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12 May 2006 : Column 606

The possibility of over-burdening our local councils was raised on Second Reading. I argue the opposite. Across the country, there are many schemes similar to those in Brighton and Hove. It is our responsibility to provide leadership and resources for those schemes so that they will be taken up locally. I am pleased that the Bill promotes community energy, as it is vital that such sustainable energy generation methods be promoted with the enthusiasm they deserve.

The Government have a manifesto commitment to reduce the level of carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. from the 1990 level. Members on both sides of the House want that achieved. I was heartened that on11 November on Second Reading there seemed to be great cross-party consensus to pass the Bill, as the vast majority of my constituents and the vast majority of people across the nation want, so I urge in the strongest possible terms that planning regulations be amended to allow community and renewable energy generation to flourish across our nation. I also urge communitiesto embrace such schemes whenever they can.

We all need to adapt and act so that we can bequeath to future generations the wonderful opportunities that we enjoy. We need to celebrate schemes that are already working and we need to show that the Government are on the side of communities that want to take advantage of those innovative and much needed schemes. For that reason, I once more commend my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith on his Bill.

10.5 am

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): Our thoughts are with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) at this time. He and I served on Edinburgh city council for many years, and although we were on opposite sides of the fence I wholeheartedly support the Bill and commend him for his work to bring it to this point. He would probably agree that there has been enough talk on previous occasions, so I shall keep my remarks brief.

Many people in Edinburgh support the Bill. A number of the hon. Gentleman’s constituents from the Craigleith area were formerly my constituents, before the boundaries were redrawn, but they will all appreciate the support being expressed for the Bill today. I have had many e-mails and correspondence from constituents in its support.

The environment is too important to be a political football. We have all watched the issue of climate change climb up the agenda, but people expect more than targets or reports. They want action. Under one of the Bill’s provisions, it will note whether action has been taken. It may move us in the right direction, but Labour came to power in 1997 on a manifesto that promised to cut carbon dioxide emissions by 20 per cent. from 1990 levels by 2010, yet last year the Government said that the 20 per cent. target would not be met. The latest figures suggest that the UK is veering well off course from meeting its much more modest Kyoto protocol target to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 12.5 per cent. from 1990 levels. If the Bill brings the Government and the country back on target, it will be a good thing, but I fear that the targets may not be met.

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I support the Bill’s provisions on greenhouse gas emissions, microgeneration, energy efficiency and renewable energy investment. They all show why further building for, and investment in, nuclear power is not the way forward.

We often see television programmes about species endangered by the destruction of their habitat and are aware that action could have been taken to avoid that destruction. We should look to ourselves; we have been directly involved in destroying much of the natural habitat of our planet. We have caused much of the damage so we must do what we can to reverse it. If the Bill plays some small part in that process, it will be well worth supporting, but we want more than reports and targets—we want action.

10.8 am

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): I associate myself with the comments made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) about my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz), to whom the whole House extends its deepest sympathy.

There needs to be acceptance in this debate that the people of this country do not want the lights to go out. They want to carry on watching their TVs, chilling their lager, freezing their pizzas and grilling their steaks. We have to ensure that our discussions do not result in a “holier than thou” solution that only ageing hippies such as me, or tree-huggers, will sign up to. We have to be hard-headed, practical and bold, if we are to square the circle between keeping the lights on and saving the planet. We must continue to develop the use of renewables and extend incentives to encourage more development and innovation, and ensure that the people of this country can access new technologies easily.

We have had experience of massive technical change—for example, the changeover to North sea gas—that has been carried out successfully with relatively little inconvenience. We should take a similar view of enabling people to maximise the use of solar and wind power and microgeneration. However, we must accept that there is a need to utilise present energy sources better, and nuclear power may have to be included, but it is no use using nuclear power to prevent global warming while risking the lives of ourselves and generations to come because we are unable to dispose of the radioactive waste produced safely. The industry must ensure, and we must verify, that any resurgence of nuclear energy is based on verifiable and safe disposal. Public acceptance of nuclear energy might be more probable now than in the days of Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, but we need proof that we are not swapping one evil for another.

We must not ignore the role that coal can play in delivering energy for the people of Britain. Despite my eternal optimism, I accept that there is unlikely to be a return to the days of king coal in this country, but we must not reject coal out of hand. There are massive coal reserves in the country, and we should encourage research and development into innovative ways of claiming that very precious resource. Even if we do not have the nous, the bottle or the will to pursue a return to the deep-mining, indigenous coal industry in this
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country, we must still develop ways of burning coal in an efficient and environmentally sound way.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point. In the Science and Technology Committee we have been doing a lot of work on carbon sequestration, which will play an important part in keeping a sustainable coal industry in this country in an environmentally friendly way, and I hope that the Government will consider that.

Mr. Anderson: I thank the hon. Gentleman. I agree entirely, and he has mentioned one of the things that I want to come to.

