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Topical Questions

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 16 April 2024

I would first like to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), who served this Government for eight years, including as Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero since 2022. He will be missed in the role for his expertise. He attended his first COP in 2005 and was instrumental in our achievements at COP28 last year. He helped the UK to halve its emissions, which is an extraordinary achievement. We are the first major economy to do so. He also worked with the Net Zero Council, protecting families through the global energy crisis and backing 200,000 British oil and gas workers. He leaves a legacy of which he can be very proud. I would also like to welcome the Minister for Energy Security and Net Zero, my hon. Friend the Member for North Swindon (Justin Tomlinson), a tireless campaigner who I know will continue this Government’s world-leading work.

Since I last updated the House, families are benefiting from a drop in the energy price cap worth almost £250 a year to the average household. I have set out plans to reform tariffs, saving bill payers up to £900 a year, and invested £750 million in nuclear skills as part of my plans for the largest expansion of nuclear in 70 years.

The consultation on renewable liquid fuels from September is welcome, but the recent survey by the Future Ready Fuel campaign showed that 88% of respondents from off-grid households actively want the option of switching to a renewable liquid fuel. Will my right hon. Friend work with me to ensure that we can get consumers the choices that they actually want, and not the heat pumps that many do not?

I thank my hon. Friend. I know that he is a fantastic champion for people living off the gas grid. We are supporting off-grid homes to transition to heat pumps or biomass boilers through the boiler upgrade scheme, with grants of up to £7,500. Renewable fuels such as hydrotreated vegetable oil have the potential to play an important role in heating off-grid buildings, and we will be issuing a consultation on that role by September, in line with commitments made by Ministers during the passage of the Energy Act 2023.

Mr Speaker, can I start by paying tribute to your father, Doug? He was a remarkable fighter for social justice, and we share your sense of loss.

A year ago, after presiding over the absolute scandal of the forced installation of prepayment meters, the right hon. Lady’s predecessor promised full compensation for anyone affected. Unbelievably, she has left it to the energy companies to decide who gets compensation and how much. They have assessed 150,000 people and just 1,500 got anything—99% got nothing. Why has she so catastrophically failed to deliver justice for those affected by the PPM scandal?

The right hon. Gentleman does actually raise an important issue. We have gripped the question of prepayment meters since the scandal first emerged. Not only have we made it clear that the horrors that we saw last winter, of people forcing prepayment meters on vulnerable households, should not take place, but I have been in contact with Ofgem in recent days about making sure that people can get the compensation they deserve at the speed with which they need it.

That is simply not good enough. It is a year on. The right hon. Lady is the Energy Secretary; she should be delivering that compensation to people, and she is failing across the board. The onshore wind ban remains; the offshore wind market crashes; the insulation schemes are a disaster, while she spends her time appeasing the flat-earth, anti-net zero brigade in her own party. No wonder the former Energy Minister, the right hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart) resigned. Is it not the truth that the Secretary of State is failing in her job and the British people are paying the price?

The right hon. Gentleman did not listen to my previous answer. It was this Government who worked with Ofgem to make sure that forced prepayment meter installation stopped taking place for vulnerable households. We have said very clearly that it is abhorrent, and we do not want to see it again. On compensation, we are working with Ofgem.

However, if the right hon. Gentleman talks about the wider energy plans—and we should do that—I think that he should consider the recent comments from industry that Labour’s plans would leave the country uninvestable, that they would hike the bills that people would pay, and that they would cost so much in needed taxes—over £100 billion of costs for Labour’s mad plans to decarbonise the grid by 2030, which, let me be clear, are not backed by industry, the unions or consumers.

T4. We have seen the price of fuel go up at the pumps because of what has happened in Ukraine, but, in this country, we have also seen that there is great variety at different petrol stations. I am really pleased that the Competition and Markets Authority has looked into it and that the Government are coming forward with Pumpwatch. We have seen something similar in Australia that saves up to £50 for the individual. Can we make sure that, when this comes into play, the Government have an advertising campaign so that the public know that they will be able to see local prices, up to date every 30 minutes, for the best place to get their fuel? (902309)

We will publish the Government’s response to the recent Pumpwatch consultation as soon as possible, and we continue to work closely with the Competition and Markets Authority, and the sector technology companies, to launch Pumpwatch this year. Of course, my hon. Friend makes an incredibly important point that, when we launch this, we will of course make sure that everybody knows about this valuable resource.

