My Lords, I have it in command from Her Majesty the Queen and His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales to acquaint the House that they, having been informed of the purport of the Energy Bill, have consented to place their prerogative and interests, so far as they are affected by the Bill, at the disposal of Parliament for the purposes of the Bill.
Clause 3 : Framework regulations
1: Clause 3, page 3, line 42, leave out “may” and insert “must”
My Lords, it is amazing that, although I thought this is a fascinating Bill, the Chamber seems to be emptying quite quickly. I will do my best to encourage everyone.
Before commencing these amendments, I would like to place on record my thanks to all noble Lords for their magnificent contributions. Although those on the opposition Benches will not like it, this has been done in the true spirit of coalition across all parties. I would particularly like to thank those on the opposition Benches for everything they have done in making this Bill fit for purpose. I have been incredibly well assisted by the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, who has worked tirelessly on our account and I thank her very much.
I also thank our officials for their tireless work. The Bill will have passed through this House voteless—at least I hope that it will—and that would not have happened without substantial briefing and explanation to noble Lords during the course of the Bill. I want to thank my officials and everyone for that. As such, these government amendments show that we have listened to noble Lords, particularly on the opposition Benches and my noble friend Lord Deben. I hope that the first group of government amendments are accepted by the House.
My Lords, during the passage of the Bill, I moved several amendments on, and we had long discussions about, the private rented sector. At Report, the Minister said that he agreed in great part with what I was saying and that he hoped to be able to bring forward amendments on the private rented sector going further than they had previously. They have gone a little bit further today. I hope that, as the Bill passes through another place, the Government will be able to take a slightly closer look at the private rented sector.
In the time that we have been discussing the Bill, the most recent English housing survey has been published. It shows that the number of properties in the private rented sector has increased by 1 million in the past 10 years. Such properties now account for 15.6 per cent of England’s housing stock and that number appears to be rising all the time. I remind the Minister, although it will not be his responsibility in the other place of course, that 20 per cent of private rented sector households live in fuel poverty. If we look at the bottom end—at bands F and G, which are the groups that I have spent a lot of time discussing during the passage of the Bill—that rises to 42 per cent. I have said at least twice during the passage of the Bill that, in many cases, we are footing the bill for the rent of these properties through housing benefit.
I thank the Minister for moving a little in my direction and I hope that his colleagues in another place will be able to take a further serious look on these issues.
My Lords, the amendments that I tabled called for a legally binding minimum standard of energy performance by the year 2016, but the Minister has not been able to concede that. I accept that the amendments that he has tabled are a small but helpful step in the right direction, but I want to place on record that I fear that the private rented sector will not do what it should do without a legally binding minimum standard being introduced by the Government for local authorities to implement. Without that, I fear that the Green Deal will not be as effective as it otherwise should be. But it is now for another place to discuss and I am grateful for the modest but important concessions that the Minister has made with these amendments.
My Lords, I echo the Minister's comments about how the Bill has been conducted. It has been a great example of your Lordships working together to bring forward suggestions. I praise the Government for their efforts to look at the suggestions and amendments and bring forward amendments of their own. I recall at Second Reading the Minister said,
“I will clarify that this is a framework Bill on which there is a lot of work to be done”.—[Official Report, 22/12/10; col. 1151.]
During our deliberations, particularly in Committee and at Report, we have undertaken a lot of that work and brought forward amendments.
I also echo the Minister’s thanks to his officials who have been very co-operative with us. We are grateful for that help and support. I also place on record my thanks to the many organisations that contacted us during the course of the Bill, such as Friends of the Earth, the Association for the Conservation of Energy, the World Wide Fund for Nature and many others. Their work and that of the energy companies have been endless. I have had more e-mails and briefing on this legislation than I have ever had in my entire parliamentary career. It has been very welcome and appreciated and we do not take that support and advice for granted.
I welcome the amendments before us today; indeed, the Minister has brought them forward based on our suggestions. As the noble Lord, Lord Best, summed them up, they are a very modest but welcome step forward. The Minister brings forward the issue of “materially” but also of “must” rather than “may”, on which we had some splendid discussions in Committee. He has taken on board the comments we made and the amendments go part of the way to enhancing the consumer protections in the Bill and to providing more information and more certainty for participants and consumers.
None the less, however much I welcome the amendments he has brought forward, I must share with the House my disappointment, which is similar to that raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, and the noble Lord, Lord Best. I looked again at the comments the Minister made on Report and understood why I was so encouraged and optimistic about what he was going to bring forward. He was entirely genuine when he said:
“Throughout all these debates, which have been extremely well enunciated, and have found great favour with us, we have listened. We are all, after all, singing from the same hymn sheet, in particular on Amendments 69, 70”—
The Minister then listed those amendments, which noble Lords, including myself, had put down in support of quickly introducing regulations on the private rented sector. The Minister talked about “materiality” and said:
“It would be ridiculous if this”—
I took “this” to mean the amendments—
“did not find favour with us in terms of a form of words. I accept in principle the intention of this.”—[Official Report, 02/03/11; col. 1141]
I am very grateful for the amendments that he has brought forward, but I had expected him to bring forward something further around the issue of regulations on the private sector to improve energy efficiency and to have a baseline for energy efficiency in private rented sector homes—I expected amendments to be brought forward on that as well.
The Minister may not have had time to bring those forward, or he may be considering them as government amendments for another place, in which case we would welcome that. However, across all sides of this House, we have stressed how important it is that we move quickly with amendments to bring forward regulations for the private rented sector. I hope he is able to satisfy us today that his comments on Report did encompass the amendments he referred to there, and that he does intend to bring forward amendments on the private rented sector. A list of 31 organisations—including Macmillan Cancer Support, Age UK, Citizens Advice, Consumer Focus and Crisis—are all calling for a minimum energy efficiency standard for private rented properties. This is not an issue we can let slide by. I was encouraged by the Minister’s comments on Report and I greatly welcome the amendments he has brought forward today, but I hope that they are a step on the way to the crucial amendments we need to seriously improve the private rented sector.
On behalf of these Benches and in the absence of the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who is serving the House in another place today, I add our thanks for the way the Minister and his team have handled this Bill and the co-operation we have had from officials. It has been much appreciated. In particular, on Amendment 1, the way that the Minister has listened to the comments from across this House on the issue of moving from “may” to “must” well reflects the concerns that many of us have had about the need to upgrade consumer protection, if we are to make a reality of the Green Deal and all the aspirations that the Government rightly have for delivering our targets on lowering carbon emissions. It is an extremely welcome step and is an indication that the Minister is listening on this issue, as indeed he has on many others.
I remain disappointed that I was unable—either through lack of eloquence or other means—to persuade the Minister that provision for a consumer ombudsman was needed in this legislation. However, I accept what he has said and what his officials have confirmed, that the legislation is enabling in such a way that, should the Secretary of State feel that is desirable, that option remains open. I believe that an ombudsman for the general public is going to be essential in this important area and that this will be something that will come forward, if not in another place, then certainly in the future.
