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Gas Prices

6. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): If he will make a statement on gas prices in the UK. [60676]

9. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire) (Con): If he will make a statement on domestic gas prices. [60679]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I take the recent increases in gas prices very seriously and the Government are very concerned about their impact on industrial competitiveness and vulnerable households. I therefore welcome yesterday's announcement by the Chancellor that there will be an extra 250,000 subsidised installations of home insulation over the next two years. In the past year, global fossil fuel prices have increased, which has fed through to the UK. Prices have been particularly volatile this winter because of tightness in the market.

Mr. Illsley: My hon. Friend must feel like the character in the film "Groundhog Day" in that every day he wakes up to increasing gas prices. Gas prices
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recently have been at a level that is a threat to industry, particularly in my constituency. Companies such as the Carlton brickworks and two glass companies, Potters Ballotini and Redferns, are seriously under threat because of the level of gas prices. Although I welcome the fact that the European Union is now considering energy and our Government are undertaking a review, will he do something in the short term to investigate why prices here are so high and why the differential between the UK and Europe is so great?

Malcolm Wicks: I do look at gas prices and gas supply every day, but the sun is shining, soon there will be a host of golden daffodils and we will be out of the worst of this winter. The heavy users of gas and electricity, who use energy as part of the manufacturing process, have been hit very hard. For that reason, we are doing many things. We are pushing forward with the argument for market liberalisation in the European Union and I welcome strong reports from two European commissioners about that and the Chancellor's statement yesterday. Over the next year or so, there will be more infrastructure to bring liquefied natural gas into this country. The Langeled pipeline will bring a great deal of gas from the Norwegian fields.

Andrew Selous: Before the Minister waxes too lyrical about daffodils, perhaps he would like to reflect on the fact that many pensioners and low income households use pre-payment meters to pay for their gas. I have had complaints from many of my constituents that they not only pay more for their gas than direct debit customers but have not been able to take advantage of the recent price freeze offered to direct debit customers. Given the recent huge price rises, will the Minister take action to ensure that all customers are treated fairly?

Malcolm Wicks: The issue affecting vulnerable people, particularly the older elderly community, is a subject close to my heart and one in which I am very interested. I could write a book about it—indeed, I did. We need not be complacent, which is why I was so pleased by the Chancellor's announcement yesterday. We must attack the issue in different ways: first, through income maintenance proposals, such as winter fuel payments, and by targeting pension credit on the vulnerable; secondly, by making sure that the homes of the vulnerable become energy efficient, hence the warm front proposal; and, thirdly, by working with supply companies so that their social tariffs are intelligible to customers. I am talking to the supply companies about whether there could be some rationalisation so that the tariffs could be better explained.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): I am not sure that the host of daffodils will come as a great comfort to the 2 million people in Britain who have been thrown back into fuel poverty as a result of the 80 per cent. increase in gas prices since 2003. I welcomed the Chancellor's announcement yesterday about the
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250,000 people who will get additional help under the warm homes programme over the next couple of years, but what discussions is the Minister having with the industry so that the 2 million people who have been thrown back into fuel poverty can be taken out of the equation and the Government can thus meet their commitment of removing all vulnerable households from fuel poverty by 2010?

Malcolm Wicks: We are discussing that with the industry and social policy on energy is a key feature of the energy review. As I said earlier, the issue is crucial, but we need to think about the threefold strategy that I instanced. At the moment, the oldest among the elderly are still the most likely to live in the poorest homes for energy efficiency, but it is especially important that through the warm front initiative and the so-called EEC obligation—energy efficiency commitment—on the industry, we ensure that good insulation, draught-proofing and decent boilers and heating systems become a right for the most vulnerable in this country.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister might be wandering through hosts of golden daffodils, but in parts of Scotland there is still snow on the ground and freezing weather. The Chancellor yesterday pegged the winter fuel allowance at £200, and the Minister will be aware that the recent Trade and Industry Committee report on gas prices expressed disappointment about the lack of progress to deal with other vulnerable groups. Does the Minister accept that £200 is totally inadequate, given the recent huge rises in gas prices, and will he press the Chancellor to increase the allowance and extend it to other vulnerable groups in society?

Malcolm Wicks: I accept that there are no grounds for complacency because even in mild winters too many of our elderly people suffer from cold conditions. There is no room for argument about that, so we cannot be complacent and have to move forward. However, I also accept that the Government have done more than any other Government to tackle the problem. The number of people in fuel poverty was reducing until the worldwide increase in fuel prices hit domestic consumers and industry. We are working hard to find out what can be done about that. It is a crucial aspect of the energy review, and it remains a stain on our society that we have not fully tackled the problem. I am pleased about the progress, but there is much more to be done.

World Trade

7. Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): If he will make a statement on the progress made at the recent London meeting on the World Trade Organisation Doha round. [60677]

The Minister for Trade (Ian Pearson): At the meetings in London between 10 and 12 March, negotiators from the EU, US, India, Brazil, Australia and Japan engaged positively on the substance of the Doha development agenda, but failed to make a breakthrough in the talks. The Government remain committed to seeing an ambitious, pro-development outcome to the DDA by the end of the year and will do their utmost to bring that about.

Ann McKechin: The Minister will be aware of growing pessimism about the prospects for success in the current
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WTO round. Does he agree that if we are to correct the imbalance in world trade, EU Ministers should seriously consider increasing their offer when they meet this weekend, rather than simply calling for concessions from developing nations?

Ian Pearson: I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters. Indeed, she was in Hong Kong, so she will appreciate some of the difficulties with the dynamics of the negotiations. There is growing recognition that we have perhaps gone as far as we can by taking incremental steps. What is needed now is the political will for us all to jump together. It is quite clear, from a European perspective, that countries such as Brazil, India and others in the G20 need to move on non-agricultural market access and services. It is also clear, from the UK perspective, that if they move, Europe should be able to move further on agricultural market access than it has done. We all need to choreograph this and jump together. We also need movement from the United States, Japan and others if we are to get a successful pro-development outcome to the round.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): As the Minister knows, the EU has proposed steep tariff increases on imported shoes from China and Vietnam. That will raise the price of shoes in this country and damage Clarks Shoes, which is based in my constituency. How did the United Kingdom representative vote in the committee that considered those tariff increases?

Ian Pearson: I am certainly aware of the problem. Indeed, I met the chief executive of Clarks Shoes only recently to discuss the situation. He was very pleased that the UK Government had lobbied on behalf of Clarks and other manufacturers to exclude athletic footwear and children's shoes from the increases. We judged it best to negotiate with the Commission rather than oppose the increases from the outset so that we can secure improvements. It is very much a tactical issue, and we abstained from voting.

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