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22 Feb 2007 : Column 393

Anne Snelgrove (South Swindon) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the many practical examples of renewable energy measures that have been introduced into the UK, with or without an energy White Paper, over the past 10 years. Will he join me in congratulating npower in Swindon on its plans for a wind turbine on Windmill hill, and will he further tell me what steps he is taking to encourage local councils—

Mr. Speaker: Order. We will go for one supplementary question only.

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend is right that wind power is very important. I am just sorry that so many applications are now blocked. [Interruption.] Before the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan) stands up to berate me, as a I fully expect him to do, he might like to tell me what steps he will take to persuade Conservative councils not to block applications, as we know we need such renewable energy.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Businesses in my constituency also raise the issue of the fluctuation in energy prices and the effect that that has on their trade and competitiveness. Given that, what is my right hon. Friend doing to bring the energy companies along with him in respect of the energy White Paper and other long-term measures, to ensure that such fluctuations in costs are minimised in order to give local companies more stability to plan ahead?

Mr. Darling: Again, my hon. Friend is right. What is needed more than anything else is stability, which is why energy companies—everybody, really—ought to be concerned that we have a stable policy framework that will allow generators to choose what form of generation is most appropriate. The two matters that should be concentrating our minds are, first, how to get cleaner, greener sources of energy, and, secondly, how to ensure that we have security of supply in the future. There ought to be cross-party consensus on that at least—although we can, perhaps, argue about how we actually achieve that. Those are the two big issues that face this country, and countries around the world, and I intend to address them fully during the forthcoming consultation period. As I have said, I intend to reach conclusions by the autumn.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree with the following two recent conclusions of the Select Committee on Trade and Industry: first, that nuclear power is generally a very low-carbon source of electricity, and secondly, that although local energy generation has interesting potential, it is not a short-term panacea for the real problems we face? If he does agree, does he also share my fear that the uncertainty created by the further delay that he has been forced to announce today risks there being investment in new gas-fired power stations—with all the implications of that for climate change and security of supply—rather than in nuclear power stations, which I agree with him are necessary?

Mr. Darling: I agree with the first part of the hon. Gentleman’s question. Nuclear is, without doubt, a lower carbon form of producing energy—it is not carbon free, but it is much lower. I also believe that
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although distributed energy—small-scale energy—is an important part of the mix, it can never be an answer despite what Greenpeace and others have suggested from time to time. We could not possibly end up depending on thousands of different producers to make sure that we have enough electricity, for example, to provide for our needs across the entire country. Distributed energy does, however, have a part to play.

On the delay, my soundings are that industry would prefer that we got the consultation right—that we put up with a six or seven-week delay before we publish the White Paper and the associated consultations—as long as we reach decisions in a reasonable time. I think that we will do so before the end of this year—in the autumn. If we can get that right, there is no reason to believe that we cannot make sure that we have an energy policy that is back on track and that can provide for us in the way that I have described.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Does the Secretary of State accept that a key issue for the White Paper is introducing mechanisms to enable carbon to be traded at a high and stable price not just in the UK, but in Europe and, ultimately, globally?

Mr. Darling: Yes, I do, which is why the Government have spent a great deal of time and effort persuading other European countries that the EU emissions trading scheme ought to be strengthened. If there is no carbon price, it will be very difficult to persuade people to go for the low-carbon options. That issue is very important; indeed, it is equally as important as clean coal—coal was mentioned earlier—and carbon capture. All those things should be part of an approach that will get us secure and greener supplies.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): The whole energy review is clearly in a complete mess. It began back in November 2005, and it was two months before the consultation document was published. Six months later, the report came out and said virtually nothing. The High Court now says that the process was flawed. The Government are delaying the White Paper yet again, and we will have no decision on anything until the autumn, which means that this supposedly urgent policy will have taken more than two years. I suspect, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker: I suspect that I am going to get a question.

Alan Duncan: I can assure you, Mr. Speaker, that in all respects I am shorter than all other questioners.

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney) rose—

Alan Duncan: I immediately withdraw that assertion, Mr. Speaker.

