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Topical Questions

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 21 May 2024

Since I was last at the Dispatch Box, we have been building up Britain’s energy security. We have taken the next step in the biggest expansion of nuclear in 70 years, making Britain a producer of advanced nuclear fuel and pushing Putin out of the global energy market. Just today, Rolls-Royce announced that it will invest millions of pounds in bringing new jobs to Sheffield to manufacture small modular reactors. We have overachieved in our third carbon budget, which is keeping us on track to reach net zero, and we are building on our proud record of being the first major economy to halve emissions. We have invested over half a billion pounds to help cut energy costs and bills for schools and hospitals, and we are taking our next steps on PumpWatch to protect motorists from unfair prices.

Latest figures by National Energy Action show that there are still 1,875 homes in my constituency with legacy prepayment meters. What action are the Government taking to remove this costly burden on families?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. During my career, I have looked at the issue of prepayment meters for a long time, and one of the things that I am proudest of is our taking out the premium that people on prepayment meters were paying.

T3. I welcome Ofgem’s ongoing review of standing charges in electricity bills. In the North Wales and Merseyside region, the standing charge is 67.04p per day, compared to an average of 60.10p across the UK. Will the Minister commit to coming back to the House to provide further comment on this geographical variation once Ofgem has published the findings of its review? (902956)

My hon. Friend makes an important point and is right to pick up on this matter. I reassure him that I have encouraged and pushed Ofgem to do more on this issue. Electricity standing charges include network costs, which reflect the cost of maintaining and upgrading the transmission and distribution networks across the country. I am of course happy to meet him to discuss this subject further.

The National Infrastructure Commission said that the Government have reversed some progress on net zero. The right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May) said that the Government’s roll-back on net zero has put off investors. A member of the Climate Change Committee has said that we are “not ready at all” for the impact of extreme weather on our national security. Mad, bad and dangerous. Will the Secretary of State finally back Great British Energy and the national wealth fund instead of lurching from crisis to crisis, not having a plan and selling out Britain?

We absolutely will not be backing putting the shadow Secretary of State in charge of UK and British energy companies, piling misery on to consumer bills. We have unlocked £300 billion of public and private investment in low-carbon technology since 2010, with plans for £100 billion more by 2030. Last year alone, we saw an investment of £60 billion; that is up a staggering 71% on the previous year.

T4. I know the Secretary of State understands the importance of safeguarding good agricultural land for food production. Will she update my constituents in Inkberrow and Stock Green on what more she is doing to ensure that solar panels are placed on car park and warehouse rooftops, which we have an ample number of in my constituency? (902957)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we need to protect the best and most versatile agricultural land in this country. Unlike the Opposition, we respect the views of communities up and down this country, and we will not countenance the industrialisation of our countryside. However, solar power remains very important. We are committed to our 70 GW target. In our forthcoming solar road map, we will set out exactly how we will incentivise the development of rooftop solar, and development on brownfield and other sites.

T2. Private investors are queuing up to make billions of pounds of investment in the green industries of the future, but under this Government, that money has flowed abroad. Under Energy UK’s projections, the UK is now eighth out of eight major countries for renewable investment up to 2030. How have the Government allowed that to happen? (902955)

That is simply not the case; we are leading internationally. Last year alone, there was £60 billion of funding for low-carbon technology; that is up 71% on the previous year. That is why other countries turn to our businesses and supply chain for their expertise—and to us, as we are leading with our policy framework.

T5. The switch to electric cars and vans is crucial for improving air quality and reaching net zero. Will the Government update us on action being taken to deliver charging points in the right places, in consultation with residents? [R] (902958)

The Government have invested in the Faraday battery challenge, a £541 million programme to support the research, development and scale-up of world-leading battery technology in the UK. Since 2022, all new homes and homes undergoing major renovation in England have been required to have a charge point installed. That is why we welcome the year-on-year 49% increase in charge points.

T7. Will the Minister confirm whether the Government have dropped their commitment to consulting on a social energy tariff? If they have not, can we have an update on progress, given that a social energy tariff would lift 2.2 million households out of poverty? (902960)

A social tariff means lots of different things to different people, but what it ultimately means is ensuring that we support all vulnerable people. The hon. Member will be aware that the Government are doing many things to support people; there is the warm home discount, the cost of living payment, which is £900, and a variety of other measures.

