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Topical Questions

Volume 613: debated on Thursday 14 July 2016

As things stand, I am delighted that the hon. Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner) and I are able to take forward the enormous job of the Department of Energy and Climate Change. I am quite sure that there will be further announcements later that we all look forward to hearing.

Worryingly, my constituency is very polluted in parts of Botley and central Eastleigh. What progress is being made to ensure that all cars imported to this country meet our rigorous emissions standards?

I absolutely assure my hon. Friend that the Department for Transport is looking closely at transport and vehicle emissions. Further measures will be brought forward this autumn on meeting the increasingly stringent emissions requirements.

Some 23,000 businesses in the UK have solar panels on their roofs. If proposals in the current review of business rates go ahead, instead of paying £8 per kW, those companies could end up paying between £43 and £61 from next April. Up until last week, the Minister’s Department did not even know about that. Will she find out why her officials have been sleeping on the job, and speak to Ministers in the Department for Communities and Local Government to get this mess sorted out?

I am not aware of any sleeping on the job. If the hon. Gentleman wishes me to liaise with DCLG I will look into that, but we are certainly not asleep on the job.

T2. I have never known my hon. Friend to sleep on the job and I wish her well in the reshuffle. On the north side of the River Mersey, Fiddlers Ferry power station has closed down, while on the south side we have the blight of the new wind farm being built. Will my hon. Friend reassure my constituents in Frodsham and Helsby that the scientifically significant Frodsham marshes will not be blighted if fracking goes ahead? (905874)

We have more than 50 years of drilling experience in the UK, as well as one of the best records in the world for economic development alongside protection of the environment. All onshore oil and gas projects, including shale gas, are subject to the planning system, which addresses impacts such as traffic movements, noise, working hours and so on. National planning guidance states that any new development must be appropriate for its location and must take into account effects on health, the natural environment and general amenity, as well as any adverse effects from pollution. I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that his constituency will be protected.

T4. The Swansea Bay tidal lagoon project is hugely important not just to Swansea and south Wales but for potentially similar projects in Newport. When will the Minister have news of the independent report, and what is the timetable for making the decision? (905876)

The hon. Lady will be aware that Charles Hendry was appointed to look into the whole case for tidal lagoons and the contribution they could make to our future energy security, but also, importantly, the cost trajectory. His report will come out later this year. I cannot put a specific time on that, but we are acting just as fast as we possibly can.

T3. What assessment has my hon. Friend made of progress on Hinkley Point following the result of the EU referendum? (905875)

Good progress continues to be made on Hinkley Point C. When I visited the site a few months ago, it was very apparent that a huge amount of work is already going on. As my hon. Friend will have seen, EDF has reaffirmed its full commitment to the project following the result of the referendum on 23 June.

Does the Minister agree that scrapping the Department of Energy and Climate Change could only be taken as a signal that the new Government attach less significance to these important issues?

I absolutely do not agree with the hon. Gentleman. The assumption that we have to have a Department for something in order to meet objectives on it is not one I agree with at all.

T5. I have just been sent a report from Southend-on-Sea citizens advice bureau calling for a fair deal for prepayment meter users, who seem to be getting a second-class service. Given that they are the most vulnerable people, will my hon. Friend see to it that her Department looks again at the system? (905877)

I completely agree that prepayment meter customers get a rough deal, with a far smaller choice of tariffs and suppliers than customers who pay by other methods. That is why we are supporting recommendations by the Competition and Markets Authority to make it easier for prepayment meter customers to switch supplier, and to introduce a safeguard tariff cap for those customers until competition in that segment of the market significantly improves.

May I too wish the hon. Lady well in the reshuffle? We worked closely together on early intervention policy, and I know how committed she is to that.

My constituent Margaret Graham recently attended my surgery. She was at her wits’ end over protracted dealings with her energy supplier, npower, which has continually failed her since it made a huge error resulting in a very large overpayment. Since my intervention it has apologised and offered £150 in compensation, but this has been going on since 2013. Can the Minister assure me and the House that energy companies will treat their customers fairly and with respect, and does she agree that they should be held fully to account for their failings?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady—she is exactly right. Energy suppliers must behave properly towards their customers. There are too many complaints and not a good enough service, and that has to change.

T6. I congratulate my hon. Friend on fielding all the questions over the last hour, and on the manner in which she has conducted herself over the past week. I believe that she has done herself a great deal of credit, and I add my voice to those wishing her well later today. Following the historic vote by the British people to leave the EU, the UK once again has full control over our VAT. One way we could help households across the UK with high energy bills would be to cut VAT on energy. Will the Minister support calls for such a move? (905882)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and to prove that collective responsibility has once again taken effect, I reassure him that VAT is a matter for the Treasury. I agree about the need to reduce the number of households in fuel poverty, which is why we are consulting on proposals to focus more of the energy company obligation on those most in need. We have laid regulations that will ensure continued support for more than 2 million households through the warm home discount.

The Minister suggested that there has been no loss of confidence in investment in clean energy as a result of the vote to leave the EU. Will she explain why the Swedish firm Vattenfall is reviewing its investment in the UK, which will put £5.5 billion of investment in offshore wind at risk?

I made it clear that continued, enormous investment is coming to the UK from offshore and onshore investors. I am not aware of the hon. Lady’s particular point, but the UK remains an attractive place to invest. The Government are doing everything they can to ensure that we get even more overseas investment in our energy infrastructure.

What steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure the effectiveness of the capacity mechanism in bringing forward new gas-fired power stations such as that at the Carrington site?

The capacity market is incredibly important for ensuring secure energy supplies. We recently announced that we will bring forward an earlier auction for 2017-18, to secure more capacity. We hope that that will enable us to get over this short-term issue where wholesale prices are so low that the viability of power stations is at risk. By having that capacity mechanism firmly embedded in our energy supply, we believe that we will bring forward new, attractive gas investment through longer-term contracts that will benefit the UK energy consumer.

The Government have estimated that the capacity auction this winter could put £36 on customer bills. Given that today the Minister has talked about keeping down customer bills, how does she think that that auction will affect those bills?

Our central assessment is that the impact on bills could be up to £28, but our impact assessment also shows that if we did nothing, further power station closures could add a further £46 to consumer bills. We believe that this auction is good value for consumers, and it provides the energy security on which we all rely.

What opportunities does my hon. Friend see for both inward investment and selling our services abroad as a result of breaking free of the shackles of the EU?

I personally believe there will be huge opportunities. We now have the chance to negotiate free trade deals with the rest of the world. We have the opportunity to determine policies for energy without the need to constantly look for EU state aid. The opportunities for the future are enormous, and I look forward to being able to promote UK plc in the world.