Amendment 1 is a welcome indication that the Minister is listening and confirms that he has been paying attention to the many useful points of clarification that have come from Members who all support ensuring that this Green Deal works.
My Lords, until the noble Baroness made her last point, I was not going to intervene on this amendment, but I would like to associate myself with the words of both my noble friend Baroness Smith and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, regarding the way the Committee and Report stages of this Bill have been conducted. I appreciate that the Minister has come some considerable way towards meeting a number of concerns although on this particular one I think the noble Lord, Lord Best, is correct about the need for minimum standards and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, is right about the need for consumer protection.
It is important that the Government and the House recognise that, in supporting the provisions of this Bill on the Green Deal, we all recognise that there is still a substantial amount of work to be done in putting the deal together and thereby inspiring confidence in householders and landlords, on the one hand, and in the various different parts of the supply chain, on the other, which will need to act together to deliver the Green Deal.
At several points—I will return to this on a further amendment—during the discussion in Committee and on Report, the Minister said we may need to make a number of amendments in another place. I think the Government will find that there are some anxieties both in industry and on the part of consumers about how exactly the Green Deal is going to be sold and how it is going to be delivered. I suspect therefore the Government need to remain open to the possibility of amending the Bill in another place. I think everybody who was involved in the Committee wish the Green Deal good speed. However, we also know that there are some problems ahead and the Government would be wise to be flexible.
Again, I value very much the comments made by noble Lords. These comments have been made on several occasions and I am grateful for the compliments that have been made. The noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, was the most complimentary so she is top of my class. Seriously, I am grateful to everyone for their kind words.
The noble Lord, Lord Best, made a very good point about PRS properties and with that in mind we have brought forward the idea of a review in 2013. It is fundamental that we make great inroads into the private rented sector—particularly the F and G categories my noble friend Baroness Maddock mentioned and raising them to the minimum standards of category E —and the Government are extremely committed to that. However, we should allow the sector to lead by example to start with and if it does not take that opportunity then we must help it on its way. The Government are committed to taking people out of fuel poverty. That is part of the reason for the Green Deal building on other initiatives that have taken place; it is fundamental and we owe it to the country to get people out of fuel poverty.
The noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, asked me whether things that I said on Report stand now. I can confirm that they were on the record and I meant what I said. She can take heart from what I said then and the disappointment that she had with these amendments will be carried through into another place and will be left for them to debate. I am sorry to hear there is a little bit of disappointment, but we have, I hope, persuaded and also given way on a vast number of amendments. It would nice every now and then if everyone carried me rejoicing from these Chambers saying how marvellous it was—I do not think I am going to get that—but in any case I hope I have responded to the questions.
Amendment 1 agreed.
Clause 17 : Power to modify energy licences in connection with green deal payments
2: Clause 17, page 14, line 4, after “provision” insert “requiring or”
My Lords, in break with tradition I am going to read a script I have been given because these amendments are complicated. They make small technical changes to Clauses 17 and 20 ancillary to amendments made on Report that apply to the Secretary of State’s power to make licence modifications.
Amendment 2 clarifies Clause 17(3)(f) and provides that provisions can be made in licences requiring payments to be made by or to licensees as well as enabling such payments to be made.
Amendments 3 and 4 provide that licence modifications made under the powers in Clauses 17 and 20 can be of the type envisaged by Section 7(3)(a) or (c) and (4) of the Electricity Act 1989 and Section 7B(5)(a)(i) or (iii) of the Gas Act 1986. Now you can understand why I read this out. I hope that these amendments will be supported. I beg to move.
Amendment 2 agreed.
3: Clause 17, page 14, line 6, at end insert—
“( ) Conditions included in a licence under section 7 or 7A of the Gas Act 1986 by virtue of the power under subsection (1) may do any of the things authorised by section 7B(5)(a)(i) or (iii) of that Act (which applies to the power of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority with respect to licence conditions under section 7B(4)(a)).
( ) Conditions included in a licence under section 6(1)(c) or (d) of the Electricity Act 1989 by virtue of the power under subsection (1) may do any of the things authorised by section 7(3)(a) or (c) or (4) of that Act (which applies to the power of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority with respect to licence conditions under section 7(1)(a)).”
Amendment 3 agreed.
Clause 20 : Power to modify energy supply licences to make provision as to consumer protection
4: Clause 20, page 15, line 33, at end insert—
“( ) Conditions included in a licence under section 6(1)(d) of the Electricity Act 1989 by virtue of the power under subsection (1) may do any of the things authorised by section 7(4) of that Act (which applies to the power of the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority with respect to licence conditions under section 7(1)(a)).”
Amendment 4 agreed.
Clause 40 : Power to make domestic energy efficiency regulations: England and Wales
5: Clause 40, page 25, line 35, after “not” insert “materially”
Amendment 5 agreed.
Clause 43 : Power to make tenants’ energy efficiency improvements regulations:
England and Wales
6: Clause 43, page 28, line 22, after “not” insert “materially”
Amendment 6 agreed.
Clause 46 : Power to make non-domestic energy efficiency regulations: England and
7: Clause 46, page 31, line 3, after “not” insert “materially”
Amendment 7 agreed.
Clause 53 : Power to make domestic energy efficiency regulations: Scotland
8: Clause 53, page 35, line 15, after “not” insert “materially”
Amendment 8 agreed.
Clause 56 : Power to make tenants’ energy efficiency improvements regulations:
9: Clause 56, page 38, line 5, after “not” insert “materially”
Amendment 9 agreed.
Clause 59 : Power to make non-domestic energy efficiency regulations: Scotland
10: Clause 59, page 40, line 29, after “not” insert “materially”
Amendment 10 agreed.
11: After Clause 71, insert the following new Clause—
“Smart metering strategy
(1) The Secretary of State shall, following consultation with energy consumers and other interested parties, prepare and publish a strategy to deliver the intended benefits of smart meters to consumers, including in particular low income and vulnerable consumers.
(2) It is the duty of the Secretary of State to report to Parliament on the progress of smart meter roll out every year starting from six months after the coming into force of this Part.
(3) In preparing the strategy the Secretary of State must set out how the smart meter roll out will—
(a) deliver to consumers the benefits identified in the impact assessment of July 2010;(b) ensure adherence to an independent code of practice for installation;(c) contribute to the carbon targets specified in the Climate Change Act 2008;(d) contribute to the elimination of fuel poverty as specified in the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000;(e) improve competition in the energy retail market, including in particular in relation to prepayment customers;(f) provide for the interoperability of smart meters;(g) work alongside wider Government programmes such as the Green Deal and water metering roll out.(4) The report should cover progress on the delivery of smart meters, including—
(a) the number of smart meters installed in the United Kingdom, defined as per the Ofgem definition of a completed installation;(b) the costs and savings of the smart meter roll out;(c) the estimated benefits to consumers and taxpayers of the smart meter roll out, with particular reference to low income and vulnerable consumers;(d) estimated effects on the levels of fuel poverty;(e) the estimated energy and carbon reduction from the smart meter roll out;(f) the degree to which interoperability of smart meters has been achieved;(g) customer satisfaction indicators, including levels of complaint;(h) security of smart meters and smart grids in relation to privacy and commercial confidentiality.”
