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Topical Questions

Volume 746: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2024

A lot has happened since I was last at the Dispatch Box. Not only have energy bills fallen to their lowest level in two years—welcome news for families up and down the country—but Britain has become the first major economy to halve our emissions, which is a huge milestone on our journey to net zero, our Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill has completed its Commons stages, and we are supporting the North sea by protecting 200,000 jobs and using our own gas to heat our homes.

I have signed a new partnership with Canada on fusion energy, which is a technology that could give us limitless energy and one on which Britain is leading the world. We have confirmed the UK’s departure from the energy charter treaty, which was holding back our transition to cleaner, cheaper energy. We have launched a consultation on smart energy tariffs, which could see £900 taken off people’s bills, and today we host our hydrogen investor forum, announcing eight successful projects to make low-carbon hydrogen, with over £27 million of Government support.

Residents in Esclusham in my constituency are alarmed by Innova’s plans for the UK’s largest lithium-ion battery storage facility near Bersham. Can my right hon. Friend give any reassurance about the safety of this technology to my constituents, who are concerned about the dangers of pollution, given the noise emitted by such equipment, and by reports of similar facilities elsewhere exploding, catching fire and emitting toxic fumes?

Electricity storage allows us to use energy more flexibly and to minimise energy bills. Grid-scale lithium-ion battery energy storage systems are covered by a robust regulatory framework that is principally over- seen by the Health and Safety Executive. Planning guidance encourages developers and local authorities to consult relevant fire and rescue services on aspects such as location, ahead of any planning decisions being made.

Some 23% of households in Scotland are living in extreme fuel poverty. Energy debt across the United Kingdom has reached £3.1 billion. Age UK estimates that, had the UK Government implemented a social tariff this winter, 2.2 million households would have been lifted out of poverty. The latest costs of unpayable energy debt have once again been heaped on to ordinary taxpayers by Ofgem through the unit rate. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of how much energy debt could be reduced by through the introduction of a social tariff to mitigate totally unaffordable energy bills?

The fact that energy prices are at the lowest level in two years is good news for families up and down the country. We have put in place support, including a package of more than £104 billion to support families—that is £3,700 per household on average. As part of that, we have made £900 cost of living payments to help people in the last year.

T2. Energy is a vital purchase for the hospitality sector, and can make up a large part of the overall costs. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the energy costs faced by pubs, hotels and food businesses do not put them out of business? (901686)

I thank my hon. Friend for that important question. Wholesale energy prices have fallen compared with last year. The Government have been supporting eligible businesses locked into high contracts through the energy bills discount scheme, until they can take advantage of lower fixed-price rates. My hon. Friend will be interested to hear that the Government delivered more than £7.4 billion to non-domestic energy users last winter, covering around half of many businesses’ energy bills.

Last September, the Energy Secretary claimed she was lifting the onshore wind ban, but in the whole of 2023 and so far in 2024 there have been zero applications for new onshore wind farms designed for domestic electricity supply in England. She said that her decision would speed up the delivery of projects. Why does she think it has not worked?

Let me be clear about our record on onshore wind. Energy production has quadrupled since 2010, when we had 3.9 GW of onshore wind, to 15.4 GW in 2023. We have connected the second highest amount of renewables anywhere in Europe, whereas the right hon. Gentleman’s plans have been widely discredited by industry and would deter billions of pounds of investment in clean energy.

The right hon. Lady did not answer the question. I will tell her why it has not worked: because she has left a uniquely restrictive planning regime in place for onshore wind. Her failure is costing families across this country £180 a year on their bills. We know that her policy has failed. She could dump the ban at the stroke of a pen. If she is vaguely serious about clean energy, why does she not face down the headbangers on her Back Benches and lift the ban?

As I said, we have connected the second highest amount of renewable electricity anywhere in Europe since 2010. Our record on renewable energy is clear. This is the most extraordinary deflection that I have seen. In recent weeks, the right hon. Gentleman’s leader has shredded his policy platform on energy. To be honest, I feel quite sorry for him, because thanks to the action of his leader and his shadow Chancellor, he has been hidden away, his policy has been ripped up and it is now obvious to everyone that Labour has no plan for energy.

T3. Further to the question by my hon. Friend the Member for South West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous) about the review of electricity market arrangements, I welcome the fact that we are, at last, getting to grips with the clunky old rules that add potentially hundreds of pounds to everyone’s energy bills. May I urge the Minister to go faster? This is chugging along at Whitehall speed, and we need urgent action to reduce energy bills soon. (901687)

I thank my hon. Friend for his continuing interest in this issue. The REMA programme is considering a number of options, including sending more efficient locational signals, which I know he is very knowledgeable about, zonal pricing, reform to transmission charging and changes to network access. The second round of the consultation is imminent.

