Previous Section Index Home Page

12 July 2006 : Column 450WH—continued

The problem is that the renewables obligation in its present form—in respect of which the Government said yesterday that there would be no changes before 2009-10—provides a significant incentive for building wind farms at the expense of other renewable technologies. The renewables obligation does not do enough to incentivise photovoltaic, geothermal, wave and tidal technologies, and it does not do very much to stimulate research into technologies that are still at the experimental or prototype stage. Put simply, the renewables obligation is the reason why there are so many applications to build wind farms throughout the country. In some senses, that is a good thing, but it is a bit of a one-card trick. Given the proliferation of applications for ever-larger wind farms—illustrated by my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones)—a level of local opposition is understandable.

Alun Michael: The thrust of the debate has been that local opposition is not inevitable if the local community is empowered and does not see it as something that is done to them.

12 July 2006 : Column 451WH

Mr. Duncan: It is inevitable and recurrent, but it may be overcome. At the moment there is a stand-off between the renewables obligation pushing for these things and much popular opinion that is wary of them arriving on their doorstep, but there is no proper mechanism for marrying the two positions in a way that can engage people in a proper, effective democratic process. That situation is illustrated by the difference of opinion in the Chamber today. If the issue were considered and people were taken to see the sites, there might be far less disagreement, but the trouble is that that is not happening.

Once people think that a wind farm might be located on a beauty spot, they immediately resile from ever thinking that it might be all right. That is what this debate is all about. It is not a simple them and us, nimby/banana debate. People have fixed views and are either fervently for or against wind farms. There is a lot of misunderstanding, as is the case in so many areas of politics, life and everything on this planet. Wind farms are a classic case of people wanting to protect beauty spots and thinking that they cannot contribute, but not knowing how to overcome their suspicions. We have further steps to take if we are to address this matter properly. Wind has a part to play in a low-carbon energy future, but over-reliance on it is the wrong way forward and it may not be letting other technologies get a fair look-in.

Changes to the renewables obligation are long overdue; we have been calling for them since the last election. Although we have often been criticised by the Government, they are now going to change things, which is good. Their suggestion yesterday about creating bands within the renewables obligation could be a part of the answer, but we should like to see those implemented before 2009-10, unless there is clear evidence that they will damage investment risk and decisions that are currently being undertaken or are in the planning stage. The Government have to be careful not to introduce new distortions when creating bands. It is not easy, but we should always fly a warning flag on Government intervention of this sort, because their action often has unforeseen consequences. It should be the responsibility of the Government not to pick the mix, but to create the right framework and the right incentives.

I do not share Sir Bernard Ingham’s view that windmills are all spin and no substance; that jibe may be mythological, but it sounds like him. They are good in the right place and are emissions-benign, but, depending on people’s views, they are either visually intrusive or attractive. Divided opinion on this matter rests on an aesthetic argument and a subjective judgment. I used not to like the things, but quite near my constituency there is a 10 turbine farm near Kettering, which, with better technology, is rotating more slowly and is very elegant and beautiful because it is in the right place. Ultimately, it is a matter of where these things are and whether the people who live near or around them find them palatable or unpalatable.

Whether it is a matter of love or hate, nimby or banana, or whatever, the argument is about scale and place, in trying to get the balance right, we face a social and political challenge. I hope that, in terms of
12 July 2006 : Column 452WH
financial incentives and the planning process, we can in the decades ahead ensure that we get it right and let such sources play a part in a low-carbon energy future.

10.46 am

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): This has been an important and timely debate, following the publication of the energy review yesterday. We have to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael) for securing the debate.

My starting point is that wind is a renewable, clean source of energy that is in plentiful supply in this country. The idea of harnessing the power of the wind is hardly new; in fact, it is pre-industrial. The presence of windmills throughout the UK, some hundreds of years old, is testament to that. I have no idea whether in those far-away days Conservative Members of Parliament were tilting at windmills. With the occasional exception today, we have heard a number of powerful speeches in favour not just of the principle of wind energy, but of the practice. I do not know whether that is a widespread view.

We are talking not only about windmills, but the cutting edge of electricity generation technology. The Government recognise that wind farm developments have an important part to play in our energy mix, both in the wider context of maintaining the security of our energy supplies—which is important as a form of home-grown energy at a time of potentially large energy imports to this country over the coming decades—and in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Wales is already making a welcome contribution to renewable energy targets: almost 25 per cent. of total UK onshore wind farm generating capacity is located there. North Hoyle, our first large-scale wind farm to generate electricity offshore, has been operating successfully for more than two years.