This is in a sense left-over business from Report stage. Again, I am not looking to the Minister to accept the amendment as it stands but to recognise that some of the issues that it brings up need to be addressed by the Government during the Bill’s stages in the Commons, one hopes, or possibly in secondary legislation.
The amendment deals with smart meters. We have had substantial discussions on smart meters in Committee; it is a very small part of the Bill but a very big part of the whole strategy for tackling energy efficiency in buildings, fuel poverty and the price of bills for everybody. Smart meters will therefore be key in improving energy efficiency, changing the behaviour of householders, reducing bills and providing the basis for introducing rather smarter grids into our electricity supply system. However, there are issues relating to smart meters. Unlike the Green Deal, which is voluntary for the householder or landlord, the smart meter is mandatory on the supply company and therefore, in effect, mandatory on the consumer, in that at some point the supply company will have to enter the house and replace existing meters and wiring with ones susceptible to smart metering.
I strongly favour this process and think that it will make a big contribution to energy efficiency; I think that at least some consumers will be able to alter their behaviour significantly and that we should therefore all support the strategy. However, there are some clear anxieties among consumers about the whole prospect of smart meters, some confusion about how they are to be delivered and in particular some concern about the lack of standardised and interoperable meters. I realise that on that front the Government are attempting to bring together the companies, and we are making some progress, but those concerns exist. There are also serious concerns, which noble Lords may regard as irrational, about privacy and what use may be made of the records of energy use. We must recognise those problems and recognise the possibility of serious consumer resistance that needs to be built in to how the rollout is delivered. It was an opportunity in this Bill to give a clearer framework to the totality of the smart meters’ rollout. We are three years on from the 2008 Act and, clearly, there have been developments and slight changes in approach. The clause that would immediately precede the new clause that I propose is, in effect, simply to extend the possibility of altering licences to transmission licences. That may or may not be necessary, but it will probably be necessary in some circumstances—and I certainly support that change. Given that smart meters are such a major part of the provisions and we rely so strongly on them to reduce household energy use, we should perhaps have used the Bill for a slightly wider purpose.
If households and landlords do not have confidence in the process of the rollout, if they are confused, if it leads to a backlash and slows down the programme significantly, it will slow down the achievement of our carbon targets significantly and aggravate the problems of fuel poverty. For example, if interoperability is not achieved, it could aggravate that confusion and limit the real choice of consumers in their ability to switch supply, at least in the short term.
We need to ensure that the framework provides for the Secretary of State to be able to monitor the progress of the smart meter rollout and report to Parliament, to the players in the industry and to consumers on how well the rollout is doing and whether there are problems. Benefits were identified in the overall impact assessment of July 2010 against which progress needs to be measured. The impact assessment on the Bill is fairly minor because it relates only to Clause 71, but the overall impact assessment sets some clear targets. We need to develop an independent code of conduct on how the suppliers and the installers operate with householders. We also need to monitor it against the targets for carbon set out in the Climate Change Act 2008 and the deliberations of the Committee on Climate Change. We need to see how far they can help in the reduction of fuel poverty against the targets there and what contribution the rollout can make, and we need to ensure that during this process we do not inhibit competition within the energy sector but preferably enhance it.
The issue of the recipients of the smart meter provision who are also in a Green Deal was not resolved in our discussions in Committee. Another dimension that was mentioned and is repeated in this amendment is that, in another part of government for which the Minister is not directly responsible, water metering is another major contribution to sustainability but also, indirectly but substantially, to energy usage in the home and in the totality of the water system. Putting in compulsory smart meters for energy without also addressing the water dimension could prove to be a problem down the line.
All I am suggesting in this amendment is that the Government have a clear framework in which they are assessing the delivery of the smart meter rollout, ensuring that we overcome difficulties in inculcating a degree of confidence in the market and in the recipients, and report in such a way that from time to time Parliament can debate the progress that is being made. I hope that the Minister can accept the spirit of this amendment and will indicate to his colleagues in another place, should similar or slightly more succinct amendments emerge there, that the Government give them serious consideration. I recognise that for now we are not going to do that at Third Reading in this place, but I am raising some issues which I hope the Government will take serious note of. I beg to move.
My Lords, I support my noble friend on this amendment, although I have to say that we tend to forget that at the moment a substantial number of meters are replaced every year. The replacement meters have been either replicas or slightly more updated versions of the previous ones. Sometimes they are placed in a different part of the household. If you are lucky, you might even be able to get the utility company to put one in your garden, if you have a garden, so that they do not have to come to your house to read it. What we are talking about initially is scale of operation. We have ambitions for 26 million households—18 million gas meters and some 25 million or 26 million electricity meters to be installed over a 10-year period.
I understand that that work is now going on at quite a rate in some of the utility companies. It would be unfortunate if, in such a large and potentially intrusive operation that will go into every household in the country, a clear form of parliamentary accountability were not involved. Obviously, in order that there be parliamentary accountability we need to know what is happening. I would therefore have thought that an annual report, while it might not be required reading for every Member of the Commons and the Lords, ought to be required reading for members of the appropriate Select Committees which take an interest in these matters. If necessary, that report could be debated annually in both Houses.
Many of us are concerned that we are still rather vague about what is being suggested for this rollout. This amendment goes some way towards identifying a number of concerns and issues. One thing perhaps missing from the amendment is sufficient reference to providing the consumer or householder with adequate information on how the meter operates. If the Minister were to accept the spirit of the amendment, however, he might go away and add to it. If we are to take advantage of the so-called smart element in these meters, it is important that the public understand what is shown on the dials in their kitchens, their gardens or wherever and what those dials can do to help them to use their energy more efficiently and make savings that might mitigate the price rises for electricity and gas that we all anticipate during this introduction.
In principle, this amendment is a good idea. If the Government accept it in spirit, they should be given an opportunity to go away and provide something of their own. A number of bodies outwith this House would want to be able to take the evidence that such a report would provide—for example, the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group which provides help and assistance to Ministers on fuel poverty. It would be emboldened and assisted in its work if it had the kind of technical information from such a report as is being suggested by my noble friend’s amendment, so I give this my full support.
While an amendment of this complexity is easy for Governments to knock down, it might not be the last word on the subject, and it is incumbent on the Government to provide that. That will be a report of sufficient meatiness that it could be chewed over by interested parties and Members of both Houses, and could provide the companies with sufficient information and evidence to be able quickly to change anything that is wrong with the way they are going about their work. One problem that we can envisage here is that the scale of this operation is likely to create something akin to a juggernaut moving across the country and trampling households under its wheels.
