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There is considerable emphasis in the operational improvement plan currently applied to the agency on improving its debt collection performance. I am pleased
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that the relevant measures being taken are having the intended result. The agency’s target is to collect £200 million of debt a year—a sum that has never been achieved before—and it is on course to achieve that. The extra measures that we put in place have enabled it to perform more strongly in debt collection and the amendments will allow even more progress to be made. There is a certain stickiness in attempts to resolve the issue at the moment because of the current regulatory framework, which is why we have accepted the changes and put them into the Bill.

To reassure the hon. Member for Rochdale, let me repeat that there is no general power of write-off. That would not be acceptable and it is not part of the Bill. It would be completely contrary to our message about the settling of such debts. Let me also try to reassure him that the parent with care is in control in this process; it would not be a case of a letter suddenly arriving saying, “This is what we think you should settle for. Sign here. “It will not happen like that. A deal would be under consideration only after lengthy discussion between the parties involved, and that would happen only if the parent with care agreed to it. That is the important consideration in this case. I hope that I have given the hon. Gentleman the reassurance he seeks.

Jenny Willott (Cardiff, Central) (LD): If the initial amount of debt in the name of the non-resident parent is recalculated at a much lower level because the original figure was unrealistic, will the Minister confirm that CMEC will provide some basic, plain English letters and information to the parents with care? A concern has been raised by parents with care that the information they received was difficult to understand. When something as difficult to cope with as a significant reduction in the amount of money that they are expecting arises, it is important that they get clear information.

Mr. Plaskitt: The hon. Lady makes an interesting point about alterations in the level of debt. Historically, that has often happened because of the difficulties the agency has had in making the correct maintenance assessments in the first place, which led to wild variations in the assessment of debt in certain cases. That process needs to be stopped so that there is greater certainty about what is owed. The measures on current maintenance assessments and those that relate to the way the commission will operate are designed to put a stop to the volatility of debt assessments because the maintenance assessment will be correct from the start and will stay correct. We will no longer get such a wild oscillation, which the hon. Lady is right to say is distressing for parents with care who do not understand where they stand, and cannot make financial plans because they are not sure what the amount will be.

The hon. Lady’s second point about the need for correspondence from the agency and the commission to be absolutely clear is also well made. We have made that very clear to the commission, and the matter should be dealt with in that way. This area is difficult enough as it is without incomprehensible correspondence making it worse. That point is understood by the agency, which is reviewing the way letters are written, and that process will be carried forward into the work of the commission.

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We have had statements of support for the amendments, and I hope that they will now secure the support of the House.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 87 to 92 agreed to.

Clause 50

Appeal to appeal tribunal

Lords amendment: No. 93.

Mr. Plaskitt: I beg to move, That this House agrees with the Lords in the said amendment.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): With this it will be convenient to discuss Lords amendments Nos. 94, 95, 100, 103, 104, 120, 121, and 123 to 125.

Mr. Plaskitt: We come to the final group of amendments. They are minor and technical, and in most cases reflect the recommendations of the third report of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the House of Lords. The amendments change a number of the regulation-making powers from the negative to the affirmative procedure on the first point of use. The relevant powers are those relating to the monitoring of curfews and regulations prescribing the conditions of entitlement to a lump sum payment for mesothelioma.

The group also contains a number of small drafting amendments to ensure consistency, including one to ensure that any reference to maintenance calculations under section 40A of the Child Support Act 1991, relating to an order for committal in Scotland, may be read as a reference to maintenance assessments, so that the provision will operate in relation to both old and new scheme cases.

In commending these final, technical amendments to the House, I should like to extend my thanks to all who have worked on the passage of the Bill, including Opposition Members and those in another place who have ensured that it emerges improved as a result of the scrutiny that it has rightly enjoyed. The Bill contains important measures. It makes important reforms to the way child maintenance is administered and will help to lift many more children out of poverty, ensuring that more children receive the maintenance due to them and that more parents meet their financial responsibilities. The Bill also introduces a new scheme to pay a lump sum to sufferers of mesothelioma, providing financial support to anyone diagnosed with that dreadful disease.

I should also like to thank those external stakeholders who have contributed to the development and improvement of the legislation, including One Parent Families/Gingerbread, Families Need Fathers, Resolution, the Law Society of Scotland and many others. I know that they will work with the commission and its staff to give the best possible start in life to this new and unique delivery organisation.

Andrew Selous: As the Minister said, we have now come to the final group of amendments. When I see a group of amendments headed “Minor and technical”, I am always tempted to go through them carefully, just in
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case the Government are trying to sneak through something important. However, in this case the Minister has been straight with us, as he has been during the course of the Bill, and it has been a pleasure to work with him.