Is it not clear for all to see that the Government are totally paralysed, and that we Conservatives are better prepared for government than the Government themselves?

Mr. Darling: I was tempted to ask the hon. Gentleman, if he is so well prepared, whether he has a policy on nuclear yet. As I understand it, his policy is
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to wait to see whether anything else works and to come to a decision at the last moment. On his general point—if there was one—most people can see the thrust of what the Government are proposing in a broad range of measures. We need to ensure that we have the right sources of electricity and other energy generation, and to concentrate on reducing our demand for energy, which is a key part of any approach. We need to make sure that industry and households have incentives to use less gas and electricity, but we also need to ensure that we get the generation capacity that we will need. We should remember that a third of all our power stations will come out of commission in the next 20 years, so decisions need to be made. However, having spoken to many people in the industry over the past nine months since becoming Secretary of State, my sense is that they are more concerned that we get the consultation process right. Frankly, given that we are establishing policies that will last 20 or 30 years, a six or seven week delay—although we would ideally do without it—is something that we can live with.

Mr. Speaker: Next question. [Laughter.]

Alan Duncan: Can the Secretary of State tell us what the Chancellor’s view is on nuclear power, and can he explain how his own policy of having nuclear power only as an option to be considered by companies in any way matches the Prime Minister’s assertion that we must and will have nuclear power? How does the Secretary of State’s “it may/will happen” policy tally with the Prime Minister’s “it definitely will happen” rhetoric?

Mr. Darling: The Chancellor and I are in complete agreement on this and most other matters, so that deals with the hon. Gentleman’s first point. On his second point, the Government are saying to generators that, whereas successive Governments have been very reluctant to sanction additional nuclear capacity, nuclear—subject to consultation—ought to be part of the mix. In other words, generators need be able to consider the option of nuclear alongside others. It is not for the Government to decide that it has got to be nuclear, as opposed to oil or gas.

Alan Duncan: That is the same as us.

Mr. Darling: I think that the difference between us and the Conservatives—inasmuch as I can understand their policy—is that they have not got a clue on nuclear.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): I welcome the Government’s decision not to appeal Mr. Justice Sullivan’s judgment, which was scathing, to put it mildly. He did not apply the term “misleading” to the economic section, but he did call it “jejune” and an “empty husk”. In the consultation that is to take place, the Secretary of State will be aware that most of the supporting documents for the economic case have not been put into the public arena or have been put in only in much reduced form. Can he give us an assurance that he will provide those documents to this consultation, or can he tell us which aspects of the economic case he is not willing to make public?

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Mr. Darling: As I said to the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) a few moments ago, we did make a considerable amount of economic data available. I fully accept in retrospect that it probably should have been made available when the consultation was launched back in January 2006. I want to ensure that we can have an informed debate in the House and among the wider public. All I would say to the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer) is that she, too, should perhaps open her mind to all the options, because it is not clear to me that she has a policy to deal with the two pressures of security of supply and achieving greener sources of energy. Until she does, I strongly advise her to reflect further before venturing into the public domain.

Sustainable Development Technologies

3. Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): What assistance his Department gives UK manufacturers seeking to develop sustainable development technologies. [122134]

The Minister for Industry and the Regions (Margaret Hodge): The DTI is working with business to encourage the development of sustainable development technologies and sustainable consumption and production practices. This support covers a wide range of activities including support of the UK science base, the technology programme and our joint work with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on sustainable consumption and production.

Mr. Kidney: Does my right hon. Friend agree that we are right to focus support increasingly on clusters of manufacturers and their supply chains by sectoral activity? If she does, and bearing in mind our ambitious target for renewable energy, does she agree that there is an urgent need to expand our base of clusters for renewable energy? If she is with me so far, could she bear in mind for the next time we meet that Stafford is an excellent location for such a cluster, because of its 100 years of experience in power and its existing experiences with solar, wind and biomass, and because we have the only factory in the whole of the UK manufacturing transformers, with worldwide experience in transmission and distribution?

