Previous Section Index Home Page

22 Jan 2009 : Column 889

T3. [250005] Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): What assessment has the Minister made of the 10 per cent. reduction in fuel charges announced today for standard tariff payers, which will result in a £100 reduction for prompt payment, whereas those on prepayment meters, as of December, will get only £22 off their bills, yet again widening the inequity between the two tariffs?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: We welcome the decision of British Gas to bring down its prices. We met British Gas on Monday, and gave it a clear message. It has now written to me saying that it has accepted that message and has responded. We now want the other energy companies to get the message that wholesale prices are going down and we want prices to follow. We also welcome Ofgem’s work in its probe to ensure that unfair pricing with prepayment meters is dealt with. We have made it very clear that if the matter is not dealt with by Ofgem and the energy companies, we will legislate to do so.

T6. [250008] Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend realise that if only 0.5 per cent. of the upland, peat land and coastal marshes were taken out of operation and used for construction or any other purpose, it would totally negate any efforts to meet our carbon reduction targets for 2050? Will we preserve those areas?

Mr. Mike O’Brien: We certainly want to ensure that each decision on a development is taken after a full and proper assessment of the environmental impact. Therefore, we have to ensure that we recognise areas of particular sensitivity and the importance of the need to preserve them, while balancing that with the need to ensure the proper development of renewables for the long-term safeguarding not only of our country but of the planet.

T4. [250006] Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York) (Con): The Government are committed to renewable energy sources and to some stringent requirements under the EU landfill directive, which they are currently on course to breach. Will the Minister therefore look at renewable energy sources such as energy from waste, combined heat and power, and anaerobic digestion? Otherwise, we will have to pay fines for not meeting the landfill targets, and that would be very unfair.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): The Government are committed to ensuring that we do not pay fines under the landfill directive, and that has been the whole purpose of the major programme to provide more infrastructure, including £10 million for anaerobic digestion and £2 billion of private finance initiative credits to develop new ways of dealing with waste, some of which can of course include the production of energy and heat.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): The Government have set environmental targets that must be met before expansion at Heathrow can go ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those targets must be independently assessed, enforceable and legally binding if we are to restore public confidence?

Edward Miliband: I do agree with my hon. Friend, and that is why we have referred the question of the new target, and how we can best implement it, to the Committee on Climate Change, the independent experts. It is a
22 Jan 2009 : Column 890
significant target and I hope that Opposition Front Benchers—especially given their past writings—will look at that target. We are the first Government in the world to set such a target, and I agree that it must be enforceable, and enforced.

T5. [250007] Mr. Philip Dunne (Ludlow) (Con): Thousands of jobs in north Wales and elsewhere are dependent on electricity generated by the Wylfa nuclear power plant in north Wales, especially at the aluminium smelter on Anglesey, which is a supplier to one of the largest employers in my constituency. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has recently rejected commercial proposals to extend the safe operating life of that power plant. Will the Secretary of State now work with the Business Secretary to seek the reversal of that decision and protect jobs at this difficult time for the local economy?

Mr. Mike O’Brien: The answer to that is yes. This week I met the local authority involved to discuss some of the issues. The Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform is seeking to find out whether the NDA and Anglesey Aluminium—and Rio Tinto, which owns the latter—are prepared to negotiate a deal. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the issue is not only price, although that is a key factor, but what will happen when Wylfa goes and whether there is an alternative energy source available in the long term. It is a complex negotiation, but we are certainly anxious to resolve it and save the jobs involved.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that many people have been put into fuel poverty because the energy companies have increased their prices so hugely and have made immoral profits? The best and quickest way to take people out of fuel poverty is to reduce the price of electricity and gas alike.

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend has been a doughty and effective campaigner on this issue. Let me put it this way: he is more right than wrong. We welcome the price reductions announced by Centrica this morning, and it is important that other companies follow suit. We need to see price reductions comparable to the price increases that we saw earlier this year. Wholesale gas and electricity prices are falling, and it is important that the benefit is fed through to customers.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Partnerships for Renewables is a rare British example of an initiative to promote the kind of community-based wind energy and renewable energy that has proved so popular in other countries and that might go some way to diffuse the opposition of local Conservative politicians. Why have the Government done so little to resource and promote Partnerships for Renewables, to the extent that most local authorities, agencies and Government Departments barely seem to know that it exists?

