Previous Section Index Home Page

I search in this debate for that elusive thing, all-party consensus, but on domestic policy I am not optimistic. It has to be said that the Conservatives are outstanding at green image-making. Let us be honest, the image that we all remember-perhaps their finest moment; I think it was the brainchild of the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker)-is the huskies. [ Interruption. ] There was not a car driving behind the huskies-that was in the case of the bicycle. The test for the Opposition in this debate on the Gracious Address is whether they can match the huskies with clear and concrete policy making. So far, they have not done very well, but the Queen's Speech represents a chance for them to support us in five particular areas. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle refers to the green
24 Nov 2009 : Column 414
investment bank. That policy was announced today. The green investment bank is the first bank in world history to be announced with no money attached to it-it will not be much of a bank, in my view.

This is an opportunity for the Conservative party to join the all-party consensus in this debate. There are five questions that I hope that the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells will be able to answer-the five tests, one might call them. The Conservatives need to face up to the hard choices that are necessary. First, I say that the CCS levy is necessary: does he agree? I will be interested to hear his reply. Secondly, they need to face up to the hard choices necessary on low-carbon infrastructure in general. We say that it is right to go ahead with the Infrastructure Planning Commission, but the local government spokesman for the Conservatives says that they would abolish the IPC. Business says that it is very worried about that plan because it would set back the process of building our low-carbon infrastructure.

Thirdly, we say that it is wrong that 60 per cent. of wind turbine applications are turned down by Conservative councils, because that will not get us the low-carbon energy infrastructure that we need. [ Interruption. ] Just to be clear about this, 60 per cent. of such applications made to Conservative councils are turned down. That is not surprising, given that the shadow Business Secretary says:

There would be no onshore wind at all under the Conservatives. The hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells will have to tell us whether he agrees with me that we need onshore wind to contribute towards a renewable energy target of 15 per cent. or agrees with his right hon. and learned Friend the shadow Business Secretary.

Fourthly, there is the issue of costs, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor). The Conservatives cannot simply keep going round promising things that they do not have a clue how they are going to pay for. The latest example is the promise of £6,500 for every household, which would cost £150 billion or more, as my hon. Friend the Minister of State has made clear. They have absolutely no idea how they are going to pay for that policy, and I will be interested to hear what the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells has to say about it.

Finally, there is the international dimension of climate change. That is not about the huskies-it is about Europe. What are the Conservatives doing in Europe? They are hanging around with climate change deniers in their new grouping. What did Roger Helmer, the Conservative MEP, choose to do this week, of all weeks? He organised a conference of climate change deniers. What kind of signal does that send? I think it sends a ridiculous signal, and I will be interested to hear the views of the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells. The truth is that on the CCS levy, on energy infrastructure, on costing their policies, and on Europe, the Conservatives are not willing to face up to the hard choices necessary to make the green energy revolution happen.

By contrast, we are willing to face up to the hard choices. We have a clear plan with a clear policy. It is guided by the science, it makes the case for action economically as well as environmentally, and it is about taking the carbon out of our economy. The Queen's
24 Nov 2009 : Column 415
Speech makes an essential contribution to that task and to combating dangerous climate change, adapting to it and ensuring that the low-carbon transition is fair. I commend the Gracious Speech to the House.

4.10 pm

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): I begin by expressing my solidarity with what the Secretary of State said about our concerns for the people of Cumbria and other parts of the country given the devastating floods that they have suffered during recent days. I believe that that part of the country is braced for further inclement weather, so perhaps the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs might take the trouble in his remarks at the end of the debate to update us on what is going on there. We all know that the family of PC Barker will never be consoled over his loss, but they should know that we are united in admiration for the heroic father of the children in that family.

It is always a pleasure to debate matters with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. We have seen something of a starfest in these Queen's Speech debates in recent days. We started with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, moved on to the Energy Secretary's brother, the Foreign Secretary, and now we have the right hon. Gentleman himself. One could be forgiven for thinking that this was an early hustings meeting for the future leadership of the Labour party. I suspect that that accounts for the thinness of the attendance on the Labour Benches.

There is a degree of consensus, despite the Secretary of State's attempts towards the end of his speech to sow the seeds of division, which were not particularly necessary. He mentioned the Energy Bill, but he must realise that at this stage of a Parliament, faced with the current crisis in our energy security, it is so weak and feeble in its contribution to solving the problem as to defy belief. As has been mentioned, we have had news today that last winter, there was a 40 per cent. increase in the number of excess winter deaths-people who sadly died in advance of what was expected. If that is not a clarion call for an urgent increase in the energy efficiency of properties in this country, especially for people who are vulnerable and in need, particularly pensioners, I do not know what is. Yet that fails to appear in any part of the Bill, which is a great disappointment to Conservative Members and, I suspect, to those of all parties.

