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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2022

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The Secretary of State was asked—

Photonics Industry

My hon. Friend will be aware that photonics is one of the seven technology families highlighted in the innovation strategy with the absolute intention of showing and developing its domestic potential and the exports possibilities.

I thank the Secretary of State for his response, but he will know that photonics is completely undervalued across the United Kingdom and that south Devon is home to a large contingent of the photonics sector. With that in mind, can I invite him or presumably his successor, if I am allowed to say that, to the iMAPS—International Microelectronics Assembly and Packaging Society—conference on 18 October to safeguard and flag up the photonics sector?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that in the current circumstances 18 October is a very long time away, but of course I will do my best to attend that conference.

As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on photonics and quantum, I am well aware of the huge success of the UK photonics sector, but its future depends on a thriving semiconductor industry based here in the UK. The UK has that capability, but we need the semiconductor strategy. Could the Secretary of State update the House on when we can expect to see that strategy?

By a curious anomaly, the semiconductor strategy is fully owned by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, so that question could be directed to it, but I am grateful that the hon. Member has acknowledged the booming sector here in the UK.

Energy Price Cap: Living Standards

2. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of increases in the energy price cap on living standards. (901016)

We talk in Cabinet about the cost of living and the price cap all the time. The hon. Member will know that decisions on the level of the price cap are for Ofgem, but it is something we are constantly talking about in Cabinet.

MoneySavingExpert’s Martin Lewis has asked a great question over social media:

“The energy price cap’s predicted to rise 64% in Oct taking a typical bill to £3,244/yr; & rise again in Jan to £500/yr more than when May’s help package was announced. What’ll u do to avoid this & when?”

How would the Secretary of State answer that question?

The hon. Member will know that the various parts are moving in the Government, but I am sure there will be the customary statement or Budget in November from my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and I am sure there will be some interesting measures there to deal with that particular question.

Will my right hon. Friend explain how people who live in park homes are going to be able to benefit from the £400 donation from the energy price cap?

I am very pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we recognise the difficulty there. There was a loophole, but we are in the process of consultation about how to deal with that particular issue.

I am afraid the Secretary of State just does not get it. As we now know, by the end of the year fuel bills are going to increase by an amount greater than the financial support that has been put in place by his Government. One third of someone’s state pension is going to be required just to pay their electricity and gas bills, so I have a simple question, which I will repeat again: what are they going to do about it?

We have already announced, in the course of the past few months, £37 billion-worth of cost of living support measures this year. I have also mentioned that there will be a Budget in November, when I am sure there will be an update on this very issue.

So nothing new, but let us face the reality as outlined by the abrdn Financial Fairness Trust just in the last couple of days: one in six households in the UK are now in “serious financial difficulties”—a number higher than throughout the entire pandemic—while inflation is sky-high, energy bills are sky-high, fuel bills are sky-high, clothing bills are sky-high, food bills are sky-high, wages are stagnating and we have the lowest growth in the entire G20, bar Russia. Britain is broken, isn’t it?

I am not going to take any lectures from the hon. Gentleman about economic management when his core policy is to separate from the UK, which will have a devastating economic impact on people in Scotland. I am not going to take any lessons from him, thank you very much.

Oil and Gas Sector

The North sea transition deal sets out how the Government are working in partnership with the offshore oil and gas industry to achieve a managed energy transition that leaves nobody behind.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, but 66% of my constituents live off the gas grid and rely on heating oil deliveries to heat their home—obviously not in these temperatures today—and I am extremely worried about oil deliveries in the winter. Has my right hon. Friend got his eye on these constituents, who comprise a huge part of rural Britain?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Wales is the part of the UK with the highest percentage of those off the gas grid, and I know that her rural part of Wales is therefore likely to be among the areas most affected by the rise in the price of heating oil. We have made sure that those off the gas grid but on the electricity grid will benefit from the £400 energy bill rebate. We have also put £1.1 billion into the home upgrade grant to provide energy efficiency and clean heating upgrades to support lower-income households living off the main gas grid. Obviously, we are continuing to monitor the situation extremely closely, particularly for the most vulnerable, most rural constituents such as my hon. Friend’s.

The UK already has the lowest tax take anywhere in the world from an offshore oil and gas regime, so it is perverse that the Government’s new investment allowance will essentially incentivise yet more oil and gas exploration at a time when we know that we absolutely need to leave fossil fuels in the ground. Given that the Secretary of State himself has said that it will take up to a decade to extract sufficient volumes from fracking, will he undertake to speak to his Treasury colleagues and make sure that fracking at the very least is excluded from this perverse investment allowance?

I must say I find the Green party’s attitude to these issues bizarre: it seems to be resolutely against any oil and gas extraction in this country, which could only mean it would be in favour of imports, and those imports would be higher priced, more volatile, likely to be from more dangerous parts of the world, and come with higher embedded emissions. The embedded emissions of liquified natural gas are about 2.5 times higher than the emissions from the gas we get from the UK continental shelf. The hon. Lady describes herself as a Green party politician, but I find her approach distinctly ungreen compared to that of this Conservative Government.