Everybody wants to see the introduction of smart meters but it is incumbent on the Government, who have the responsibility of directing that if not actually implementing it, to ensure that public confidence both in the companies and in the whole concept is maintained. I do not think that we have heard many complaints about the work already done. However, it is too soon to reach conclusions, and any horror stories might well jeopardise a project in which everyone sees great virtue. I support my noble friend’s amendment.
My Lords, I, too, have substantial sympathy with the amendment. Before one starts talking too much about juggernauts, it is worth placing on record that we had to have our domestic electricity meter changed a month ago. From the time the man who was doing the work came through the door to the time he left was about 12 minutes. It is a quick and easy operation, certainly so far as electricity meters are concerned.
However, an important point has been missed. By and large, the electricity companies have a poor understanding of their customers simply because they have no way of disaggregating their demand. With a better understanding of why, how and when loads peak in particular areas, which they do not have at the moment, a significant indirect benefit should be possible for consumers, which would be reflected in reduced electricity charges, because we may well be able to run the electricity system with a lower generating capacity than at present because of our limited understanding.
My Lords, one matter which is not dealt with in the amendment—I do not know what my noble friend’s reaction to this will be—is the question of the training of the technicians whose job it will be to install the new smart meters. Some noble Lords may recollect that I pursued this issue over the past year or two with the previous Government. I was informed that the sector skills council which dealt with this—the Energy and Utility Sector Skills Council—had applied for the necessary financial support to enable it to lay out a training programme for smart meter installers, only to be told that that could not be done under the then system, which I hope is in the process of being changed. I raised the matter with the previous Government and the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who undertook to look seriously at it, and I have pursued it with other Ministers in the present Government.
Attention needs to be given to this matter because, as a number of speakers have said, if people are going to go into consumers’ houses it is important that they are properly trained to do the work. If eventually, as I have heard said, we are going to have combined gas and electricity meters—but perhaps not at the first stage—that will require a considerable new approach to training.
I have supported the smart meter programme from the beginning and have had some representations—not pressure; that would be the wrong word—made to me that it is a con trick in favour of electricity suppliers and distributors. I do not for one moment accept that argument. As speakers on all sides of the House have said, if it is properly handled and people are given all the information that they should have, which is very important, this could be of real value to consumers. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, was wise to say that he did not really expect the Government at this stage to accept the amendment but, at some stage, something of this kind will be needed and I hope that it will cover the training of technicians as well as the other matters set out in the amendment.
My Lords, it is clear that smart meters will play an important part in identifying energy usage to consumers and highlighting the impact of energy efficiency measures in the home. Consumer confidence in their operation is crucial.
The noble Baroness, Lady Northover, dealt comprehensively on Report with the intentions behind the amendments and gave a full account of the work her department was doing with the industry and in the discussions regarding a code of practice. It is important that the Government show leadership in this area. The House looks forward to receiving the noble Baroness’s department’s conclusions on this process, as there will clearly be a need for further work to develop the benefits and underline the importance of consumer engagement.
It is important that there is a strong programme on the management of the operation of smart meters, and we support my noble friend’s call that the department reports to Parliament on the measurement of the benefits they will bring to enable full accountability to take place.
My Lords, may I say how delighted I am to see the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill of Clackmannan, in his place? He watched at first hand the horrific events in Japan, where I spoke to him. What an awful time that must have been for him. We are delighted to see him back and, as usual, making some very interesting points.
The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, is extremely valuable. He makes, as always, some very good points. Fundamental to this debate has been public confidence: the public must have confidence about the rollout of smart meters. As a department, we are committing a substantial amount of resources to smart meters, as we must get this right. I am not sure that all operators will be as good as the one who came to the home of the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh; I suspect that, because of his great scientific knowledge, the noble Lord was telling the operator how to install it. Twelve minutes sounds like a very good target for anyone to try to achieve. The training of technicians is fundamental, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said; there must be great vigilance in this area so that the consumer can have confidence.
The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, made two specific points on the strategy for consumer benefits. We have been carrying out consultation since July on the wide-ranging subject of smart meters. A principal consideration has been a strategy for consumer benefits. We will publish our findings by the end of this month, and I hope that the other place will have the opportunity to debate them.
The Government are sympathetic when it comes to transparency regarding information about and the progress of smart meters. I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that we will be developing arrangements for reporting the benefits of smart meters, the progress of the rollout and the delivery resulting from the benefits. That is fundamental not only to the public but to the Government, as we need to know what progress we are making. I hope that I have given the noble Lord confidence that we will take this matter forward in the other place and that he will therefore withdraw the amendment.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that explanation and the other speakers in this debate, particularly my noble friend Lord O’Neill. The noble Lords, Lord Oxburgh and Lord Jenkin, made important points that will need to be borne in mind during the rollout. Technical training in fitting meters and explaining to consumers how to use them will be an important part of the rollout, so customer service training as well as straightforward technical training will be necessary.
With a bit of willpower, these issues can be overcome. When we shifted to requiring A or B boilers a few years ago, the industry threw up its hands in horror and said that it did not have enough people to do that. However, we rapidly got a programme in place which enabled us to do it. It required a little bit of cross-Whitehall arm-twisting; I expect that the Minister is adept at that, and he may need to use that skill.
I am particularly pleased to hear that the assessment of consumer reaction, which I was aware the Government were undertaking, will be available to our colleagues in another place before they reach their final conclusions. The Minister will know that Consumer Focus, which I formerly chaired, has conducted a fair amount of research on this issue. It will be regrettable, if the Public Bodies Bill is passed, that it will not be in a position to do so on future occasions. It certainly threw up a number of incipient difficulties which are not insuperable but they are significant.
As noble Lords have said, we have to provide confidence. One problem is that the industry has a fairly low rating among consumers, and trust in energy supply companies, which will have to ensure that smart meters are installed, is pretty low. They have made some significant improvements in recent years but they have a poor history to overcome. I am afraid that that still informs a lot of customers’ attitudes towards those companies and causes them to make inferences about the reason for introducing these new machines into their houses. There is some suspicion surrounding the use to which the energy companies may put the data, whereas we can see that the data could be used to provide electricity in a smarter, more intelligent and more cost-effective way. From the other end of the telescope, people are wondering why their supplier needs to know whether they have the kettle on at four o’clock in the afternoon. That is an exaggeration; nevertheless, it is a fear that needs to be addressed in the Bill and in the regulations that come under the Bill, as well as in the way that the Government oversee the whole operation. I think that, from what the Minister has said, our colleagues in another place will have sufficient information on which to base their discussion on this matter. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 11 withdrawn.
12: After Clause 78, After section 3 of the Petroleum Act 1998 insert—
“3A Report on compensation for petroleum spills
(1) The Secretary of State must publish a report every five years about the arrangements in place in the United Kingdom for petroleum companies to compensate for any damage caused, or loss suffered, as a result of petroleum being accidentally released during the operation of licences under this Act.
