment of CCUS, how does she intend to finance that support? Does she recognise that CCUS funding needs to be matched by creating a competitive environment for private sector investment, including a carbon border adjustment mechanism to smooth the path to deployment, as recommended by the Commission for Carbon Competitiveness, of which I am a member?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s work as a member of the Commission for Carbon Competitiveness, and she makes an excellent point. The £20 billion will be funded through a variety of sources and will be allocated in due course, and early this year the Government consulted on a range on measures to support decarbonisation, including a carbon border adjustment mechanism. The Government will provide a response to that consultation in due course.

If the Secretary of State is looking for innovation that will make a real difference to economic growth, will she look at not only carbon capture and storage, but hydrogen? Many of the same universities and research establishments are looking at hydrogen as the new energiser for transport and so much else in our lives. Will she put some serious money into both hydrogen and CCS?

I am interested in innovation in all of those areas, because that is what will get us to the ambitious targets we have set out. I will be looking at hydrogen, carbon capture, and every single other area to see what more we can do.

Methane Leaks from Oil and Gas Production

The Government have ambitious plans to tackle methane emissions from oil and gas production. With support from Government and key regulators, industry is on track to end routine flaring and venting prior to 2030, in line with the World Bank’s initiative.

While I welcome the Government’s introduction of new oil and gas licences in the North sea as part of a just and graduated transition to more reliance on renewables, the Minister will be aware that methane is a far more warming gas than carbon dioxide. Given that much more can be done, will the Government look at how they can ensure that flaring, venting and leaks are fixed by the new licence holders as and when they occur and, in the context of the North sea transition plan, ensure that the new Affleck oil field is not allowed to flare until 2037, as set out in the permission granted to it? This is all part of how we can reach net zero without it costing my constituents the earth.

The North Sea Transition Authority already expects methane emissions to be as low as possible and all new developments to be developed on the basis of zero routine flaring and venting, and that they should be electrified or electrification-ready. Of course, what is required and will help facilitate that is new investment in the North sea facilitated by licences, without which we are unlikely to see the reduction in emissions that we have so successfully driven so far.

The Minister has not really given any reassurance to the hon. Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard). As we know, methane is a whopping 80 times more powerful than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period, so if the Minister is serious about tackling this issue, will he explain why the Government failed to use the Energy Bill to ban flaring and venting? Why did they whip their own MPs to vote against an amendment that would have outlawed it, and given that the practice has been illegal in Norway since the 1970s, will he finally recognise that this makes a mockery of Ministers’ claims about UK oil and gas being greener?

Unusually, the hon. Lady has got her facts wrong: I do not think that amendment was even selected for debate that day. According to the North Sea Transition Authority, flaring was reduced by more than 10% just last year, contributing to a reduction of nearly 50% between 2018 and 2022. As I have said, the North Sea Transition Authority estimates that methane emissions have fallen by more than 40% to fewer than 1 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent—a record low. We have old existing infrastructure and are moving with a maximum of ambition to reduce emissions, and we have a successful track record to date.

Climate Change Committee: 2023 Progress Report

5. What assessment she has made of the implications for her Department’s policies of the Climate Change Committee’s 2023 Progress Report to Parliament, published in June 2023. (906456)

I am grateful for the work of the Climate Change Committee, and I pay tribute in particular to the commitment of its outgoing chair, Lord Deben. The Government will respond to the committee’s report in October.

The latest Climate Change Committee report found that, out of 50 key indicators of Government progress on tackling climate change, just nine were on track. According to Energy UK, even before the disastrous offshore wind auction, the UK was forecast to have the slowest growth in low-carbon electricity generation of the world’s eight largest economies up to 2030. Does the Minister recognise that the Government’s failure has cost every family £180 in higher bills?

Our climate leadership is measurable and real. We have reduced emissions by more than any other major economy since 1990. We were the first to legislate for net zero. We have eliminated coal, which as late as 2012 produced nearly 40% of our electricity supply—the legacy of the Labour party—and we have lifted renewables from 7% to 48%. We have cut emissions by more than others, transforming our energy system, and we are leading on this issue internationally and domestically. That is exactly what the Government rely on in fulfilling their aspiration to climate leadership.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that one consequence of the Climate Change Committee report is to increase our country’s reliance on Chinese technology and raw materials?

China has even greater offshore wind capacity than ourselves—it has the largest wind and largest solar capacity in the world—and it has a significant level of production. We recognise that we will need technology from all over the world, including China, if we are to meet our net zero aspirations.

According to the Climate Change Committee,

“the private sector…is being held back…by weak policy signals, uncertainty, and barriers to investment,”

and perhaps we would not need to be so reliant on China if those issues were addressed. Just last month, UK investors representing £1.5 trillion in assets wrote to the Prime Minister, warning that that could mean the UK missing out on 1.7 million jobs. Will this zombie Government listen to investors and their own advisers, look at the game-changing interventions in the States and bring forward a UK version of the Inflation Reduction Act before it is too late to save British businesses and British jobs?

Yet another unfunded spending commitment from the Labour party—the party that left us with less than 7% of our electricity coming from renewables and that left us reliant on coal; a party that wants to nationalise the industry and drive out all those companies that have transformed the North Sea basin, led the world in cutting the cost of offshore wind, and made us the European leader in offshore wind and the global leader in cutting emissions. The Labour party is the biggest enemy of net zero and the biggest enemy of the private investment in this country that will help us get there.

Onshore Wind Industry

The Government recently announced changes to national planning policy, giving greater flexibility to local authorities to respond to suitable opportunities for onshore wind. The Government also want communities to benefit from hosting onshore wind and have consulted on improving the current system of community benefits for England.

The truth is that the Government have failed to properly lift the ban on onshore wind, while bending over backwards to support expensive new oilfields and even giving billions in tax breaks for those polluting projects. That ban has already added hundreds of pounds to people’s bills, undermining the investment we need in the cheapest form of energy, and cost thousands of good green jobs. Will the Minister not admit that the Government’s failure to properly lift the ban on onshore wind will continue to keep bills higher and makes us less energy-secure?

More than 15 GW of onshore wind are deployed in the UK. In our allocation round 5 just the other day, we secured 1.7 GW of onshore wind capacity; allocation round 4 secured 1.5 GW. It is extraordinary: an industry—domestic UK oil and gas—has lower emissions than the alternative from abroad and employs 200,000 people, every one of whose jobs is at risk if the Labour party ever gets into power. Labour Members are suggesting that there is a negative fiscal impact, when that industry is expected to contribute £50 billion over the next five years. The Labour party is an enemy of the transition to net zero and of British jobs and prosperity.

If the Minister will not accept the argument of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) , will he at least listen to industry, which described the recent announcement on onshore wind as a “missed opportunity” to end the ban? RenewableUK said:

“The proposed changes don’t go far enough”

and would not make up for

“eight years of lost progress.”

When will the Minister listen to industry and lift the ban properly so that we can cut bills?

On 5 September, the Government announced changes to national planning policy for onshore wind in England, giving greater flexibility to allocate suitable areas and to address the planning impact of onshore wind. I agree with the hon. Lady; I am an enthusiast for more onshore wind where it goes with the grain of communities, and we will continue to pursue that to make sure that we can realise the benefits that come from it.