It is sad to reflect that in the Conservative party’s drive to destroy the coal industry 20 years ago, as a way to destroy organised labour in this country, we also destroyed what was then the best and most modern clean-coal technology anywhere in the world. Thankfully, people are now starting to realise that that is something that we must grasp. We must develop the technology if we are to continue to have a decent energy supply. There is now a real acceptance that the reduction of CO2 must be the key determinant in future coal-fired power stations.

Using well-placed investment, we can improve the performance of existing and new plants. Co-firing—blending coal with renewable biomass—is emerging as a credible way forward. As an extra, it will help the development of the UK energy crop market, enabling farmers to produce renewable energy crops that will help to reduce carbon emissions and provide employment in agriculture. Developments in boiler technology, using pre-heaters and fitting advanced supercritical boilers can increase thermal efficiency. If we introduce them properly, those measures could bring UK coal plants into line with the performance of today’s gas plants. With the ongoing research, as has been said, we can promote carbon capture and storage, and coal can make a real contribution to our energy needs once again, but there is more to be done in terms of trade.

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have huge coal reserves in this country; unfortunately, they are high in sulphur, but equipment can be placed in coal-burning stations to capture carbon dioxide and sulphur. Does he agree that the Government should underwrite the cost of that equipment to promote such energy production?

Mr. Anderson: I certainly accept that the Government should play a major role, but I am not too sure whether they would underwrite it. I would like them to underwrite it totally and return to a nationalised coal industry, but even I am not hopeful about that happening in the next few years. The new technology could be used to tap into the reserves that people are refusing to use in open-cast sites. People in my area are adamantly against open-cast sites, which would destroy the environment, but if the mining could be done in a way that is not harmful to the environment, surely we could look into that.

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I now come back to trade. Whether we use indigenous coal or coal from abroad, there is a clear message—we need to get it right; we need to get it clean—but we cannot allow cheap coal from China to dominate our markets while, at least officially, 9,000 miners are killed in incidents in their mines, most of which are avoidable. It is believed that at least as many again are killed in privately owned, unregulated mines. Let us just think about it. Every day—yesterday, today, tomorrow—more people are killed at work there than we lost in the 7 July tragedy last year. We cannot accept that cost. The world will not accept dirty coal, and the world should not accept coal that is covered in blood.

We in this country showed that deaths in coal mines are not inevitable. We moved from a position in the 1930s where a miner was killed every six hours in this country to a point, 50 years later, where that figure was down to one a month—one too many, but that is still a massive change. That change did not just happen by accident; it happened because the people of this country insisted on safety as a prerequisite in coal mining. We developed quality machinery and safer working practices, and we engaged with the men who actually put their lives on the line, day in, day out, on the real coal face of life. The world should accept that form of protectionism. I make no apology for saying that, because it is real protectionism: it protects the environment, it protects the economic interest of all trading nations, and it protects some of the most exploited workers on the planet.

I wish my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) the very best with the Bill. I am sorry that he is not here today. I hope that we, as a country, take up the challenge that could deliver a cleaner world for our kids, and also a rebirth of the engineering and entrepreneurial skills for which this country is rightly famous.

10.16 am

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): I, too, wish my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) a speedy recovery.

I speak in support of the Bill because it represents another valuable attempt to focus our collective attention on the most important issue of our day, but it will also achieve practical results. I want to speak about just one of those results: the duty imposed on local authorities to have regard to information on energy measures when exercising local functions. That provision will help to ensure that public bodies are better at sharing best practice, co-ordinated by the energy measures report from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

Clauses 3 and 20 are not unduly onerous, and many public bodies are already making energy efficiency a priority of their own accord. My own district council in Braintree is a good example. I was delighted thatmy hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey(Mr. Ainsworth) visited us recently. Braintree district council has been participating in a pilot scheme that offers a council tax rebate in return for the installation of cavity-wall insulation, and 15 other councils have so far followed Braintree’s example. I congratulate the council on that initiative.

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As the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee heard in evidence from the director of corporate affairs at British Gas,

We must change the perception that the promotion of microgeneration and energy efficiency to tackle climate change is somehow radical, or even unusual. Instead, it must be compelling and practical, and it must also make good economic sense.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) on introducing the Bill, and I am sorry that he is not here with us today. He has already succeeded in raising public awareness of these issues, and I have no doubt whatever that his success will continue once the Bill receives Royal Assent.

10.18 am

Ann McKechin (Glasgow, North) (Lab): I, too, extend my sympathies to my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and condolences to his family.

I am delighted to support the Bill, which has received support not only in Parliament, but from hundreds of our constituents, who have written to us to express their hope that it gets through Parliament during the current Session. I commend my hon. Friend for his hard work and dedication to passing the Bill through the House of Commons. It marks an important step by Parliament in ensuring that energy efficiency and the increase in renewable sources remain high on our political agenda.