We need to put this debate in the context of climate change, as several hon. Members have done, not least my hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley), whose expertise in this area we value. A report published earlier this year, “Avoiding dangerous climate change”, concluded that the risk of climate change is probably even greater than we thought, but it also showed that much can be done to avoid the worst effects of climate change. The report suggests that a rise of just 2° C will be enough to cause a tripling of poor harvests in Europe and Russia, large-scale displacement of people in north Africa due to desertification and could leave up to 2.8 billion people at risk of water shortage.

Other evidence shows that this is not just theory. Global warming is having a debilitating impact on many people at the moment in the form of rising levels of children dying from malaria and diarrhoea, as a recent World Health Organisation report showed. The effects could also include the total loss of summer arctic sea ice, causing the potential extinction of the polar bear and the walrus in future.

Action now could help to avert the worst effects of climate change, but we should not underestimate the scale of the task. Since 1990, global emissions of carbon dioxide alone have risen by 20 per cent. The UK, however, is making progress. We are ahead of our
12 July 2006 : Column 453WH
Kyoto target, with estimates showing that carbon dioxide emissions will be between 15 and 18 per cent. below 1990 levels by 2010. At the same time, our economy has seen a 24 per cent. increase in gross domestic product since 1997. Our experience shows that decarbonisation need not damage economic growth, although we obviously need to go further, improving that important hypothesis. We have set an aim of a 60 per cent. reduction in carbon emissions by 2050. Nothing less than a radical change in how we generate and use energy will be needed, and renewable energy can help to deliver that.

Let me comment more specifically on wind energy. We have set a target to supply 10 per cent. of our electricity from renewable sources by 2010, and we expect the largest contribution up to 2010 to come from wind, both onshore and offshore. Currently, wind is one of the most economic renewable technologies, which is why it is doing so well. Last year, we saw more than 440 MW of new wind capacity built—356 MW onshore and 90 MW offshore—which is a record so far. A further 479 MW is under construction, including the 90 MW Barrow offshore wind farm, which is due to be commissioned next month. If we meet our 10 per cent. target, we will save 2.5 million tonnes of carbon a year by 2010, based on 1990 levels if the equivalent had been generated from gas. That is why it is important that we take action now and why wind is key in tackling the problem of climate change.

Yesterday, the energy review was published and the Government announced that we were making changes to the way in which we support renewable energy, to help us to go further and faster. The renewables obligation has been very successful so far in driving renewable generation. That has more than doubled in the four years since the introduction of the obligation. The cheapest renewable technologies, such as onshore wind and landfill gas, have done well under the obligation, but there is still a lot of potential in that respect that we want to tap. However, those technologies can take us only so far. There are only so many landfill sites and suitably windy sites for wind farms onshore.

To achieve the step change, we will need to go beyond 10 per cent. renewables and get towards our 20 per cent. aspiration. We will also need emerging technologies, especially offshore wind, to do more, but those emerging technologies are not yet really taking off, because of their cost. As a result, the Government announced yesterday two major changes to strengthen and widen the impact of the renewables obligation. First, we shall extend the obligation up to 20 per cent. renewables. We shall not do that in fixed steps, as we do up to 15 per cent. Instead, we shall raise the obligation only when that is justified by growth in renewables.

Secondly, we shall consult on banding the renewables obligation—that is, providing greater support for emerging technologies and less for established ones. The hon. Member for Clwyd, West (Mr. Jones) called for that, and we responded yesterday to that request. In doing that, we will protect existing investments where possible, to maintain investor confidence in the renewables obligation.

12 July 2006 : Column 454WH

Martin Horwood: Does the Minister share the concerns of the British Wind Energy Association expressed in response to the review? It said yesterday:

Malcolm Wicks: I am sure that we shall hear a range of views from those with an interest. All I will say is that we will consult. We have set out the principles of where we want to move to. That will require primary and secondary legislation and will take several years. That is the answer to the question about why we cannot move quicker.

We need also to ensure that we manage the burden on electricity consumers. Prices have increased significantly in the past year. We need to ensure that our package does not hit consumers even harder. That is why we are freezing the buy-out price in 2015.

Alun Michael: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Malcolm Wicks: I will briefly, but I want to answer the points that have been made.

Alun Michael: I am very interested in the wider aspects that the Minister is covering and they are very important, but the central thrust of the debate is about the potential for community empowerment also to make a contribution to the objectives. I hope that he will come to that in the final five minutes.

Malcolm Wicks: I had better not say that that intervention has delayed me by 20 seconds in getting there, because that would be ungracious, but I do want to make that point. Indeed, I was about to say that my right hon. Friend, through his commitment to co-operation, has brought the spirit of Robert Owen to the debate. I share his analysis and values: if communities feel that outsiders are coming in and wanting to do things to the community, it is more likely that the community will be hostile. If the community can be involved in a range of ways, it is more likely that projects will be encouraged.