The Minister will know, although he unaccountably did not tell us, that there was precisely no new onshore wind in England in the recent AR5. The Minister claims that the latest compromised wording, which he alluded to, will lift the ban on onshore wind, but he knows really that that is not so and he knows what the industry has been saying about it and why it will not invest for the future. The result is no new onshore wind getting built in the medium-term, higher bills for families and less energy security for the country. Why will his Department not just face down his luddite Back Benchers, introduce fair planning regulations for onshore wind and get the industry restarted across England?

As I have just said, we announced changes as recently as 5 September. Like the hon. Gentleman, I look forward to a positive future for onshore wind in England, as well as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

Uyghur Region: Solar Industry Sourcing

7. What assessment she has made of the implications for her policies of the report by Sheffield Hallam University entitled “Over-exposed: Uyghur Region Exposure Assessment for Solar Industry Sourcing”, published in August 2023. (906458)

The Government are determined to ensure that our energy system is not dependent on forced labour at home or abroad. The supply chain and innovation sub-group of the solar taskforce is therefore considering this issue as a top priority.

I start by welcoming my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her place.

What conversations has my hon. Friend the Minister had with the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office and the Department for Business and Trade on eradicating forced labour from our supply chains? Does he agree that we must ban the worst offending companies from our shores? Will he therefore lead a cross-Government effort to take action on tackling slave labour in our supply chains, just as Germany, America and the EU already have done?

My hon. Friend knows that this issue is a top priority for the Government and for me. A range of tools can be used to tackle forced labour in global supply chains. The Government continue to keep our policy responses under close review, and we are working closely with our partners, including at the United Nations, to hold China to account for its egregious human rights violations in Xinjiang. We have already taken robust action, introduced new guidance on the risks of doing business in Xinjiang, enhanced export controls and introduced financial penalties under the Modern Slavery Act 2015.

I thank the Minister for that answer. As chair of the all-party parliamentary group for international freedom of religion or belief, I commend the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alicia Kearns) on raising this matter. For me, freedom of religious belief in China is paramount and should be a priority for the Government—I think it is. To make it happen, we need clear legislation in this place and real power from this Government, and we need to be assured that no company that uses forced labour in China can have its products sold in this country. Again, I seek confirmation from the Minister that that serious strong will is there.

I concur very much with the hon. Gentleman’s view on this matter. The Government are determined to ensure that our energy system is not dependent on forced labour. As I said, we are continuing to work with international partners to do what we can to hold China to account for its egregious human rights violations, and to work with the solar industry to see what we can do to weed out forced labour and ensure that it is not part of that supply chain moving forward.

National Grid Funding: South-west England

Electricity networks’ funding is regulated by Ofgem through the network price control. In the current price control, National Grid Electricity Transmission will be investing approximately £700 million in the south-west. Ofgem has allowed £5.7 billion for the distribution network company covering the south-west, £1.2 billion of which is for the south-west region specifically.

May I declare an interest, as one of my brilliant little sisters works in the renewable energy sector? I want to see more renewable energy schemes get off the ground in the far south-west, but I am being told that schemes greater than 1 MW have to wait until 2027 at the earliest for a grid connection. This means that dozens of renewable energy schemes are gathering dust on paper, when they should be generating clean power. It is wrong and is setting back our net zero ambitions. What are Ministers doing to speed up grid connections for renewable energy schemes, allowing us to build the already approved clean energy schemes that we need, which will create green jobs, cut carbon and reduce soaring energy bills?

As the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) suggests from a sedentary position, we are doing lots and lots. Specifically, the Government are using strategic planning to support investment ahead of the need in the networks, including the south-west. The first example of that was last year’s holistic network design, which set out a blueprint for connecting new offshore wind projects to the grid by 2030. An update to the holistic network design follow-up exercise, HND 2, will be published early next year and provide recommendations for the connection of floating offshore wind specifically in the Celtic sea. For the first time, offshore wind developers participating in the Crown Estate’s leasing round 5 will receive clarity over their grid connection from the electricity system operator at the same time as a secure seabed lease.

Area-based Home Retrofit Schemes

9. What plans she has with Cabinet colleagues to help increase the capacity of local authorities to deliver area-based home retrofit schemes. (906460)

To support English local authorities, we fund an embedded technical assistance facility, providing access to experts, training and guidance to enhance their capability to deliver our domestic grant schemes.

Second time lucky. The Minister may be surprised—[Laughter]—to hear the following words leave my lips, and I know I am: I agree with the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), in her claim that low and middle-income households cannot afford to pay for the transition to net zero. Where we differ is that I do not believe that we should let the planet burn, as she does. Instead, the wealthy must pay for the green transition. Will the Minister commit to income and wealth redistribution and finally give households and local authorities the ability to transition successfully?

The Government provide a wide range of funding to support local authorities in reaching net zero through the core settlement, grant funding schemes and UK growth funding. The Government are enabling local authorities to tackle net zero goals.

One of the biggest challenges that we have in delivering home retrofit schemes in Cumbria is not with local authorities but with industry capacity and skills. What are the Government doing to try to send the right signals to industry so that we are getting the right skills into the supply chain to deliver some of these schemes, especially in areas such as Cumbria where we have skills deserts?

My hon. Friend makes a really important point on skills. In fact, we have invested £15 million in subsidised training over the past three years and have provided 16,800 training opportunities. We will continue to support this important industry.

Boiler Replacement Guidance

The Government have created an online advice service to help consumers in replacing fossil fuel heating systems, including oil boilers, with a heat pump. We are also providing funding through the boiler upgrade scheme.

Absolutely, Mr Speaker. There is a panic now in Germany as its premature ban on gas-fired boilers approaches. The Minister will want to avoid a similar panic as we approach our own premature ban on oil-fired boilers, won’t he?

As ever, I thank my right hon. Friend. We are listening. As the Prime Minister set out, we will reduce our emissions in line with our obligations but do so in a way that recognises the challenges that families face. Off-grid households will be supported through the transition, and we will respond to the consultation in due course.

During the summer recess, when I was touring villages, I found in my corner of Devon that some constituents are worried about whether they should replace their oil-fired boiler in the next couple of years with a heat pump or put their faith in hydro-treated vegetable oil. Some have been encouraged by the pilots of so-called HVO as an alternative source to heating oil. What assurances can the Minister offer that it will be a truly sustainable source of fuel and not made from palm oil, which encourages deforestation? Or should we put 100% of our efforts into heat pumps?

As the hon. Member doubtless knows, we have conducted a consultation on the use of HVO in heating, and we are determined to ensure that we decarbonise heat in homes, including off-grid homes, in a way that is practical and aligned with minimising any negative impacts on those families.

Energy-intensive Industries: Decarbonisation

The Government have committed £20 billion to support the early development of carbon capture and storage, and £500 million for the industrial energy transformation fund to help industry decarbonise, phase 3 of which is expected to open for applications in early 2024.

May I put on the record the thanks of Back Benchers to the Clerk of the House for his work?

Steel accounts for 8% of global carbon dioxide emissions and 50,000 jobs here in the UK. We have no viable alternative to steel, which is why the Government’s decision to go with an electric arc furnace only modelled for decarbonisation does not make any sense. Not only does it put at risk thousands of jobs but it makes the industry vulnerable to changes in steel prices, as the UK will have to import it. The Minister spoke about carbon capture, but can she explain why the Government have not gone for a combination of technologies such as carbon capture, or the retrofitting required for hydrogen-based steel production? That way, we would not only decarbonise the industry but protect those vital jobs and the industry in the UK for generations to come.

As the Business and Trade Secretary set out, the Government’s deal has provided long-term security for at least 5,000 steel jobs. The investment will grow UK domestic green steel production. I gently urge the hon. Lady to look at her party’s plans for industry, which have been described as impossible and decimating the working classes.