(2) The report must, in particular, include—
(a) the amount of insurance coverage that industry members have agreed should be available in the circumstances outlined in subsection (1);(b) the Secretary of State’s opinion about whether the amounts are adequate to compensate for any damage caused in the circumstances outlined in subsection (1);(c) the factors that the Secretary of State took into account in reaching the Secretary of State’s opinion under paragraph (b); and (d) the actions that the Secretary of State intends to take, in the event that the Secretary of State considers the amounts to be inadequate.”
My Lords, in replying to the first group of amendments, the Minister expressed regret that, having made very modest but nevertheless welcome amendments, he was not carried aloft from the Chamber in jubilation. Never liking to disappoint the noble Lord, I offer him another opportunity. My foot may not be fully recovered but I might manage to carry him aloft should he want to accept the amendments that we are putting forward today. I reassure the Minister that the only reason that we on this side have put forward any amendments is to seek to improve the Green Deal and to ensure its success, and I assure him that the same applies to this amendment.
The noble Lord will recall that I raised this matter in Committee and on Report. When, on Report, I raised a similar issue about compensation and payments relating to petroleum spills, he assured me that he knew more about this issue, having been involved in insurance himself, and he patiently explained that he would write to me with further information. He has done so and I thank him. It has helped to clarify the situation, and I appreciate his responding in such detail. However, it is that response that has led to our tabling this amendment.
I was seeking assurance in the Minister’s response about where the liability would fall in the event of an oil spill, and I referred to Deepwater Horizon, which we had previously discussed in your Lordships’ House. He informed me that the Oil Spill Prevention and Response Advisory Group had set up an indemnity insurance group to review the current provisions of the OPOL agreement, as well as the financial and cross-indemnity arrangements behind the current mutual co-operative industry’s mechanism on this issue. I understand that, at the department’s request, the group has reviewed the modelling based on worst-case scenarios, on which the liability limit is based. It has also commissioned modelling of alternative spill scenarios with the aim of providing a more comprehensive picture of potential oil spill costs, and there will be further discussions on this. The Minister told me that the work is ongoing. However, he also assured me that, if that work indicates that a credible worst-case scenario could result in damage exceeding $250 million, the Government will require higher levels of cover. All that my amendment would do is build on what the Minister said a moment ago when he referred to his commitment to transparency and to monitoring the situation. It would be helpful for Parliament and those who are interested to know that the insurance available to deal with these catastrophes is at the appropriate level. That will happen only if there is a review and transparency.
The amendment requires the Secretary of State to publish a report every five years about the arrangements that are in place and specifies some issues that must be included. I hope that the Minister will look at this amendment. If he is unable to accept it today, perhaps it can be discussed with colleagues in the other place. I welcome the opportunity to carry him aloft from the Chamber should he wish to accept the amendment at this point.
My Lords, we are very sympathetic to the concern expressed behind the amendment and we have debated both in Committee and on Report the issue of compensation for oil pollution. The main concern in these debates was that arrangements should be in place to ensure that companies could meet any liability arising from oil pollution during their licensed operations.
We explained in these debates that there are indeed appropriate requirements in the licences and that the industry has in response formed a voluntary liability pool, the Offshore Pollution Liability Association—OPOL. OPOL membership requires operators to demonstrate provision to meet clean-up costs and associated damages of up to $250 million on a basis of strict liability in the event of a pollution incident. OPOL also collectively provides a back-up mechanism that in the event of default by any operator, the other members will meet claims for clean-up and associated damages up to the same financial limits. That liability pool is unique to the North Sea, and we believe that it provides a very solid assurance that all pollution liabilities will in practice be met. I particularly stress the significance of the acceptance of strict liability by OPOL members, which means that anyone who has suffered loss as a result of pollution from an oil installation does not have to show that the operator is at fault. He or she merely has to establish that the damage or loss is a result of the pollution. As I have said, it is unique to the North Sea.
Since Report, my noble friend Lord Marland has written to the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, with further details of this arrangement and I thank her for her very positive response to that correspondence. This amendment, however, addresses a slightly different point from the amendments tabled in Committee and on Report. We made the point that the amendments tabled then were unnecessary as appropriate requirements were already in place. The focus of this amendment is rather that the Secretary of State should publish a report on the arrangements in place, the amount of insurance cover provided, and so on. We are wholly sympathetic to the idea that more public information should be available on these matters. As the noble Baroness notes, further work is ongoing under the auspices of OSPRAG, in which government and industry are working together to review the industry’s practices in the light of what has been learnt from the Macondo disaster. One of the OSPRAG working groups is specifically addressing liability and indemnity issues. We are happy to undertake that the Government will make an appropriate statement in the House on the outcome of this work and any changes that may appear necessary or desirable. I hope that that reassures the noble Baroness.
As for future developments, the department is committed to laying an annual statement before the House, and we will, of course, use that to report on any new developments or proposed new measures. In the light of those reassurances, I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.
I am grateful to the Minister for her response. It covers a number of the points that I was seeking to address, mainly transparency and the responsibility of government in reporting back to Parliament. On the basis of her response, I am happy to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 12 withdrawn.
Clause 93 : Application of certain provisions of the Energy Act 2004 in relation to administration orders
13: Clause 93, page 74, line 31, at end insert—
“(2A) In the application of section 157(2), for paragraph (b) substitute—
“(b) that the company is likely to be unable to pay its debts and that the directors of the company have consented on that basis to the making of the order; or”.”
My Lords, I raised this issue in Grand Committee and briefly on Report when my noble friend Lady Northover was kind enough to say:
“I think the best way to take this forward is by consultation. If he would like to discuss the details with officials, we could see what, if anything, needs to be addressed”.—[Official Report, 2/3/11; col. 1163.]
With the help of her officials, I did just that. I had a very interesting telephone conversation and subsequently a paper from a very helpful lady, Dawn Armstrong, in the Department of Energy and Climate Change. Briefly, the issue concerns the power of the Government to put an energy supplier into special administration. It is built on extending the powers in Section 157(2) of the Energy Act 2004 as adapted and applied by Clause 93. Section 157 is headed “Powers of Court” and subsection (2) states:
“The court may make an energy administration order in relation to a company only if it is satisfied— (a) that the company is unable to pay its debts; (b)—
and these are the critical words that I am unhappy with—
“that it is likely to be unable to pay its debts”.
Then there is a third ground on which it might be appropriate to wind the company up in the public interest. The Insolvency Act, on which these words were originally based, included the words,
“likely to become unable to pay its debts”,
but in those circumstances it was only on an application by the directors of the company. Under Clause 93, it is a power of the Secretary of State, or of Ofgem with the consent of the Secretary of State, to apply to put a company into what is called special administration under this Act.
Ms Armstrong sent me an extremely helpful note, much of which I accept. For the benefit of what I hope will eventually be a debate in another place on this subject, I shall read part of it out. She wrote:
“Administration under the Insolvency Act 1986 is a business rescue procedure, with the survival of the company as its primary objective. If entry to administration were only available to a company that could not pay its debts at the date of commencement, the rescue of viable businesses might be jeopardised. For this reason, administration can also be entered when a company is likely to become unable to pay its debts. The clauses in the Energy Bill on special administration follow these principles. The energy supply company administrator’s primary objective is to rescue the company as a going concern. Therefore these provisions apply the same tests for insolvency as the Insolvency Act”.
