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24 Nov 2009 : Column 445

I do not intend to concentrate too much on the Bill that the Government propose to present in the few weeks left to them. Nor do I intend to spend too much time discussing Copenhagen, because we have already discussed it at great length. I will say, however, that whether or not one is a supporter of the science of climate change it is surely common sense for consumers to reduce the amount that they spend on energy, and for that practical reason I am sad that so far there has been little effective action to develop new technologies in the new industries.

It is true that we have wind farms. We have a wind farm on the Romney Marsh, although I am afraid that it is not taken terribly seriously because for most of the time its turbines are not turning. There is endless anecdotal evidence that wind farms have not been built quite correctly. There is also a great deal of evidence that carbon capture has been delayed by the Government's dithering. In Kingsnorth, E.ON was prepared to build a new coal-fired power station as part of the original competition for carbon capture and storage, but-fundamentally because of Government dither and delay-it decided that the game was not worth the candle. As we all know, environmental protesters collected at the power station and had a rather unpleasant confrontation with, primarily, the police. If the Government had not dithered over the scheme and the competition, we might have moved much further down the route of developing our own carbon capture technology.

Along with the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty), who is present and whose constituency includes the lovely and literary Hebden Bridge area, I was on the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's delegation to Australia this year. People there told us proudly that they had created an international centre for carbon capture technology. The bulk of Australia's energy comes from brown coal. The Australians are committed to reducing their emissions under Copenhagen, and they realise that if they are to do that it is essential for them to develop carbon capture. I wonder about the degree to which we in the United Kingdom are trying to reinvent the wheel with our carbon capture schemes. I wonder to what extent there is an international exchange of information about the technologies being developed, about what works and what does not work, and about how we can move from demonstration to production. It would be such a waste of entrepreneurial abilities if we developed in parallel rather than together.

I find it fascinating that, apart from passing references, there has been no mention of how solar energy could help to meet our energy requirements. There are Government grants to help people to install solar panels, but they are difficult to obtain. Four or five years ago China set out to develop production systems for solar panels so that they could reduce production costs to a level enabling them to capture the world market.

Another thing that I learnt in Australia was that there was considerable resentment because the Chinese were exporting cheap solar panels to Australia which were challenging those being produced indigenously, but we have to live with that. It is not dumping; it is driving the market so that more and more people can use solar panels. I do not understand why we are not doing more in this country to encourage people to use them. I do not think that the Government's proposed Bill will address that question in any way. In household terms,
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I think that microgeneration is the easiest and quickest way for every one of us, in our domestic lives, to contribute to the reduction of our carbon footprint.

Another issue that seems to have been omitted from the debate so far, and does not appear to have been included in the Bill-although I hope that I can encourage the Government to include it-is the production of energy from waste. Local authorities currently spend huge amounts on trying to avoid sending waste to landfill, and we know of the difficulties that that is causing our local communities. There will be one collection in one week and another in a different week; people wonder whether there is a chip in the bin to establish how much waste they have put out, and whether they are allowed to put out six bottles a week instead of five. All those rather claustrophobia-inducing management demands drive many householders demented. But if-or rather when; there is no "if"-we develop the new generation of incineration with scrubbed emissions, we can feed electricity into the local community and into the grid, and when we develop anaerobic digestion we can do exactly the same. Why are we not creating an economy that favours that form of waste disposal? It would mean that waste would not go to landfill but could produce useful heat and energy-and we could stop irritating our fellow residents at the same time.

There has been a fair amount of comment about nuclear power. I believe-and the right hon. Member for Croydon, North seemed to agree-that it is the best way in which to generate relatively low-carbon-emission electricity and energy. When the Secretary of State published the draft national policy statement on energy recently, he told me that the public consultation on it would continue until February. He expects it to come to the House in March for consideration by the Select Committees. It does not take a great brain to work out that the consultation will not end before the general election. There is an immediate and built-in delay in the progress of national policy statements.

Furthermore, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) pointed out, the system provided by the Planning Act 2008 is completely open to judicial review. According to the 13 November issue of "Planning", the Town and Country Planning Association has said that

If it is not included in the NPS, there will be an application for a judicial review and we shall see more of the delays resulting from the debate about Sizewell. We shall ensure that there are delays in the building of nuclear power stations. We cannot assume, merely because we have passed the Planning Act, that we will magically secure the nuclear power stations that we need unless we ensure that national policy statements are voted on democratically in the House. That would make it possible for Secretaries of State who no longer wish to make such decisions to make them, and to make them much more quickly than the Infrastructure Planning Commission need do. That is the basis for getting rid of the Infrastructure Planning Commission. We must get democratic legitimacy within the planning system if we are to get the infrastructure built. If we do not, we are unlikely to be able to move forward.

The right hon. Member for Croydon, North talked about the target for zero-carbon houses by 2016. I do not whether the right hon. Gentleman noticed- Hansard
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will tell us whether I am correct-but I thought that the Secretary of State said "near zero-carbon houses". I notice that there is a written statement from the Department for Communities and Local Government on that subject-I have not seen it yet. Whether the Government are resiling from that commitment-I would not blame them, as it will be next to impossible to achieve it anyway-and are breaking the news gently, or whether it was a slip of the tongue, I do not know. If we are getting a more realistic target for reducing emissions from domestic houses and are moving away from the lifestyle constraints implied by zero-carbon houses, I am glad to see common sense dawn. With a bit of luck we will be able to get more buy-in for reducing carbon emissions from houses rather than banning them altogether.