Energy-intensive industries come in many forms. Can my right hon. Friend provide any reassurance that the Government will review the classifications of what constitutes an energy-intensive industry? SB Joinery in my constituency contains a large sawmill and planing facility, but has been deemed ineligible for high levels of the energy bills discount scheme. Would my right hon. Friend be prepared to look at that case personally?

I would be delighted to meet my right hon. Friend and discuss that particular case. We keep looking at everything we can do to support business, as we have done this entire time.

For years people have been calling on the Government to have a proper plan to help our steel industry decarbonise. Instead, the industry has lurched from crisis to crisis, and now the Government are spending £500 million in a deal that will make thousands of Port Talbot steelworkers redundant. Is it not the simple truth that jobs and wealth will be lost because there is no comprehensive plan for steel, automotive or any industry that needs to decarbonise?

I refer the hon. Lady to my previous comments. The investment will provide long-term security for at least 5,000 steel jobs. We have had record investment of £4 billion in the auto industry this year. Again, I urge her to look at her own party’s plans. Its industry decarbonisation plans are disastrous, and will push jobs and investment out of this country.

Heat Networks

17. What assessment she has made with Cabinet colleagues of the potential merits of introducing a mandatory price cap on heat networks. (906471)

The Government are providing millions in support for remedial work through the heat networks efficiency scheme. We are supporting customers with their bills via the energy bills discount scheme. Through the Energy Bill we will appoint Ofgem as a heat network regulator, so that customers benefit from fairer prices.

I must declare that I live in a block with a heat network. Many heat networks will be quite expensive to change under the technical rules proposed by the Government for 2024. Given many blocks have also had cladding and other pressures on leaseholders, are the Government looking carefully to ensure that customers are not being overlayered with many more charges to remediate networks?

Through the heat network efficiency scheme, the Government are providing £32 million to upgrade existing heat networks and reduce energy costs. The scheme will upgrade old equipment and help consumers in more than 10,000 houses to reduce their energy use. We will shortly announce the first awards from the fund.

Residents living in New Mill Quarter in Hackbridge in my constituency have been plagued by a litany of problems since they were connected to the Sutton decentralised energy network, including an inability to change tariffs. Does my hon. Friend agree that residents have been let down by the mismanagement identified in an independent report on its poor running by Lib Dem-run Sutton Council? Will she commit to working with me to ensure that heat network customers, who have nowhere else to go for their energy, are protected by new measures in the Energy Bill?

I know how hard my hon. Friend works for his constituents and I thank him for bringing this scheme to my attention. We want all heat network customers to receive a high-quality service and fair pricing, which is why we are appointing Ofgem as a regulator through the Energy Bill and currently consulting on how it will operate. Of course I will meet my hon. Friend.

Many of my residents are locked into district heat network schemes. They have been paying up to 13 times more than the rest of the UK because they are not protected by the energy price cap. Do the Government not think it is time to implement a mandatory price cap straight away?

At this moment in time we do not think that a uniform price cap would benefit consumers, given the huge diversity in size and scale of providers in the market. However, through the Energy Bill, the Secretary of State will have powers to introduce a price cap, should one be beneficial in future.

Families in Fuel Poverty

In 2022, there were an estimated 3.26 million households in fuel poverty. The additional support we provided last year prevented 350,000 households from falling into fuel poverty in 2022. The established targeted support remains in place, while from July 2023 household energy bills have been falling.

Over 40,000 families in Bradford have been plunged into uncertainty as the Tory Government lurch from crisis to crisis. More than one in five of my constituents now live in fuel poverty, yet the Minister still comes here today with no real plans or solutions, and no real windfall tax on the booming profits of energy giants. Let me ask the Minister to put herself in the shoes of my constituents. What does she have to say to those who, frankly, have been abandoned and have to choose between a warm home, a full stomach and school uniforms for their children?

Having experienced fuel poverty myself when I was growing up, I do understand completely how the hon. Gentleman’s constituents feel. That is why the Government are absolutely committed to ensuring that we support people. We have given unprecedented support. We have the warm home discount and the cost of living payment, among many other measures, to help constituents through the cost of living.

Renewable Energy Sector: High-skilled Jobs

16. What steps she is taking to help promote the creation of high-skilled jobs in the renewable energy sector. (906470)

This is a crucial area. There are already over 400,000 jobs in the renewable energy sector and that will rise steeply over time. We are investing billions in skills, including green skills and including 26,000 training opportunities in energy efficiency and low carbon heating.

May I urge the Government to give real priority to the creation of apprenticeships in the renewable energy and green sector? That way, we can use net zero to create great opportunities for young people and boost social mobility.

As a former Education Minister, I am absolutely passionate about this area. We have delivered almost 5.5 million apprenticeships since 2010. The Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) chairs the green jobs delivery group, which will publish a net zero and nature workforce action plan in the first of half of 2024.

I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Although the UK has the second largest offshore wind capacity in the world after China, Denmark has three times as many jobs in the sector. Many British wind turbines are being built in Spain, Holland and Indonesia. Why are the Government so far behind the curve on the green jobs bonanza that is so possible for our country?

Thanks to Government policy and spending, we will support another 480,000 jobs in the green sector by 2030. As I said, we are leading the way in decarbonising faster than any other G7 country, with the jobs that come with that right across the country.

I, too, welcome the Secretary of State to her place and remind her that we started in this place at the same time, four years ago. Will she highlight the job opportunities in the new renewable energy sector that AI presents for my constituents in Bolton?

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point about the job opportunities presented by AI, which will undoubtedly have an effect across the country and a beneficial effect in this sector. I would be delighted to meet him to speak about this further, but we will be setting out more detail on our green jobs delivery group and our net zero and nature workforce action plan in the first half of 2024.

Would it not boost skills in renewable energy generation and installation, as well as encouraging more uptake, if all those installing solar energy schemes had to be certified under the microgeneration certification scheme so that the householder, farm or business concerned would be guaranteed payment for surplus energy fed into the grid?

The right hon. Gentleman asks an interesting question. We have explored his suggestion of legislating to make certification mandatory. We have no such plans at this time, as there is a mature approach to certification standards, and most UK domestic solar installations already take place within well-established schemes.

Domestic Nuclear Energy

18. What assessment she has made of the potential contribution of Great British Nuclear to domestic nuclear energy targets. (906472)

The British energy security strategy sets out our ambition for deploying up to 24 GW of civil nuclear by 2050. We launched Great British Nuclear to help deliver new nuclear projects, starting with a small modular reactor competition. The GBN offer to successful vendors will include funding to support technology development and support with accessing sites.

May I say “Croeso” and welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her place?

Wylfa is recognised as the best site for new nuclear in the UK—if not in Europe—but a Welsh Affairs Committee report stated recently that ownership of the site is holding back progress. What are the Minister and Great British Nuclear doing to transfer its ownership from Hitachi to an active nuclear developer?

The terms “doughty champion” and “passionate” are regularly thrown about in this place, but when it is a case of championing Wylfa new nuclear, no one comes close to my hon. Friend. When launching the small modular reactor competition in July, the Secretary of State indicated that, as part of a comprehensive offer to industry, GBN would support access to sites for successful vendors, and Wylfa is one of a number of sites that could host civil nuclear projects. However, no siting decisions have been made so far.