Research and Development Spending

4. What recent steps his Department has taken to help increase the level of research and development spending. (901018)

19. What recent steps his Department has taken to help increase the level of research and development spending. (901036)

We are providing the fastest ever sustained uplift in R&D funding, reaching £20 billion per annum by 2024-25. If association to Horizon Europe is not possible in good time to make the most of that programme, we will take forward a bold and ambitious package of UK alternatives.

This country has been world-leading in its covid-19 vaccination programme and so much more in our pharmaceutical industries as well as the health sector. Can the Minister say a little more about what specific research and development investment will go into pharmaceuticals and the health sector? I would particularly like to mention cancer services and Electa oncology in my constituency which is expanding.

My hon. Friend has always been a passionate advocate and defender of business in the Crawley constituency, specifically R&D projects and innovation, and I am glad he mentioned Alector and others, as they are important companies in his constituency. We continue to support investment in R&D through a vibrant research and innovation system that attracts private sector investment and drives up productivity across the UK, including in Crawley.

We are on the cusp of a green energy revolution with hydrogen, modular nuclear and now fusion in the mix. What steps is the Department taking to ensure British innovation is in the vanguard of that revolution, thus ensuring our long-term energy security?

My hon. Friend is always on the front foot on low-carbon energy and innovation in Heywood and Middleton. He will know that the Government’s flagship £1 billion net zero innovation portfolio is making those important investments in hydrogen, advanced nuclear technologies and so on. On fusion, we are investing £700 million in research facilities and programmes over the next three years. My hon. Friend will also know that the energy security Bill we published last week includes launch pads for both hydrogen and nuclear fusion.

That was the very first mention of hydrogen this morning. Does the Minister agree that there is such potential in hydrogen energy? We can already buy heavy goods vehicles and trucks that are hydrogen driven, and a network of hydrogen filling stations is being opened at the moment across our country. If he does agree, why does he not put more research money into hydrogen for every kind of energy use?

We are 14 minutes into Question Time; I do not think that is too bad for the first mention of hydrogen. I realise that on the periodic table, it is No. 1—right at the top left—but that does not mean that it always has to be the first thing mentioned at Question Time.

The amount of money and resources going into hydrogen remains extremely strong. It is a really important part of the net zero innovation portfolio. Just over the past few months, I have been to the Whitelee wind farm just south of Glasgow to see the new hydrogen production facility there. That facility is going to do exactly what the hon. Gentleman wants us to do: provide hydrogen for vehicles, particularly buses. The whole of the Glasgow bus fleet and, indeed, the whole of the Glasgow dustcart fleet will be fuelled by hydrogen from that wind farm.

We need to increase investment in R&D; we also need to think carefully about where we spend it. In South Yorkshire we have some outstanding translational research institutions—the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre and the Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre—in two outstanding universities. I know that the Secretary of State is supportive, but will the Minister pledge to work carefully with the Mayor and partners in our region so that we can unlock the huge potential in South Yorkshire?

The answer is yes. We always welcome Mayors with a constructive attitude to working with the Government. If I am not mistaken, I have a meeting with the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues next week. A delegation is coming to see me, led by—I think—the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield). It might be a different part of Sheffield; the Chair of the Select Committee on Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Sheffield South East (Mr Betts), is the Member I am thinking of.

Can I suggest that the Minister reminds Ministers in the other place that they are responsible to MPs in this House as well, and that they should meet with them? I hope that will be a clear message to the Lords.

I call Chi Onwurah, the Labour spokesperson.

Despite being critical to our world-beating research and a Conservative manifesto commitment, Britain’s participation in the world’s biggest science funding programme, Horizon Europe, is in peril. Before resigning, the then science Minister, the hon. Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), took to Twitter to lobby the new Chancellor for funding for his plan B, but the Chancellor was busy trying to get the Prime Minister he had just accepted a job from to leave his job. Now, although the former science Minister has asked for his job back, the still in place, though disgraced, Prime Minister is too busy nobbling those going for his job to fill the science job. It is total chaos. Science deserves better, doesn’t it?

I thought that was a rather convoluted question, if you do not mind my saying so, Mr Speaker.

We in the UK Government are absolutely committed to getting a good deal for UK science, whether through association with Horizon Europe or through our plan B Horizon plan, which is also a fully funded approach to making sure that UK science does not lose out. Perhaps the hon. Lady might welcome the big boost in R&D spending in this country, with the most sustained uplift, from £15 billion today to £20 billion in two years’ time—a 33% increase in just two years.