The Minister again mentioned the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee of the House of Lords—the second time it has been mentioned this afternoon. It is obviously a worthwhile Committee that carefully scrutinises what happens in this place and the other place. The Minister noted that there are three changes in this group of amendments to ensure that resolutions go through under the affirmative procedure, which I am sure will please my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (John Bercow), who mentioned the issue at the start of our proceedings this afternoon.

I am reassured that the four lobby groups, if I can call them that, that beat the main path to the Minister’s door are the same ones that came to see me. One Parent Families/Gingerbread was understandably assiduous in its commentary on the Bill. Families Need Fathers is one of the sensible, mainstream fathers organisations—it is to be distinguished from some of the others, which are not—and I have benefited from my discussions with it.

Resolution is particularly well informed on such issues, as the Minister said. He and I know that it would have liked him to go further on certain issues. Those are arguments for another day, but they will not go away. The Law Society of Scotland has its particular issues. There was an acknowledgment in the other place of the need to continue talking to Resolution and the Law Society of Scotland about the 12-month rule. The Minister has said that he wants good co-operation between the family courts and CMEC. They are in the same business and they want to achieve the same ends; we just have to ensure that they do not trip each other up, as it were.

I should like to pay tribute, as the Minister did, to those who have worked with us on the Bill during its various stages, including my staff who have helped me greatly.

6.15 pm

Paul Rowen: I, too, welcome the proposals contained in this string of amendments. The change from the negative to the affirmative resolution procedure is a recognition that this House and the other place have a positive role to play in amending regulations and orders. That issue was raised during our deliberations, and although it may have been because he had his knuckles rapped by the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, I am grateful that the Minister has nevertheless seen fit to make those changes.

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I welcome some of the provisions in the Bill. It focuses primarily on child maintenance and child poverty, as has much of our discussion, but it also deals with mesothelioma and other payments, which are relevant to my constituency. I also welcome the fact that the Government responded quickly to the concerns that hon. Members raised once the Law Lords had made their decision.

The passage of the Bill and this string of amendments, dealing with the affirmative resolution procedure, are to be welcomed. I thank the Minister and the Opposition spokesman, the hon. Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), for the constructive way in which we have conducted this debate. That we have discussed a series of Lords amendments this afternoon that basically deal with the concerns we raised in Committee reflects the fact that we have gone through a useful process that has improved what I hope will be a cornerstone of legislation to tackle child poverty.

Organisations such as One Parent Families/Gingerbread and Resolution are to be congratulated on the support that they have given us all, in providing amendments that have finally found favour with the Government today. I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to a useful and important Bill.

Mr. Plaskitt: I again thank the hon. Members for South-West Bedfordshire and for Rochdale for their support for the amendments in the group and for the Bill in general.

As the hon. Member for Rochdale said, the Bill is a landmark piece of legislation, in terms of what we hope it will achieve on behalf of children, who have no part in the break-up of their parents’ relationship but who can sadly suffer as a result. It is therefore necessary that appropriate arrangements be put in place to ensure that the obligations towards the children are met in way that, wherever possible, ensures co-operation with parents, but is firm with those who might otherwise feel that they have the option not to comply with their obligations. They do not.

As hon. Members have said, the Bill has received thorough scrutiny. I feel that I am supposed to be displaying bruised knuckles as a result of some of the comments that have been made, but such comments are part of the ordinary scrutiny process that Bills go through. We have tried to take on board the comments made by those Committees that have been part of the process of deliberation on the Bill, as well as by other parties. The efforts that we have made during the passage of the Bill have, for the most part, been entirely constructive—we have done more of this work this afternoon—as a result of which we now have a better Bill.

Lords amendment agreed to.

Lords amendments Nos. 94 to 125 agreed to.

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Energy from Renewable Resources

6.19 pm

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I beg to move,

Hon. Members will be aware of the clear context for this debate. We face two major energy policy challenges: tackling climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, and ensuring our nation’s energy security. In response to those challenges, Heads of Government at the 2007 spring European Council agreed ambitious targets to deliver a 20 per cent. reduction in EU greenhouse gas emissions by 2020, increasing to 30 per cent. when there is an international climate agreement. They also agreed to ensure that 20 per cent. of total EU energy will come from renewable energy sources by 2020. The European Council also endorsed measures to support carbon capture and storage and to improve the functioning of the EU emissions trading scheme, which is the centrepiece of the EU’s carbon reduction policy.

The climate and energy package that the Commission published in January seeks to give legislative effect to those goals, and represents a landmark package that underpins our global objective of securing a comprehensive international agreement to tackle climate change. It is an important signal of the EU’s ambitions to shift to a low-carbon economy and to conclude successful climate negotiations at Poznan and Copenhagen. In line with the overall EU renewable energy target, the Commission has proposed individual, binding national targets on renewable energy, including a 10 per cent. minimum binding target for the use of renewables in transport, which is to be achieved by each member state. An overall 15 per cent. renewables target has been proposed for the UK, which compares with our current figure of less than 2 per cent.