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman often talks sense, and I think that he is talking sense on this occasion, too. We need to do more on Partnerships for Renewables. The public sector as a whole has not, in my view, risen to the challenge of building renewables sufficiently. There is more that we can do in local communities. The feed-in tariff will help in that regard,
22 Jan 2009 : Column 891
but I think that Partnerships for Renewables is a very important project. It needs to be promoted and the public sector needs to step up its game.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware of the raw fear in the steel sector of South Yorkshire and other manufacturing about the fact that the energy companies are not reducing prices for electricity to industry, when the price of oil has descended to a quarter of what it was six months ago? The Prime Minister is doing what it takes on banks—can the Secretary of State do what it takes on energy prices? If he cannot, will he understand that calls for the state ownership of our electricity companies will again come into play? We will not see manufacturing industry destroyed, as happened when the Opposition were last in power.

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I certainly agree that we do not want to see the steel industry or other industries destroyed in the way that they were in the 1980s. However, we need to ensure that where energy prices are coming down and contracts are being negotiated—that is a key issue—those high energy consumers are able to get the best possible deals from the energy companies.

We welcome the fact that domestic energy supplier prices are coming down and the announcement from British Gas today, but we are also aware that wholesale prices are coming down. That will give some opportunities for large industrial users to negotiate better contracts. Some of them are tied into long-term contracts and that is part of the problem. New contracts will enable better prices, and I hope that that will help some of the highly intensive energy users.

House of Commons Commission

The hon. Member for North Devon, representing the House of Commons Commission, was asked—

Visitor Passes

1. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): What plans the Commission has to recycle lanyards used with parliamentary visitor passes once they have been discarded. [250010]

Nick Harvey (North Devon) (LD): The new parliamentary visitor pass system was introduced last summer. The new system incorporates a temporary photographic paper pass carried in a lanyard. The lanyards are recovered at the exits to the parliamentary estate and returned to use where suitable. About 30 per cent. of the lanyards issued are currently reused in this way.

Mr. Pelling: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that answer, which follows up an answer that I received from the Leader of the House about three months ago which suggested that the items were being stored before a decision on reuse was made. It is very good news that the House is reusing them. What work is being done to ensure that we further increase the reuse of the cords for visitors’ passes? After all, we have up to 1 million visitors a year coming through this place.

22 Jan 2009 : Column 892

Nick Harvey: We do indeed. It is recognised that the current system of putting the passes into bins is not satisfactory. A new system, with better signage and a free-standing device to hang the passes on, is being brought in. That should improve the recycling rate considerably, but we do recognise that some people take their passes home as souvenirs of their visit.

Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Public Bills

2. Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD): If she will take steps to ensure that all Government amendments and new clauses to public bills are debated by the House on Report. [250011]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): As far as possible, we always try to make sure that the Government do not table new issues on Report and that there is plenty of time for full debate. I have been working with Ministers in charge of Bills to ensure that we do better this year, but I confess that it is an art, not a science. No matter how hard I try, I cannot prevent Members’ loquacity or prolixity.

Dr. Harris: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his response. Does he recall that during proceedings on the Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, huge swathes of Government amendments and new clauses were never reached, which meant that this House failed to do its job in holding the Executive to account and carrying out the scrutiny that the Prime Minister rightly says it is a priority for him to improve? On the Coroners and Justice Bill, for example, will the Deputy Leader of the House give us an assurance that every effort will be made by Government business managers to ensure that this House can debate both Government and Opposition amendments and new clauses? If necessary, will he provide the second day on Report that is so often needed for us to do our job properly?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman is right that we need to make sure we do our scrutiny job properly, and that means devoting enough time to every element that needs to be debated. However, he is wrong in the sense that some Government amendments introduced at Report stage are in direct response to requests from the Committee. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman is chuntering again, but the truth is that that applies to the majority of Government amendments. I have spoken already to the Minister responsible for the Bill that he mentioned. We are trying hard to make sure that we are not introducing new elements and areas of debate and, if necessary, we will try to provide a second day for debate on Report.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): Since 1997, there have been 66 criminal justice Bills. That is too many, and too often they merely undo improperly scrutinised earlier Bills, thereby wasting the House’s time. For proper scrutiny, and to avoid that problem in the future, may I urge my hon. Friend to ensure that we have two days on Report stage much more frequently?

22 Jan 2009 : Column 893

Chris Bryant: I think that we need to have the right amount of time, but two other things can help. First, my hon. Friend has campaigned for a long time for pre-legislative scrutiny, which is an important way to make sure that we do a better job before a Bill is introduced into Parliament. Secondly, post-legislative scrutiny can identify legislation that is not working or has not been useful. For that matter, it can also be used on legislation that has not been fully implemented. We should take such legislation off the statute book and not let it lie there dormant.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): The Deputy Leader of the House will know that the current regime for proceedings on Report was introduced about 10 years ago, following recommendations from the Modernisation Committee. Should they not be reviewed now? How might that happen, given that the Modernisation Committee has apparently stopped meeting?