Fuel Market: Review

5. What recent discussions his Department has had with the Competition and Markets Authority on its review of the fuel market. (901020)

On 11 June, my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary asked the Competition and Markets Authority to conduct an urgent review of the market for petrol and diesel. The CMA published its response on 8 July and has opened a market study into the fuel market, as my right hon. Friend requested.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I know he has been working with the CMA on this issue, and I have read with interest its report on the discrepancy between the price of crude oil and wholesale prices. However, prices at the pumps in West Berkshire are still very high. My constituency is a rural one where people are completely reliant on their cars, so could my right hon. Friend provide an update as to when my constituents can expect to see better value at the petrol pumps?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend and other colleagues for leading the campaign and for pointing out some of the discrepancies in the market. I am delighted that the CMA is now carrying out a study. It found that rural fuel prices were consistently higher than those in urban areas, which is definitely worth a further market probe, so I urge her as a campaign leader and other colleagues to submit views and evidence to the CMA as it carries out its market study. One thing that was clear is that in the view of the CMA the duty cut put forward by the Government earlier this year was passed on to retailers.

The CMA would be greatly helped in the energy and fuel market, and especially in the production of hydrogen, by fairness in the TNUoS—Transmission Network Use of System—charges for transmission costs in the electricity networks. When will Scottish renewables producers stop paying £7.36 per MWh for transmission, when producers in independent EU countries pay about 46p per MWh—a difference of 16 times affecting the production of hydrogen, an important fuel?

It is good to be back on hydrogen again. The hon. Gentleman will reflect, I am sure, on the answers I gave earlier on the success of hydrogen, particularly in Scotland. I will say two things in answer to his question on transmission charges. First, as he knows, transmission charges are a matter for Ofgem. Secondly, Scottish consumers benefit from transmission charges compared to consumers in the rest of the United Kingdom. He may wish to reflect on all the pros and cons of the policy he appears to be proposing.

Energy Price Rises

6. What assessment he has made of the impact of the rise in energy prices on (a) households and (b) businesses. (901021)

The Government recognise the impact that increasing energy prices are having on households, which is why we are providing £37 billion in support for consumers this year alone. The Government are in regular contact with business groups and suppliers to explore ways to protect businesses.

Citizens Advice Luton has seen a 119% increase in local people saying they cannot afford their energy bills after April’s price increase, even after cutting back on other essential spending. I heard the Secretary of State say that the issue is talked about constantly in Cabinet, but does the Minister recognise that the energy price cap increase later this year will push even more families into poverty and hardship?

I completely agree with the hon. Lady in her analysis of the underlying issue: the big rise in global energy prices over the past 12 months. That is exactly why we are taking the action we are taking: £37 billion-worth of support for consumers and bill payers over the course of this year. That is a massive amount of Government support going into ensuring that people get the support they need to be able to pay those bills in the coming months.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for outlining those measures. I sense it will be a very bleak winter; the energy price cap will play a role, but it would help if it were augmented by a social tariff. Will he advise on whether there have been any discussions in Government about the introduction of such a tariff?

I thank my hon. Friend for that thoughtful question. Obviously, all these things are under review, but I remind him that we replaced the social tariff with other support schemes for bill payers under the coalition. That remains our position, but we—both the Department and the Treasury, and indeed, the whole Government—study these positions and issues very closely indeed.

It is very clear that the rising price of heating people’s homes will be devastating and go well beyond anything the Government have done to help households so far. For people living off-mains who are reliant on heating oil, for example—19,000 households in Cumbria alone—there is no cap whatever. They have seen their prices more than double over the past 12 months. What will the Minister do to ensure people in rural communities like mine are not hit even harder than the majority?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we reflected on this issue in an earlier question. The Government are providing support for those who are off the gas grid. For example, those who pay an electricity bill will qualify for the £400 reduction this year. We have also put £1.1 billion into the home upgrade grant, on top of the £2.5 billion already deployed, to make sure vulnerable households, which could well include some of his constituents, are able to profit from the energy measures being put forward by the Government. His question on the price cap is a reasonable question to put. The information I have directly from the trade body UKIFDA—the UK and Ireland Fuel Distributors Association—is that a price cap would be extremely difficult for its members, the people in the retail market for heating oil, because it becomes very difficult for a small business to hedge. However, it is something I discuss with MPs, the industry and the trade body regularly to see what more can be done, and the situation is under constant review.

One thing we can do to bring energy prices down is have an absolutely massive expansion of renewable offshore energy, whether that is tidal or wind. Last week, I met National Grid, which will use Penwortham on the Ribble estuary coast as the point to onshore a lot of the electricity that helps to get our fuel bills down. Does the Minister welcome the fact that National Grid has seen the opportunity of Penwortham, and does he agree that we just need to make sure that the environment and the natural Ribble estuary are protected as the cables and the energy come forward?

I thank my hon. Friend for her question and her constant very good and strong engagement on behalf of her Ribble valley constituents. Renewable energy is, of course, part of the solution. That is why we announced the allocation round for the latest auction of renewable energy last week. It was the most successful ever, with 10.8 GW of renewable energy coming to this country through the contracts for difference mechanism. It has been a huge success, and I welcome my hon. Friend’s interest.

The Minister knows that, at present, all retail electricity supplies—whether they derive from more expensive gas or cheaper renewables—are charged as though they had all come from gas. He also knows how to decouple prices coming into the retail market, so that domestic and business customers can enjoy considerable reductions in their energy bills by getting the direct benefit of renewable prices. Why is he not legislating to do so?