Renewable energy is already an integral part of the UK’s energy strategy, and we are taking significant steps to drive up the level of renewable energy used domestically through a comprehensive raft of measures. The renewables obligation has been our primary instrument for incentivising renewable growth and has led to a near tripling of renewable electricity generation since its introduction in 2002. The planned reform of the renewables obligation alone will mean that generation will triple
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again by 2015. The reforms will provide increased flexibility so that different levels of support can be given to different technologies. That will allow more renewable generation from a wider range of technologies and will set us on a path to meet our more challenging 2020 target. Policies to address key constraints arising from planning and grid controls will also play an important role.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): The Minister mentioned the changes in the renewables obligation. I have already raised with him my concerns about experimental schemes such as those in the Moray and Pentland firths. I very much fear that the change in the ROC—renewables obligation certificates—banding will impact seriously on their ability to operate in future. Is he considering that possibility? Does he propose to make any changes to ROCs to address those concerns?

Malcolm Wicks: I want to be clear: is the hon. Gentleman talking about marine technologies—wave or tidal?

Mr. Weir: Yes, I am. I have written to the Minister about this matter, and I have raised it with him before on the Floor of the House. The ROC banding is a matter of serious concern for wave technologies.

Malcolm Wicks: Wave and tidal marine technologies have enormous potential and the hon. Gentleman, as an expert on this matter, knows that they are relatively new technologies. A number of first-class British companies have developed such technology, but there has been relatively little deployment or testing of appliances in the sea for any length of time. We have given considerable backing to the research and development of those technologies, and we have made available a fund to help to finance the deployment of such projects. Meanwhile, our reform of the renewables obligation will give two ROCs, to use the jargon, to marine technologies. I am confident that the UK Government are offering substantial support to that technology.

Mr. Weir: The point, which was raised during debates on the Energy Bill, is that although there are double-banded ROCs for those technologies, if they have previously received a grant from the UK Government, the EU or the Scottish Government, they have the choice of either repaying that grant or taking the double-banded ROC. The concern is that that will undermine their ability to develop.

Malcolm Wicks: Yes, they have a choice, and that must be a commercial decision. The Government are offering a significant amount of support through our research and development grants and the deployment fund, but I am always happy to talk those matters through with the hon. Gentleman, given his interest and expertise.

At the end of last year, we launched a strategic environmental assessment on a plan for up to 25 GW of new offshore wind development rights in UK waters. The plan could increase the potential for offshore wind energy generation by 2020 from 8 GW to 33 GW, which is enough power for 25 million homes—the equivalent of all UK homes. In case anyone who is listening is
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confused, let me add that I do not suggest that such renewable power would be the only means of providing electricity to our homes, as we need balance in our energy supply system, but that is the equivalent figure. We have also launched a feasibility study into a possible tidal power generation scheme on the River Severn—a project with the potential to provide 5 per cent. of the total UK electricity need.

We have recently introduced the renewable transport fuel obligation, requiring that an increasing proportion of our transport fuel should come from sustainable—that is the operative word—renewable sources. This year, we will overtake Denmark as the country with the highest operating offshore wind capacity in the world, and we are rated No. 1 as an investment location for offshore wind capacity by KPMG.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): In relation to transport fuels, the Minister rightly says that the operative word is “sustainable”. How confident is he that rigorous assessment is made to ensure that that sustainability is being delivered?

Malcolm Wicks: I will say something on that a little later, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me.

Colin Challen (Morley and Rothwell) (Lab): On my hon. Friend’s point about the UK being a favourable investment location, what is his response to the story in the press at the beginning of last month that outlined that Mr. Sambhi, Centrica’s director of power, thought that there was a great deal of uncertainty about the future of offshore investment in the UK? Is the Minister familiar with that company’s views and what is his response to it?

Malcolm Wicks: I have not heard about that. I talk to Centrica executives and chief executives quite frequently, and I have not picked up that criticism. I shall study those comments, although I reject any such criticism because not only are we discussing today our commitment to meet our share of the 2020 target but we are in the process of reforming the renewables obligation through the Energy Bill. Also, as I have just said, an organisation such as KPMG rates us as the No. 1 investment location for offshore wind generation, so I do not accept that judgment from an employee of Centrica.

The Government are fully committed to meeting their fair share of the overall target, but that is not to underestimate its ambitious and challenging nature. Achieving the UK target will require a step change increase in the proportion of our energy generated from renewable energy resources over the next 12 years—almost a tenfold increase. We will therefore consult over the summer on the most cost-effective way of meeting the UK’s share, and will introduce a new renewable energy strategy next spring, after that consultation, that is consistent with our overall energy strategy, based on competitive markets.

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