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5 Mar 2009 : Column 981

Mr. O'Brien: I certainly want to work with the industry, as do the Government as a whole, to ensure that we maintain the jobs that we have in the North sea. We are seeing some areas of decline in production, but there is still a lot of interest in oil and gas in the North sea. We have prospects of offshore wind generation and onshore wind generation—certainly in Scotland—so there are prospects for significant expansions of our energy production, and we want to ensure that that happens. We want to work closely during the present difficult economic period to ensure that jobs are protected in so far as they can be.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): What assessment has the Secretary of State made about the possibility of new nuclear build following the banking crisis? Given that banks are reluctant to provide mortgages for people to buy one-bedroom flats, does he think it likely that anyone will offer the finance to construct a new nuclear power station in the immediate future? Will he continue to resist the arguments of those who want to rig the carbon market to provide a hidden subsidy for new nuclear?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important point. The larger companies—we have three consortiums that want to build new nuclear—have been less affected by the credit crunch, as far as we can tell. That is not to say that it does not have any effect, but it has had less of an effect on those companies. My sense is that they will still come forward with their plans for new nuclear—we have heard no views otherwise.

My hon. Friend is also right on the question of subsidies. We have said that we are not going to subsidise new nuclear. We are breaking down the barriers to new nuclear in a number of different ways, but I do not think that it is right to subsidise it. It is also right to ensure—as we did in the Energy Act 2008—that waste costs are paid by the companies. New nuclear needs to be part of the energy mix and the plans will be taken forward.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Further to the exchanges on gas storage, the Minister will be aware that there is limited geological scope for gas storage in the UK. How confident is he, in the light of the question asked by the hon. Member for Blackpool, North and Fleetwood (Mrs. Humble), that the planning process will deliver all the gas storage sites, bearing in mind that the industry does not think that we have enough even if they all go ahead?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Lady will be aware that since the Planning Act 2008 became law last October, changes have been made to the planning process, particularly in relation to large gas storage projects. I am confident that some gas storage projects will go ahead, but that process needs to take place with a proper reflection on the ability of local people to voice their concerns and to say what problems might arise. We want reasoned and proper decisions to be made about all gas storage projects so that we get the gas storage we need, and we get it in the right place.

Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): Ministers will be aware that millions of households living in fuel poverty also live in homes that have poor energy efficiency. Yet even with the recent increase, the Warm Front programme is spending only £380 million a year. Seven
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times that amount is being spent on the winter fuel allowance—£2.7 billion this year—yet that takes only 100,000 people out of fuel poverty. Will Ministers have urgent discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer in advance of the Budget to see how that largesse can be better focused?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): rose

Mr. Speaker: Order. We have to be brief in topical questions. We must have brief questions.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): And brief answers.

Joan Ruddock: The brief answer is that of course we are always in discussions with the Treasury, and as I have indicated already, because of the economic situation, the high fuel prices that have occurred and the need to move forward with our renewables obligations, we will have to examine our fuel strategy in the broadest sense. That is under way already, and I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that we will have cause to take account of what she has said.

T4. [260745] Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Both the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have said a great deal about the security of gas supplies. Does the Minister accept that Bacton gas interconnector terminal is an absolutely crucial part of our gas infrastructure? What discussions has he had with the Home Office about ensuring that there is proper funding for the maintenance of security at the terminal?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: The hon. Gentleman is quite right that Bacton is enormously important. Although we have not had discussions directly with the Home Office on that particular point, I have talked to the civil nuclear police authority and others to ensure that we are considering all the security issues at some of our major energy installations. I do not believe that this is the right place to discuss the details, but I am happy to meet the hon. Gentleman and talk about any concerns that he has about security. It is likely that if he has them, we ought to have them too.

T5. [260746] Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): Energy demand is rising exponentially, which makes the issue of energy security even more important. New nuclear generation will play an important role in that. What discussions has the Minister had with colleagues in the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to ensure that we have enough technical and engineering expertise for this country to play its part in the building of new nuclear generation facilities? Although the Prime Minister cannot in fact promise British jobs for British workers, because of European Union legislation, will the Government take a page from some other countries’ book and ensure that that happens by the back door?

