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Solar Photovoltaics Programme

7. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): What steps she is taking to implement the Government's opportunities for all and energy White Paper commitments to a 2002–12 solar photovoltaics programme; and if she will make a statement. [219468]

The Minister for Energy and E-Commerce (Mr. Mike O'Brien): The Government are committed to supporting the development of the photovoltaic sector and other small-scale renewables. I announced a £6 million extension to the major PV demonstration programme last September. The programme is expected to continue until March 2006, with spending taking place on projects until March 2007. It is intended that a low-carbon buildings programme should supersede those two initatives.

Mr. Chaytor: Does my hon. Friend accept that other countries—particularly, Germany, Japan and the United States—have moved much further and faster than the United Kingdom in the development of solar photovoltaics? Does he also accept that continuity of support is essential if that embryonic industry is to grow
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strong in the United Kingdom? Is he still committed to the original target of between 70,000 and 100,000 solar photovoltaic roofs to be constructed by 2012?

Mr. O'Brien: We have long-term commitments that we seek to maintain. Also, the budget for major PV programmes increased from £25 million to £31 million last September, and the budget for the clear skies programme increased from £10 million to £12.5 million, showing the Government's continued commitment. My hon. Friend is right to say that the industry needs long-term commitments because of the stage that it is at. We are prepared to make those commitments, but we need to review the way in which the funding is directed, and ensure that it is directed to the maximum benefit.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The simple fact is that no matter how exciting some of the new technologies for renewables are, they are still embryonic. The United Kingdom faces an energy crisis in the next 10 to 15 years, when the nuclear reactors are closed down and the 20 per cent. of UK energy that they supply is not made up in renewables. What is the Minister going to do to tackle the UK's energy problems without recommissioning nuclear reactors?

Mr. O'Brien: There is certainly substantial investment in developing alternative energy sources; companies such as e.on and others are looking at improving and expanding their power stations; and the rest of the industry is considering developing new power stations. The Government have an open mind on whether we need to move towards a nuclear future. As we set out in the 2003 White Paper, we will look at the issues if and when a proposal comes forward. Today, there is no proposal on the table for any nuclear power station from any private sector source. If one comes forward, we will look at it. It is currently probably uneconomic, and there is also the issue of waste, which needs to be resolved. Until we have some clarity on those matters from the private sector and a serious proposal is made, it is difficult to see that there will be such a programme.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) (Lab): The Minister will know that Tower colliery in my constituency supplies local power stations and that this year it is celebrating 10 years as a workers' co-operative. It is a major employer in my constituency despite the best efforts of the Conservatives to close it down; they argued that it was uneconomic and had geological faults. Will my hon. Friend confirm that the colliery has a future, and an important one, in supplying energy sources in this country and overseas?

Mr. O'Brien: Consulting mining engineers have just completed their assessment of Tower's revised coal investment aid application, and my officials are carrying out their own assessment. I hope to be able to give a decision to my hon. Friend shortly. The Margam project may not however qualify for support under EU regulations, but we are prepared to explore the possibility of state aid with the European Commission. Indeed, I am meeting the Energy Commissioner, Andreas Piebalgs, this afternoon and I hope to refer the matter to him.
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Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): The Government talk about investment in renewables, but they seem to be obsessed for some reason with wind turbines. The Minister knows that wind turbines work only to a third of their capacity and that when it is too windy they have to be switched off. Is it not about time that he looked more comprehensively at the energy suppliers in this country, and considered solar power as one of the more exciting possibilities, taking some of the subsidies away from wind turbines and putting them into solar power in order to secure a better future for everyone in this country?

Mr. O'Brien: As I understand it, the Conservative party says that it too is committed to a future with renewables and to the sort of targets that we have set. Unfortunately, while the Government have a clear strategy for hitting those targets, the Conservative party has a big gap in its strategy—indeed, it does not have a strategy and just wants to play the opportunist game as usual.

We are investing £117 million in capital grants for offshore wind farms, approximately £66 million in biomass capital grants, £31 million in solar, £12.5 million in the clear skies programme, £50 million in marine renewables, £19 million in industry-led research and development, and £4 million in research under the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council's Supergen project. We are investing in renewables; when the Conservatives were in government, they did nothing.

Clear Skies Initiative

8. Mr. Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): What the take-up of the clear skies initiative has been since the start of the initiative. [219469]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Nigel Griffiths): The clear skies programme to promote renewable energies was launched in 2003. The target was to achieve 2,800 projects for individuals and households and 275 community-based projects by 31 March 2006. However, the scheme has already benefited 4,767 households or individuals—more than 70 per cent. above our target, with 13 months and two    rounds of funding of the scheme to go—and 274 community projects, which is one short of our target.

Mr. Challen: I am grateful for that reply, which shows that the Government are seriously committed to supporting micro-renewables. The clear skies website shows more than 300 products now accredited under the programme. Given that the programme has just over a year left to run, is my hon. Friend satisfied that new companies bringing to the market new products for which they seek accreditation will be able to benefit from clear skies?

Nigel Griffiths: Yes, I am. Yesterday, I spoke to a pioneering manufacturing company that was full of praise for the DTI's staff and contractors, who helped it to overcome the technical and safety issues that are common in new technologies. With application forms for consumers who want to take advantage of the programme being two pages long and those for contractors, manufacturers and producers eight pages
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long, I think that we have done everything we can to ensure that those who have bright technological ideas can benefit from that fantastic programme.