She used the words “the same tests”. Yes, they are the same tests, but not by the same process. That is basis of the anxiety. I accept that there is a need for a process. There is no question about that. When you have a large energy supply company supplying millions of customers and it seems unlikely to meet its obligations, obviously the authorities must step in and do something about it.
The second point made in the paper, which I had perhaps not entirely appreciated, was that this applies only to supply companies and would not affect the generating part if it were in a separate company in the group. I am not sure that I wholly understand that because it is difficult to imagine a supply company unable to pay its debts if the company is otherwise solvent, but that point might need to be taken.
The third point made in the paper is that it is a court process and not just a peremptory decision made by the Secretary of State or by Ofgem. It is a decision to take the matter to the court and for the court to decide. I will return to that in a moment. My noble friend Lord Marland wrote to me on this matter. He wrote:
“Of course The Secretary of State and Ofgem would no doubt want to discuss any application for an energy supply company administration order with company directors in advance. And directors will be able to contest the application in court. However, enshrining a duty to consult directors in the legislation could lead to delay and it is important that the Secretary of State has the flexibility to act quickly”.
I think that my noble friend might have misunderstood the purport of my amendment. I should thus like to make four points about that, and no doubt my noble friend Lady Northover will be able to reply. First, in my discussion with her official, she made the point that she thought that very few of the energy suppliers were worried about this. Since then I have made inquiries and have been told that the energy suppliers are solidly behind this amendment. I have had letters from two or three of them to confirm that point. It is not true to suggest that this is somehow only a minority concern. The industry’s points of opposition to the special administration threshold—because that is what we are talking about—are vigorously maintained.
Secondly, the official’s note is a perfectly adequate summary of the principles of the special administration regime. It also properly acknowledges that this regime does not disapply the provisions of existing insolvency law. However, it does not seem to acknowledge that the test for putting an energy supply company into special administration is set at a very low threshold: that is, lower than the threshold at which Ofgem can revoke a company’s licence under the licensing provisions. If a licence is revoked, the practical effect is to put the company into special administration. It is certainly, in at least one crucial respect of its business, the inability of the directors to carry it on.
I made further inquiries about the licence. Is it different or does it cover broadly the same process? Ofgem can revoke an energy supplier’s licence on a number of grounds, including if the company has committed an offence while making its original application or if it has failed to comply with a final enforcement order in respect of a breach of a condition or something of that sort.
However, the ground that is relevant to this amendment is that which applies when the company is in financial difficulty. In that event, Ofgem can revoke the company’s licence if the company is unable to pay it debts. There is no permission or discretion to revoke the licence if the company is likely to be unable to pay its debts. Why is it necessary, therefore, to put this provision about,
“likely to be unable to pay its debts”,
into the administration procedure under this Bill when it does not exist under the licensing provision?
More than that, the licensing provision sets out clearly what the court needs to be satisfied with before it withdraws the licence. The company is not to be deemed to be unable to pay its debts unless at least one written demand by a creditor for a sum of more than £100,000 has remained unpaid for at least three weeks. Nor is the company to be deemed to be unable to pay its debts even if such a written demand is outstanding, provided that the company is contesting it in good faith and with due recourse to all appropriate legal process. That seems to be quite different from what we are being asked to legislate in Clause 93. This power of the Secretary of State to go to the court and apply for a special licence is questionable. The contrast between that power in the Bill and the power to revoke a licence seems very stark. In the power to revoke a licence, there is no reference to the company being unlikely to be able to pay its debts, and the definition of what constitutes an inability to pay its debts is detailed and specific. Neither of these applies to the provision in the Bill. That point was not made during the earlier debates.
The third point, which I did make, was that we have had practical experience of the use of the power to put a company into administration if it is deemed to be unlikely to pay its debts. That happened in the case of Railtrack. There was an accountant’s report, which was all that was necessary, to suggest that Railtrack was going to be unable to pay its debts, so off went the Government to the court, and we all know the history after that. This has been widely commented on. It was not, even at the time, entirely bona fide. A political objective was being sought. It is that kind of thing that is causing concern and uncertainty in the industry.
My last point is that my noble friend’s letter, which I referred to a moment ago, raises the idea that I am trying to enshrine a statutory duty to consult directors. He says it would cause delay. In the circumstances that we are considering, a week or two’s delay does not seem very important. However, my amendment does not impose a duty to consult. It says that the court can make a special administration order only if it is satisfied that the company is likely to be unable to pay its debts and that the directors of the company have accepted that to be case and have consented to the order on that basis. To put it bluntly, the directors will have their day in court and that is how it should be. This amendment provides the beginnings of a safeguard against the situation that Railtrack was put in whereby special administration was imposed on the company simply on the say-so of an accountant’s report.
I entirely accept, as I said a few moments ago, that the authorities need to have the power to help a company to carry on its business if it is in difficulties for the protection of both the business and its consumers and, as my noble friend said, to spill over into other companies. A rescue package might have to be mounted, but I contend that this must be done in a way that does not sow uncertainty and raise the risks for investors and their suppliers. My evidence that that is the fear that the industry has at the moment is strong. The amendment seeks to enshrine a safeguard in the Bill to avoid that. I beg to move.
My Lords, we are grateful to my noble friend for raising this important issue, which enables us to clarify further and to put the arrangements on the record. We understand that there might be concerns that the tests for insolvency set out in these provisions appear to be rather wide, but they are statutory tests for insolvency as set out in the Insolvency Act 1986. As my noble friend has indicated, it is also a matter of balancing the interests of the companies, consumers and the public interest.
Administration under the Insolvency Act 1986 is a business rescue procedure, with the survival of the company as its primary objective. If entry to administration were available only to a company that could not pay its debts at the date of commencement, the rescue of viable businesses might be jeopardised. For this reason, administration can also be entered when a company is likely to become unable to pay its debts, which was the focus of what my noble friend said.
The clauses on special administration in the Bill follow these principles. When seeking to bring an energy supply company administration to an end, the administrator’s primary objective will be to rescue the company as a going concern. Therefore, these provisions apply the same tests for insolvency as the Insolvency Act. My noble friend argued that the process is different. As he has already picked up, the Secretary of State and Ofgem will no doubt want to discuss with the company’s directors in advance any application for an energy supply company administration order. However, enshrining in the legislation a duty to consult directors could lead to delay. This is significant; the Secretary of State needs flexibility to act quickly if the company’s position poses a threat to the rest of the market. That is extremely important to remember in this case.
The amendment would require the court to apply a stricter test for insolvency when considering applications for energy supply company administration than it does for applications for ordinary administration. It is therefore conceivable that an application by the Secretary of State for an energy supply company administration order could be dismissed, while an application for ordinary administration by a creditor of the company could succeed. This could lead to the very situation that the provisions in the Bill are intended to address.
