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7 Jun 2007 : Column 388

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Will the Minister answer the question: should post office workers strike—yes or no?

Jim Fitzpatrick: It is our view that a strike would damage the industry, so we do not think it would be in the best interests of the company or individual staff members if there were a strike. We hope that the matter can be resolved through constructive discussions. We know and hope that discussions will take place following the Communication Workers Union conference this week. We have demonstrated our commitment by putting our money where our mouth is with additional resources for the company. We do not believe that a strike would be in the interests of the company, the employees or, for that matter, the service.

Sub-sea Electricity

4. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What steps he has taken to promote the development of a sub-sea electricity transmission network. [140927]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Government are working with Ofgem and industry to establish an offshore transmission regime. We have already taken a number of decisions necessary to help us to do that.

Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer. I welcome the announcement made by Ofgem this week about island connections, but does he accept that, whatever the outcome of the Beauly to Denny proposal, a new approach will be needed to meet future transmission needs beyond that proposal? Will he give political leadership and instruct Ofgem to provide the regulatory space to enable a much more ambitious approach to developing a sub-sea transmission network to be taken in future around Britain’s coasts to allow the potential of marine renewables to be fully exploited?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman raises two separate issues. We have already taken a number of decisions along with Ofgem to encourage the offshore regime. I want to see more offshore wind farms, and of course they have to be connected to the grid. He also raises the Beauly to Denny transmission lines, which are onshore and the subject of a public inquiry at the moment. Of course we and Ofgem will continue to ask how we can help to improve matters, but there is no getting away from the fact that at some stage the transmission lines have to be built. People who say that they are in favour of renewable energy will have to face up to the fact that the energy has to be transported and that their objection to the power lines is contradictory.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Looking at the plans for the super grid, it appears that the establishment of more wind turbines is planned in the North sea, the Irish sea and the channel. As the Secretary of State has said, all that electricity has to be transported. It must be welcome that we are to have more turbines out at sea, because there is less
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controversy about that. Will he look into the opportunities for under-sea turbines, which could be linked into the same grid?

Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. We can and ought to do more to find more marine-generated sources of energy. Unfortunately, at present the technology is pretty much in its infancy. Through grants, the Government support experimental wave generation and I am extremely interested in encouraging tidal generation. One of the reasons we have proposed changing the way in which the renewables obligation works is to give greater incentives for developing more difficult and newer forms of power generation, but I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I too welcome the Ofgem consultation launched yesterday, entitled “Unlocking the Renewables Potential of Scottish Islands”. May I encourage the Secretary of State to impress on Ofgem the urgency of resolving this question? Will he remind Ofgem in the nicest possible way that when it makes its calculations of transmission charges from island groups, it should factor into the equation the capping power in the Energy Act 2004?

Mr. Darling: I am sure that Ofgem will bear that in mind. I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s welcome for the consultation. Obviously, we need to let that run and then take the next set of decisions, as I said to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Danny Alexander). We all want to make it easier to generate more offshore power and to help with connections from the islands to the UK mainland.


5. Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What provisions the Sellafield security contract will contain on public safety. [140928]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): The plan details all the security arrangements at Sellafield.

Anne Moffat: I thank my right hon. Friend for that. Does he agree that health and safety and security safeguards must be paramount before we give any contracts?

Mr. Darling: Yes, safety is absolutely paramount at Sellafield and at other nuclear sites. That is why the responsibility lies with the nuclear installations inspectorate and the Office for Civil Nuclear Security. I am sure that they will do everything they can to ensure that the sites remain secure.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will the Secretary of State be very kind and clarify the Government’s proposals for the future of nuclear power? How much of the costs of Sellafield and the storage and disposal of nuclear waste will be met by the state and how much will have to be met by the private sector?

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Mr. Darling: In relation to much of the waste at Sellafield at the moment, we set up the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to fund its disposal. It will almost certainly be stored in deep underground facilities. I think the hon. Gentleman was getting at what would happen in respect of waste that may come from any new nuclear plant that is built. We have said that the industry—the generators who make proposals—will have to meet the construction, running and decommissioning costs, and thus their share of the storage. There could be a joint storage facility, in which case they will have to pay their share. Although we might wish things were otherwise in relation to historic waste, the problem has been building up since the 1940s and I am afraid that it will have to be substantially dealt with by the public sector.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that in addition to Sellafield the operation of nuclear stations generally presents safety and security challenges. Is he aware that the latest figures show that staff numbers at the Health and Safety Executive, which includes the nuclear installations inspectorate, will have fallen by 17 per cent. by 2008? Will he give an assurance that the inspectorate’s staff is kept at an appropriate level and that the health and safety regime at nuclear stations, which covers workers under the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974, will also be maintained?