We learned last year that no fewer than 200 Department for Energy Security and Net Zero jobs were going to transfer from London to Aberdeen. That was championed by no less than the Secretary of State for Scotland, the right hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Jack) and the Minister responsible for nuclear and renewables, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie). It now transpires that only 35 jobs will transfer to Aberdeen. For context, that is 0.37% of the DESNZ workforce. Is the Secretary of State content for that derisory transfer of jobs from her Department to Aberdeen? Presumably she will not be, so what is she going to do about it to give the north-east of Scotland a better deal?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for raising this issue. We are very proud—I am particularly proud—that we have announced Aberdeen as our second headquarters. Hosting our second headquarters underlines the importance of the north-east of Scotland in our net zero transition. Unlike the Scottish National party, we champion the north-east of Scotland. They are anti-exploration, anti-new licences and anti-oil and gas. The headquarters already has more than 100 staff, and our ambition is for more than 135 by March 2027. I have been doing some research, though: it turns out that the Scottish Government—his party’s Government—have a grand total of zero jobs in his own constituency of Angus.

T9. Residents in Cranbrook and Tithebarn have faced frequent energy outages and woeful customer service from E.ON’s district heating networks. The Government’s Energy Act 2023 means that district heating networks will finally be properly regulated. Will my right hon. Friend outline when this regulation will be brought in? (902314)

The initial phase of heat network regulation, including transparency rules, will come into force in 2025. Some requirements, such as pricing regulation and guaranteed performance standards, require more market data and will be introduced in the second-phase regulation in 2026.

T2.   Does the Minister acknowledge that the alarming delays in track 1 carbon capture and storage expansion and track 2 timelines endanger the Humber’s status as a global leader in hydrogen and CCS, endanger £15 billion of private investment and jeopardise industrial decarbonisation and economic growth? (902307)

We recognise the role that CCS can play for the economy not just in the Humber but across the wider British economy, which is why we have set out £20 billion of investment committed to this sector. We set out an ambitious road map just before Christmas, and we continue to meet investors to see how we can speed up the process.

I have been speaking to my constituents about the whole net zero agenda. Although the people of Romford are very determined to see cleaner and greener energy sources, I have to say that their priority is energy security, energy self-sufficiency and energy sovereignty. I am worried that we are not taking the people with us on net zero, because many people simply cannot afford this extreme agenda that could end up giving China a competitive advantage and bankrupting our own country.

Order. I remind Members that these are topical questions. I have to get through them. Just because the hon. Gentleman missed out on Question 18, it does not mean that he can have an extended topical question. Let us help each other.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Andrew Rosindell) highlights the importance of working with the public and business. Whereas the shadow Secretary of State sneers at those who are sceptical, we have to win hearts and minds. That is why my hon. Friend will welcome our “Powering Up Britain” plan to secure our energy system by ensuring a resilient and reliable supply, increasing our energy efficiency and, crucially, bringing down bills.

T3. Did the former Energy Minister, the right hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart), leave because he is worried about losing his seat to Labour at the next election, or because he could no longer bear to support the woeful energy policy of this Government? Which one was it? (902308)

I direct the hon. Gentleman to the letter of my right hon. Friend the Member for Beverley and Holderness (Graham Stuart). I reiterate our pride in his work and the amazing contribution he has made to this Government and this country.

Clayton-le-Moors in my constituency is home to the Lancashire centre for alternative technologies, initiated by the Government’s getting building fund. Will the Minister agree to visit to see how the centre is providing financial and research and development support to accelerate the commercialisation of low-carbon technologies?

I agree that it is incredibly encouraging and exciting to see those developments. I would, of course, be delighted to visit my hon. Friend in her constituency at any time.

T5.   Energy Security and Net Zero questions has once again proved to me how out of touch this place is with the rest of the country. The poorest 40% of UK households will be made much worse off by net zero policies, according to a report from York University. The poor in Ashfield will get poorer, and rich eco-fanatics like Dale Vince will get richer and pass on some of his millions to that lot in the Labour party and Just Stop Oil. Can the Minister confirm how much net zero will cost, to the nearest trillion pounds? (90310)

I am very proud of what this Government have done to protect the poorest in society from rising bills, which are the result of international factors and a volatile gas market. I make it absolutely clear that the only way that Dale Vince, the climate extremist, and his enablers will come anywhere close to having influence on energy policy is if a Labour Government are elected. Frankly, that is the only thing that voting Reform will achieve.