Topical Questions

Since my appointment a fortnight ago, the Energy Bill—which will deliver cheaper, cleaner, more secure energy—was given a Third Reading in this House. We have funded a record 95 renewable energy projects, and I have visited our pioneering Culham Centre for Fusion Energy. I have also launched the £1 billion Great British insulation scheme. We have bolstered our energy collaborations with Ireland and Japan, we have made our biggest ever climate finance pledge, and just yesterday we invited partners to invest in Sizewell C, a major component of our nuclear revival.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new role. She will be aware that the huge increase in offshore wind farms in the east of England has led to an unwelcome proposal from National Grid to put 100 miles of pylons across the area. We do not want that. We need an offshore solution. Will my right hon. Friend meet Members from the east of England to discuss this proposal?

I thank my right hon. Friend for raising this issue today. I understand that concerns have been raised by local communities about the National Grid electricity transmission plans for network reinforcement between Norwich and Tilbury. The Minister for Nuclear and Networks, my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), has visited the area and will continue to engage with colleagues, but I am also happy to meet local MPs to discuss the matter further.

According to analysis by the Resolution Foundation, more than a third of British households face higher bills from the end of this month because of higher standing charges and the demise of the energy bills support scheme, and the people who use the least energy, and those in the poorest households, are disproportionately worse off. At the same time, the windfall tax has massive loopholes costing billions. Would not closing those loopholes and extending more help to people during the cost of living crisis be the right thing to do?

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Government are raising a 75% energy profits levy, and he will also be aware that standing charges are a matter for Ofgem. Let me reiterate, however, that we are mindful of the cost of living crisis and have been providing support with the warm home discount, the £900 cost of living payment, and a raft of other measures to support people through this crisis.

T2. The launch last week of the Great British insulation scheme was very welcome. So as to build on this and to kickstart a mass retrofitting revolution, will my hon. Friend liaise with the Treasury to obtain its support for the introduction of such fiscal measures as an energy-saving stamp duty and an employee benefits scheme similar to the cycle to work scheme? (906474)

The Government set the aspiration in the clean growth strategy of upgrading as many homes as possible to energy performance certificate band C by 2035, where practical, cost-effective and affordable. We remain committed to that aspiration. Although tax policy sits with the Treasury, we are considering how to improve energy efficiency for owner-occupied homes and plan to consult by the end of 2023.

T7. Energy companies have accumulated hundreds of pounds, if not over £1,000, in consumer credit. When those companies go into administration, the company taking over does not honour that credit and people often with very little means have lost hundreds or thousands of pounds. How will the Minister ensure that they get compensation and get credited by the new company with the amount of money they have lost? (906480)

I can assure the hon. Lady that we are in constant conversations with Ofgem on such matters. Although this is a matter for Ofgem, I have a regular meeting to make sure that we are on top of this.

T3. Energy from waste requires burning waste and it is therefore not conducive to net zero. The expansion of the Beddington incinerator in my constituency is not needed to meet local demand, so can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Environment Agency will take that into account before making a decision on whether or not to license? (906475)

The Environment Agency’s recent consultation on varying the environmental permit for the Beddington energy recovery plant closed on 1 September. The Environment Agency will carefully consider all relevant responses and issue a final decision in due course.

In the Select Committee inquiry into preparations for this winter, one of the repeated calls that we have heard from expert witnesses is to support the vulnerable and fuel poor with a social tariff. Will the Minister do that?

Of course we are aware of the challenges that are facing consumers this coming winter, which is why we are keeping the price cap as a safety net. To give the hon. Gentleman reassurance, we will be monitoring the situation in case we need to look at this further.

T5.   Recent investment in electric vehicle charging and the EV supply chain shows the benefit of the Government setting clear targets so that the private sector has the confidence to invest. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we had similar policy consistency across the whole of the economy, we would see greater investment in green growth and in meeting decarbonisation by 2050? (906477)

The zero-emission vehicles mandate supports our commitment to end the sale of new petrol and diesel cars and vans. By setting it many years in advance and giving clear notice to the market, it provides appropriate stimulus to industry in a way that the ultra low emission zone singularly fails to do, as my hon. Friend will have noted.

The Energy Minister got his facts wrong in his earlier response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), so he might want to correct the record. The Liberal Democrat amendment to the Energy Bill to tackle flaring, venting and leaking of methane was selected for a separate vote. It would have reduced methane emissions by 72 %. Why did his Government vote it down?

I stand corrected. On that issue, we have infrastructure, some of which dates from the 1970s, and we are moving at the maximum possible speed. It is technologically and economically challenging to make this change, and yet, as I set out earlier, we are already showing significant efforts, and of course we are champions of the methane pledge, which we plan to exceed. When I am at COP28, I will be urging other countries to follow us in agreeing and supporting that World Bank methane pledge.

T6. The hydrogen industry will, I am sure, welcome the introduction of the hydrogen production business model for green hydrogen, with a further business model planned for next year, but the storage and transportation business model for hydrogen is not due to be finalised until 2025. For customers of companies such as Luxfer Gas Cylinders of Colwick in my Gedling constituency, this is a potential barrier to some projects moving forward. Can my right hon. Friend give come clarity on the sequencing and whether there is scope to bring forward the storage and transportation business model so that the timing is joined up? (906478)

My hon. Friend is right to talk about the challenge of bringing all the pieces together to unlock opportunity. The Government will promote the whole hydrogen economy—production, demand, networks and storage—and stimulate private sector investment. In August, the Government published the low-carbon hydrogen agreement, setting out the hydrogen production business model’s terms. We will award contracts for that in quarter 4 of 2023. My colleagues and I are happy to meet my hon. Friend to talk about making sure we get this absolutely right so that we maximise its benefits.

Biodiesel producers in my constituency are being undercut by cheap Chinese imports because of the Government’s decision to award them inward processing relief. This is making it difficult for us to support UK industry, so can we have an explanation for why that decision was made?

Writing for The Daily Telegraph last year, our now Prime Minister said:

“On my watch, we will not lose swathes of our best farmland to solar farms.”

Yet the industry has not heard that, and vast swathes of farmland in my constituency, totalling 16 square miles, are open to planning, engulfing whole villages and using the best and most versatile land. Will my right hon. Friend meet me to discuss how he and the Department can ensure that the Prime Minister keeps his very important promise?

I can assure my hon. Friend that planning policy and the associated guidance encourage large-scale solar projects to be located on previously developed or lower-value land. Where greenfield sites or high-grade land are used, developers are required to justify using such land and to design their projects to avoid, mitigate and, where necessary, compensate for any impacts. I hear my hon. Friend’s personal testimony, and I will be happy to meet her to discuss this further.

Almost 20% of the housing stock in my constituency dates from before 1919 and is therefore classified as historical. What plan does the Department have to improve skill levels in retrofitting historical residential buildings?

As I previously mentioned, retrofitting is one of our most important projects. Of course, skills are a real issue, which is why we are delighted that this will enable us to enhance our skill bases.

I welcome my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to her new role. Given the vital role that oil and gas play in managing our energy security as demand continues, albeit declining, and the vital jobs, skills, technologies and expertise in that industry, 90% of which are thought to be immediately transferrable to the renewables sector, does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment at today’s reports of Humza Yousaf’s vow to end Scotland’s place as the oil and gas capital of Europe?

My hon. Friend is right. Last year we were dependent on fossil fuels for 77% of our energy. If we import more gas from abroad, it will be in the form of liquefied natural gas, which, according to a report from the North Sea Transition Authority two weeks ago, has four times the production emissions of domestic gas. The Scottish National party, ably supported by the Labour party, wants to threaten 200,000 jobs, £50 billion of tax revenue over the next five years, and the very subsea engineering and technological capability—not to mention the balance sheets—that we need to develop hydrogen, carbon capture, usage and storage, and the rest of the transition. It is madness, and it is the policy of the SNP.

