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Topical Questions

Volume 711: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2022

Since we last met, my Department has been focused on three central strands. First, we are pleased to announce the passing of the Economic Crime (Transparency and Enforcement) Act 2022. Secondly, we have worked with Ukrainian colleagues to make sure that generators are arriving in Ukraine so that their public services can be powered and delivered. Thirdly, I am pleased to announce that we are phasing out imports of Russian oil over a nine-month period to make sure, with our allies, that the Kremlin does not benefit from its sale of hydrocarbons.

Small businesses across my constituency are struggling, like households, with spiralling energy costs. The British Chambers of Commerce reports that three out of four firms it surveyed will be passing on these costs to customers through higher prices, thus further fuelling the cost of living crisis for many people in Twickenham and across the country. What will the Secretary of State do to alleviate the pressure on small and medium-sized enterprises that are facing rising energy bills?

The hon. Lady will know that not only did my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announce a £9 billion package particularly for the most vulnerable, but for all our citizens, a few weeks ago, but last week we announced a support package, again, for vulnerable customers. In relation to small business, she will know that over the past two years this Government have spent £405 billion in supporting businesses of all sizes through a very difficult pandemic and, again, through the heightened crisis that has been brought on by the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

T3. What steps is my hon. Friend taking to support businesses with increased energy bills? Companies such as Rodale Commercials Ltd in Loughborough use high levels of gas in the painting process to repair vehicles. (906328)

It is great that my hon. Friend is supporting Rodale and other companies in her area. We know that this is a worrying time for business, which is facing significant increases in global gas prices. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary is in regular contact with the energy industry and Ofgem to manage the impact of price increases on businesses. Clearly, we need to look at this in the round, and in the context of the £408 billion that we provided throughout covid to allow businesses such as Rodale to survive.

Last October the Secretary of State promised support for energy-intensive industries such as steel, glass and ceramics. His exact words were that it was his

“priority…to ensure costs are managed and supplies of energy are maintained.”

Yet six months later there is still no action, and there was nothing in last week’s spring statement, so when will this promised support be presented?

The hon. Gentleman will know that support is ongoing. We have the industrial energy transformation fund, which has allocated more than £50 million. We have also supported EIIs—energy-intensive industries—to the tune of £2 billion since 2013, so support is always there and has been ongoing.

A chemicals manufacturer in Grimsby has been in touch with me this week. Its energy bill last year was £10 million; it has now gone up to £50 million a year. And it gets worse, because as we have heard in questions today, in two days’ time, compensation for the UK emissions trading scheme and the carbon price support mechanism comes to an end, so support is actually decreasing. Will the Secretary of State at least do the bare minimum and reassure firms today that that support fund will be extended?

I will reassure businesses that I engage with that we are constantly engaging in conversations with our Treasury colleagues and across Government to see how best we can use the existing schemes to support industries—the steel industry, ceramics industry and chemicals industry—in this difficult time.

T4. I thank the small business Minister for speaking to our Staffordshire chamber of commerce event in Parliament recently. Recruitment continues to be a challenge for many businesses across Stoke-on-Trent, so will my hon. Friend outline what more we can do to support small businesses, particularly to upskill and recruit more workers? (906330)

It was a pleasure to speak to the Staffordshire chamber of commerce. The Department for Work and Pensions’ “Way to Work” campaign is a drive to help employers to fill vacancies faster by streamlining recruitment processes and offering employers a named adviser. The Department is also supporting people to upskill through skills boot camps and sector-based work academies.

T2. We have world-leading motor neurone disease scientists here in the UK who are on the cusp of developing the first ever treatments for this disease. Patients, scientists and charities were promised that by the end of January we would know how the £50 million of targeted MND research funding would be allocated. It is now the end of March. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the funding will be awarded quickly and in full, and via a single application process, as set out by MND charities in the 2021 spending review submissi-on? (906327)

As former Minister for life science and Minister for research, I would be very happy to meet with the hon. Member to talk that through. We have just made the biggest allocation for science, research and innovation, which included £9 billion for health research.

T5. I very much welcome the Chancellor scrapping VAT on home energy-saving products in his spring statement last week. Does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State agree that now really is the time to turbo-charge a green homes programme? Let us insulate homes and help people to cut their energy bills and keep warm. (906331)

My hon. Friend knows that energy efficiency is at the centre of any net zero strategy, and I would be happy to work with him to ensure that we can drive progress in this area.

T8. People already struggling to make ends meet will be hit by an increase in the unit price of electricity next month, and for many in Wales their daily standing charge will also double. In the interests of transparency and fairness, has the Department considered the merits of introducing a system of single unit pricing, so that consumers can more easily compare the costs charged by energy providers? (906334)

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Department continually looks at a range of schemes to see how best we can lighten the burden of rising energy prices.

T6. On nuclear, there has been much talk of the small modular reactors created by Rolls-Royce, which the Government are rightly supporting, and lots of talk of the progress on nuclear fusion at Culham in Oxfordshire. What is the Department’s assessment of progress on these technologies? How can we increase the speed of their deployment, and what policy interventions might help with that? (906332)

That is an excellent question. We can be very proud: UK scientists at Harwell recently demonstrated the ability to generate temperatures equivalent to those on the sun at the flick of a switch, and Rolls-Royce is ready to roll out and industrialise small nuclear reactors over the next 10 to 15 years. We are looking to accelerate their deployment to help tackle the global energy crisis.