The fact that a court process is required provides an important safeguard for companies, as the directors of the company have the opportunity to contest the order in court. They will no doubt use the kind of material that my noble friend has just mentioned.
My noble friend mentioned Railtrack. In October 2001, the High Court granted a railway administration order in relation to Railtrack. When granting the administration order, Mr Justice Lightman said:
“This is clearly a case where the making of a railway administration order is not only appropriate, but absolutely essential”.
If my noble friend would like, I can fill him in at another time on the reason for that judgment being made. The company was put into administration to ensure that the railway network continued to operate and was properly maintained and managed, and that it was done in the public interest.
I make it absolutely clear that it is intended that the Secretary of State would apply for an energy supply company administration order only as a last resort and to prevent the risk of financial failure spreading to other companies. It is important to balance duties to the public with the rights of the companies. Energy supply is vital to the public and to the economy. It is therefore very important that this matter is looked at in the context of the public interest. The balance must be right. What we have seen recently in the banking industry, for example, shows how important it is to be very careful in this area.
I hope, therefore, that I have sufficiently reassured my noble friend and that he will now withdraw his amendment.
I am extremely grateful to my noble friend Lady Northover for the care with which she has replied to this amendment. I have no doubt whatever that the industry will wish to study very carefully what she has just said. I have entirely accepted the case, and I think the industry accepts the case, that there is a need for the authorities to intervene. Our problem is that that might happen when the companies’ assets and liabilities appear to be in balance but someone has thought it unlikely that they will be unable to pay their debts in the future. This seems to me and to others to be an uncertain test. It would behove the Government to try to find some alternative form of words that would allay the undoubted feeling of insecurity and unnecessary risk that the companies are running under the process of the Bill.
However, as I made clear last week to my noble friend Lord Marland, it is not my intention to divide the House on this amendment but to make sure that the arguments are on the record and can be referred to in another place if that appears to Members of another place to be appropriate. Having said that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 13 withdrawn.
14: After Clause 101, insert the following new Clause—
“Compensation where the Secretary of State requests termination of offshore lease or agreement to lease
(1) The Secretary of State shall make a scheme (in this section, an “early termination compensation scheme”) to have effect where—
(a) a lease granted or agreement to lease has been made by the Crown Estates for the purpose of construction and operation of a generating station powered by wind, wave or tidal energy, or of equipment for transmission of electricity at a site in United Kingdom territorial waters or the REZ;(b) that lease or agreement to lease gives the landlord power to determine the lease or agreement where the Secretary of State so requests on the basis that the whole site, or any part of it, is required in connection with oil or gas works or rights; and(c) the landlord proposes to determine the lease or agreement, as regards the whole site or any part of it, as a result of such a request.(2) An early termination compensation scheme—
(a) must require the owner of, or person seeking to exploit, the oil or gas works or rights in question to pay compensation to the full extent of the loss which is likely to be incurred including the recovery of any wasted expenditure, loss of profits and any consequential loss suffered as a result of such works, by the lessee or holder of the agreement to lease as a result of the determination;(b) may, subject to paragraph (a), make such provision as the Secretary of State considers appropriate for the computation of compensation;(c) must make provision for the procedure applicable to the making and determination of claims, including provision for resolution of matters, in the event of disagreement, by an independent body;(d) must provide for the Secretary of State, when satisfied that compensation as required by the scheme has been agreed or resolved, so to certify in writing; and(e) may contain such other provision as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.(3) The landlord must not determine the lease or agreement to lease until the Secretary of State has certified the determination in accordance with subsection (2)(d).
(4) Subsections (1), (2), (5), (6), (7)(b) and (10) of section 36 apply, with the necessary modifications, to an early termination compensation scheme.”
I put down a similar amendment at Report which we were unable to debate. I am grateful to the Minister and his staff for talking to my noble friend Lord Grantchester in my absence. That makes me more confident that the Government understand that there is still a problem.
The amendment relates to the situation where a renewable energy enterprise has invested, at least as far as getting a lease from the Crown Estate, in offshore wind energy—it could be tidal or wave energy—and subsequently there is an oil discovery which would interfere with that site. This could result in a direct conflict, so my original attempt was to ensure that the Secretary of State could prevent such an oil licence being given unless the two sides negotiated an agreement. However, the noble Baroness, Lady Northover, persuasively indicated that the Government have this in hand, that there are negotiations going on and that they are talking to the industries and trade associations. That is indeed true, but the problem is that they have been talking to those two sides for six years and as yet we have no agreement on how to deal with it.
It was clear from what Baroness Northover said that the Government would not be minded to provide for such an override. In my view, an override would restore the balance between the two sides, but nevertheless the Government were not prepared to go down that road. I have therefore reverted to my third choice. My first choice is to have an agreement, my second choice is that the Government should have the means to prevent the oil or gas development happening unless there was an agreement and my third choice is that, if the oil or gas development goes ahead, compensation should be paid. That should be set out in statute.
One of the reasons why I felt it necessary to return to this is that the noble Baroness, having made some reassuring noises, added another comment, which I did not pick up at the time in Committee, when she said that,
“if the oil company is not prepared to offer appropriate compensation, there is no question of the Secretary of State intervening to override what is happening there”.—[Official Report, 8 February 2011; col. GC52.]
I was not entirely sure what that meant, because it seems to me that where there is no agreement and the Secretary of State, having tried to get the two sides to reach an agreement, judges it to be in the public interest that the oil exploration goes ahead, there ought to be some compensation involved. It is important that we register this as an ongoing concern both for the offshore wind-energy companies and, potentially, for tidal and wave installations. Because the clause in the Crown Estate’s lease enables this to happen, some intervention by the state or through the contractual provisions is required to even up the balance between the two sides.
I recognise that this is a complex area and it would be better for all of us if the Government and the two sides could reach agreement, but six years without agreement does not give me huge confidence that we will solve this before the passage of the Bill through both Houses of Parliament. I therefore tabled the amendment to register that with the Government and possibly to persuade colleagues in another place that this is an important issue. If investment in offshore, wind and other renewable technologies could effectively be overridden by a new oil exploration taking place in a site that had already been allocated and for which a lease had been agreed, some compensation is required if we are to encourage investment.
What lies behind this is that making a major investment in offshore wind and other renewable technologies requires significant private capital. For the most part, that will need to be raised from the markets. Although some large companies are investing in alternative technologies, we are mostly looking at finance through the City or the markets in one way or another. As long as potential investors can see not only that an investment could in effect be lost but that there is no legislative provision for compensation, clearly that will deter investment. That is what the offshore wind companies claim and it seems a valid point on which public policy should clearly give an indication.
I hope therefore that the Government will recognise that the third-choice option of providing in statute for some form of compensation is probably the least they can do in the circumstances. I hope that they will accept the amendment. If they cannot do so today, perhaps a similar amendment could be moved in another place and they could accept that. I beg to move.