Yes, we need increased electric arc capacity to reprocess more scrap steel in the UK, but Trostre tinplate packaging works in my constituency needs a grade of steel that can be produced only by the blast furnace process, until green production technologies are developed. With 23 such projects elsewhere in Europe, will the Secretary of State commit to investing in developing these technologies at Port Talbot, thus reducing emissions and keeping jobs in Port Talbot and Llanelli?

I share the hon. Lady’s enthusiasm for keeping those jobs, which is why we are investing hundreds of millions of pounds to ensure that these industries can make that transition. I entirely agree with her on the importance of innovation and making sure it is embedded so that not only do we sustain those industries but so that, through innovation, we can strengthen them in the years ahead.

A decade ago, the onshore wind industry committed to a community benefit protocol to provide compensation of £5,000 per MW installed per annum to communities for the duration of a wind scheme. So far, solar developers have refused to do something similar, and surely that is not fair. Does my right hon. Friend agree that compensation schemes must be equal, whether wind or solar is involved?

It is perhaps typical of my hon. Friend that not only is she asking a question and championing this issue, but she has scheduled a meeting with me immediately afterwards. I look forward to discussing this with her and making sure that we have the most coherent position possible as to where we are set on rewarding communities that host transmission infrastructure and other parts of our transition. I look forward to having that conversation with her in the coming minutes.

My constituent Lee Haywood is on a communal heat network, and he and his neighbours saw their price per kWh double last winter. What protection can the Minister give as we come into the next winter, as residents in Dalmarnock are really worried that prices will again soar in this unregulated area?

We have put in place protection to ensure that prices are not going to go up; we have the energy price guarantee. In addition, let me point out that prices are coming down.

Do the Government think the UK is on track to meet the 2050 net zero target? Do the Government think the UK will meet that target? Do the Government even really care?

We have, of course, met all our carbon budgets to date. In the progress report, the Climate Change Committee said it had increased confidence in our meeting carbon budget 4 and, yes, this country will meet its net zero targets by 2050. It will do so in line with the advice that we are given, and I am proud of the fact—the hon. Gentleman could share this with his constituents, who may be concerned otherwise—that this country has cut its emissions by more than any other major economy on earth, thanks to the policies of this Government.

This morning, I received a text from one of the leadership team at one of our local hospices. It said that

“there has been no additional support for our energy costs. Costs have gone up while statutory support hasn’t changed... Hospices UK lobbied for additional support…to no avail… We operate 24/7 and have to keep the heating on—you know what the weather is like in Cumbria in the winter!”

When will the Minister come up with a bespoke support scheme for our vital hospices?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the meetings we have had, and I am mindful of the situation that hospices face. We have given support and I will make sure that I keep monitoring the situation.

On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the exchange about the amendment on flaring just now, I do not think I heard the Minister formally withdraw his accusation that I got my facts wrong, and I certainly did not hear him apologise. Given that he has now accepted that he got his facts wrong and my facts were right, I would love him to formally correct the record and perhaps even to apologise as well.

Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. The hon. Lady is quite right to raise this in that way, and I am happy both to withdraw that and to apologise to her for getting my facts wrong on that occasion.

School Building Closures

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education if she will make a statement on the number of schools affected by reinforced autoclaved aerated concrete and the impact of building closures on children’s learning.

As I said in my statement to the House on 4 September, this Government are supporting affected schools and colleges to minimise disruption to education. I thank headteachers, staff, local authorities and trusts who continue to provide face-to-face education to their pupils.

Two weeks ago, we published a list of education settings with buildings affected by RAAC. Before I provide an update, I want to reiterate that our view is that parents and children should find out from their school, not from a list on a Government website or from the media. Our approach has always prioritised that, giving schools and colleges the space to focus on what is important: minimising disruption to education.

None the less, we recognise the public interest. On 6 September we published a list of 147 education settings known to be affected by RAAC. Thanks to the hard work of school and college leaders, all of those settings are now offering face-to-face education, with 126 settings offering full-time face-to-face education to all pupils. We have today published an updated list including a further 27 settings with confirmed RAAC. Of the 174 confirmed cases, 148 settings are providing full-time face-to-face education to all pupils.

As I have said before, we will do everything in our power to support schools and colleges in responding to RAAC in their buildings. Every school or college with confirmed RAAC is assigned a dedicated support from our team of 80 caseworkers. A bespoke plan is put in place to ensure they receive the support that suits their circumstances. Project delivery teams are on site to provide support, whether that is ordering or finding alternative accommodation options or putting in place structural solutions.

We will fund these mitigations, including installing alternative classroom space. Where schools and colleges make reasonable requests for additional help with revenue costs, such as transport to locations, those will be approved. We will also fund longer-term refurbishment or rebuilding projects to permanently remove RAAC, through capital grants or rebuilding projects through the school rebuilding programme.

I want to reassure pupils, parents and staff that this Government will do whatever it takes to support our schools and colleges, to keep everybody safe, to respond to RAAC and to minimise disruption to education.

Thank you for granting this urgent question, Mr Speaker.

Before I go any further, let me emphasise that the safety of children should rightly be the priority of every Member of this House. However, the question today is not simply about whether that should be our priority, but about the colossal shambles of a Secretary of State who, as we learned from the Education Committee this morning, did not merely sit on new advice about the safety of school buildings, which she received on 21 August, but did nothing for four days. And then she acted decisively—she went on holiday for the best part of a week. Some 10 days passed from the day she received the crucial advice to the day the headteachers were told to close their schools, causing chaos for parents.

Just a fortnight ago, the Secretary of State’s response to questions about the management of the Department’s own building was simple and proud, the motto she has made her own:

“nothing to do with me”.

She had done a “good job”, while others had been sat on their backsides. Does the Secretary of State still think that is good enough? More simply, even under this Prime Minister, weak as he is, and this Government, how on earth did she think she could get away with going on holiday rather than taking any form of action at all? Will she at last take responsibility for 13 years of failure, three weeks of chaos and the years stretching ahead of the children who are sitting under steel girders? When will all our children be back in their own schools and classrooms? Parents, families, staff and, above all, our children deserve answers, and they deserve better from this Government and better than this Secretary of State.

I thank the hon. Lady for her questions. As soon as we had information, we took a decision in every case. When we first saw the incident in 2018, we took a decision and we put out new guidance and warnings. We put out new guidance in 2021-22. We started surveys directly in 2022, when the previous Secretary of State started to get more concerned about RAAC in our school estate. We then sent in surveyors directly, because the responsible bodies were not moving quickly enough.

Let me turn now to the initial advice. Three new cases emerged over the summer, and some were subject to advice, as the hon. Lady says, which came on 21 August. I instructed those involved to get more technical information. The last case is really what tipped us into making a decision. It was a very difficult decision—I am not sure the hon. Lady would have made it because Labour do not tend to make these difficult decisions, and the Labour Government in Wales have still not done so—because of the impact on children and because of the impact on our school leaders and teachers. The last case, which was in another school setting in England, took place on 24 August. We went to investigate that to see what had happened.

On my own decision, I went abroad because that was the first time that I could go abroad. I went abroad for my father’s birthday, knowing that I would still be chairing the meetings, which I did on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, and then I made the decision—as we had now made a decision— to come back from holiday immediately. My return was delayed by one day because of the air traffic control incident, so I got back to announce the decision on Thursday.