Mr. Mike O'Brien: Bringing on the skills that we need for the nuclear industry is enormously important. We know that we have an ageing work force in the nuclear industry at the moment, because for 20 years we were not building sufficient capacity. The hon. Lady is quite right about that. We have created the national skills academy for nuclear, built up Cogent and got the industry together to invest both in developing skills and, through
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Government and private sector funding, in university courses to build up the intellectual base that we need and ensure that we can not only expand nuclear in the UK but benefit from the worldwide expansion that is taking place.

T6. [260747] Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): Earlier this year, wholesale energy prices dropped dramatically, yet the British consumer continued to pay record high prices for energy. Her Majesty’s Opposition believe that the Competition Commission should conduct an urgent investigation into the relationship between wholesale and retail prices. Do the Government agree, and will they ensure that such a review is undertaken?

Edward Miliband: It is good to reply to another Member who has a family connection in the House.

On energy prices, I do not think that at this stage a referral to the Competition Commission is the right way to go, because it would not be brief and quick. It would take a long time. That is the experience of referrals to the Competition Commission. I believe that the better way to go is what we are doing, which is pressing the energy companies to reduce their prices and pass on the price cuts, and introducing more transparency through the work of Ofgem, which published its first quarterly report on the connection between wholesale and retail prices earlier this month.

The hon. Gentleman’s general point that we need price cuts to be passed on to consumers is completely right. That needs a combination of tough regulation, consumer associations making their voice clear and the Government doing the same. That is what we intend to do.

T7. [260748] Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Given that the Government say that we should accept the economics and science of the intergovernmental panel on climate change because they have been peer reviewed, and given that the methodology used by Sir Nicholas Stern has been repudiated by his own economists when producing the impact assessment on the Climate Change Bill, will the Secretary of State submit the Stern review to peer review?

Joan Ruddock: That is not at all our intention. The Stern review has been widely reviewed around the world, it is doing an extremely good job and it has been very well considered. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, however, that we intend to produce a new impact assessment to the Climate Change Act 2008. I know that that matter is important to him, and that he has raised queries about it. We now know that there are things that have come to light since the Bill was originally drafted. The benefits of the previous impact assessment were valued using the shadow carbon price, and that is currently under review. We are also likely to find that the costs, which covered a very large range, were exaggerated at the time because they assumed no technological progress beyond 2010, and that the potential for international trading to reduce the cost of avoiding dangerous climate change was not taken into account. So that is good news for the right hon. Gentleman, and the assessment will be published on Monday.

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Leader of the House

The Leader of the House was asked—

Procedure Committee

1. Sir Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield) (Con): If she will bring forward proposals for amendments to Standing Orders to incorporate the remit of the Modernisation of the House of Commons Committee within that of the Procedure Committee and to stipulate that the Procedure Committee shall be chaired by a Back Bench. [260749]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): The Modernisation Committee has made a number of recommendations in the past, on which the House has been delighted to act. The Committee has yet to complete its inquiry into recall and dissolution, but once that work is complete, I will give further consideration to the best way to take forward the modernisation of the House.

Sir Nicholas Winterton: Does not the Deputy Leader of the House accept that changes to the processes and procedures of the House are best devised and put forward by Back Benchers of the House, and not by a Committee led by a Cabinet Minister? Does he not believe that the changes would carry more weight and have more support right across the House if the Modernisation Committee were merged with the Procedure Committee, and if the Procedure Committee, with those new functions, were chaired by a Back Bencher—preferably an Opposition Back Bencher?

Chris Bryant: It certainly is the Winterton show today, and it is a delight to be asked a question by the hon. Gentleman, who is the longest-standing member of the Modernisation Committee. If that does not show that the House has a sense of irony, I do not know what does. I do not entirely agree with him, however. This Government were elected on the prospectus of being able to deliver modernisation of the House, which is why we set up the Committee in the first place. Once the Committee has completed this last issue, the Leader of the House and I will look at ways of bringing forward further measures on modernisation. I agree with the hon. Gentleman on one issue, however. The work of Select Committees should, on the whole, be the embodiment of Back-Bench opinion.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): What possible remaining justification is there for having a Cabinet Minister chairing a Select Committee of this House?

Chris Bryant: As I just said, the whole idea of creating the Modernisation Committee in the first place was to take forward the agenda that this Government were elected by the people to deliver. Part of that involved modernising the House. The Modernisation Committee has brought forward many proposals that have benefited Back Benchers, not least the introduction of topical questions, which I note were extremely popular just now.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): But was not the absurdity of the current position emphasised when, in November, the Leader of the House wrote:

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As she had written the report from the Modernisation Committee on regional accountability, was it surprising that she welcomed it? If the Prime Minister means what he says about strengthening Parliament, should not the Government release their stranglehold on the Modernisation Committee by giving up the chairmanship and restoring it to the role of a Back Bencher?