Unbelievably, the Bill is not purposeful in its intentions. It is timid and provides powers that will need to be enacted in a future Session. It does not get to grips with the urgency of the problem. It fails to take into account the urgency of the opportunity that we have been pointing out, which is a shame, because there is cross-party consensus on addressing our need to close the energy gap that has opened up.

That is the context in which we debate these matters. For the first time since the 1970s this country faces a shortfall in its energy generation capacity and the Government have had to admit that we face power cuts in the decade ahead. It is back to the 1970s-that was disclosed in the Government's own paper, which was published and announced to the House in July.

24 Nov 2009 : Column 416

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman makes a valid point about the need for more energy in the future, and particularly for more renewable energy, so will he tell the House what he is going to do to persuade his party's council leaders to approve more wind farm applications rather than reject them in the numbers that they are currently rejecting them?

Greg Clark: If the hon. Lady will be patient, I will answer the Secretary of State's question about that in great detail; I have no problem with doing that. However, we should be aware of the chasm that faces us: power cuts that will affect British industry and consumers and be equivalent to an hour's black-out for a quarter of the British population. What a humiliation it is that we are in that position.

Mr. Swire: My hon. Friend is talking about the future, but an immediate problem is storage capacity, particularly for gas. Other countries, such as France, have far greater capacity. Does he agree that our current capacity is woefully inadequate, and that the Government have not had their eye on the ball?

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is right and it is completely inadequate. The Energy Bill was an opportunity to take urgent action on this point. Other countries protect themselves against the possibility of interrupted gas supplies, but nothing in the Bill would address that problem.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): How did the Conservatives' policies in the 1980s help to secure energy supplies-they wrecked the coal industry-and will the hon. Gentleman tell us about the power stations that his party constructed in the 1980s and 1990s that would have prevented the crisis that we are now facing?

Greg Clark: I do not know whether the hon. Lady is with us on the need to decarbonise our production of electricity, but one of the problems that we face at the moment is the fact that our coal-fired power stations cause nitrogen and sulphur dioxide pollution and contribute disastrously to our climate change objectives. So the unabated reliance on coal that she implies is not the answer.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): If Labour Members want a lesson in history, they need only look back some five years, when the Government published an energy White Paper on future energy needs and completely dismissed the idea that nuclear power stations should be recommissioned. That was absolutely ridiculous.

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is right. Indeed, the Government have failed to take the right decisions on all of these different technologies. They have got us into this position because they have failed, over a 12-year period, to take the necessary decisions for our national energy security. That should not be a surprise, because it is the same approach they took on the economy, where they failed to address the problems that were evidently mounting, instead hoping to be able to look the other way and ignore them.

24 Nov 2009 : Column 417

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): My hon. Friend talks about the weakness of the Energy Bill, but he will recall that the Government passed the Energy Act 2004. I had the honour of leading for the Opposition on that Bill, and while it did a few useful things, it entirely disregarded the problem that we are facing.

Greg Clark: It has been a consistent tendency of the Government's over the past 12 years to behave like an ostrich, put their head in the sand and duck these issues- [ Interruption. ] Labour Members moan, but let us go through each option in turn. For example, the whole House has known for the past 12 years that North sea oil and gas production would peak and go into decline during the years ahead. There was nothing much to be done about that, but we should have prepared for the inevitability of needing to import greater supplies of gas. What happens in other countries that rely on gas to heat and power their homes? They ensure that they have enough storage capacity to get them through the winter-

Mr. Swire: By law.

Greg Clark: As my hon. Friend says, that is a legal requirement in many cases. Have we seen such an approach in the past 12 years from the Government? Of course we have not, and the result is that we have-at the present rate of consumption in the winter-fewer than 15 days' storage capacity for gas supplies. Germany has 99 days and France has 125 days of storage capacity. As the Secretary of State knows, in February when we faced a combination of a severe winter and the dispute between Russia and Ukraine, which disrupted gas supplies across Europe, we had left in storage just four days worth of gas. If that were this week, that would not be enough to get us to the weekend. That is an abysmal record for this Government. Nor did the problem emerge from a clear, blue sky: it was predictable and foreseeable.

Another example is nuclear energy. We have known for the whole of the past decade that our nuclear fleet would come to the end of its planned life by the end of the decade ahead, but where was the realisation that that would lead to a shortfall in our energy-generating capacity? It was not there. We are now in the ridiculous situation where it is too late for us to renew the contribution from our existing nuclear fleet before it is closed down. We cannot have new nuclear power stations up and running by 2017. Yet again, that is an abdication of responsibility by this Government over 12 years.

