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Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman raises a fair point. He will be aware that we recently established a new national skills academy for the nuclear industry, which I think will make a positive contribution. The nuclear installations inspectorate is currently seeking to recruit additional inspectors so that it can complete the generic design assessment process in a timely fashion. We have had a positive response to the recent adverts:
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more than 160 qualified applicants have applied for those posts. Nevertheless, the hon. Gentleman has raised a fair point and we are trying to address those concerns.

Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): Is the Secretary of State concerned that we learned this week that the already immense cost of £73 billion to clear up the current legacy of nuclear waste is probably an underestimate, and that taxpayers are likely to have a bill of at least £3,000 per family? The nuclear industry has never paid its way; it has always been an economic basket case. Why are we so committed to future nuclear power technology when we know that it will fix another financial albatross around taxpayers’ necks?

Mr. Hutton: We support a new generation of nuclear power generation in this country for all the reasons that we set out in the nuclear White Paper, about which I made a statement to the House a few weeks ago. The economics of nuclear power has changed dramatically because of the science of climate change and the introduction of carbon pricing. It would be stupid to deny the United Kingdom and future generations of citizens in the UK the same access to reliable electricity that this generation and previous generations have enjoyed. Nuclear can play a role in future; we should be prepared to give it that opportunity.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): The Secretary of State and I share the aspiration of private sector nuclear build in the UK. From his Select Committee appearances, I know that we all agree that that must happen as speedily as possible, given that our energy supplies will be depleted in the next decade or so. Will he help the House and set out a rough time scale for when he hopes that actual building of the first new nuclear power plant will commence?

Mr. Hutton: I hope that that will be done in the next three or four years, and that it will be possible to make such progress. It is in the UK’s national interest to move ahead with the programme as quickly as possible. We have a responsibility to deal with the past—the taxpayer must discharge that—but we have made it clear that, in future, private sector operators will be responsible for waste disposal and decommissioning. That is a fundamental difference in our new nuclear power proposals. I hope that they have the hon. Lady’s support and that of her Committee.

Hugh Bayley (City of York) (Lab): There is public concern about the possibility of radiological leaks from nuclear power stations but less public awareness of the dangers of carbon emissions from fossil fuel power stations. Will the Secretary of State commission research to compare the environmental impact on people and their livelihoods of fossil fuel, nuclear and renewable generation, so that our debate can be better informed?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that suggestion—let me consider that point.

I hope that we all agree that carbon dioxide is a serious pollutant. It is changing the climate of our planet and it is imperative to get on with tackling the problem of climate change. I strongly believe, on the
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basis of science and economics, that nuclear power can play a large role in helping us meet the challenge of climate change. I should also make it clear that the UK nuclear industry has an exceptional safety record.

Fuel Poverty

8. Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): What estimate he has made of the effects on the number of households in fuel poverty of the changes in energy prices in the winter of 2007-08. [190086]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): After years of progress, rising energy prices during the 2007-08 winter will result in upward pressures on the numbers in fuel poverty. Of course, the numbers will also be affected by increases in incomes and energy efficiency. The most recent estimate that we have produced for the number of households in fuel poverty is for 2005, when there were 2.5 million fuel poor households in the UK. Figures for 2006 will be available later this year.

Sir Robert Smith: Does the Minister accept that his answer about the increase in fuel poverty this winter suggests that the Government rely too much on cheap fuel as a means of tackling the problem? Should not they consider improving Warm Front and Warm Deal to ensure that more households are permanently taken out of fuel poverty? To that end, has he considered the windfalls from VAT on energy and from the European emissions trading scheme for generators?

Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman knows that those are matters for the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, not me. After the years of progress, with better housing standards and energy efficiency measures, which have helped some 2 million households, and social security measures, including winter fuel payments, rising energy costs are knocking us off course. Of course, I recognise that and we looking hard at what can be done. As I said earlier, we are discussing with companies their obligations in the difficult circumstances that we face.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): Is not part of the solution to the problem the increasing use of rising tariffs, whereby the price of each unit of electricity increases with consumption? That makes things easier for low-income households, rewards households that have invested in energy efficiency measures and generally improves understanding of the imperative to reduce CO2 emissions. What possible argument can there be against requiring all suppliers to structure their tariffs on the rising tariff basis?

Malcolm Wicks: I am sure that people will consider that suggestion. Moving forward, the Government are committed by, I think, 2014 to building only zero-carbon housing. That is crucial. We are also considering the possibility that in future the supply company, instead of incentivising householders to use more gas and electricity, will incentivise them to use less, by reducing demand. That puts another premium on energy efficiency and renewables. We are looking hard at all such issues, and my hon. Friend raises an important question.