When I looked at the new case, I said that we needed to get technical evidence. The second thing I said was that we needed to operationalise this. I knew that this would be difficult. I did not want to put schools in a position where, if I put out a notice via the media or directly, they would be left with the problem. I wanted to stand up caseworkers. I wanted to stand up portacabins. I wanted to speak to utility companies to make sure that everything would be in place so that we could minimise the length of time that it took to put up those portacabins. I wanted to put more structural engineering companies in place, because I knew that we would do more surveys. I also wanted to make sure that we had a nationwide propping company, so that we could put the largely horizontal structural solutions in place to fix everything.

When we have to make a major decision, there is no point creating more issues than we need to. We need to operationalise that decision, which is what I decided to do. The time from the last case to the announcement was one week. That is probably one of the quickest decisions that most people have made in this House and we operationalised it, all while I was still working, as I always do.

I am grateful to the Minister with responsibility for the schools system and the permanent secretary for spending two hours this morning with the Education Committee on this issue. They were able to provide a number of useful answers, including on the provision of temporary classrooms.

I have to say that I was very disappointed last night to receive what was a non-answer on that question about temporary classrooms, which had already been asked at the Public Accounts Committee. I am glad that Baroness Barran was able to go further with the Select Committee today. The information that she provided us with was that there were seven cases from before the summer requiring temporary buildings. The Department is now aware of 29 schools that will require some form of temporary accommodation. Eleven have that temporary accommodation in place. As of Friday, there is the potential for as many as 180 single classrooms and 68 double classrooms to be needed as temporary accommodation.

I urge the Secretary of State to ensure that those are provided as swiftly as possible and that schools and responsible bodies have certainty about when those will be in place, so that we absolutely do what she said—to minimise disruption of children’s education. A key concern of the Select Committee is children not in school, and anything that can be done to minimise that disruption, to create greater certainty for the teachers and the leaders who have done such an amazing job of responding to this, will certainly be welcome.

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Education Committee. I apologise about the written answer the previous night; we had more recent information at the Education Committee. The cases are always being assessed and the numbers are always being updated, which is why we choose a date to publish the latest information. The numbers are moving very quickly. He is absolutely right: 11 RAAC schools already have temporary buildings that are installed or in use. There is a further 28 sites, I think, that have made inquiries and requested potential orders. As he rightly said, there are 180 single classrooms, 68 double classrooms, plus a mixture of toilet provision.

On the portacabins, I would just like to say that I have been to a number of these schools and met the children. At the first school I visited, the children were all petitioning me to stay in the portacabins, because they actually preferred them to the classroom. The portacabins are very high quality—[Interruption.] That is true. I advise the shadow Secretary of State to visit some of them herself.

Perhaps the Secretary of State could clarify whether it is 18 or 28 schools that still need temporary classrooms, because we have heard different figures from her and from her ministerial colleague at the Education Committee earlier. Something headteachers have said to me is that they do not just need the temporary classrooms, but they need some of them kitted out as science labs or design and technology classrooms, for example. There is a cost to doing that. It is not just a question of chairs and tables; it is much more. What is her Department doing to make sure that children have the right classrooms so they can do their assessments, which are already ticking along towards next year’s exams?

I confirm that the project directors and caseworkers have made inquiries requesting potential orders for a further 28 sites. There are some specialist requirements for science labs or other specialist equipment, and there are a number of things taking place on that. Schools are sharing science lab equipment in the short term, either with another school or with another part of the school. We are also looking at mitigations. In the school I went to see where the children were very happy in their portacabin, they had horizontally propped and mitigated the science labs first, so they were able to use the science labs in combination with the portacabins. There are also specialist portacabins available, which are being looked at in specific circumstances.

I thank the Secretary of State and the Minister for Schools for all their hard work, but I ask the Secretary of State to do something from the Dispatch Box. Haygrove School in my constituency is a disaster of construction. It is a Caledonian Modular construction and it has gone badly wrong. Will she please reiterate from that Dispatch Box that this is nothing to do with concrete, but is rather about bad construction? Children and parents are still worried that there is concrete in the school, and there is not. Could she please reconfirm that?

I confirm that Haygrove School is not subject to RAAC. It is a Caledonian Modular build, and we are looking at the quality of a small number of those schools. We are working right now on what solutions we can put in place. There is another such school in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, and we are putting temporary school structures in place for those schools.

The crumbling concrete crisis has been years in the making, exacerbated by the catastrophic failure of the Prime Minister, when he was Chancellor, to sign off on the school rebuilding programme that Department for Education officials requested. Yet the current Chancellor, as we have heard today, will not give the Department any new money to fix the roofs. So what does the Secretary of State say to the hundreds of schools currently managing asbestos, leaky roofs and cold classrooms, which will be put to the back of the queue for a rebuild yet again because the Treasury still does not understand the importance of investing in our children and education?

As someone who has been the Secretary of State since October and has secured record funding for our schools—going up to £60 billion a year next year, which is higher than it has ever been by any measure hon. Members wish to use—I feel that the Chancellor and the Prime Minister very much invest in our schools.

There has been a lot of nonsense talked about Building Schools for the Future. Opposition Members consistently claim that that would have fixed the issue. I know they are not normally across the details, so I thought they might be interested in a few facts. Park View School in Tottenham, which was recently visited by the Leader of the Opposition, Hornsey School for Girls in Hornsey and Stepney All Saints School in Stepney Green were all refurbished or rebuilt under BSF, but all three are still suffering from RAAC. The Opposition do not even know how to solve the problem when it is right in front of their nose.

My right hon. Friend has been absolutely right to act decisively to put the safety of children first. As the list of affected schools has grown today, what reassurances can she give us on the number of schools still awaiting expedited surveys and the absolute cut-off point by which those surveys will be completed?

Last time I was at this Dispatch Box, 95% of all questionnaires had been responded to. Now it is 98.6%, so the publicity has really helped to drive people who had not already responded, and we are grateful to them. I also committed that all the schools that were waiting to be surveyed would be surveyed by the end of this week, and I can confirm that that will absolutely be done. We have a good rate of surveys; we have eight companies doing them and we now have a process that means that as soon schools come in, we will get to them very quickly to survey.

I have a straightforward question for the Secretary of State that I hope she will answer clearly. Will she guarantee that the cost of all the repairs will be funded by new money from the Government, not the current education budget, which is not enough anyway?

As I think I have explained before, there are different parts to the funding. Initially, the surveying work, the mitigations work and the temporary accommodation will all be funded by the DFE’s capital budget—we have a budget for that work. There is also revenue budget for additional things such as transport, hiring a village hall and so on—that will also come from a building fund within the DFE. We have already announced some of the school rebuilding projects, but we have spaces left and some are still to be announced, so some of that will be utilised. Beyond that, as the Chancellor says, we will do everything needed to keep children safe in our schools.

I put on record my admiration for Mrs Sudworth, Tania Lewyckyj and Canon Slade School for their monumental effort to ensure the smooth running of the school since the RAAC announcement. Will my right hon. Friend outline how the Department can encourage surveyors who have concerns about buildings containing asbestos to help avoid delays in the installation of temporary classrooms?

I join my hon. Friend in praising the team at Canon Slade School, who have all pupils in face-to-face education. The vast majority of schools identified as having RAAC have all pupils in face-to-face learning, and that is down to the dedication of our school leaders. All schools have an asbestos plan, but if there is asbestos that needs to be moved as part of the mitigation works, it will be safely removed.