Mr. Darling: As I said to our hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat), it is important that we maintain the right safety regime in respect both of the sites themselves and, importantly, of people employed at nuclear sites. It is for the HSE to decide on the right staffing; I am told that it has held extremely constructive discussions with the Treasury on that point.

Fuel Poverty

6. Mrs. Linda Riordan (Halifax) (Lab/Co-op): What progress has been made in achieving the Government’s target of an end to fuel poverty for vulnerable households by 2010. [140929]

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Malcolm Wicks): Projections indicate that about 2 million vulnerable households are currently in fuel poverty in England—fuel poverty being defined as having to spend more than 10 per cent. of one’s income on fuel. We certainly acknowledge a significant increase since 2004 because of energy price rises, but fuel poverty among vulnerable households is still significantly below the 1996 level of 4 million, and we have taken further steps in the energy White Paper to increase efforts to tackle fuel poverty.

Mrs. Riordan: I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for that reply and I appreciate the Government’s commitment to alleviate fuel poverty, but will he introduce legislation to force energy suppliers to offer social tariffs for those in most need?

Malcolm Wicks: We are in discussion about social tariffs. Certainly the supply companies have a social responsibility to protect their vulnerable customers. Obviously, at present, energy prices for householders are coming down again, which will have an impact on
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the fuel poverty figures. There is a range of other measures to tackle the issue, from pension credit and winter fuel payments to energy efficiency programmes in the different nations. That is at the heart of the Government’s programme to tackle fuel poverty. There is no one answer, but a range of strategies, including corporate responsibility and the social tariff.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): Let me press further on the issue of social tariffs, because average domestic energy costs are still more than £1,000 a year. In the White Paper, the Secretary of State said that he would require companies to put in place

for vulnerable customers. Will the Minister tell us what that means and how long the energy supply companies will have until he finally puts in place minimum standards for social tariffs? Perhaps he could indicate what those standards would be.

Malcolm Wicks: Let us first acknowledge that many of the supply companies have made good progress on social tariffs in recent years, but there is more to do. We need development and coherence as part and parcel of the wider strategy that I briefly outlined earlier. There is a job for Government in that regard, as well as for the supply companies. As the hon. Lady knows, over the coming years we want to move to a situation where supply companies will no longer simply be in the business of trying to persuade us—including vulnerable households—to use more gas and electricity, but will become energy service companies that help us not only to keep warm and have hot water but to live in energy-efficient dwellings. That is where we want to go in the long term, and it is particularly important for vulnerable households.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): The energy White Paper makes it clear that the 2010 target to remove vulnerable households from fuel poverty will not be met, and that 1.2 million fuel-poor households will remain in fuel poverty. At the same time, the energy companies are seeking to reduce the proportion of their energy efficiency commitment that goes towards the eradication of fuel poverty. Will the Minister give an assurance to the House that he will not entertain such a reduction? I am talking about the 50 per cent. of the commitment that is currently earmarked for fuel poverty eradication.

Malcolm Wicks: I understand my hon. Friend’s point. He is an acknowledged expert in the field and a passionate advocate of the need to tackle the terrible problem of fuel poverty. The significant point about the 50 per cent. figure is that, with the increase in the importance of the energy efficiency commitment, even if that percentage comes down, more actual help will go to vulnerable households, because of the development of the size of the programme.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): Does the Minister, on reflection, agree that in the past the Government’s expenditure has focused too much on subsidising the payment of higher bills by those on low incomes, and not enough on the fuel conservation measures that he now rightly welcomes? Could not the
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Government look again at the balance of their spending? Surely it is better to save people the need to spend so much, rather than to subsidise them.

Malcolm Wicks: I understand the issue, and of course, this is a question of balance. When the Government came to power we recognised that many of our eldest citizens—often women in their 80s, living alone—had been seriously neglected, to put it mildly, in income maintenance programmes. That is why we had to develop pension credit, which has given a good many extra resources to the poorest one third of our older households. That is also why we brought in the winter fuel payment. The situation was serious and we needed to take some early action. Of course, in the longer term—we started this straight away—energy efficiency measures to warm up the homes of the oldest people are important, not least given that all the survey evidence shows that it is often the most vulnerable who live in the most energy-inefficient dwellings. The energy efficiency commitment, Warm Front, and the equivalent programmes in the other nations are a crucial part of the strategy, and are related to the big and urgent concern about climate change.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): Among the poorest families in my constituency are those who live in mobile home parks. Mobile homes are notoriously energy-inefficient. Does the Minister share my surprise about the limited range of products supported through Warm Front to assist people who live in mobile homes to insulate them properly? I am thinking, in particular, of measures to provide for the external insulation of mobile homes to improve the energy efficiency of the walls.