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Topical Questions

T1. [189928] Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): My Department is committed to ensuring the prosperity and success of British business in an increasingly competitive global economy.

Mr. Mackay: Does the Secretary of State not understand that those such as me who have a high regard for him as a Minister are deeply disappointed that he does not realise that the public are desperately upset about the way in which the sub-post office closures have taken place? The public are completely aware that the closures are Government driven, by a Cabinet decision, and are particularly irritated that the Home Secretary, with a marginal seat that she is likely to lose at the next election, is not taking collective responsibility.

Mr. Hutton: Ministers do accept collective responsibility for the decisions that have been made in relation to the Post Office. However, I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman, for whom I, too, have a high personal regard, would be the first to accept that it is the right of every Member of the House to make representations on behalf of their constituents, and that is what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has sought to do.

T5. [189932] David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): Despite Ofgem’s repeated assertions that we benefit from some of lowest energy prices in Europe, we are in fact No. 3 in the European Union if we discount for the impact of taxation. Why is the Competition Commission not being asked to review the situation whereby a handful of energy companies—that is all that is left of the 15 or so companies post-privatisation—are creating such difficulties for our constituents with their oligopolistic behaviour?

Mr. Hutton: I am sure that my hon. Friend, who takes a close interest in such matters, will know that Ofgem recently announced that it would look into the issue and that the Select Committee on Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is committed to conducting an inquiry, too. There should be a proper argument about the issue. There are significant public concerns about energy prices and it is right that they should be looked into.

T4. [189931] John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): The Secretary of State will be aware that there are about 3,000 people in each constituency with visual impairment. What is his Department doing to communicate with such people and ensure that British business communicates with them, too?

Mr. Hutton: I will probably have to write to the hon. Gentleman to give him a detailed answer to that question. However, the Department makes every effort to ensure that it communicates properly with all our stakeholders and with people who use our services and rely on the information that we provide.

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T7. [189934] Paul Flynn (Newport, West) (Lab): When can we get a bit more oomph and conviction behind our policies for exploiting the one greatly neglected source of power that we are fortunate enough to have in this country, namely marine and tidal power? Although there is enthusiasm for the Severn barrage, it might be delayed by environmental objections. Should we not look into the many other ways of exploiting a source of power that is carbon-free, that does not leave a legacy of waste and that is eternal and British?

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): We are a leading nation when it comes to such technology. We have put a great deal into the research and development phase and we have a programme of some £40 million to £50 million for the deployment of marine, which is waiting for successful applicants. The reform of the renewables obligation gives added incentive to both wave and tidal power. I think that my hon. Friend knows that the technology is in its infancy; however, for the reasons that he suggested, it has enormous potential, not least around our British Isles.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): Eight years ago, the then Secretary of State intervened to block a bid for Rover, preferring instead one that ultimately guaranteed that company’s closure. What lessons have been learned, and is the Secretary of State fully satisfied that the actions of his predecessor and Department were in the best interests of that company?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, I think that Ministers always act in the way that the hon. Gentleman has described. I have absolute personal confidence in and respect for the judgment of my immediate predecessors who have done this job. In relation to the Rover inquiry, which I am sure will be of concern to the hon. Gentleman and to everyone else, we obviously want to see the report produced as quickly as possible, but it is ultimately a matter for the inspectors as to how quickly that can be done.

Alan Duncan: The Rover inquiry has been going on now for two years, and it is costing more than £80,000 a week. It looks more and more like a concerted attempt to disguise the incompetence of the former Secretary of State and the seriously questionable conduct of the so-called Phoenix four. Can the Secretary of State tell us when the report will be published, and will he give a guarantee that he will urge its publication without any further delay?

Mr. Hutton: I am very surprised that the hon. Gentleman has impugned the integrity of the inspectors who are doing this inquiry. They are going about it in a thorough and professional manner—this is a complex set of issues—and working to produce their report as quickly as possible. I am surprised at his line of questioning.

T6. [189933] Mr. David Burrowes (Enfield, Southgate) (Con): Given that the final decision on London’s post office closure programme will be announced after the London elections, and that the post office Minister’s own constituency closure programme will be one of the last to be announced, on 27 August, will the Minister assure me that the voices of the hundreds of my
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constituents who are campaigning to save their local post offices in Palmers Green and Hadley Wood will be heard, and that this is not a centrally determined, politically determined process?

