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The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The most recent figures show that approximately 2.5 million UK households were in fuel poverty in 2005. Fuel poverty is not measured at individual level. UK figures for 2006 will not be finalised until later this year, when the results of efficiency programmes will be known. I am conscious that there is a time lag in the data because of the methodology required. I am also conscious that fuel poverty is now moving in the wrong direction, partly for the macro level reasons of global energy prices that we were discussing. The Government are committed to doing their utmost to protect the most vulnerable in winter from rising fuel prices.
Steve Webb: I am grateful for those estimates. As the Ministers answer indicates, two or three years ago perhaps 5 million or 6 million men, women and children were living in fuel poverty and the numbers have soared since then. Can he estimate what proportion of them the Budget measures will have taken out of fuel poverty, and given that vast numbers will remain in it, what is his strategy for abolishing fuel poverty, which is his stated policy?
It is our stated policy because it has to be intolerable that vulnerable people, particularly the very elderly who often live in the most energy-inefficient dwellings, can be cold in winter. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in the Budget the Chancellor increased winter fuel payments by £50 for the over-60s and by £100 for the over-80s. Since 2000, the Government have spent
some £20 billion on fuel poverty benefits and programmes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has reached agreement with the six largest energy supply companies to increase their collective level of spend on social tariffs and programmes from £50 million to about £150 million a year by 2010-11. We are also working very hard on other measures.
Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister will be well aware that the Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Committee is conducting an investigation of energy prices. He has mentioned the social tariffs from the big six companies, but many people rely on home fuel oil and bottled gas, especially in rural areas, and they are not subject to any social tariffs. When the Committee asked Ofgem and Energywatch about regulation of that sector, it became apparent that there is none. Will the Minister look into that and will he ask the National Consumer Council, which will take over from Energywatch, to ensure that those people who do not have any protection are included in the energy section for future investigation?
Malcolm Wicks: Obviously we are looking into that, and we need to ensure that we have fair trading wherever possible. I have received many letters from Members of Parliament on behalf of concerned constituents about this very question. We have had a programme to connect people to mainstream gas supplies and have made some progress with that, although it is not always possible. We also need to look hard at the contribution that can be made by microgeneration, such as heat pumps, to tackle some of the difficult and important questions that arise in many constituencies.
Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Is the Minister aware of and sympathetic to the real concerns of pensioners in my constituency about the rising cost of fuel? Is he aware of the Age Concern report that says that more than 150,000 people aged over 65 died in the past six winters? What is his assessment of the current situation?
Malcolm Wicks: This Government have taken unprecedented action on energy efficiency and winter fuel payments compared with other GovernmentsI recall pressing another Government to take action 30 years ago, but only this Government have done so. My assessment of the situation is that, after years of progress because of our action, it is now much more difficult because of rising energy costs. We are therefore redoubling our efforts to ensure that we can tackle that evil problem through better targetingalthough there are data protection issuesenergy efficiency programmes, enhanced social tariffs and winter fuel payments.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con):
Is the Minister aware that yesterday gas was trading at 57p a therm, but that the forward price for next winter is 94p a therm, an increase of more than 80 per cent. and twice the level at which it was trading last winter? Is he also aware that other European countries are seeing increases in their domestic energy prices of some 40 per cent. and experts here predict that we too may see increases of that shocking magnitude? Does he understand the pressure that that will have on all consumers, but especially the devastating effect that it will have on the increasing
numbers in fuel poverty? What steps can the Minister take now to prepare for what will be a very tough winter and ensure that his commitment to remove vulnerable people from fuel poverty by 2010 is met?
Malcolm Wicks: We only recently had a meeting, hosted by Ofgem, with all the key Departments, and some announcements of new measures will be made soon. I have mentioned the recognition by the Chancellor in winter fuel payments and the recognition by the energy supply companies, encouraged by us, in trebling the amount that they offer through social tariffs. I am aware of the issues and I am even more interested in practical recommendations, so I would be happy to talk about that with the hon. Gentleman. We need to target our resources better, not least the energy efficiency programmes, and to examine whether new technologies such as microgeneration can make a contribution.
The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The start and finish dates of the national minimum wage bus campaign, which was part of a wider publicity campaign for the minimum wage, were 9 January and 9 March 2008. During this time, the bus visited 64 locations and received extensive media coverage. The Government also organised poster campaigns, radio advertising and online advertising about the minimum wage.