The shadow Minister raises an interesting and good point about how the UK electricity market is structured. That is one reason why we have launched the REMA—review of electricity market arrangements—process and why we are taking action in the Energy Bill on aspects of the domestic energy system that will yield real gains for consumers, such as the onshore distribution and transmission network, so that there will be more competition in the network. There will be other measures in the Bill, which I very much hope that he and the other Opposition Front Benchers will support in due course.

Low-carbon Technologies

7. What steps his Department is taking to help support the creation of new low-carbon technologies. (901022)

Low-carbon technologies are fundamental to meeting our net zero target and securing our energy supply. The Government have set out their ambition to invest up to £22 billion in research and development by 2026-27. Our £1 billion net zero innovation portfolio is accelerating the commercialisation of innovative low-carbon technologies, systems and processes in the power, buildings and industrial sectors.

I thank the Minister for her answer and welcome her to her place. May I bring to her attention the excellent bid from Uniper for carbon capture and storage technology to be built into its new energy from waste plant at Ratcliffe-on-Soar, which sits in the heart of the east midlands freeport? Does my hon. Friend agree that the UK’s first inland CCS facility, creating a carbon-negative and fully sustainable waste treatment solution, is worthy of investment through phase 2 of the carbon capture, utilisation and storage fund?

I commend my right hon. Friend—[Interruption.] Sorry, I commend my hon. Friend—it is only a matter of time—for working incredibly hard not only in Rushcliffe, but to promote the freeport for the whole of the east midlands. She is doing an incredible job. We are committed to deploying CCUS, including from energy from waste plants. We will announce the projects to proceed to the next stage of the track 1 CCUS process in due course.

Diolch yn fawr iawn, Llefarydd. I welcome the Minister to her place.

The lack of grid capacity in Wales is a chronic problem, stalling both onshore and offshore low-carbon developments. National Grid’s pathway to 2030 proposes a new connection between north and south Wales. Will the Minister commit to working with the Welsh Government to set a precondition for any development of sufficient capacity to ensure that local, small-scale energy projects can access the grid at low cost?

We always work to ensure adequate capacity. Perhaps the right hon. Member could meet National Grid to talk about that, but if she would like to come back to me on the point when she has done so, I will be happy to meet her.

I welcome the Minister to her post. We all agree that supporting investment in new low-carbon technologies is an important part of reaching net zero—well, most of us do. In the past week, one of the candidates for Prime Minister has said that

“we need to suspend the all-consuming desire to achieve net zero by 2050.”

Another claims that it was

“wrong of us to set a target”

for net zero. The frontrunner spent two years at the Treasury blocking additional climate spend. It is all well and good for the Minister to talk about the need for investment, but how can we, and more importantly the investors out there, have any confidence that it will continue?

It is clearly in our manifesto that we are completely committed to net zero. I will not be commenting further on any leadership elections.

Satellites and Space Exports

9. What recent progress his Department has made on increasing the number of (a) satellite launches and (b) space-related exports. [R] (901025)

I will, Mr Speaker.

We have funded a range of industry projects to establish vertical launch services from Scotland and support horizontal launch from Cornwall, with the UK’s first launch on track for later this year. We are supporting the growth of UK space exports through targeted campaigns matching UK companies with new large customers globally; through our new Export Academy, which upskills first-time exporters; and through establishing new and innovative international partnerships.

I congratulate the Minister on her appointment, and on taking this question on an exciting growth sector for UK tech. Although our satellite capabilities are well known, the ability to launch satellites is something new indeed. There is considerable demand for satellites from countries in south-east Asia that wish to take advantage of the ability to map and plan their agriculture better and to research and better protect against severe weather issues, as well as getting valuable marine and fishing information. Can my hon. Friend confirm how we will know how much capacity is available for our partners in south-east Asia and elsewhere abroad? When will it be available?

It is indeed an exciting opportunity. Delivering our planned launches from Cornwall and Scotland will allow the UK to establish itself as a leader in the growing global launch market. It will ensure that the UK is attractive to companies around the world that seek to launch satellites that meet our regulatory standards. UK Space Agency-led international partnership programmes in 2018 explored how UK satellite technology could be used in the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam; I am pleased to say that a number of opportunities were identified.

Rare Earth Metals

11. What recent steps his Department has taken to increase the supply of rare earth metals while maintaining high environmental standards. (901027)

We are absolutely focused on critical minerals. I am delighted to say that we will publish a critical minerals strategy, which I personally commissioned and have a personal interest in as Secretary of State.

China has been hoovering up rare earth metals around the world, and obviously other parts of the world have far worse environmental standards for extraction than the UK, but rare earth metals are vital to Nissan in Sunderland, where many of my constituents work, and to Britishvolt, which is just up the road. I thank the Department for the extra money that has been provided recently, with £1 million for Northern Lithium and Weardale Lithium in my constituency to look at this, but what more can the Government do to really help deliver the UK production of vital rare earth metals?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on that necessity. The Critical Minerals Intelligence Centre was launched only last week and is looking at precisely the question that he raises. In respect of Nissan and Britishvolt, he will know that we landed those investments only last year. We are looking very closely at how we can secure the supply chain here in the UK.