Engineering (West Midlands)

9. Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): what assessment she has made of the prospects for the engineering sector in the west midlands. [219470]

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Jacqui Smith): Engineering is central to the strength of our manufacturers and the Government are committed to a strong and vibrant engineering and manufacturing economy. Advantage West Midlands predicts that, by 2010, west midlands manufacturing will contribute 24 per cent. of the region's gross value added compared with 17 per cent. nationally. The west midlands regional economic strategy identifies the strength of the engineering sector as an opportunity, particularly in the exploitation of environmental technologies.

Mr. Luff: Is the Minister aware that companies feel that the west midlands engineering sector's successes, of which there are many—a fact that we should celebrate—are achieved despite the Department of Trade and Industry, not because of it? Apart from the manufacturing advisory service and aspects of export promotion, they can identify nothing of any value that the DTI does. They believe that the Department now exists to put obstacles in front of enterprise, not to support it as it should. What is she going to do about that?

Jacqui Smith: I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the success of the west midlands engineering sector, which we should celebrate, but I strongly disagree with him about the views of engineering and manufacturing companies. At a recent event on manufacturing organised by a west midlands chamber of commerce, I was pleased to hear about manufacturers' support not only for services such as the manufacturing advisory service, which he mentioned, but for grants supporting innovation, which the Conservatives would cut, and about companies that have benefited from regional selective assistance, now selective finance for investment, which the Conservatives would cut. Of course there are challenges for our—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I have given an instruction to Ministers on how to conduct themselves at the Dispatch Box. They will not defy the Chair.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I know that the Minister will endorse my congratulations to west midlands manufacturers on the massive productivity gains that they have made in recent years, but in the Department's otherwise admirable efforts to civilise our working conditions, especially through family-friendly policies, will she remain acutely aware of the disproportionate impact on smaller companies of maternity leave and other important measures and the need to keep those measures under constant review?
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Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend is right not only about the support that has been provided, but about the impact on small and medium-sized companies of the important changes that have been made—often by the companies themselves in recognition of the importance of retaining high-quality workers, particularly women while they have families. That is why the consultation document that we issued on Monday makes it clear that we will consult business and that we need to look for ways to bring more certainty into the system for small and medium-sized enterprises.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury) (Con): Last week, the Secretary of State admitted that, under the Labour Government,

We all agree, therefore, that European regulation is a crushing threat, impeding the prospects of the engineering sector in the west midlands and of all parts of British business. Will the Minister now confess what proportion of the £8.9 billion-worth of extra regulation heaped on British business last year came directly from Europe, how much came from Ministers and officials gold-plating EU requirements, and how much was dreamt up by the Labour Government themselves?

Jacqui Smith: We go out of our way to ensure that we do not gold-plate European legislation and we have argued strongly for better competitiveness impact tests in Europe. We have done so with great effect with respect to the chemicals directive and billions of pounds-worth of burdens have been reduced because, while the Government are willing to engage in Europe and to recognise the benefits, we are also prepared to make the arguments for competitiveness. It is only by being willing to engage in that way that we can secure the benefits that we have secured.

Mr. O'Brien: The complacency of that response cannot disguise the fact that more EU directives have been implemented under the Labour Government than was the case in the preceding quarter century of our membership. Engineers and manufacturers know exactly who is to blame for the ballooning burden of regulation, which is now heading towards a staggering £40 billion.

Another key concern of west midlands engineers is skills. The most recent study by the Engineering Employers Federation on manufacturing productivity compares the UK with France and Germany, and shows that only UK managers rated the skills available to them as having a negative impact on their attempts to improve productivity. What urgent measures are the Government taking to abolish the inefficient Learning and Skills Council and to create a scheme of vocational grants, with funding following the students so that young people in the west midlands and the rest of the United Kingdom receive the skills training that employers demand and which the Conservatives have promised?

Jacqui Smith: I recently had dinner with people representing business leaders and skills providers in the west midlands and we looked at what we can do through the regional skills partnerships to make sure that, as the
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Government have promised, employers' voices are central to the delivery of skills. I would also point to initiatives such as the automotive academy, which received funds of £15 million following the report by the automotive innovation and growth team. It is based in the west midlands and is making a genuine difference in developing the necessary skills to ensure the continued success of our automotive industry. Those practical initiatives, backed by investment, will make a difference to skills in the west midlands and to support for our engineering and manufacturing companies.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): May I draw the Minister's attention to a problem that has emerged among some small and medium metal forming companies in my constituency? It appears that the steel supplier is demanding unusually restrictive credit terms, so they have cashflow problem because they have to pass those restrictions on to their customers. In the past, the Department has always said that big suppliers and companies must treat their customers fairly and equitably. Can the Minister do anything to reinforce that message?

Jacqui Smith: My hon. Friend takes very seriously the    concerns of metal forming companies in his constituency and I was pleased to meet a delegation that he recently brought to see me. His concern is fair, given the fact that the steel industry was in difficulties for several years but is now in a much more profitable and successful position. I would certainly expect major steel companies to look at the pressures that they are exerting on their customers and to make sure that their success is passed down through the chain. If there are specific examples that my hon. Friend would like to raise with me, I would be interested to hear them. However, the current success of the steel industry puts a responsibility on the supplier to deal fairly with the important companies in my hon. Friend's constituency.

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