The reasons for that priority have been well stated, and they include the effects of climate change and the increase in energy costs in the past few years, particularly for oil and gas. I welcome the proposals as part of the important effort to ensure that the gains we have made in the past few years to eliminate fuel poverty are not lost. A recent report by Energy Action Scotland highlighted the scale and complexity of the task in future fuel poverty schemes. Scotland faces unique problems. In 2003, average earnings were12 per cent. lower than in England. As a result of the difference in climate, it has a much longer heating season: a home in the north of Scotland may spend68 per cent. more on fuel a year than an equivalent property in the south of England. In London we are basking in unusually high temperatures for May, but this weekend, temperatures in the north of Scotland are predicted to drop to minus 5° C at night,which demonstrates the difference in temperatures throughout the United Kingdom.

Scotland has many properties that are not on the main gas grid, and they are not likely to be connected. Although gas central heating is the most effective measure in removing a house from fuel poverty, 33 per cent. of homes in Scotland do not have any gas, because either they are located in remote rural locations or they are high-rise accommodation, where it is not appropriate to use gas. The nature, type and design of housing is different from housing in England. Although about 70 per cent. of houses in both
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countries have cavity walls, in Scotland, 23 per cent. are traditional sandstone or granite houses, with an additional 10 per cent. classified as non-traditional. All of those are hard to heat.

Energy Action Scotland has identified three main factors that contribute to fuel poverty, and we should not find any of them surprising. The first factor is domestic fuel prices; on average, a 5 per cent. rise in fuel prices results in a further 30,000 households being pushed back into fuel poverty. Secondly, disposable income is important. The third factor is energy efficiency.

Mr. Newmark: The hon. Lady is right. The problem of fuel poverty has been exacerbated by the increase in energy prices, which have risen by 37 per cent. in the past year alone. Does she share my distress that in the Budget the Chancellor did not extend the £200 council tax rebate, which was needed by many pensioners in fuel poverty?

Ann McKechin: I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have retained the winter fuel payment, which is specifically designed to tackle fuel poverty. We have also lowered the barrier for the additional hardship payment. When the Opposition were in government, the same guide temperature was used for Brighton as for the north of Scotland.

Mr. Newmark: The hon. Lady makes an extremely valid point. However, the winter fuel payment did not increase substantially, and this year pensioners lost the £200 that they received last year, even though fuel prices went up by 37 per cent. There was a double whammy—fuel prices went up, but pensioners’ council tax rebate was £200 lower.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should not pursue that point too far.

Ann McKechin: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am pleased to say that in Glasgow there was a zero increase in council tax this year. In the previous five years there was only an inflation rise, so we benefit from good Labour authorities in our area.

Energy efficiency schemes have made significant progress, both in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom, but recently there has been a rise infuel prices, as the hon. Member for Braintree(Mr. Newmark) rightly pointed out. That is probably a permanent trend, and it threatens progress, which is why we urgently need a step change in the energy-saving initiatives that the Bill tries to foster. To achieve that, we need to make sure that all levels of government are firmly committed to improving current regulation and practice. In The Guardian on Wednesday, there was an article on the possibility that the parliamentary estate may introduce measures to increase renewable energy sources. We must wait to see whether that happens, and whether wind turbines or solar panels will be installed on the House, although progress tends to be slow when we make changes to the parliamentary estate. Parliament can make practical suggestions to achieve quick changes, but we must also address systemic issues.

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James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): This is a significant cross-cutting issue, so does it not merit a Cabinet Minister for climate change, whose responsibilities cut across several Departments? May I cheekily suggest that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister take on those duties in the interim until there is a full-time—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. That is another road that we will not go down.

Ann McKechin: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Deputy Prime Minister has responsibility for our commitments under the Kyoto treaty, and has an excellent range of experience.

Electrical appliances are increasingly left on standby. Amazingly, in some countries, that represents up to5 per cent. of total electricity consumption. Reducing standby consumption to 1 W is a simple change, but it would make a substantial difference, enabling us to close down one or two power stations. Tackling the often bureaucratic arrangements to sell excess energy from renewable sources to the national grid would improve matters. The Bill’s modification of Ofgem’s statutory duties to take into account available information on microgeneration is a step in the right direction. We must improve the investment climate for renewable energy technologies and provide additional long-term funding, both for those technologies andfor insulation, which is important in hard-to-heat buildings.

Training must be improved to meet current demands—anyone who has tried to find a central heating engineer will know that they are in short supply—and we must also greatly increase capacity and the range of skills, so that engineers can deal with the new technologies that are likely to come on to the market.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The hon. Lady is making a thoughtful speech on the impact of the Bill, whose measures many of our constituents support. She has made an important point: skills and knowledge are needed not just to install the new equipment but to give customers the reassurance and confidence to take the step of acquiring it. Until they are willing to do that, we cannot achieve those targets.

Ann McKechin: I fully accept that important argument. Consumers need to be confident that new technology will work. I recently had a conversation with the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (John Barrett) about new types of central heating boiler and their propensity to break down compared with the old-fashioned, less energy-efficient boilers that worked remarkably well. Over the years, new technology has made cars much more efficient and reliable. They may not be as exciting, but consumers are much more likely to buy them, because they are reliable. Throughout manufacture and production, there should be an emphasis on reliability, consistent standards and clear labelling. As has been said, this is a cross-cutting issue that covers all areas of consumption.

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