The Renewables Advisory Board commissioned a study in 2005 entitled “Community Benefits from Wind Power: A study of UK practice and comparison with leading European Countries”. It concluded that

Following that report’s recommendations, a further three pieces of work have been commissioned by the Renewables Advisory Board. The first piece of work is on community benefits from wind power development. The second is on public engagement protocols for wind power projects, and the third is on bankable models for community ownership of wind farms. I am pleased that that work is being undertaken. I want to see what developments we can help to encourage and facilitate in the months to come. I am happy to talk to my right hon. Friend about that more informally.

We also have a community renewables initiative, and although that applies only to England, it is for the National Assembly to consider similar support in
12 July 2006 : Column 455WH
Wales. I am pleased that the initiative has been sustained; indeed, in March the Government announced more than £400,000 of additional funding for the initiative. My hon. Friend the Member for Scunthorpe was instrumental in helping to deliver that. So far, the initiative has helped 91 community renewable energy projects, and 294 projects are also nearing completion, so it is an important initiative.

I should also mention the low carbon buildings programme, because we now have some £80 million to spend on microgeneration. That will enable us, in different community buildings, not least schools, to bring some of the ideas about co-operation and community to life. Only yesterday, I was at the Ashburton learning village, which involves a community school in my borough of Croydon. There is the most fantastic array of photovoltaics on the new building. It was a delight to hear the young students and teachers telling me how they are learning about energy and the environment through using renewables in their school.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and other colleagues will see that in the energy review we talk about the importance of distributed energy. We say that we will investigate

to our current highly centralised system. There is much in the review to encourage my right hon. Friend. I am interested in the themes that he introduces. It is important, when developments affect communities, that the communities are on board in one or different ways. Where there can be community ownership, I would welcome that.

I again congratulate my right hon. Friend and all other contributors to what has been a useful debate. I am interested in the themes of co-operation and community involvement and I hope that we can discuss that in the future both formally, in the Chamber, and more informally with colleagues.

12 July 2006 : Column 456WH

Allan Bennett

11 am

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to bring up the case of my constituent, Mr. Allan Bennett. He is a 67-year-old former social worker who was convicted in 2003 of offences against children in his care that were alleged to have occurred between 1978 and 1981. I believe that my constituent did not receive a fair trial and that his treatment since he has been incarcerated in Frankland prison amounts to nothing short of harassment. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider some of the points that I make and look at how my constituent is being treated in prison. I realise that my hon. Friend has no responsibility for the courts and the legal service, but by way of background I would like to say a few words about how my constituent came to be in this predicament.

Mr. Bennett was convicted on the evidence of two individuals who have both since claimed and been paid compensation, so there was a financial incentive for them to make the allegations. He was convicted on evidence that was obtained under the police trawling system that was prevalent at that time, whereby individuals were offered compensation in return for making allegations against people in care homes. I do not condone any sort of criminal activity in care homes, but I feel that my constituent has had a poor deal.

My constituent’s first barrister committed suicide. His second barrister, in whom he had great confidence, decided two weeks before the trial that he could not take the case further, because he was involved in another case which he thought might overrun. His third barrister took on the case at two weeks’ notice, and was refused an adjournment by the trial judge, despite the fact that evidence was introduced one and a half hours before the trial began. Needless to say, Mr. Bennett was convicted. He has since been imprisoned at Frankland prison as a category B prisoner. He is a 67-year-old pensioner, and he is incarcerated in a high-security prison.

Mr. Bennett received a sentence of 11 years for offences that were alleged to have occurred 20 years ago, for which there was no corroborative evidence. He was convicted on the word of his two accusers. In those circumstances, such a sentence beggars belief. It was reduced to eight years on appeal, but when one considers sentencing policy today, which as my hon. Friend knows is the subject of huge debate, especially in relation to foreign prisoners, asylum seekers and illegal immigrants, one must question why a British citizen—even if he did commit those crimes; he will contest his convictions to his dying day—should be sentenced to 11 years by a judge after a trial in which he was legally represented by a barrister for only two weeks. That seems rather strange.

During his time in prison, my constituent has been subjected to—shall we say—unusual treatment. My hon. Friend knows that I have raised the issue of the search and visitors regimes at Frankland prison, because I have written to him about them. I have received letters from both the head of resettlement at the prison and my hon. Friend about the matter.

12 July 2006 : Column 457WH

I asked the prison governor whether my constituent should be kept in high-security conditions as a category B prisoner at the age of 67. The letter of reply of 21 June from the head of resettlement states:

Next Section Index Home Page