At my constituency surgery on Friday, I met representatives of the Riddings Lane solar action group who are concerned about the proposals to build a new solar farm covering 145 football fields’ worth of land between the villages of Gleaston, Dendron, Leece and Newbiggin. Does the Minister agree that solar farms are great but should not go on prime agricultural land?

As my hon. Friend is aware, we have a presumption against building on the best and most versatile agricultural land. Due to my quasi-judicial role in planning I cannot speak to the issue directly, but I am very happy to meet him and, indeed, any representatives from his constituency to discuss the project in question.

T6. I have been contacted by a popular village pub that is struggling with its energy debt and astronomical energy bill. Such pubs are at the heart of our local communities and they are closing at an alarming rate. Will the Secretary of State consider measures to enable them to manage their historical debt by allowing them to pay it off more slowly, or supporting them in another way so that we can keep these important pubs open? (902311)

I could not agree more that these pubs are at the heart of our communities, which is one reason why I have regular meetings with UKHospitality to think about how we can look at bills, including things such as blend and extend.

On Ynys Môn, companies such as Mona Lifting in Llangefni, supported by the Green Digital Academy, which has been funded by £2.7 million from the community renewal fund, are working hard to use their businesses to help to deliver net zero with the installation of solar panels and charging points. Does the Minister agree that it is thanks to the UK Government that innovative, forward-thinking companies such as Mona Lifting are leading the way so we can deliver net zero?

My hon. Friend once again champions her constituency, working with businesses so that in conjunction we can drive up our use of renewables. It is thanks to this Government that we changed the planning rules to make it easier to set up large-scale solar installations. I also welcome households playing their part, with 17,000 solar-panel installations a month last year.

T7. Thank you, and big hugs, Mr Speaker, for the loss of your father.My constituent Joe Stean did the right thing and switched the family car to electric, but now the cost and lack of charging points have put him into fuel poverty. What are the Government doing to encourage charging options for people who do not live in detached homes? Is it true that the new Minister voted against the zero-emissions vehicle mandate? (902312)

It is an important point. As a proud electric car driver, I have concerns that not all people have equal access to charging, which I have on the driveway to my house. I was therefore thrilled when the Government managed to deliver a 50% increase in EV charging points in the last year alone.

Energy security is national security, and food security is national security. Up and down the country there are plenty of rooftops, residential, industrial and agricultural, that are suitable for solar panels. Will my hon. Friend the Minister reassure the country that we will prioritise those sites for our solar footprint, rather than jeopardising prime food-producing land or, indeed, our precious greenbelt?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Food security and energy security are both vital, which is why the UK solar taskforce identified the need to address barriers relating to rooftop solar deployment, including access to finance as a priority. The rooftop subgroup was established to focus specifically on this area, and we are exploring options to facilitate low-cost finance from retail lenders to help households and businesses with the up-front cost of solar installation on rooftops.

T8. Smart meters are vital to help families to cut bills and save money on their energy outlay, yet the Government’s own figures show that 4 million smart meters are faulty. Is that not another catastrophic failure? When is the Secretary of State going to get a grip on the issue? (902313)

Clearly this is an issue that concerns us in the Government, which is why we are striving to do everything that we can to make sure that we are solving the issue.

T10. The giant pylons—they are absolutely huge—associated with the transmission route have caused grave concern in the highlands. Can I have an assurance that strong consideration will be given to undergrounding the cables near the communities that are affected and, indeed, to going under the ocean where that is possible? [Interruption.] (902315)

While the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) heckles to say that there is yet another nimby, we recognise that we want to work with communities and respect local knowledge to inform present and future works. All transmission projects are required to progress through the robust planning process, which includes statutory consultations and individual planning reviews, and I am sure that the hon. Member will feed into that directly.

Forty per cent. of properties in this country do not even have an energy performance certificate, and of those that do in the private rented sector, and in the private ownership sector, only 30% are EPC C rated. Last year, we made an improvement of only 1% on this. EPC C is the standard, so when does the Minister expect that we will ever get to 100% EPC C in our housing stock, and what are the Government doing to increase the speed of the process?

The pace of delivery of the Great British insulation scheme is accelerating quickly, with the rate of delivery doubling over the past three months. We have a proud record on energy efficiency. In 2010, we inherited a situation in which only 14% of homes were well insulated, but now we have that figure up to nearly 50%.