Rare earth minerals are essential to our economy, not least in low-carbon sectors and in defence. The Japanese Government developed their rare minerals plan as long ago as 2010, in response to a blockade by China. I know the UK Government say that they will publish a critical materials strategy in the autumn, but if other countries have been building resilience since 2010, what confidence can we have that this Government will develop an effective strategy for our economy and our national security when, as the Secretary of State has just admitted, they have only just woken up to the scale of the risks that we face?

I think the hon. Gentleman does the Government a disservice. Obviously Japan was focused on security of supply, given its immediate exposure to China. Where we have come in is in bringing together, for instance, the United States and Canada: officials in Canada whom I speak to are looking at our critical minerals strategy with great interest, and we are very much leading the way in the Five Eyes.

Community-owned Energy Projects

13. What recent steps his Department has taken to help support the growth of community-owned energy projects. (901029)

We encourage community energy groups to work closely with local authorities to support the development of projects through UK-wide growth funding.

The Minister knows that community-owned local energy projects will be critical to delivering net zero and national security, and are often best delivered by co-operatives. However, he should also know that the minimum tariff paid by the big suppliers to the small suppliers is often too low to make many smaller suppliers viable. Will he look into that minimum tariff, and also work with the Co-operative party to support and fund the launch of new locally owned community energy projects?

I should be happy to have a look at those tariffs, but I do not think that this would prevent us from supporting community energy projects as a Government. We have a very good track record in that regard, through previous funds and through, for example, the towns fund, run by the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, which has just awarded more than £23.6 million to Glastonbury Town Council. The projects involved include the Glastonbury clean energy project, whose purpose is investment in renewable energy generation and low-carbon transport infrastructure. There is a great deal going on in this space, but I am happy to look at the tariff question in particular.

Online Products: Safety

As the hon. Lady should know, a consultation, which includes proposals to take further steps to address unsafe products sold online, is being finalised, and the consultation paper will be published later this year.

Unsuspecting and cash-strapped consumers are being peddled recalled white goods, unsafe devices claiming to save energy, and dangerous toys. Online marketplaces are a hotbed for unsafe products, as has been evidenced time and again by investigations carried out by Electrical Safety First and other organisations. What steps are the Government are taking to address the safety risks that consumers face when shopping on these platforms?

As the hon. Lady will know, the Office for Product Safety and Standards leads a national programme of regulatory action to look at precisely those risks. In 2021, for example, 12,500 products were removed from supply as a direct result of OPSS intervention.

My late constituent Bethany Shipsey was tragically killed after consuming just a small amount of the lethal explosive precursor dinitrophenol—DNP—which is sometimes wrongly marketed as a slimming or bodybuilding product. May I ask my right hon. Friend for a meeting to discuss this tragedy, and how we can take steps to crack down on the overseas suppliers who are selling this deadly substance into the UK online?

I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend, who did excellent work at the Department for Education.

Unlike Lord Callanan, who does not meet people.

Sir Edward Leigh is not here, so I call Gavin Newlands.

Energy Price Cap: Living Standards

16. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on the potential impact of increases in the energy price cap on living standards. (901033)

We have talked about energy prices. We have an energy price cap, and we have it because it protects consumers from being exposed to the wild gyration of prices—and that is what it has been doing.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer, whatever that was.

More than a fifth of my constituents already live in fuel poverty, despite the best efforts of the Scottish Government and local agencies investing heavily in energy efficiency measures. The £400 announced by the previous Chancellor is totally inadequate given that we hear the price cap is to rise by a further £500. What action will the Secretary of State, and what is left of his Government, be taking to change the energy market fundamentally in order to ensure that no one in this country is left to choose between heating and eating?

I made the point about the price cap because wholesale gas prices have gone up 20 times and the price cap is protecting vulnerable people who are eligible for it, just as some in the House have remarked that people relying on off-gas grid heating are not protected by it. In relation to the substance of the hon. Gentleman’s question, we are looking at energy market reform to decouple the marginal cost—the cost that people pay—from the actual cost of generation, which is much more based on renewables.

Climate Change Progress Report

17. If he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies of the report by the Climate Change Committee, “2022 Progress Report to Parliament”, published on 29 June 2022. (901034)

As required by the Climate Change Act 2008, the Government will respond later this year to the committee’s report and will provide an annual update on the delivery progress of the net zero strategy.

I thank the Minister for that answer. However, less than a year on from COP26, it is scary watching the Government rolling back climate policies. The Climate Change Committee has said:

“Tangible progress is lagging the policy ambition”.

Examples include cutting support for electric vehicles, a levy incentivising only oil exploration and prime ministerial contenders planning to suspend green levies. Why is the Secretary of State’s party determined to inflict damage on our common home, this planet, at this critical time?