T9. For the 11,5000 Cynon Valley households in receipt of social security benefits, the spring statement offered absolutely nothing. Inflation is anticipated to reach 9%, and they are expected to use a disproportionate amount of their income to cover energy cost increases of 50% in April—and another 40% increase is forecast for October. There is to be a social security payment increase of a paltry and quite insulting 3.1%, which links back to the inflation rate in September last year. What consideration have the Government given to introducing a low income energy tariff, so that they can better target support at lower-income households, as suggested by the Welsh Government? (906335)

As the hon. Lady is aware, we have made a number of interventions that have gone some way to lightening the burden. There is the £9 billion that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor announced a few weeks ago, and £150 off council tax for those in bands A to D. I have reassured the House that we are looking at a range of measures to see how best we can meet the challenge of the next few months. Nobody knows where the price cap will be in October.

T7. The price cap, the cut in fuel duty and the warm home discount are providing vital help with bills, but will the Government commit to further action, domestically and internationally, to try to get energy prices down, so that we can help pensioners and other vulnerable groups? (906333)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to identify this as an issue. That is why we are working, not only in Government but across G7 partners, to ensure diverse sources of energy supply, which can keep prices down.

In Chopwell in my constituency, over 200 homes were due to benefit from cladding under the green homes grant local authority delivery scheme, but due to escalating costs, that work has been cancelled. Will the Minister meet me to discuss how we can ensure that the work is carried out?

As the hon. Lady knows, local authority delivery of the green homes grant was very successful, but I would be very happy to meet her to discuss the case she mentions.

Last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made the welcome announcement that employment leave would be extended to unpaid carers. Will he please update the House on when that is likely to be delivered?

I recommit to our manifesto commitment to introduce carers’ leave. That will be introduced as soon as parliamentary time allows. We are looking forward to getting on with that as soon as possible.

South Yorkshire is home to some extraordinary research and development assets, including the University of Sheffield Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the Advanced Wellbeing and Research Centre. It was great to meet the Minister recently to discuss the issue. Will he continue to work with me and others on unlocking the undoubtedly huge potential in South Yorkshire?

With absolute pleasure. The South Yorkshire cluster is becoming a world-class, globally recognised leader in advanced manufacturing and associated industries. I look forward to supporting that cluster.

Geothermal energy from old coalmines can heat our homes for years to come. Will the Secretary of State please assure me that he is doing all he can to support the Coal Authority in developing this fantastic new energy opportunity?

We are, absolutely, excited about the prospects for geothermal. I would be very happy to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss this. I was happy, also, to talk to my Cornish colleagues about this exciting new technology; it is something on which we are focused.

The pupils of Boroughmuir High School’s climate change society in my constituency have impressed on me that their generation is relying on us to take action right now, because by the time they are old enough to do so it will be too late for systemic change. Can the Secretary of State reassure school students in my constituency that his plans for transition have the requisite urgency?

They do. I was very pleased to take up my office as Minister of State for Energy a month after the net zero legislation was passed, and for the last three years we have been resolutely focused on living up to the letter of the law, fulfilling our bargain and making sure we reach net zero in 2050.

The Secretary of State is well aware of the opportunities for further developing the renewables sector in my Cleethorpes constituency and the wider Humber region. However, as he is also aware, there have been one or two setbacks of late. Will he meet me and neighbouring colleagues to discuss how we can move forward and maximise such opportunities?

I would be very happy to meet my hon. Friend. I am very excited about what is going on in his constituency and the wider Humber area, and I look forward to talking to him about decarbonisation.

Unscrupulous company directors make use of the compulsory strike-off process to avoid paying debts to both private and public sector creditors. In considering reform of Companies House, what can Ministers do to tackle this practice?

We are looking at a range of methods of reforming Companies House, including unscrupulous behaviour by directors. It will be the biggest upheaval of companies law for the last 150 years, and we will legislate for new powers in the economic crime Bill when parliamentary time allows.

My right hon. Friend will know that there is a distinct difference between the current energy price spikes and the long-standing unfairness that UK steel makers face when it comes to the charges and levies they pay on their energy costs. Does he agree that, when the energy strategy that the Prime Minister promised comes out, it must address both these distinct and separate issues?

I would be happy to talk to my hon. Friend about those issues. I would like to point out that we had a significant victory in extending the safeguards last summer, and there has been some very good news on trade talks about the quotas that steel companies in this country are allowed by the US.

The energy crisis is leaving some people in my constituency struggling to pay their bills, and the situation is even worse for those whose heating is paid for centrally and is not protected by the energy price cap. In some cases, many have seen their bills go up by more than 500%, so when will the Secretary of State bring forward legislation that will give Ofgem the powers to regulate these prices and end these excessive energy price increases?

The hon. Member will know that we are speaking with Ofgem about this very issue. Yes, the price cap does protect the vast majority of people, but there is an issue with people off grid, which I would be very happy to talk to her about.

There is great concern in North West Durham among constituents affected by Storm Arwen about the prospect of being left without a landline as well as without power during a storm, due to the switch to the voice over internet protocol. Given that, does the Secretary of State, like me, welcome the announcement from BT today that this forced switch will now be paused and be on request only, as BT looks to ensure that proper back-up systems are in place during power cuts before returning to the broader roll-out?

I welcome the announcement. I was also very pleased to spend time with my hon. Friend in the unfortunate circumstances of Storm Arwen, and I look forward to the publication of that report soon.

Returning to off grid, Ofgem’s mission statement says that it aims

“to make a positive difference for all energy consumers, both now and in the future”,

yet off-gas grid consumers using electricity, oil and liquid gas face price rises in April four times that of Ofgem’s average consumer. Will the Secretary of State support my calls to regulate this for off-gas grid customers through Ofgem, and indeed support my Energy Pricing (Off Gas Grid Households) Bill?

Where I agree with the hon. Gentleman is that we need to have a more robust offer for people who are off grid. This issue has been raised continually in these exceptional times, and I look forward to speaking to Ofgem—and perhaps him—about these issues.

Order. That finishes questions, but before we come to the statement, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on