T6. While it is important that we support renewable energy sources, does the Minister agree with me that solar panels should go on rooftops, not on farmland? (902959)

As my hon. Friend has heard me say already today, solar power is important, and we remain committed to our 70 GW target. However, food security is as important as energy security when it comes to national security. That is why we are protecting the best and most versatile farmland in the United Kingdom. Unlike the Opposition, we respect the views of communities up and down the country; we will ensure that our countryside is not industrialised, and incentivise companies, individuals and organisations to invest in rooftop solar, and solar on brownfield, not greenfield, sites.

T8. Does the Minister think that a regulator that allows the poorest to pay the highest bills, and that has overseen the doubling of energy bills since 2021 and the collapse of 30 energy companies in the same period, is fit for purpose? (902961)

We are ensuring that energy businesses are able to survive, and not just through the price caps. This is also a matter for Ofgem.

My constituency is home to Scout Moor, one of the largest onshore wind farms in Europe, but the north-west also has amazing potential for offshore wind; an example is the Morgan and Morecambe development off the coast of Lancashire. Such projects require huge amounts of infrastructure to be realised. Notwithstanding the reassurances that my right hon. Friend has already given, will she ensure that community consent is part of any infrastructure projects of this kind?

My hon. Friend raises an important matter. Absolutely; that is part of our forward planning in making sure that we can unlock the huge potential in every region of our United Kingdom.

T9. Under Ofgem’s price cap, which has just come into effect, people with the most poorly insulated rural homes can expect to pay an additional £340 on their annual energy bills. Will the Minister expand insulation schemes, particularly for people living in rural areas? (902962)

The hon. Gentleman’s question covers a few issues. One of the most important things is to look at how the standing charges are made up. That is why we have encouraged Ofgem to answer our call for input. Insulation schemes are incredibly important as well, which is why the Government are committed to supporting so many of them.

Hydrogen is the only viable alternative to natural gas for a balanced, reactive and carbon-zero electricity grid. The UK has 32 gas power plants, all of which could be cheaply and easily retrofitted to burn hydrogen as a natural gas. What is the Department doing to encourage this sort of retrofitting, so that we can allow technologies to decarbonise electricity generation and take advantage of the many benefits of hydrogen?

I thank my hon. Friend for that rather surprising question on hydrogen. The Government recognise the value of hydrogen in supporting a decarbonised and secure power system. We intend to publish soon our response to the December 2023 hydrogen-to-power market intervention consultation, and we will soon legislate for decarbonisation readiness requirements, so that new-build or substantially refurbished combustion power plants are built net zero ready.

In the last 12 months, one in five households, or one in four young households, in energy debt have turned to illegal money lenders to help pay for bills and everyday essentials. The End Fuel Poverty Coalition has stated that the crisis could mean that young households spend years at the mercy of these loan sharks. What assessment has the Minister made of the merits of working with Ofgem and energy suppliers in order to introduce support to alleviate this record-high energy debt?

The hon. Member makes an incredibly important point, and I have had many conversations with her on this matter. I can reassure her that I meet Ofgem regularly to discuss this, as the issue is very close to my heart—hence the call for input. To give her further reassurance, I can tell her that earlier this week, I met energy suppliers, and I also have ongoing meetings with Citizens Advice and other stakeholders.

Like others, I welcome what the Government have already done to extend the permitted development rights for rooftop solar and car park canopies, but may I encourage my hon. Friend to tell others in Government who have responsibility for planning that there are considerable benefits to car park canopies, particularly in hotter summers?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question. I urge him to bide his time and have patience, because in the next few weeks we will publish our solar road map, which will expand on exactly how we will work with other Government Departments, and indeed industry, to ensure that we benefit from the huge advantages that we have in the number of rooftops available for the deployment of solar capacity across the UK.

There has indeed been a significant increase in domestic insulation schemes in recent years. However, will the Minister agree to increase the number of conversations with devolved institutions, so that we can see a genuinely nationwide revival of insulation schemes that, individually, can do more to reduce the dependency on high energy costs for those at maximum risk, in social housing and elsewhere?

Clearly, energy efficiency is incredibly important, which means that making sure that we get the correct insulation schemes is also incredibly important. I give the hon. Gentleman my assurance that we are doing everything we can to ensure that that insulation takes place.

