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House of Commons

Thursday 22 January 2009

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before questions

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords] and Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords]

Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 29 January.

Canterbury City Council Bill, Leeds City Council Bill, Nottingham City Council Bill and Reading Borough Council Bill

Motion made, and Question (15 January) again proposed,

Hon. Members: Object.

The debate stood adjourned; to be resumed on Thursday 29 January.

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Act 2008

1. Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had on the implementation of the provisions of the Energy Act 2008; and if he will make a statement. [249982]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): Key policies enabled by the Act, including the introduction of the banding of the renewables obligation and the roll-out of smart meters to medium-sized businesses, will be in force by April 2009. Later this
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year, we will consult on the feed-in tariff scheme for small-scale renewables scheduled to be introduced in 2010, and confirm details of our plans announced last year for the roll-out of smart meters to domestic users by 2020.

Mr. Devine: I thank my right hon. Friend for that response. Although it would be churlish not to welcome today’s announcement from British Gas of a 10 per cent. cut in pricing, does my right hon. Friend have something to say about those individuals—especially pensioners—who are making additional payments because they have prepayment meters?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend asks about an important issue. It is right to welcome the price fall in wholesale gas and this morning’s announcement of the reduction in British Gas prices, which will commence next month. We want price reductions that go as far as possible, as fast as possible from British Gas and other energy companies because wholesale gas prices have fallen.

On prepayment meters, it is welcome that Ofgem has proposed changes in the law and in licence conditions for the energy companies. That means not only eliminating some of the problems of the past few months, but, in future, stopping the sort of practices that offend us all and discriminate unduly against the poorest people in our society.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Will the Secretary of State have a close look at the innovative scheme in the borough of Kettering, whereby Kettering borough council and E.on got together? In return for the installation of smart meters, E.on’s dual fuel customers will get a council tax rebate if they make sufficient energy savings.

Edward Miliband: We will certainly look at that. The point of the community energy saving programme, the details of which we will announce shortly, is precisely to encourage that sort of work between energy companies, local authorities and community groups, to ascertain how we can help some of the poorest people in our society with their gas and electricity bills and with smart metering, and ensure that they can get a fair deal. We will definitely examine that proposal.

Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to implement the woodfuel strategy, which straddles both Departments? Has he considered the small costs of implementing that strategy, which might contribute to our renewables obligation and improve the quality of woodland throughout the kingdom?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend asks about an important subject, about which he has great expertise. It is important to consider such proposals—for example, renewable heat can help us in future. Such generation is currently at a low level and we want to introduce a renewable heat incentive precisely to encourage the sort of proposals that my hon. Friend mentioned. We are undertaking work with the Forestry Commission and DEFRA, and it is important in contributing to our renewables energy strategy.

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Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Does not the Secretary of State’s initial answer simply confirm that the Energy Act is more about talk than desperately needed action? No real action has been taken on our critical lack of gas storage or how we can make carbon capture and storage a reality. There is no urgency about creating a national grid fit for the 21st century or methods of introducing the next generation of renewable technologies. There have been years of talking about the details of smart metering and feed-in tariffs, and further delays on biogas and renewable heat. Fuel poverty has not even been mentioned. Is it not clear that, if we are to have an energy policy that is secure, affordable and low in carbon, we need not more talking shops but a change of Government?

Edward Miliband: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman; he obviously practised that in the mirror this morning. The answer to his question is no. The Energy Act is facilitating progress on a whole range of fronts, including feed-in tariffs, gas storage and nuclear power— [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman says that that is all talk, but 17 gas storage projects are planned in this country, and the Langeled pipeline has been built since 2006—since the previous dispute between Russia and Ukraine—and is now supplying a large amount of our gas. This is not about talk; it is about a party that understands the importance of energy security and fairness to consumers.

Fuel Poverty

2. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How many people in (a) North-West Leicestershire constituency, (b) the east midlands and (c) England are in fuel poverty. [249983]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): The most recently available sub-regional split of fuel poverty relates to 2003 and shows that, in North-West Leicestershire, there were about 2,300 fuel-poor households. More recent figures for the east midlands and England show that, in 2006, there were about 236,000 fuel-poor households in the east midlands and about 2.4 million fuel-poor households in England.

David Taylor: Further to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine), 40 per cent. of social housing tenants are forced to pay over the odds for at least one kind of energy because they use prepayment meters. This is sharp practice resulting from utterly unacceptable laxity on the part of the regulator. Does the Minister agree that Ofgem is still failing lamentably to carry out its principal brief, which is to protect the interests of low-income consumers? This disproportionate and grossly unfair charge continues to push many of my constituents yet further into fuel poverty.

Joan Ruddock: I sympathise with my hon. Friend’s constituents who are in fuel poverty. I assure him that we are working as hard as possible to address this matter. We have made it absolutely clear to Ofgem and the energy companies that unfair pricing has to stop, in relation both to prepayment meters and to standard credit. Pressure from us has resulted in £300 million
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being taken out of the premiums paid by customers, including those using prepayment meters, but I agree that this has gone on for far too long. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said, Ofgem is now consulting on changing the licence agreements in order to deal with unfair practices. He has also made it absolutely clear that, if the regulator does not succeed, we will act in his place.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): I follow exactly the last two questions from colleagues on the Labour Benches. We have now had nearly 12 years of a Labour Government, and we still do not have a fair system for fuel pricing for domestic users. Will Ministers promise that, by the time of the next UK-wide elections—be they the European elections or the general election—there will be a pricing system under which people will not be penalised for the method by which they pay, such as a prepayment meter—

Mr. Speaker: Order. I am not expecting the hon. Gentleman to make a speech. I think that the Minister will now be able to handle a reply.