Can I just correct the hon. Gentleman on one thing? The Climate Change Committee’s report was actually full of praise for the Government on electric vehicles and on what we are doing on electricity decarbonisation. On his wider point, this Government have a fantastic record of action on climate, thanks to the COP26 President, my right hon. Friend the Member for Reading West (Alok Sharma). At the start of the year, 30% of global GDP was signed up to net zero targets. That is now 90%, and the UK is leading the way with our own net zero strategy, published just before COP last year.

UK Nuclear Power

My hon. Friend will have noticed that we are fully committed to the nuclear power industry and, unlike the Opposition, we are looking to develop nuclear power because it is an essential component of decarbonised, stable, firm power.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reassurance. I have long spoken up for modular nuclear technology, not only for the baseload it can supply to our energy production but for the jobs and prosperity it can provide for the city of Derby and the north of England. Does he agree that while we wait for this modular nuclear technology to come online, it is also important that we invest in fracking, because short-term energy security has never been more important than it is currently?

My hon. Friend will know that I asked the British Geological Survey to look at fracking, and we will be coming out with a statement on its findings shortly.

Energy Price Rises

21. What assessment he has made of the impact of the rise in energy prices on (a) households and (b) businesses. (901038)

The Government recognise the impact that increasing energy prices are having on households. That is why we are providing £15 billion in additional support to the £22 billion we announced previously. The Government are in regular contact with business groups and suppliers to explore ways to protect businesses.

The finance director of Thessco, a successful Sheffield alloy manufacturer, has told me that the company’s electricity bill has increased by more than 300% and its gas bill by more than 400%. It does not qualify for help under the energy intensive industries compensation scheme simply because its raw materials are precious metals. The previous Industry Minister acknowledged this in a letter to me but hoped that, despite not helping, the scheme did

“demonstrate an intent to try to help”.

Extraordinary. Does the Minister agree that small and medium-sized enterprises such as Thessco do not need demonstrations of intent and that they need practical support to avoid being crushed by rising energy bills?

The Government absolutely recognise the challenge being faced by businesses and consumers in relation to the rise in global energy prices. It may be that the business in question qualifies for other things, such as the energy intensive industries exemption scheme, and I will have a look at that, but what is certain is that it will qualify for the business rates relief—totalling £7 billion over the next five years—and the annual investment allowance, which increases from £200,000 to £1 million over the course of this year, as well as some of the other really important measures the Government have put in place to support businesses at this difficult time.

Business Supply Chains

We continue to monitor supply chain pressures, such as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to ensure business resilience. The Government engage regularly with UK businesses and industry to understand the impact of this and other global events on our supply chains.

Whether it is shortages in medicines, shortages in building materials or empty spaces on supermarket shelves, my constituents are still finding stock shortages everywhere. Retailers say this is the worst supply chain crisis they can remember, with no sign of the problem easing soon. What is the Minister doing now to help businesses through this and to mitigate the impact of spiralling inflation?

Of course, these are global issues, but the Government have taken decisive action to ease pressures on supply chains, such as by managing peak demand at the end of last year, including by expanding and streamlining testing for heavy goods vehicle drivers to enable an extra 50,000 tests per year. So things are being done.

Topical Questions

My Department remains relentlessly focused on energy security for the winter, and I have met many business groups, business people and energy suppliers over the last few days. Only last week, to protect our people from costly bills, we published the Energy Bill, and I am pleased that last week’s fourth round of the contracts for difference scheme was the most successful ever. It secured almost 11 GW across a range of clean technologies, including offshore wind, onshore wind, solar and, for the first time ever, floating offshore wind and tidal stream. This will help to boost our energy security for many years to come.

In thanking my right hon. Friend for that answer, may I say that his answer to my earlier question will have been of little comfort to more than 100,000 households living in park homes? The Government are apparently still working on how to deal with this issue, but meanwhile those households fear they will miss out while those with second homes benefit more than twice, so can he guarantee that each of those households will get £400 in cash, as an energy bill rebate, whether it be in the form of a voucher, a direct payment or whatever? They need to know now that they will get the £400.

My hon. Friend has very successfully asked the same question twice, which is fair enough, and I will give him the same answer. We have had the consultation, and we will come up with a response that ensures his constituents get a fair deal on this issue.

In the last 12 years, this country has had a referendum on its membership of the European Union, a referendum on the continued existence of the UK and four general elections, and now we are about to have our fourth Prime Minister. In that time, business investment in the UK has fallen to the lowest level in the G7. Does the Secretary of State accept that one reason for that is the lack of political stability under the Conservative party?

I will take no lessons in political stability from the hon. Gentleman, who stood on a platform to elect a neo-Marxist as Prime Minister of this country. That would have been a catastrophic disaster for business investment and, indeed, for our economic prospects.

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to be the next Chancellor, he will have to do better than that.

Let us look at an area where he should have taken a lesson from us. Earlier in the year, we said it would be a mistake for this Government to increase national insurance. With inflation and energy bills rising for businesses, we said it was wrong for the Government to add to that burden in a way no other major economy was doing. It seems that Conservative contenders are now lining up to disown the tax rise they voted for just a few months ago. Does he agree with his colleagues that the Government got this badly wrong?