Margaret Hodge: I agree with my hon. Friend that clusters are an important way to provide strength and build key capacity in such areas. I congratulate him on the work that he is doing in his own constituency to try to ensure that Stafford develops such a cluster and I have no doubt that in his discussions with the regional development agency and in our considerations through the technology strategy we will bear in mind the strong case that he makes.

Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Following the excellent question from the hon. Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), and the Minister’s reply, with especial reference to sustainable production, I seek her advice and assistance, and that of the Government. Earlier this week, AstraZeneca, the largest employer in my constituency, announced 700 job losses at its manufacturing site in Macclesfield. I am pleased to say that the job losses will be spread
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over three years, but one of the reasons the company gave for that decision was the cost of energy. Can the Government give any advice or assistance on that question, because the shedding of 700 manufacturing jobs in a high technology industry such as pharmaceuticals is a very dangerous and unfortunate development?

Margaret Hodge: I share the hon. Gentleman’s concern about the loss of jobs in his constituency, although I would draw his attention to the fact that we perform well in the pharmaceutical sector. The Government need to continue to provide the conditions that will enable that to continue into the future. That means providing the right business environment and ensuring that we invest in research and development so that we have the innovation necessary to keep us one step ahead.

The hon. Gentleman is also right to draw attention to the fact that energy prices last year did create difficulties for many sectors of industry. That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State referred to the steps that we have taken to secure energy supply for this winter and beyond and, through the energy White Paper, to bring down energy prices so that we remain internationally competitive in manufacturing, especially in areas such as the pharmaceutical industry.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): May I point out to my right hon. Friend that perhaps the most sustainable source of energy actually lies within the earth’s crust, but that historically this country has underdeveloped and under-researched geothermal energy sources? I ask my right hon. Friend to work with the construction industry and other Departments with a view to promoting that source of energy within new construction, which will help not only our carbon footprint, but companies such as Forkers in my constituency that are at the cutting edge of geothermal technology.

Margaret Hodge: My hon. Friend is right to draw attention to this important source of conserving energy and sustainable development. Indeed, I am working with the construction industry to look again into what further steps we can take around sustainability in construction to ensure that we conserve our energy resources. We support, and are in various ways investing in trying to promote, geothermal capacity.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): The Minister said that she is encouraging sustainable technologies development, so can she explain why the DTI’s supplemental budget published this week shows that she has cut research council funding by £68 million?

Margaret Hodge: I simply draw the hon. Lady’s attention to the statement, which shows that that is an underspend. It is money that was not spent, which we are drawing back into the remaining overcommitments in the Department’s budget.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): One of the ways in which the Minister’s Department supports renewable technology is through the low carbon buildings programme, which is so successful that it runs out of money every month. As a result,
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people who miss the cut-off date have to apply again the next month. As that does not encourage householders to apply under the scheme and is destructive of industry, will the Minister consider providing more funds for the low carbon buildings programme, so that we do not have that arbitrary cut-off period every month?

Margaret Hodge: I understand that my hon. Friend has tabled a question that may be reached later this morning. Up to 2008, we are providing £12.8 million to meet the issues that he has raised.

Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Is the Minister aware that the director of the Renewable Energy Association has described the programme as descending into farce? At the beginning of each month when the allocations are opened, they close after shorter and shorter periods. This month, they closed within hours of opening on 1 February. The scheme was set up to encourage the development of renewable technologies in this country, but how can that possibly happen when the scheme stops and starts as it does?

Margaret Hodge: This is a demonstration programme—we have demonstrated its success and will build beyond that into the future.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): In answer to the previous question, the Minister mentioned the potential for carbon capture technology. There is an exciting potential development at Peterhead, but it is apparently being put in doubt because of the delay in the Government’s announcement of financial support for this technology. Can she tell us when a decision will be made and announced on support for carbon capture?

Margaret Hodge: I question the hon. Gentleman’s assertion that there has been a delay in our decision making on how we can better promote carbon capture. That is not the case. We are pursuing, with all the vigour that we can, the important issue of conserving our energy resources.

Limited Companies

4. Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): How many limited companies ceased trading between January 2006 and January 2007. [122135]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): The number of company insolvencies in England and Wales in 2006 totalled 17,819, while 190,742 companies were struck off the Companies House register.

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