Mark Lazarowicz: If we publicise the minimum wage, as we ought to, we must also enforce it. The more we publicise it, the more people want to see it enforced. A constituent who contacted me went to the national minimum wage unit for assistance, and it investigated the complaint, but she reported that it was heavily overworked and that there was a massive backlog of cases. Will my hon. Friend look at ways to strengthen the enforcement team to ensure that people who are entitled to the national minimum wage get it, too?
Mr. McFadden: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend that the national minimum wage must be properly enforced. Over the past year, Her Majestys Revenue and Customs, which carries out the enforcement work, helped some 19,000 people recover about £3.8 million in arrears. The Government have put extra resources into enforcement and the Employment Bill, which is being discussed in the other place, will strengthen the system of penalties for that small minority of unscrupulous employers who refuse to pay the minimum wage. It will also strengthen the arrears system for people such as my hon. Friends constituent.
The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The reviews first report was published on 6 May. It described the current state of the Royal Mail business and changes taking place in the market. I have asked the review team to come forward with proposals later in the year to improve the efficiency of the service and to ensure that the universal postal service is maintained.
There have been no significant benefits for smaller businesses and domestic consumers.
Will he use the interim report as the basis for starting the work in his Department on how a levy might be placed on those operating in the liberalised market that do not provide a universal service in order to support the universal service? If we wait for further conclusions, it might simply be too late.
Mr. Hutton: I will not pre-empt the review teams conclusions. We should all wait until we see the final recommendations from Richard Hoopers team. The hon. Gentleman is quite right that the principal beneficiaries of the liberalised postal services market have been the big-volume large corporations that have significant amounts of addressed letters going through. His constituents and mine have not seen a significantly improved service at all. We have to consider that very carefully.
Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Further to the point raised by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), the fact is that liberalisation has meant that many companies can cherry-pick the most lucrative parts of the mail system. That is creating the problem for Royal Mail. Since in order to survive businesses rely on Royal Mails ability to deliver the last mile, it is essential that they be forced to pay towards maintaining that universal service. Otherwise, it will fall on the public purse to maintain the service so that we can supply mail across the country, and even to areas such as Orkney and Shetland.
Mr. Hutton: We need a competitive regime for postal services that encourages innovation, new investment and so on, and that does so at a price that ordinary consumers can sustain. As I said, I shall not pre-empt the outcome of the report and I certainly shall not commit myself today to taking specific measures. We need to see the outcome of the wider study in which the review team are engaged to which our manifesto committed us.
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): As one who has always supported the Royal Mail and did not welcome the liberalisation, I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he agrees that my constituents, and his, have received a continually deteriorating service. It would be appalling if, having lost the second delivery, we lost the delivery on a Saturday. Will he do everything in his power to ensure that the people of this country get a decent service from the Royal Mail?
Mr. Hutton: Yes, I will. I agree with the hon. Gentlemans comment about the importance of a delivery on Saturday, too. I do not think that we will build confidence in the need for the taxpayer to continue to invest significant amounts of money in the Royal Mailwe are putting nearly £2 billion in to sustain the Royal Mail network and to modernise it to meet the challenges of the futureif the price is a constantly deteriorating service to consumers. We cannot build consensus on that basis and on those terms.
Mr. Hutton: Our commitment is to sustain the universal service obligation, and we have made that very clear. As the hon. Gentleman will know, sustaining the universal service is Postcomms principal responsibility, according to legislation that this House has passed. We believe strongly in the universal service obligation: it is an essential feature of our country and our civic, economic society that there should be a universal service, accessible across the country at a standard universal rate.
Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Given that the National Federation of SubPostmasters believes that the failure to keep the Post Office card account will result in a further 3,000 post offices closing, will the Secretary of State now listen to residents up and down the country? They are fed up with post office closures, as he will know from his own constituency, where he is trying to stop a closure. Will he give a firm undertaking that the decision on the card account will be announced in a statement to the House before the summer recess?
Mr. Hutton: The hon. Gentleman has acknowledged from the Opposition Front Bench that there is a consensus in the House that the sub-post office network will need to be smaller. The shadow Secretary of State has made that commitment clear in this House, so I do not know quite what the hon. Gentlemans point is. He will know that the Post Office card account is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, but I hope that an announcement can be made as soon as possible.