Mr. Hutton: I can give the hon. Gentleman and his constituents that assurance. We have set up a process for local consultation, and he has just outlined the extent of the local engagement in that process in his constituency. It is important, however, to respect one fundamental principle about ministerial behaviour, which is that Ministers do not make announcements during election periods. That has always been the principle, and it applies just as much in relation to this issue as to any other. If the hon. Gentleman wants me to depart from it on this occasion, perhaps he will also support any positive announcements affecting his constituency that Ministers make during future election periods.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): Following the Secretary of State’s emphasis on commercial reality in the Post Office, will he explain why commercially successful, profitable branches are being closed in order to meet a national quota based on generous incentives through the redundancy package?

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The judgment of the commercial success or profitability of any branch has to take into account a number of factors. These include not only the payments made to the sub-postmaster but the central costs borne by Post Office Ltd for IT support and the secure and complex cash handling and cash delivery processes. Taking all those factors into account, three out of four post offices in the present network are run at a cost to Post Office Ltd rather than a profit.

T9. [189936] Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Returning to the theme of regulation, and in particular to the Government’s internet portal, are there any plans to introduce industry sector-related portals within that portal? Will the Government also address the issue of how to get information to very small businesses that might not be members of trade associations?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that there is an important task to be done in communicating information to businesses. That is why more and more Government business-related content is being concentrated on the Business Link website, which I would recommend to any small business. It provides very good advice on a whole range of Government policies, and businesses might find that picking up advice that is freely available on the Business Link website, rather than paying for it, saves them money.

T8. [189935] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Can the Secretary of State confirm that it is now his Department’s policy to be increasingly supportive of offshore wind farms while becoming increasingly sceptical about onshore wind turbines? Is he aware that, in my Norfolk constituency, 500 wind turbines are now either under construction or planned
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for sites in the Wash or along the Norfolk coast? That is a large enough amount to achieve critical mass and to make a real contribution to green energy, unlike the onshore clusters, which impose a big cost on the environment for very little gain.

Malcolm Wicks: We are committed to the expansion of renewable energy, and I think that Opposition Front Benchers are as well—at least, in principle. We need renewable energy from different sources and onshore wind farms are important. There is a proper planning process, and when proposals come to our Department, we sometimes say yes, and sometimes we say no in view of local objections. I believe that we will see a massive extension of offshore wind farms in future, for the reasons that the hon. Gentleman indicates.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): On the question of the accuracy or otherwise of this week’s report on the costing of radioactive waste management, will the Secretary of State confirm that if there were any new nuclear build in the UK, the spent fuel from the nuclear power plants would not be reprocessed? Given that the THORP—thermal oxide reprocessing plant—at Sellafield has been closed for much of the last three years, will he give us some indication of what he thinks about the reprocessing industry’s future?

Mr. Hutton: My understanding is that none of the prospective nuclear operators is currently working on the assumption that spent fuel will need to be reprocessed. However, it is important to make it clear that that is ultimately a commercial decision for the operators. The regulatory authorities would obviously have to take a view about the safety and environmental issues surrounding any such proposal in the future, but it is our working assumption at the moment that the spent fuel arising from any future nuclear operations will not be reprocessed.

T10. [189937] Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): What assessment does the Department intend to make of the impact of economic partnership agreements on economic growth and poverty reduction on the African, Caribbean and Pacific countries that are signed up to them?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Given the history of the process of the creation of economic partnership agreements, we have been in discussions with those ACP nations for some years about the economic benefits of signing up. One particular benefit for the non-least developed countries of signing up to an EPA is that they get duty-free and quota-free access to Europe’s markets. That is a huge benefit for some of them.

Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): I recently had discussions with Friends of the Earth, which seems to believe that carbon capture from coal-fired power stations, after which the carbon is taken to the redundant oil fields in the North sea, is a technology that is already available and can be taken off the shelf. Will the Minister tell us what progress has been made on this technology and clarify the Department’s policy on it?

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Malcolm Wicks: It is, of course, a crucial technology, but it is in its infancy. I am proud of the fact that the UK is a leading nation when it comes to developing carbon capture and storage; and I am proud that our Government announced a major demonstration project around a coal-fired power station—one of the first projects in the whole world to demonstrate carbon capture and storage. It is a new technology that needs to be proven, but given that the world will be burning huge amounts of coal for a century or more, it is crucial that we get this right—and Britain is leading the way.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con): The George Yard post office in Braintree is going to be closed in less than two weeks’ time, despite not having been involved in the initial Essex consultation. When I raised that matter with the chief executive of the Post Office, he first apologised, but then asked me to keep it in the strictest confidence until he could make an announcement. Does not the Minister agree that consultations on the post office network should be both accurate and public?

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