When the Government finally publish the long-awaited planning statement on nuclear-indeed, it is six months overdue-they leave it open to further delay through the possibility of judicial review. However, that could have been proofed against if only they had followed the right democratic course and allowed this House to vote on the statement and ratify it, thereby clearly expressing the view of the people through the House, so that when it comes to judicial review, investors can have a greater reliance on it.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Nia Griffith) mentioned coal. We have known for many years that our most polluting coal-fired power stations would need to be turned off in the years ahead, but have we had a plan to replace them with clean coal capacity? What do you
24 Nov 2009 : Column 418
think, Mr. Speaker? Of course we have not. There is a gap there, just as there is a gap in all the other technologies. The Secretary of State trumpeted his proposals in the Energy Bill that will come before us to introduce a levy to pay for that process-or, I should say, to introduce the powers later that would give him the opportunity to introduce a levy to pay for it.

However, given that we have known for so long that coal without CCS is not viable, why has it taken a proposal in the Energy Bill in this Queen's Speech, so late in the day, for us even to think about how it will be paid for? As my hon. Friend the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire (Mr. Crabb) said, going down the CCS route was first mooted in 2003, so why were those proposals not in the Queen's Speech in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007 or 2008? Only now, in 2009, do we finally get the first inkling that it might be necessary to pass a piece of legislation to turn what I might uncharitably call the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor's hot air on the subject into something approaching an idea that could help with our energy security.

When it comes to renewables, again we have an abysmal record in this country. In the first decade of the 12 and a half years in which the Government have been in office, we increased the share of energy that we generated from renewables from 1 to 1.3 per cent. What a completely pathetic increase, especially when we consider that we have some of the best renewable resources in the world, including a coastline that is the envy of Europe in the opportunities that it provides for wind, wave and tidal energy-none of which has been exploited to its full potential, beyond a bare scratching of the surface. At a time when other countries have substantially increased their contributions from renewables, it is shameful that we have failed to take the opportunities that we have had, and in so doing seen the supply chain for many such technologies move to other countries.

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): Could the hon. Gentleman therefore explain why his party voted against the financial stimulus, which included a £1.4 billion package for sustainable investment, including in the low-carbon economy in my region?

Greg Clark: I have just been talking about how the Government's approach to the economy very much mirrors their approach to energy. Where they have acted, they have acted unsustainably, but more often they have failed to act. We are in the sad position of not being able to afford the profligacy that the hon. Lady mentions.

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman has just said something significant. He said that we cannot afford the £400 million to which my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) referred, which is investment in green technology. That is what he said.

Greg Clark: No, I am talking about a fiscal stimulus more generally. The right hon. Gentleman knows that we have been talking all week about the proposals that we will make. I will come on to say more about them, but whatever we are talking about-whether gas storage, nuclear, coal or renewables-the Government's record over 12 years, across the board and on all those technologies, has been to create the problem that is now a national emergency for us to solve.

24 Nov 2009 : Column 419

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey) (Con): I assure my hon. Friend that this litany of woe is all too familiar to me. Will he comment on the lamentable record on energy efficiency? The energy that we do not use is the greenest, cheapest and most secure of all.

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is completely right. It is a real disappointment that the Energy Bill does not contain a serious proposal to improve the energy efficiency of our properties. I was asked earlier about our green deal, which has been widely welcomed as offering the opportunity for people to save money on their energy bills. That is much needed- [ Interruption. ] The Secretary of State might not think that that is the case, but his constituents might advise him that they are struggling to pay their bills at the moment. It is important that we find ways to cut the energy consumption in people's homes, especially at this time. In so doing, we should also be helping to reduce our CO2 emissions. I cannot for the life of me understand why, when everyone recognises that the best way to save energy and money is to stop wasting energy, the Government have wasted the opportunity provided by the Queen's Speech and the Energy Bill finally to do something about that.

Mr. Swire: Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the Government's biggest omissions has been in not considering rural areas, especially areas such as Devon, which have very old houses that are much more difficult to insulate? They have provided no significant extra funds for such insulation.

Greg Clark: My hon. Friend is right. When we were designing our green deal, we were determined that the limit of £6,500 should be high enough to ensure not only that it covered the basic cavity walls and loft insulation available for modern houses, but that houses that are harder to treat-I hesitate to say "hard to treat", because it is important to get the message out that they can be treated-can be treated in such a way that actually saves money. We need to unlock the savings that people can make, and use them to release to people up front the cost of making those investments.

It is characteristic of the Government to assume that any proposal that they hear about must involve the expenditure of vast amounts of public funds. That is what they assume all the time- [ Interruption. ] I will enlighten the Secretary of State. When people save money on their energy bills through being more energy efficient, that is costing them less than it otherwise would. That stream of savings continues into the future. Our discussions with the banks have elicited a certain enthusiasm for the proposal that, by taking those savings and capitalising on them, people can get the money up front that is needed to make those investments.

Next Section Index Home Page