Simon Hughes rose—

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman has the privilege of being a Front-Bench spokesman, and making a speech is not what I expect. The Minister may answer.

Joan Ruddock: We have made it absolutely clear that it is the regulator’s responsibility to act. The consultation is under way, and it ends on 20 February. It is designed to work out a system that will bring unfair pricing methods to an end. That is what we want, and we are determined to get it, one way or the other.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Will the Minister have discussions with colleagues about the definition of fuel poverty? Is there not a case for targeting winter fuel allowances more directly, and to extend them to people with long-term, chronic illnesses?

Mr. Speaker: That is a supplementary. That is the way they should be asked.

Joan Ruddock: I thank my hon. Friend for his question. I assure him that all aspects of our fuel poverty strategy are under review. It is important for us to see how best we can target the available resources and do the best job. This is an extraordinarily serious matter; we are deeply concerned, and I am looking at every aspect of the scheme.

Mr. David Evennett (Bexleyheath and Crayford) (Con): Can the Minister tell us why fuel poverty data are always two years out of date?

Joan Ruddock: The fuel poverty data take time to collect. They are based on a survey of 8,000 households in England; the devolved authorities obviously have to carry out the same work. In order to get an accurate picture, it is necessary to take two years’ data and to combine them. As I review everything else, I am perfectly happy to look into the way in which the data are collected. We are living in rather extraordinary times in
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terms of price rises, and that is what has so heavily distorted the numbers of people in fuel poverty, rather than the condition of the properties.

Tony Lloyd (Manchester, Central) (Lab): My hon. Friend will know as well as I do that among the poorest in our society are those who depend on the private rented sector. Fuel poverty in that sector is acute, because private landlords have no incentive to provide proper insulation. What can the Government do to ensure that we incentivise those private landlords?

Joan Ruddock: The Government have already attempted to incentivise private landlords, but my hon. Friend is correct in believing that the response has been inadequate. We clearly need to do more. We are currently preparing documents for consultation on a wide range of energy-efficiency measures and we will look at the role of private landlords in those consultations.

Bob Spink (Castle Point) (Ind): We are right to address the question of prepayment meters, but another issue that affects many of the poorest people is our inability to insulate very poor housing stock, particularly when it lacks cavity wall insulation. I know that the Government are working on this, but can they redouble their efforts to find ways around this problem, which affects the most vulnerable people?

Joan Ruddock: I hope that the hon. Gentleman might be aware that the Prime Minister announced a new programme in September, putting £1 billion behind energy efficiency. We have a number of such programmes, the foremost of which in terms of numbers, is the obligation on the energy companies. Over the next three-year period, we expect 6 million households to benefit from the measures already in place. We always keep them under review, and if we can do more, we will. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the programme has been accelerated and that more households are being offered help under those programmes.

Carbon Dioxide Emissions

3. Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): What recent discussions he has had with the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on his Department's policies to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from housing. [249984]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change met the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government on 17 December last year. Discussions included the Department for Communities and Local Government’s contribution to reducing carbon dioxide emissions from housing.

Mr. Sheerman: But does my hon. Friend agree that homes are really at the heart of cutting carbon emissions and that although we want more houses, we also want them to be more sustainable? There are rumours that the Homes and Communities Agency is being pushed to concentrate on numbers and not to take so much notice of sustainability.

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Joan Ruddock: I agree with my hon. Friend about the importance of homes, because 27 per cent. of our emissions come from our homes. The Homes and Communities Agency was set up and began operations only in December last year, but I can assure my hon. Friend that it is leading the way on making the zero-carbon homes agenda, which is our target for 2016, a reality. It is also leading with exemplar programmes like the carbon challenge and the Thames Gateway eco region. Over the years, the decent homes programme has brought a million homes up to decent standard, with the result that higher energy-efficiency standards exist in the public sector than in the private sector. Over the next three years, the Homes and Communities Agency will manage £2.4 billion worth of programmes to ensure that 350,000 homes are brought up to the decent home standard. I can assure my hon. Friend that the agency is committed, and that contact between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Communities and Local Government is ongoing and specifically directed at reducing carbon emissions.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): The Government are going to ban the use of incandescent light bulbs before they are required to do so. Is the Minister aware that the alternative bulbs are not only more expensive, but hazardous because they contain mercury, are unsuitable for certain applications—either because they come on too slowly or give out too little light, which can again be dangerous—and totally unsuitable for things like picture lights in galleries and so forth? Will she rethink her policy of gold-plating the EU requirement and rethink banning the use of those bulbs before that is necessary?

Joan Ruddock: I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but I would be very surprised if his Front-Bench team did not support the use of energy-efficient bulbs in place of the inefficient ones in use today. If every household in the country changed, 5 million tonnes of carbon would be saved, so it is extremely important that we make that change. The right hon. Gentleman says that they are dangerous, but there is only a tiny amount of mercury in those bulbs and disposal facilities are available in every local authority to get rid of them safely: people can just throw them away and if they have an accident, it is simple to deal with it. These bulbs are not hazardous. A few people with particular medical conditions may be sensitive to such bulbs. We are looking into that carefully and working on it with the Department of Health, and we have made the facts known to the European Commission.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): It is great that the Government have set the goal of all new homes being zero-carbon by the middle of the next decade, but is it not important for house builders and consumers to understand what is involved in a property’s being zero-carbon? Can my hon. Friend assure us that she is working across Government to set standards so that we all know what we are aiming for?

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Very good question.

Joan Ruddock: It is a very good question. The Government are working on this. Both our Department and the Department for Communities and Local Government are very much engaged in the definitions, and a consultation is in hand.

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