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Topical Questions

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 12 July 2022

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.