Malcolm Wicks: That is an extremely good question—and I wish I was more able to give an extremely good answer. I certainly recognise that although many people have mobile homes, it is often the poorest—those on low incomes, who are vulnerable in all sorts of ways—who have to resort to such homes. My hon. Friend raised the issue of what technology and devices exist. I will reflect on that and write to him.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): The Minister has twice mentioned energy efficiency. Smart metering has an important role to play in achieving that, so will he explain why the recent energy White Paper opted for a programme based on clip-on electricity displays, rather than proper smart meters? Why is he going for the most basic option when real smart meters would do much more to stimulate the microgeneration industry and reduce fuel poverty?

Malcolm Wicks: It is not either/or: what the hon. Gentleman refers to as clip-ons are an immediate response to enable people to have a better sense of the energy that they are expending in their homes so that they can monitor it. But we also have a programme to develop smart metering and we are committed to that. It cannot be done straight away; it is an extremely expensive programme. But we are developing it and it is important. If we are to win the war against climate change, an important part of our strategy must be to have engaged citizens who understand how much energy they are using.

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Royal Mail

7. Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the impact of the pricing and access regime on Royal Mail. [140930]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): Price controls and their associated impact assessments are a matter for the postal regulator, Postcomm. The current price controls run until 2010.

Mr. Anderson: Is my hon. Friend aware that the Communication Workers Union is concerned about the way in which the regime is progressing, to the extent that it believes that it is clear that if private companies are allowed to cherry-pick what they do, it will ultimately lead to the end of Royal Mail as we know it? Some 40,000 jobs have already been lost in Royal Mail; will he agree to meet the CWU as a matter of urgency to try to clarify exactly what is going on?

Jim Fitzpatrick: I do not think that we accept that argument. The price control regime is designed to allow Royal Mail to align its prices more closely with its costs. That is why Postcomm permitted pricing in proportion last year, following a specific request from Royal Mail. In March 2007, Postcomm initiated a review and public consultation on the price control of Royal Mail’s access charges. It has not yet taken a decision on whether any amendment is appropriate, but a public consultation is planned for July, and a decision will be made some time in the autumn.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): What assessment have the Minister and the Department made of the impact of the price control regime on the business community? In an ever-competitive regime, what incentives are there for the business community to remain with the Post Office, and to continue to be among Royal Mail’s major customers?

Jim Fitzpatrick: As I said, that role, and responsibility for the pricing regime and the impact assessment, rests with Postcomm. It is carrying out its review, and has set a programme that runs until 2010. It made an adjustment last year, when it introduced prices in proportion, but that role and responsibility lies with it.

Nuclear Power Stations

8. Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): What plans he has to build new nuclear power stations in the south-east. [140931]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): Any new nuclear power stations will be built by the generators, and it is for them to make proposals with regard to sites, but I have said on many occasions that it is likely that new build will be on existing nuclear power station sites.

Gregory Barker: There seems to be an extraordinary mismatch between the extremely gung-ho rhetoric coming out of Nos. 10 and 11 Downing street on nuclear new build and the spin that they are putting
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into the media, and the paucity of information coming from the DTI and the total lack of clarity about the strategy for implementing the proposals. Will the Secretary of State at least tell the House what assessment the Government have made of the long-term impact of rising sea levels and associated coastal erosion on siting new nuclear power stations on the coast? I am thinking particularly of Dungeness near my constituency.

Mr. Darling: If he has not already done so, the hon. Gentleman might like to read the consultation document on the future of nuclear power that we published a couple of weeks ago, in which many of those issues are considered. On sites, the Jackson report, which was published on the same day as the energy White Paper, looks at the various criteria that will be considered, and obviously the suitability of existing sites is one of those. As I have said, I think it more likely than not that any new build will be on existing sites, but an assessment would have to be made on whether such an existing site would be suitable for new building in the future.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): May I underline the comments made by the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker)? The Secretary of State said in both his responses to the hon. Gentleman’s questions that it is likely that existing sites will be used. We must adapt to climate change in this country; it is likely that by 2050 sea levels will have risen by 40 cm at least, and that storm waves will get higher. To use existing sites, most of which are on the coast, whether in the south-east or in the rest of the UK, is asking for difficulties for future generations, and I beg my right hon. Friend to examine very carefully the appropriateness or otherwise of using coastal sites for new nuclear build.

Mr. Darling: As I said a moment ago, any proposal coming forward would have to be considered on its merits. Every possibility would have to be looked at, and indeed that is what happens now, and what has happened with regard to previous building. However, if my hon. Friend reads the report that we commissioned, which was published last week—indeed, I am sure that he has done so already—he will see that a number of criteria have to be considered, although it was the report’s considered opinion that existing sites would probably be better. As I say, the merits of each proposal will have to be considered individually.

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