Chris Bryant: I think that I have now heard three bids for the chairmanship of that Committee, but I have to say that none of them is from the most modernising Members of the House. I am not at all surprised that my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House agreed with a report that she had written—she is always entirely consistent in these matters. On the right hon. Gentleman’s point about Back Benchers and Select Committees, I would throw back to him the fact that the Procedure Committee has done significant and important work; I am appearing before it next week on the matter of written parliamentary questions, and I know that when that report comes forward, it will contain interesting material for the whole House to digest.

“The Governance of Britain”

2. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): What progress has been made on those proposals in “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper for which she is responsible. [260751]

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Bryant): The House has agreed proposals for regional Select Committees and Grand Committees, which were among the issues raised in “The Governance of Britain” Green Paper. In addition, we have today published detailed plans for strengthening Parliament’s role in scrutinising Government expenditure, aligning budgets, estimates and accounts.

Mr. Allen: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is a truism that the longer Governments are in power, the more comfortable they become with the subordination of Parliament? Does he also agree that, if that is the case, we have only a small window of opportunity for genuine democratic reform when there is a change of Government, as there was in 1997? Will he reassure us that the Government have not run out of steam on democratic reform in the United Kingdom?

Chris Bryant: My hon. Friend, with whom I have waged many campaigns from the Back Benches, is an ardent supporter of the independence of this House and the significant role it must play in holding the Government to account. As I have just said, we have published another command paper today on the question of how better to align estimates and budgets so that the House can do a better job of looking at expenditure. I do not think that this Government have run out of steam on modernising this House or on ensuring that we have a constitution that is fit for purpose.

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): The Deputy Leader of the House mentioned regional Select Committees as something to be proud of, but the Government not
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pushing them through when there is no consensus in the House and the appointments to those Committees consist only of Labour MPs at a cost of more than £1 million of taxpayers’ money? Does that not make a mockery of modernisation, demonstrating, as the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, that the sooner we get a change of Government to restore the powers of this House, the better?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman has lost this debate on three occasions and he is going to lose it again. I understood his question to be a bid for him to sit on the regional Select Committee for the south-west— [Interruption.] If he does not want to sit on it, that is a shame because the regional Committees will do a very important job, holding people who spend significant amounts of taxpayers’ money to account, ensuring parliamentary scrutiny of expenditure.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I was interested to hear what the Deputy Leader of the House had to say about his command paper and I wonder whether it amounts to the proposals that the Leader of the House said only last week she would like to talk about with me and the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan)—with no such discussions yet taking place. Is it not the case that, in reality, no progress on proper modernisation of the House’s procedures has been made? Indeed, the Government have been retrogressive in their increasing use of bullying programme motions, reductions in time so that Bills are not properly scrutinised and their inability to organise our business to the satisfaction of all Members of the House rather than that of the Executive?

Hon. Members: Hear, hear.

Chris Bryant: Conservative Members should not agree with the hon. Gentleman, who is a very unfair gentleman. Last week, he called for proposals on better scrutiny of Government expenditure, and we have today made some suggestions on how we might achieve that. We are happy to consult on them; it is merely a command paper, so legislation would not necessarily have to follow. It would be nicer of him—in fact, it would be nice if he was nice occasionally—if he came before the House to say thank you for the changes we are proposing that will make for better and more effective scrutiny of the Government.

Mr. Shailesh Vara (North-West Cambridgeshire) (Con): “The Governance of Britain” document says that the Executive should be more accountable to Parliament, yet the Government have refused to ensure that the noble Lord Mandelson is answerable to Members in this House. At a time when thousands and thousands of businesses are in a desperate state, why is it that the Government will not allow the unelected Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to be answerable to elected Members in this House?

Chris Bryant: That is a load of poppycock. For a start, all Ministers appear before Select Committees and the hon. Gentleman undervalues the role of Select Committees when he says that noble peers are not able to appear at all. Secondly, I have never heard from him or any Conservative Member the suggestion that peers should be able to answer questions in this House, although
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some Labour Members have called for that. It would be a significant departure, but it seemed to be what he was calling for. Now he is looking rather shamefaced about it.

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