People will understand that the increase in the national insurance contribution was precisely to pay for the NHS backlog and for ongoing health and social care costs. In that context, it made sense.

T3. As my right hon. Friend has indicated, we had the very good news last week that ScottishPower Renewables had been successful in the contract for difference auction for its East Anglia Three offshore wind project. I would be grateful if he would outline what else is being done to provide certainty over future CfD auctions, which will allow offshore wind developers to invest more in order to meet the Government’s 2030 target and bring more jobs to coastal communities such as those in Waveney? (901007)

My hon. Friend will appreciate that when he first came into the House we did not have any auctions and then for about six years we had an auction every other year. It was very much my intention as Secretary of State to introduce an annual auction, and I am pleased to say we have done so. It has given much more security and visibility to the supply chain, which was one reason why I introduced it.

T2. More than 150 seafarers on P&O’s Cairnryan to Larne services were covered by the national minimum wage when the company callously sacked the remaining seafarers in March. The Government’s nine-point plan makes great play of enforcing the national minimum wage on international ferry routes but fails to ensure that collectively bargained terms and conditions for crew will be imposed on P&O to lift pay and conditions. So will the Secretary of State take steps to ensure that P&O can no longer undercut rival operators from Cairnryan, thus returning jobs to local crew and protecting maritime jobs and skills? (901006)

I have talked about this issue with my right hon. Friend the Transport Secretary, and we are looking at ways in which egregious action can be mitigated.

T7. Torness power station provides excellent jobs in my constituency and low-carbon power across the UK. Have the UK Government made any progress in convincing the SNP Government of the importance of nuclear power to our future energy needs? (901012)

I have raised this issue continually. I have been in Scotland six times in this role in the past nine months and I have raised the issue repeatedly with the SNP—with Scottish Government Ministers and in this House. They have an incredible disregard for Scotland’s incredible nuclear past. The workers at Torness have taken great pride in providing reliable, zero-carbon energy since 1988, and it is scandalous that the SNP and its representatives here in Westminster want to end Scotland’s brilliant nuclear tradition, which we know has really served the whole of the UK, particularly my hon. Friend’s constituents.

T4.   When do the Government hope to respond to last week’s West Midlands Combined Authority plan for growth and, in particular, its urgent calls to support the electric vehicle industry by securing a gigafactory at Coventry, the roll-out of electric vehicle infrastructure and support for supply chain transition and diversification? (901008)

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I have been to Coventry many times to discuss this issue and that we have landed gigafactories in Sunderland. There were none when I became Secretary of State and we now have two, and we are working all the time to land more of them here in the UK.

T9. Given the changing ministerial personnel, will the Government reassure us of their ongoing commitment to generate growth to beat living cost pressures through backing science and technology projects such as BioYorkshire in my constituency, which has already brought some 40 new high-skilled jobs to the constituency with the relocation of Azotic Technologies? (901014)

My hon. Friend is a consistent champion for his York constituents, and I assure him that we remain committed to delivering on the fastest sustained uplift in research and development funding, reaching £20 billion per annum in just two years’ time, from £15 billion today. That is a huge uplift, and of course we are going to make sure that all parts of the UK benefit from it. I am sure that part of that will be in and around York.

T5. Last week, I asked the Secretary of State about support for pumped storage hydro, and he let the cat out of the bag when he responded: “It should be stressed that this is a very specific technology to Scotland.”That was a disgraceful comment. It probably explains why Scotland has been overlooked for carbon capture and storage and excluded from the hydrogen village trials. But we do have the highest grid charges in the whole of Europe and we have contributed £400 billion in oil and gas revenue. Scotland is getting exploited, not supported. Is not that the case? (901010)

That is absolute nonsense. My answer to the hon. Gentleman’s specific question was that pumped storage hydro was something that was particular in Scotland—it was something that happened in Scotland. But as for this general remark about us not supporting Scottish energy, the SNP is the party that has turned its back on Scottish nuclear, which employs huge numbers of people. The SNP has completely abandoned nuclear, it does not care about the jobs, and it does not care about industry in its own country.

I had looked forward to being in the box, but as they say, them’s the breaks. I take the opportunity to thank the Secretary of State, my private office and the team in the Department for their support in the past year. Does the Secretary of State agree that whoever wins this fabulous festival of talent, it is essential that we put science, technology and innovation at the very heart of our economy—perhaps even with a Cabinet Minister for it?

I think it is absolutely essential. I am sure that my right hon. Friend would agree when I say that he was an excellent Science Minister, and I am delighted to see him take an interest in our affairs from where he is seated. I look forward to his ongoing contribution to our science and technology agenda in the course of this Parliament.