Given the floating offshore wind manufacturing investment scheme funding recently awarded to Wales, can the Minister please advise me on when A&P Falmouth, which is to be a vital part of the supply chain for the only successful project in allocation round 4, will be put on the reserve list? The Minister has promised to meet me on several occasions. Can I ask that we expedite that much as possible?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss this matter. Indeed, I am determined to ensure that ports that were not successful in the FLOWMIS process can take advantage of the huge increase that we expect in the deployment of floating offshore wind capacity off the coast of the United Kingdom. I am happy to meet my hon. Friend and, indeed, any other Member of Parliament who represents a port that was not successful through the FLOWMIS procedure to discuss how we can move this forward.

Community energy can deliver so many renewable energy products and save on energy bills. Last year in Bath, a community energy project putting rooftop solar on schools saved schools £130,000. When will the Government remove the barriers to community energy?

As a result of the Energy Act 2023, we launched a consultation and a multimillion-pound fund to help to support the expansion of community energy across the United Kingdom. It would be great to have the Liberal Democrats’ support in the effort that this party and this Government are making to ensure that the benefits of community energy are felt up and down the length and breadth of the country.

As we go to net zero, surely we also need to retain our sense of human rights. Polysilicon mostly comes from Xinjiang, where it is mined using slave labour. To what extend are we prepared to say that net zero trumps slave labour, and are we checking on slave labour products in the arrays?

I can assure my right hon. Friend that we are indeed ensuring that the extent to which slave labour is used is kept very much at a minimum, if at all, in the supply chain of any of the components coming to advance us towards net zero. The solar road map, as referred to earlier, will set out in greater detail how the Government will work with industry to ensure that there are no slave labour components to any of the parts we are importing to develop our renewable technology.

My constituent from Govanhill is being passed backwards and forwards between Utilita Energy and the Department for Work and Pensions. He receives income-related employment and support allowance and should be entitled to the warm home discount, but neither Utilita nor the DWP is able to give him the money he is entitled to. He applied in September last year. Will the Minister intervene and make sure he gets the money he is due?

I put on record my heartfelt thanks to the Secretary of State and the Minister for Nuclear and Renewables for the action they took last week to put food security, alongside renewable energy, at the heart of local planning decisions. What are the Government doing to ensure that all councils immediately enact that policy, because it is both for local councils and for Government? Will existing soil assessments stand for nationally significant infrastructure projects, or will they be redone?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and her kind words. I am pleased to confirm to the House that my hon. Friend the Minister for Housing, Planning and Building Safety has written to all local authorities to draw their attention to the statement last week, which underlined our robust policy on solar farms on our best and most versatile agricultural land. Local planners should know this Government are serious about solar being put in the right places, and not on the best and most versatile agricultural land.

Tapadh leat, Mr Speaker. Zonal pricing has the potential to lower bills for households from Sussex to Shetland, from Stonehaven to the great town of Stornoway. Of course some vested interests will be concerned, such as energy generating companies that are benefiting from the constraint payments raised from customer bills. What are the Government doing to stimulate debate and knowledge about zonal pricing?

It was a pleasure on my return as a Minister to attend the hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee, which he chairs so well. This is part of stage 2 of our wider consultation under our review of electricity market arrangements, and we take on board his and his Committee’s constructive suggestions in that meeting.

A key tool in our arsenal against climate change must be sequestering carbon. It was a pleasure last week to see the Morecambe bay net zero peak cluster vision launched, which could decarbonise 40% of our cement and lime industries, securing a gigatonne of carbon under Morecambe bay. Can I encourage my hon. Friend the Minister to meet me to discuss the project further?

I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend at any time, and I am happy to discuss this and any other matter relating to the subject.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Now that the Government have recognised the importance of versatile and productive agricultural land in respect of solar, will they recognise too the threat of a monstrous string of pylons stretching right down the east coast of England? We either care about our green and pleasant land or we do not—for, as Keats understood, truth is beauty and beauty, truth.

My right hon. Friend will know that we value taking communities with us and working with them. I am having a number of meetings on this very subject to look at new technologies to see what additional options there could be to support local communities as we rapidly upgrade our national grid network.