T4. This Government’s treatment of miners, retired miners and their widows is nothing short of a national scandal. Since 2021, the Government have been sitting on the recommendations of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee report, which recommended reviewing the mineworkers’ pension scheme’s surplus sharing arrangements in favour of miners and their widows. During that time, thousands of miners have sadly passed away through the legacy of industrial disease, while the Government have pocketed £4.8 billion of the miners’ own money since 1994. When are the Government going to do the right thing and return the miners’ money? (901688)

The Government are doing the right thing, have done the right thing and will continue to do the right thing in coming to a fair settlement between miners, the Government and the taxpayer. That is what we will continue to do, and I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss it further.

T5. Earlier this month, the all-party parliamentary group on infrastructure, which I chair, launched a joint report with the Institution of Civil Engineers on the public behavioural changes needed to achieve our net zero target. I have sent my right hon. Friend a copy of the report. As part of its production, we carried out market research, which highlighted public uncertainty on where to go for accurate information to help people make the choices required to decarbonise their lives. What is the Department doing to help fill that information gap? (901689)

Of course, my hon. Friend has a highly distinguished history in the marketing industry. We agree that it is important that the public get the information they need to save money on their bills, as we set out in the net zero growth plan. That is why last autumn we relaunched the “It All Adds Up” campaign, which helped British households save an estimated £120 million last winter. Whether it is elf on the shelf or other such routes, we will find ways to better communicate with the public, precisely to allow them to be well informed in doing their bit for net zero.

T6. The Under-Secretary of State for Energy Security and Net Zero, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway) spoke about the Government’s approach to differential fuel prices in different towns. Motorists in Chesterfield remain mystified as to why major supermarkets are charging them more than they charge customers just a few miles up the road in Sheffield. It is clear that the Government’s approach is not working. When I wrote to the major supermarkets, they admitted that they charge Chesterfield customers more. There is no reason why customers in Chesterfield should be charged more than customers in Sheffield, so will the Minister tell us what she is doing about that? (901690)

I could not agree more that we should not be paying different prices at different petrol stations. That is one of the reasons why we have launched a consultation on Pumpwatch, and why we have very regular meetings with the suppliers to make sure that they are not doing this. They should not be doing it and we are very clear about that.

T9. Offshore Energies UK’s industry manifesto highlights the once- in-a-lifetime opportunity that a home-grown energy transition provides to bring investment and jobs to communities all around the UK. This requires close collaboration between the private and public sectors. Can Ministers confirm that the Government are absolutely committed to such a partnership? (901693)

I can. What the sector does not need, of course, as OEUK has itself set out, is the tens of thousands of job losses that would be driven by the ideological and climate-damaging obsession of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) with ending new UK oil and gas licensing.

T7. The last published Government estimate for Sizewell C is £20 billion, but Hinkley Point C, the supposed prototype for Sizewell C, is now estimated to cost £48 billion. When will the Government admit that the actual cost of Sizewell C will be a colossal £50 billion noose around bill payers’ necks? (901691)

The SNP, blinded by a misplaced belief in its own exceptionalism, seems almost alone in the world in not recognising the benefits of new nuclear when it comes to meeting our net zero objectives, delivering our energy security and improving our baseload. At last year’s COP, 30 countries around the world came together to commit to increasing nuclear-generated capacity by 30%. It would be brilliant if Scotland could be part of that change, but the SNP and its luddite partners in the Green party are holding Scotland back. We are determined not to do that for the rest of the UK.

Plans for a new incinerator in Wisbech are strongly opposed by my constituents and those of my right hon. Friends the Members for North West Cambridgeshire (Shailesh Vara) and for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss). With 300 lorry trips a day and a structure bigger than Ely cathedral, there would be serious health and environmental concerns for the nearest school. Will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visit the site to see for herself why the plans are wholly inappropriate?

The Secretary of State will be happy to engage with my hon. Friend, and I too would be delighted to visit the site to look into the issues that he has raised.

T8. At last we have heard the excellent news from Stellantis that it is to build electric vans at Luton’s Vauxhall plant from 2025, as a result of the tireless efforts of both management and workforce in pursuit of efficiency and quality. What plans have the Government to invest in electric vehicle charging infrastructure to help to stimulate the EV consumer market? (901692)

The hon. Lady is right to salute the astonishing investments that we are seeing throughout the automotive sector, and I am delighted that the Government have been able to help to bring them about. As she knows, we are committed to spreading more and more charging across the United Kingdom, not least in motorway service areas, so that we have the infrastructure to facilitate the decarbonisation of transport alongside all our other emitters.

Earlier this month we welcomed the Prime Minister to A&P Falmouth to meet its workforce and talk about its fantastic submission for funding under the floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme to enable the port of Falmouth to support the emerging floating offshore wind sector in the Celtic sea. Can the Minister reassure my constituents that the Government are looking at all the applications with a scrutinising eye to ensure that the supply chain can be built up throughout the south-west?