T8.   An ambitious nationwide insulation programme is absolutely essential to meeting our net zero target, although I note this morning that the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Kemi Badenoch) has described that goal as “unilateral economic disarmament”. If she and others hoping to be Prime Minister had attended Sir Patrick Vallance’s alarming briefing yesterday on the climate crisis, she would have understood how important it was to reduce household emissions. So will the Secretary of State create jobs, cut bills and slash emissions by investing in insulation? (901013)

That is exactly what we are doing. We have committed £6.6 billion over the course of this Parliament. The local authority delivery scheme, £787 million; the home upgrade grants, £950 million; the social housing decarbonisation fund, over £800 million. These are real, big pieces of taxpayers’ money going into energy efficiency, and it is coming at a good time, when people need it most.

The Government’s energy security strategy acknowledges that onshore wind is one of the cheapest forms of renewable power but, shockingly, proposes no wholesale changes to planning regulations for onshore wind in England. But we in Wales stand ready to help. What funding will the Minister provide for further research and development into producing greater efficiency in grid transmission, and will the Minister now commit to significant investment in the national grid in Wales?

The hon. Lady will have studied the evidence that I gave to the Welsh Affairs Committee a couple of months ago on the national grid in Wales. When it comes to ensuring that we are equipped in renewable energy, we have just announced the results of last week’s contract for difference auction. I remind her that when she was a supporter of the last Labour Government, only 7% of our electricity was generated from renewables. It is now 43%.

The east has offshore wind and nuclear to give the nation. London wants its power. Why should Bury St Edmunds, and the broader Suffolk, Norfolk and Essex, have 50-metre pylons tearing across its countryside? Up north, we have routed it under the sea. We in the east want a fair consultation. My right hon. Friend has listened to us; please listen to us again to get to the right answer.

I thank my hon. Friend for her question. She is right that I have met East Anglia MPs to discuss this matter—it has been impressed on me across more than 20 constituencies—and I am sure that I will have further engagements with her. I continue to work with National Grid as part of its processes to ensure that her constituents get the best possible deal.

The Competition and Markets Authority recently concluded that a lack of competition in key parts of the economy was leading to higher mark-ups from already profitable firms. In short, inflation was being caused in part because Ministers were not doing enough to ensure effective competition across those key bits of the economy. What is the Secretary of State doing about that?

The new CMA chair, Marcus Bokkerink, was confirmed by the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee. He and I are working very closely to see how we can improve the performance of the CMA, to make sure that consumers get a better deal.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), the fact is that National Grid is committing to 800 miles of undersea cabling to protect countryside in Scotland and the north of England from new pylons, but to only 80 miles off East Anglia, even though we produce so much offshore wind. Why are our constituents not going to get a fairer share?

My hon. Friend and I have met to discuss this issue at least three times, and he continues to be a champion for his constituents. I know he is doing a lot of constituency meetings on this. I will continue to engage and make sure that National Grid also engages with him constantly.

The Minister knows that 115 Horizon Europe grants were cancelled last week. Will he commit to ensuring that that money is given to our excellent scientists, just as the previous, excellent, science Minister would have done?

I am pleased to announce that we have, in the first instance, committed to Horizon, but we also have a plan B—an alternative that will ensure that all the money we have put into Horizon is retained in the UK. That is exactly what I am discussing with the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I strongly endorse the remarks made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill) and for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), but may I raise a separate issue with the Secretary of State: the deep concern felt across the creative industries about the proposal in the consultation about relaxing the copyright exception for artificial intelligence? I spoke to the Minister’s predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), who was sympathetic and said he would look into it. May I ask that the new Minister also looks into it and makes sure that we protect one of our most important industries?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. He knows that I am in constant talks with officials in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for that Department to make sure that we have a reasonable response to this danger, which he very ably highlights.

I am grateful to the Minister for meeting me to discuss the mineworkers’ pension scheme. I know, after speaking to him last week, that it has been referred to the Treasury for a decision. Given that that decision needs to be made before the House rises next week, may I urge him to chase it up, please?

I am happy to have further conversations with Treasury Ministers. As the hon. Lady knows, the Government’s position on the core issue remains unchanged, but I will ensure that the specific, additional issue she has raised is put again to Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Thank you for giving me a second chance, Mr Speaker. May I congratulate the Secretary of State and the Energy Minister on last week’s first ever ringfenced marine energy renewables auction? This is a landmark moment for the UK in generating our own domestic green energy from some of the world’s fiercest tides. When will my right hon. Friend be able to announce another ringfenced pot for marine energy?

During my time as the Energy Minister, my hon. Friend lobbied hard and consistently on this subject, and I am pleased to say that through my successors as Energy Minister and with me as Secretary of State, we have finally delivered. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work to secure that.

What discussions has the Secretary of State had with local authorities and other Departments about what seems to be a threat to the future of community swimming pools from rising energy bills? Swim UK, the Royal Life Saving Society and other organisations have said that, potentially, hundreds of pools face closure.

I am happy to examine this issue as a former employee of a swimming pool. In 1985, I worked for six months at a German swimming pool, Sommerbad Kreuzberg, which I am happy to read into Hansard for all the staff who still work there. The hon. Gentleman knows that we have provided support for businesses at this difficult time through grants, business rates relief and other reliefs, and we will continue to engage with those facing challenges in relation to energy bills.