Mark Pritchard: I think that I am grateful for that reply. It was one of the shortest I have ever heard from the Minister, but I hope that he will have contact with UK Coal because, as he may be aware, the company plans to mine 900,000 tonnes of coal in my constituency. My constituents are reasonable people, and I hope that I am a reasonable person, too. We accept that coal has a part to play in Britains future energy mix, but does he accept that open-cast mining must take place in appropriate locations, and not in areas of outstanding natural beauty?
Malcolm Wicks: The hon. Gentleman has a great reputation for being a reasonable man, and that is why I gave him an accurate and reasonable answer, in plain English. I live in dread of Mr. Speaker reprimanding me for giving answers that are too long. However, I know that the issues to do with open-cast mining are controversial and I discuss them generally with the Coal Authority, although not specifically in relation to his county. We see coal as part of the mix, and that includes open-cast mining, although it needs to be undertaken in the most sustainable ways.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): The UK is one of the worlds leading locations for pharmaceutical research and development, and the Government are committed to maintaining and strengthening that position.
Mrs. Miller: I thank that Minister for his reply, as employment in the pharmaceutical sector remains a very important part of the business base in my constituency of Basingstoke. However, one of those employers, the Shire Pharmaceuticals Group, has decided to move its tax base from the UK to Ireland. Does he think that that decision was influenced by the fact that corporate tax in Ireland is less than half what the company has to pay in the UK? Does he share the CBIs concern that the UKs uncompetitive corporate tax system is spoiling this countrys attractiveness as a place to do business? As the company says, other firms that are internationally mobile
Mr. Thomas: I am slightly surprised that the hon. Lady did not note in her question that Shire has said that its UK employees will not face job losses or relocation. I recognise the concerns that she says Shire has about its tax position, but the UK has one of the lowest rates of corporation tax in the EU. She will know that the Chancellor has set up a group that will continue to look at tax competitiveness. There is a representative of the pharmaceutical industry in that group.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Minister said that the UK is a world leader in pharmaceuticals, but my constituency of Slough is a national leader in biopharmaceuticals. However, if residents of Slough are to benefit from jobs in the knowledge economy, we need to have the appropriate skills in the local community. Will the Minister discuss with his colleagues in the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills how we can prepare young people better for such high-value jobs?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. One of the reasons the pharmaceutical industry continues to see the UK as such a good place to be based is the
quality of talent available to work in the sector. As she rightly acknowledges, we cannot afford to be complacent about that skills base, and we do need to put in place a series of further steps. That is one of the reasons, for example, that modern apprenticeships are being brought back. I am of course very happy to ensure that further discussions take place across governmentnot just with DIUS, but with the Department for Children, Schools and Familiesto look at what else we can do in future to ensure that we have the skills that the pharmaceutical industry and other manufacturing industries need to continue to thrive.
Mr. Simon Burns (West Chelmsford) (Con): Will the Minister accept that it is self-evident that a thriving pharmaceutical sector manufacturing drugs is reliant on a vigorous and successful retail sector? As a result, will he have input into the Department of Healths current review of pharmacy services, to ensure that the unfair practice whereby supermarkets can force out small, family run pharmacies is put to an end immediately?
Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman will know that the Competition Commission published a report on the retail sector. The Government are considering our response to it, which we hope to publish before the summer.
The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The amount of electricity generated from renewable sources increased by 12,500 GWh between 1996 and 2006, to be more than three times the level it was 10 years earlier. It now represents about 5 per cent. of our electricity. The Government will consult over the summer on what more we should do to increase renewable energy use to meet the UKs share of the European Union 2020 renewable energy target.
Hugh Bayley: Almost everybody wants to see more energy produced from renewable sources, but whenever an application is made for a wind turbine, there are objections and delays and, more often than not, a rejection of a proposal. Last week, I went with the International Development Committee to Germany and Denmark, and both are far ahead of where we are. Does my hon. Friend agree that the planning laws are resulting in millions of tonnes of carbon unnecessarily being pumped into the atmosphere? In fact, they are an ecological and environmental disaster. Will the Government do something about it?
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