How many publicity videos for party political purposes did the Secretary of State make for Conservative MPs on the day that she found out about the RAAC issue?

I do not recall making any particularly party political broadcasts. On the day when we made the announcements, I did the evening round and the pooled clip and recording, and the Minister for Schools, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Nick Gibb), then did the morning round. That was the focus of our attention in terms of publicity.

The National Audit Office report of 28 June was, of course, agreed with the Department, as all NAO reports are. Given that that report identified that up to 700,000 children were in schools where there were critical safety issues, what was the technical evidence that the Secretary of State said she required some two months later, when that final school collapsed in the way it did?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that very good question. The NAO report addressed bids to, and demand for, the school rebuilding programme. On the technical information, what we have done during the surveys—[Interruption.] If he cares to listen, there is an important distinction. The surveys that we started conducting from September 2022, when we sent our own surveyors into schools, looked at RAAC and whether it was critical or non-critical. That is why 52 schools had already been closed immediately: they were seen as critical. What changed was that there were three instances where the ceilings had been assessed as non-critical but had failed. I wanted structural engineers—I am not a structural engineer—to go in and tell me whether something assessed as non-critical had failed for another reason. Could they say why it had failed, or did I need to look at every non-critical roof and change my understanding of how we wanted to treat them? I wanted to be cautious. That was what we did, and as a result, we decided to act on all the non-critical ceilings straight away to keep people safe.

Half an hour ago, I came from a meeting with London fire chiefs, who were calling for a national register of buildings containing RAAC. That is a practical ask—will the Secretary of State work with other Departments to ensure that it becomes a reality?

I think the fire chiefs usually work with local responsible bodies to find out how they can minimise fire risks within a local area.

If I may, Mr Speaker, I will put four questions to the Secretary of State, because the pupils, parents and staff of St Leonard’s Catholic School deserve answers. First, can we confirm that the planned rebuild of St Leonard’s will now be accelerated? Secondly, when will the venues for rehoming St Leonard’s be confirmed and the finances approved? Thirdly, what additional financial and practical provisions will be in place for the most vulnerable pupils, particularly those with special educational needs and disabilities and those receiving free school meals? Fourthly, what options for special consideration will exam boards apply to year 11 and year 13 students this year?

I am delighted that St Leonard’s now has a mix of face-to-face and remote learning—it has done a fantastic job to enable that, working with local partners. On school rebuilding, we are making those decisions with the project directors we have on site at St Leonard’s. We will consider first the short-term and medium-term mitigations, and then when we should do the rebuilding. We have an MPs surgery later for anybody in the House to raise specific cases that they are interested in; I shall be there with my Ministers and officials, and we are happy to go into detail on any case and give Members the latest. It is still an evolving situation, but we will be there and will support St Leonard’s as much as possible to ensure that children are safely educated there.

I am sure that all the people the Secretary of State told to get off their backsides will be very sympathetic to the fact that she needed to go on holiday while this crisis was in progress.

On revenue and costs, the Secretary of State has itemised a number of things that the Government will cover, but schools face a vast range of potential revenue costs, including surveyors and other costs. Is she saying that all costs relating to RAAC will be covered?

Yes, all the costs that the hon. Gentleman mentions are reasonable costs. Also, I am sure that he is delighted that all the pupils at St Thomas More Catholic Comprehensive School are in face-to-face education.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about my working, I am always happy to work, no matter where I am, and I always have been throughout my very long career.

Ellesmere Port Catholic High School has huge challenges: five classrooms, the chapel, two corridors, changing facilities, kitchens and canteens have been closed, meaning that a number of technical lessons cannot be taught and no hot food can be served. I have a direct plea from the headteacher, who says:

“I cannot understate the urgency of this situation, particularly with the temporary accommodation. We are having real issues getting the Department to approve mitigations so that we can operate for all our students in the short term.”

After this statement, will the Secretary of State have a look at this case and talk to officials about getting the approvals that that headteacher needs?

Absolutely. I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising that case; I will take a note of Ellesmere Port Catholic High School. If he would like to join the MPs surgery later, we can go through that matter in greater detail, or I can write to him about it if his diary does not allow that.

May I press the Secretary of State on the source of the funds needed to rebuild the RAAC schools? I ask because repairs to RAAC hospitals are coming from delaying indefinitely other hospital rebuilding schemes, including two in my constituency. Will any future schools capital projects be similarly rescheduled?

Colyton Grammar School in my corner of Devon is one of the 27 schools added today to the list of 147 schools already known to have RAAC on site. The National Association of Head Teachers has pointed out that propping up ceilings with metal poles is clearly not a serious option. I want Colyton Grammar School to be able to open up the small part of its estate that has had to close, but if there is new money, and works will not impact on the existing school rebuilding programme, what impact can we expect them to have on funding pledged last year to schools such as Tipton St John Primary School and Tiverton High School?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are doing a very professional job. There is no intention of propping schools up with metal poles; they will largely be horizontal props involving tempered beams, which is how buildings are built in the first place—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Houghton and Sunderland South (Bridget Phillipson) shows her absolute ignorance of this. They will be either steel structures or wooden structures that will then have another roof underneath. I urge everybody to go and look at these classrooms, because they will see that there is no vertical propping—not in any of the schools that I have seen so far—and that is certainly not a long-term solution. The hon. Gentleman will be satisfied that these are very high-quality solutions for our children.

While the dust has settled on media coverage at this time, I thank the Secretary of State for her clear commitment and positivity today in finding a way forward. We understand that there might be some online learning, as experienced during covid, but that can lead to detrimental effects on learning given the importance of face-to-face engagement. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Department in Northern Ireland to gauge the depth of the concrete problems? There is a school in my constituency, but I understand that it has been able to sort out the problems and teaching in school has continued. It is important to know whether any extra funding is available, however, and if so, would that be subject to the Barnett consequentials so we can also get some benefit?

Immediately when we had more information we shared it with the devolved nations. We had been conducting surveys for over a year at that point but it was clear that that was not happening in the devolved nations so they are still not able to identify where the RAAC is and go on to take the action that we took very decisively at the end of last month. We will continue to work with them and support them, and to share evidence, including on how to mitigate in a way that makes good solutions for our children.

West Coast Main Line Franchise

1.2 pm

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Transport if he will make a statement on the contractual and operational situation of the west coast main line franchise—and I congratulate the Minister on his promotion.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. The Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Huw Merriman), continues to represent His Majesty’s Government today in Poland to support UK train companies, among others, at a major international trade fair, and I am therefore replying on his behalf.

The Department has awarded a new national rail contract to First Trenitalia to continue to operate the west coast partnership, providing west coast train services as Avanti West Coast. The national rail contract will have a core term of three years and a maximum possible term of nine years. After three years the Department can terminate the contract at any point with three months’ notice.

In October 2022 and March 2023 the Department approved the award of short-term contracts to First Trenitalia operating as AWC to continue to operate services on the west coast main line. Awarding short-term contracts allowed the Department to monitor progress by AWC in improving performance following the withdrawal of rest day working before considering whether it would be appropriate to award a long-term contract. Avanti’s performance has improved significantly during this time, and taking into account other relevant considerations, the Secretary of State has decided to award a longer-term contract, as announced in today’s written statement.