Chris Bryant: I am not sure that this might not be a matter for consideration by the Procedure Committee; it has a splendid Chairman, who is unfortunately not able to be with us at this moment, and it does a very good job. However, the right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point, as hon. Members of all parties have occasionally not been satisfied with how the Report stage has progressed. Sometimes, they have confused Committee stage with Report stage, and that has made it difficult for us to do our job properly. So perhaps this is something that the Procedure Committee should look at.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): It did not take long for the Deputy Leader of the House to forget that Report stage is the key moment for Back Benchers to scrutinise Bills properly. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the problem is not that Back-Bench Members speak for too long, as he suggests, but that programme motions do not take account of the business that is to be transacted? Moreover, far too many Government amendments are introduced at Report stage, not because they respond to points raised in Committee but because, as a result of the idleness or incompetence of the Ministers responsible for the Bill in the first place, they were not ready earlier.

Chris Bryant: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important for the Government to consider all the relevant issues before legislation is introduced. We should not bring in new elements after that, so it is important that the short titles of most Bills are fairly tight to render that impossible. However, he is wrong to suggest that the vast majority of the amendments tabled by the Government are new ones of their own devising. The vast majority are concessionary to the Opposition, and sometimes they are even a concession to a good point made by the Liberal Democrats.

Written Questions

3. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): How long on average it took to answer parliamentary questions for (a) ordinary and (b) named-day written answer in the last five years. [250012]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): I am afraid that I must disappoint my hon. Friend. Collating the 73,357 questions to 29 Departments,
22 Jan 2009 : Column 894
and working out a mean, median or indeed average reply rate has not been possible. However, Departments know that they should answer written parliamentary questions within a working week, and named-day questions on the day that they are for answer. I want to know about it if they are failing to do so. As it happens, the office of Leader of the House has answered 100 per cent. of named-day questions on the day that they were for answer, and 200 out of 202 other questions within five days.

David Taylor: Computers have been around for 60 years, for goodness’ sake. Departments are required to answer questions accurately, promptly and truthfully, but their performance is often deplorable, as I know from my protracted attempts over the past year to extract information about the recording of hospitality for senior civil servants. Does my hon. Friend support my recommendation that Secretaries of State should have their salaries reduced by, say, 5 per cent. for every day over the two-week target that their Departments take to answer the average written question?

Chris Bryant: I am not sure that I can entirely support my hon. Friend in that suggestion—although perhaps if all Secretaries of State were paid the same as Deputy Leaders of the House that would be an interesting point. The important point that I think he is trying to make is that every Department should answer questions promptly, fully and without any form of obfuscation, and I want to ensure that that is what they do.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): The Deputy Leader of the House is being unusually intransparent—if that is a word; I like to make things up—untransparent. [Hon. Members: “Opaque.”] Indeed. Anyway, the point that I am making is that it is beyond belief that an average could not be worked out by taking a sample of questions. My view is that the Government are hiding something. Does he agree?

Chris Bryant: Funnily enough, I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I do not think that I am being opaque. I certainly do not think that I am being intransparent. The important point is that we should ensure that Departments in every area of government answer questions properly on the named day or within the time scale. The vast majority of questions are done so. He may not be happy with every answer that he gets, but the one thing that I undertake to take on—I have been working closely with ministerial colleagues in every Department—is for instance, before Prorogation, to ensure that Ministers do not just suddenly say, “Oh well, prorogation is coming up; we’re not going to answer any questions.” We did better last year than the year before. I also want to ensure that, if there are pinch points in individual Departments and we are not getting sufficient answers swiftly enough, we deal with that.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I hear what my hon. Friend says, but is it not disgraceful that some of the questions that were not answered had been tabled months before Prorogation? It is a device to allow Departments to get away with it. I retabled all my questions in the new Session, but I hope that he will look into this, because it is not right.

22 Jan 2009 : Column 895

Chris Bryant: That matter was raised before the last Prorogation, and I wrote to Ministers at the time laying down the rules that govern it. I am very happy to provide a copy of that letter to my hon. Friend and to place one in the Library.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Deputy Leader of the House tells us that he wishes to be informed where there are lapses. Perhaps he ought to be aware that, at the end of the 2007-08 parliamentary Session, nearly 500 questions, tabled for more than a month, did not receive a reply at all—not even the usual Prorogation reply. Will he look into these serious lapses and tell us what he proposes to do to ensure that, in future, all written questions receive a substantive reply in good time?

Chris Bryant: The shadow Deputy Leader of the House takes a keen interest in what happens before Prorogation. As I said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), I wrote to Ministers before Prorogation to try to ensure that, if anyone was thinking of using such a device to get out of answering a question, they should not do so. Perhaps my letter was sent a little late, and this year we will try to make a better fist of this.

Next Section Index Home Page