My Lords, the amendment certainly addresses an extremely important point. I conclude from the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that the issue involves three separate elements: the Government's North Sea renewable strategy; investor confidence; and the behaviour of the Crown Estate. Unless the problem is addressed, we may be dealing with simply a matter of encouraging investment in the North Sea but of making it possible. Now is not a good time to raise money for renewables or anything else, and this could be the last straw when it comes to investment companies looking for where to put their money.
Anyone observing the behaviour of the Crown Estate in recent years cannot be anything other than impressed by the vigour with which it is pursuing the objectives that must have been imposed by its master the Treasury. To describe the Crown Estate as hard-nosed might be an understatement. Indeed, it does not have responsibility for delivering the Government’s renewable North Sea strategy. Without some clear statement, ideally in the form of a statutory instrument of some kind as suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, or some comparably sure investable assurance, we will not see this going ahead.
I add our support for the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, in raising this important issue about creating a level playing field between the respective players in using the marine environment and the seabed. I also thank him for highlighting again, as he has done so eloquently in the past, the risk that not tackling this issue of the leases that can be rescinded by the Crown Estate will cause huge problems for future investment in renewable energy. While they may have taken six years to potter around on this issue, the Government know—as we in this House all know—that, if they are to meet their targets on renewable energy, this issue has to be resolved very quickly to get the future investment in renewable energy.
My slight concern with this amendment is that it seeks to draw out one particular problem out of the complex number of issues that make up the jigsaw of coexistence between the respective oil and gas companies and those involved in renewable energy. As RenewableUK said,
“efforts to work together to prevent problems are far more likely to succeed if a fair and clear framework for co-operation is established”.
While I support this amendment—because it is right to raise this important issue that leases can be rescinded—I am concerned that it draws out only one particular issue in the jigsaw. If we are to get an equitable solution that all parties can agree to, there is still merit in looking at all those issues together.
Therefore, if the Minister is not minded to accept this amendment, I and other Members of this House would be grateful to know that the ministerial team is working now, with all parties, to agree such a fair and clear framework for co-operation that covers all the issues, not just the—admittedly important—issues around the termination of leases. If that framework can be agreed, which I hope can be achieved during the passage of the Bill as it goes to another place and comes back, that would give Members in this House the confidence that the Government recognise this issue, which has been raised by both sides of the House. The present state of affairs, whereby the leases can be rescinded for offshore wind if oil and gas companies come ahead with proposals, is not satisfactory, will not deliver the Government’s objectives for renewable energy and does not create a level playing field.
My Lords, it is important to promote the coexistence of UK oil and gas interests with offshore renewable energy expansion. We all want to maximise the growth of both sectors in the UK and thereby to enable the UK to benefit from sustainable electricity supply, strong oil and gas revenues and job creation in both sectors. As I understand it, there is an imbalance in the rights under the lease, according to whether the lease is in the hands of the oil and gas industry or the renewable wind industry. Where the oil and gas industry has an existing lease from the Crown Estate, the renewable industry can encroach on that territory only through commercial negotiation. Where the renewable industry has the lease, a clause in that lease gives the Secretary of State powers to terminate offshore wind-farm leases in favour of oil and gas and does not specify whether compensation would be due or how that amount would become due. This causes alarm in the renewable offshore wind industry that it could stifle investment in developing sites.
My noble friend brings forward his amendment to resolve the situation through the operation of a compensation scheme to cover the situation where the Secretary of State may be minded to terminate a lease in favour of the oil and gas industry. This scheme would give renewable developers the assurance that they feel they need to overcome reluctance to invest in developing a lease where it could be thought encroachment may happen from oil and gas operations. We understand there has never been—and, indeed, there is unlikely to be—such an occurrence. However, the renewable industry has the perception that the possibility of an early termination is detrimental to its financing and the exploitation of leases. This amendment seeks to end that uncertainty and uneasiness in the investor market.
I am sure the Minister would want to find a way to end the antagonism between the two key developers in the operation of leases. Can he give further assurances today, or even offer to facilitate a meeting with his department, so that the two protagonists could agree and cement a way forward?
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, for pointing out this particular area. We find ourselves perhaps in the crossfire between two interested bodies: RenewableUK and Oil & Gas UK, both of which are fighting for their own corners.
I am afraid I am attracted by the second option—I think it was the second option—to carry on the dialogue. We do not believe that the issue has been going on for six years, but I am very grateful for the historical information, which officials had not imparted to me. I think it is attractive for us to carry on the dialogue and, I might say, knock heads together, because it is important that we get these boundaries clearly defined. As the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, and the noble Baroness, Lady Parminter, both said, this is a complex thing that cannot be done quickly and needs negotiation. It needs both parties to come to the table to help us find the correct solution. The Government are immensely committed to it because it is important and therefore I am extremely grateful that this matter has been raised, but noble Lords have our assurance that we are pressing on with the negotiation. We intend to have a resolution, particularly as the renewables industry develops, as soon as possible, but we are in earnest.
I want to clarify something from Hansard that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said my noble friend Lady Northover said. Let me read out—another rare event for me—what the statement, in case he hears it incorrectly, should have said: I am happy to repeat the assurances we gave in Committee that where the oil company is not prepared to offer appropriate compensation, the Secretary of State will not intervene, on behalf of oil companies, and therefore the oil and gas development will not be permitted. I hope that clarifies that fundamental point.
With that, I hope the noble Lord will withdraw his amendment.
My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for clarifying that because that is not the way the original Hansard report read. As I say, I did not pick that up in Committee itself but only subsequently.
I think we all agree that we need diversity of supply and that we need oil and gas and offshore wind as a part of our energy mix. We also have a public policy objective of a certain level of renewables to which offshore wind will be the major contributor. Therefore there is another incentive for Government to get this right. Clearly, a general coexistence and co-operation agreement between the two sides would be highly desirable, and I am certainly happy to support the Government’s attempts to get that. I think he will find that this has been on the agenda for some considerable time. It might be five years and not six, but I think it is six years since I was a Minister and it was on the agenda within the former DTI, which sought comments from my department, which was Defra. So it has gone back that far. It may not have been a continuous negotiation, but the issue needs facing up to.
The renewables industry certainly feels, particularly in the present tight market, as the noble Lord, Lord Oxburgh, indicated, that this is a serious deterrent to getting the kind of funds needed to deliver what are, after all, the Government’s own objectives. He is certainly also right that—let us put it kindly—the nature of the legal advice that the Crown Estate appears to be getting does not help the situation either. It is a complex issue.
I am happy for today to accept the Minister’s assurance that we will continue to try to get an agreement. I suspect that the timescale of this Bill is not sufficient to get this agreement and the Government at some stage of the process may well consider they need a little bit of leverage here and may come back to something like this agreement. However, for today I withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 14 withdrawn.
The Bill was read a third time. A privilege amendment was made and the Bill was passed and sent to the Commons.