Over recent months Avanti has made significant progress in recovering from the poor reliability and punctuality delivered in the latter half of last year. In line with its recovery plan and since the introduction of its recovery timetable in December 2022, performance has steadily improved, with cancellations attributed to AWC falling from 13% in early January 2023 to as low as 1.1% in July 2023. Over 90% of trains now arrive within 15 minutes of their scheduled time, an improvement from 75% in December 2022.

Another day, another blow for passengers who use the west coast main line. Fresh from the negative cross-party reaction yesterday to news that High Speed 2 phase 2 is on the chopping block, we have the Department for Transport on the last day before recess—shock, horror—sneaking out the extraordinary award of up to nine years for Avanti West Coast and up to eight years for CrossCountry.

Despite improvements in Avanti’s service, it is still not running a full timetable, and the Minister cannot ask us and passengers up and down the west coast main line to simply forget the last few years of horrendous performance. The Avanti service was on the brink, run into the ground by mismanagement and poor labour relations. In his letter to MPs the Secretary of State says that “Avanti is the most improved operator where performance is compared to the previous year.” Well, that would not be particularly hard—talk about setting yourself a low bar. This award will be seen by most people as rewarding failure.

My criticism of Avanti is in no way reflective of the staff, who have been first class when I have used the service. I was not overwhelmed with confidence, however, when it took me several attempts at last week’s Select Committee to get Mr Mellors to tell me just how many jobs he proposed to cut by closing the Glasgow ticket office.

Given the variable standards delivered by Avanti, we need full transparency. So can the Minister tell me the exact criteria Avanti will have to consistently meet if the extension at the end of the core contract is to be granted? What engagement has the Department for Transport had with trade unions and the Scottish Government in making this decision? What alternatives did the Department consider? Was the operator of last resort considered?

Does the Minister not understand that this award will be seen as Tory “private best” dogma? We have piles of evidence through the operator of last resort and Scotrail that publicly owned and operated railways work. Moreover, with its stake in Avanti, First Trenitalia might well be able to reinvest in Italian rail infrastructure. Is it not time to follow Scotland’s lead and put our railway back into the public sector, where it belongs?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his flurry of questions, and I shall address what he said. He asked for the release of the criteria of the contract awarded; that is a commercial matter and we are not going to discuss that, but I can reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Minister of State my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle has met very regularly with the entire industry and has been working on a weekly basis with officials and with Avanti, and therefore has had the matter very much in hand.

On the performance the hon. Gentleman describes, I am astounded that he is not agreeing with the Secretary of State and celebrating the improvement over the last nine months, and six months in particular: cancellations were as low as 1.1% in July; 90% of trains arrive within 15 minutes; over 100 additional drivers have been trained and brought on since April 2022. Each of those is a significant achievement.

It is all very well for the hon. Gentleman to talk about engagement, but the hon. Gentleman has not exactly been shy in writing to the Department, so I asked my officials to scan the letters we have received and I do not think there was a single one from him in the last year mentioning Avanti. If that is an indication of how content he is with the service, I am delighted to hear it.

As a regular user of Avanti services, I agree that the performance has improved markedly and I pay tribute to the new managing director, Andy Mellors, and his team for turning around what was an abysmal service. I appreciate that the Minister will not be able to talk in detail about the contract, but will he say a bit about the extent to which this new contract moves away from the micromanaged national rail contracts that have been in place since covid? They were right at the time, but are now stifling innovation in the sector and I hope that this is just the first of the revisions of these national rail contracts.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question; he brings not just personal experience of this service as an MP for Milton Keynes but also his considerable expertise as Chairman of the Transport Committee. He is right to pick up on the point of micromanagement, and that is one reason why, having been in a period of relatively short contracts—a number of two-month and three-month contracts—in order to monitor progress, the Government have now seen fit to move to a much longer framework: a three-year contract but with the potential capacity to terminate thereafter if performance is not sustained. That strikes the right balance between giving the certainty Avanti needs to continue to invest in improving the service and the accountability that the Government rightly demand.

I would add that there is some awareness that in relation to services to Milton Keynes, west midlands and north Wales there is progress to be made, and I think I am right in saying that the new chief executive is very much focused on that issue as well.

For the second time in two days, the Government have been dragged to the House to explain the state of our crumbling rail network, and for the second time in two days, the rail Minister has failed to turn up. Surely things cannot get any worse for passengers in the north, we thought, but today, the Minister has proved us all wrong by confirming that passengers could have to suffer up to nine more years of Avanti West Coast and up to eight more years of CrossCountry.

The Minister claims that there has been enough improvement to justify up to a decade more of the utter chaos that is consuming our railways thanks to those two failing operators, yet the latest statistics show that Avanti was the second worst operator in the country for punctuality last month, with only 46% of its trains running on time. CrossCountry was the fourth worst, with only 49% of its trains on time. What is the Government’s response to that? More lucrative contracts and millions of pounds paid out in performance bonuses. These decisions have left glaring questions for the Minister to answer. What performance metrics were considered when the Government made these decisions? Have performance payments been restructured in the new contracts, or will they continue to reward failure? Did the Government consider the operator of last resort, which has driven improvements on other lines?

The country is tired of this cycle of failure, with cancellations and delays, and any prospect of reform kicked into the long grass. It is clear that this Government are determined to run our rail network into the ground. Is their plan really to allow for rail services to have another decade of failure under the Tories, with hundreds of millions handed over to shareholders in performance bonuses and fees? If so, it is clear that they are out of ideas and out of time. If they cannot put passengers first, is it not time for them to step aside and let us deliver the change our passengers so desperately need?

I thank the hon. Member for that brave shot. Let me just remind him that, far from being dragged to the House, the Government published a written ministerial statement and a press release this morning. Not only that, but to the extent that the Government were dragged to the House, it was by the Scottish National party. This is the second time in two days that the Labour party has been caught napping by another party in this House. As to the availability of the rail Minister, we try to pay total football in the Department for Transport. While Cruyff is haring down one wing, we expect Neeskens to be playing through the centre, and that is how we think about these things.

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the previous underperformance, but he is entirely wrong to predict that that will continue, because we see the evidence in front of us. As I have already said, cancellations have been as low as 1.1% in July, and over 90% of trains are now arriving within 15 minutes of their scheduled time. That is part of the basis on which the Secretary of State has decided to award this new contract. If the alternative that the Labour party is proposing is the nationalisation of our railways, I look forward to seeing the budgetary implications of that, let alone any justification that civil servants directed by Labour Ministers would do a better job than this new professional team at Avanti.

While I appreciate the points that the rail replacement Minister makes about recent improvements in Avanti, does my right hon. Friend accept that the failures of Avanti in recent years have led to consumers voting with their feet and refusing to use Avanti services where they can? In the case of passengers traveling from Birmingham to London, they have been coming on to the Chiltern line instead, which is adding to the overcrowding on that line. What reassurance can he give that there are incentives in the new contract for Avanti to win back that trust, so that we are not maintaining overcrowding on other railways such as Chiltern?

With my hon. Friend’s minutiose attention to detail, he will recognise that yesterday we had the rail replacement bus Minister, but today we have another rail replacement Minister. That is thoroughly in order.

As regards the effect on customers, again, my hon. Friend is spot on. It is very noticeable how much the new team at Avanti recognise the commercial challenge of wooing back customers they have lost following the disastrous underperformance of last year, which they recognise, understand and accept. That is a vital commercial challenge. We judge that they are beginning to meet that and doing more than beginning to meet that as a matter of service. There is much further to go as regards the extension of the quality of the service. They recognise that, and that is all in the interest of customers and better customer experience.