I can indeed confirm that the supply chain and the manufacturing jobs that will be created through our investment in floating offshore wind will benefit every community in the United Kingdom. No decision has yet been made on FLOWMIS, but one will be made imminently.

T10. Government statistics released last week show that 469,000 low-income households in the north-west live in energy-inefficient properties. Hundreds of households in the Fishwick area of Preston are still struggling with cold, damp homes after the failed installation of insulation more than a decade ago. Will the Minister commit his Department to future fuel poverty schemes that will prioritise the fixing of past mistakes, as well as renewed support for good insulation to be fitted in older terrace properties around the country? (901694)

The Government are already committed to ensuring that households have the necessary energy efficiency. We have introduced the social housing decarbonisation boiler upgrade scheme, the home upgrade grant and many other initiatives, and we are of course helping all our constituents with affordability.

We have made huge progress in decarbonising our electricity sector, but decarbonising transport and heat is much more tricky. Will the Minister encourage our plans in Copeland to harness any power that can be obtained from new nuclear for that purpose, and will he meet us so that we can discuss those plans?

I should, as ever, be delighted to meet my hon. Friend, and very happy to discuss the opportunities that are opening up for her community and others throughout the United Kingdom. Indeed, I have visited her constituency and observed for myself the huge enthusiasm for new nuclear, as well as the additional benefits that it can bring to the wider energy sector.

The potential loss of 2,800 jobs at Tata Steel in Port Talbot is devastating for workers and their families, with possible knock-on effects for Trostre in Llanelli. As well as investing in the electric arc furnace, will the Government commit themselves to primary green steelmaking in the UK to preserve our security and our jobs?

The hon. Lady should, alongside us, celebrate the £500 million that the Government are contributing as part of an overall £1.25 billion investment in the modernisation of steel production at Port Talbot through, for instance, the electric arc furnace. Government and industry will also invest £100 million in skills to ensure that there are thousands of jobs for the future, and that we reduce emissions as well.

Will my hon. Friend reaffirm the Government’s commitment to develop four operational CCUS clusters, including Acorn in my constituency, by the end of the decade? Will my colleagues in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero make representations to His Majesty’s Treasury to bring forward the financial investment decisions at the soonest opportunity?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and he is absolutely right: CCUS has such an important role, and we are committed to those four clusters. As we announced in March last year, we have delivered £20 billion of investment to make sure that we carry on with the transformation and decarbonisation of this country that was so woefully lacking when we took power in 2010.

Last week the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), shared a platform with an extremist, far-right, climate change-denying conspiracy theorist called Steve Bannon, who claimed that man-made global warming is a “manufactured crisis”. Will the Secretary of State condemn those crazy comments and perhaps distance herself from the former Prime Minister?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. What he should look at carefully is that the UK is the first country in the G20 to halve emissions. If he wants to look at our record, he should look at that. It is absolutely extraordinary that no one on the Opposition Benches has welcomed that news today.

National Grid’s Grimsby to Walpole project will see pylons driven across Lincolnshire’s beautiful landscapes and will take major chunks of some of this country’s best agricultural land out of production. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is vital that residents respond to the consultation that is currently going on, and that National Grid should be told to take into consideration food security as well as energy security when it considers such applications?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As he will know, I cannot comment on a specific proposal. We need to rewire this country in order to have homegrown energy. That means hosting new infrastructure, with the presumption that it is above ground and done in a way that minimises negative impacts on food security, which I am confident that any proposals that come forward will do. Let us make no mistake: we must rewire this country. We must power the UK more from this country, clean up our energy and reduce our dependence on foreign fossil fuels.

Every single winter, the village of Altnaharra in Sutherland is the coldest community in the whole of the United Kingdom. Some parts of the United Kingdom are colder than others—that is geography. May I ask that this fact be taken into consideration when the Government look at schemes to help people with the cost of paying their electricity bills?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. As he will know, the Government delivered over £40 billion in support last winter. We expect the warm home discount to support around 3 million households this winter, with the final figures to be published later. Since 2011, the warm home discount has delivered over £3.5 billion in support for eligible low-income households.

I welcome the news that Ofgem has put the price cap down by 12%, which represents a discount of about £20 for every average home. There is one problem, though: the standing charge is still relatively high. I know there is an open consultation, but would the Government consider transparency about the standing charge on bills so that the public understand exactly what it does?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. Clearly, it is vital that we had the call for input on the standing charges, and we await with anticipation how we will react to the over 40,000 responses that we have had so far.

I have recently been inundated with correspondence following the collapse of SSB Law, a legal firm that took thousands of defective cavity wall insulation cases to court. It has left constituents with tens of thousands of pounds in costs that they cannot afford during an unprecedented cost of living crisis. Can the Minister assure me that the Government have a plan to address this scandal? What compensation will my constituents be offered to remove faulty cavity wall insulation so that they can finally be free of its devastating consequences?