I feel desperately sorry for DEFRA, because nobody has mentioned that Department so far. It is lovely to see the Secretary of State here; he has sat patiently wondering if anyone will mention anything to do with the countryside. I join completely all the messages of sympathy and support sent to everybody who has been affected by the flooding in Cumbria. It is a ghastly thing to happen to so many people in an area where it is difficult to get the help that is needed. I feel very sad and send them all best wishes. There is a reference in the Queen's Speech to a flooding Bill. Its proposals could be implemented by changing who is responsible for what and making it clear which local authority has what powers. The only other thing in the Queen's Speech that might affect the rural community is the broadband Bill, which could bring some economic strength to deprived rural areas. For farmers, fruit farmers, fishermen or environmentalists, however, there is nothing that will in any way, shape or form help them to live a more productive and helpful life.

I want to talk briefly about the other Bills proposed in the Queen's Speech. I could not believe that there is to be legislation to halve the deficit. Legislation will not halve the deficit; action will. There is a Bill to ensure good schooling. Legislation will not ensure good schooling; good teachers, good head teachers and good parents will. There is yet another promise to halve child poverty. Legislation does not halve child poverty; the economy and social structure will ensure that children no longer live in poverty.

For 12 years we have had a Government who believe that legislation is the answer. For 12 years we have been telling them that legislation is the problem. It is not delivering because the Government believe so often that if they pass an Act, nothing more needs to be done. We must create the circumstances in which we get the outcomes that we want, That is the key to decent legislation. Sadly, this Queen's Speech is probably more an electoral statement than anything to do with achieving the laudable objectives set out in it.

There are things that I would have liked to see in the Queen's Speech. The scandal of the exploitation of public sector leaseholders needs to be addressed by legislation. The emerging scandal of leaseholders who live in retirement homes needs to be addressed by legislation. Why is there no legislation to get rid of the stigma of the housing estate? People say that they live on a certain housing estate and are immediately pigeonholed
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and almost stigmatised with failure. Such legislation would help us to move this country towards becoming a positive, forward-looking community.

The saddest thing of all-there is nothing in the Queen's Speech to address it-is the statement by Lord Strathclyde that the House of Lords will ensure that most of the legislation does not get through. The House of Lords is a revising Chamber. It is this Chamber that should ensure whether or not legislation gets through. For the House of Lords to be able to claim that it has the ability to stop legislation shows how this House of Commons has been demeaned by the Government, who have taken from it the ability to look properly and thoroughly at legislation and to decide whether or not that legislation is of quality. That is not the job of the House of Lords; it is the job of the Commons. If there is one thing that I sincerely hope my party addresses after the election, it is that the House of Commons regains its primacy and democratic legitimacy.

6.17 pm

Linda Gilroy (Plymouth, Sutton) (Lab/Co-op): I thought for a moment that I was at least going to be able to agree with the last point made by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait); she would get agreement from all of us that the primacy of this House is crucial and that statements made about opposing the legislative programme set out in the Queen's Speech are out of order. However, she then went on to say something with which I could not agree-that there should be a change of Government.

I invite the hon. Lady to look at what legislation can do. Of course legislation does not do everything but it can provide a framework in which active government can be delivered alongside the third sector and the community sector. I invite her to look at my Adjournment debate last week on the work of the Department for Work and Pensions in my constituency. We have a much deeper recession this time than we have had at any time for 50 years. My constituency has the legacy from my Tory predecessor of the poorest ward in England. But 1,500 more people are in employment now than in 1997-which was not at the very depths of a recession-when I became the Member of Parliament. I also disagree with the hon. Lady about the legislation that has been passed over the past 12 years and about that proposed in the Queen's Speech.

Bob Spink: Did the hon. Lady share my slight disappointment that the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait)-unintentionally, I am sure-was rather dismissive about the Flood and Water Management Bill, which I hope will get a clear run through Parliament. It is an extremely good Bill that will give a much more thorough and integrated management of coastal risk. I know that the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Linda Gilroy) is very interested in coastal flood risk management because, like me, she has a coastal constituency.

Linda Gilroy: Indeed, and I shall come to that. I shall also wish to touch on the Bill in my capacity as chair of the all-party group on water. I will explain why the Bill is so important, although that is clear from the events we have witnessed this week. I cannot understand how anybody could possibly say it is not prescient for such a measure to be in the Queen's Speech.

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I wish to cover five issues. The first of them is about a specific aspect of climate change that is little spoken about, perhaps because it emerged on the agenda only at the 2005 conference at the Met Office in Exeter while we were holding the chairmanship of the G8: ocean acidification, or the other CO2 problem as it sometimes referred to. Secondly, I will welcome some of the measures in the Energy Bill. Thirdly, I will anticipate the long-awaited final report of the Walker review on water metering and charging. Fourthly, and alongside that, I will welcome measures in the Flood and Water Management Bill. Fifthly, I shall raise one small, but very important, issue that brings both water and energy together in a way that could lead to a reduction in water bills, fuel bills and the carbon footprint.

First, let me turn to ocean acidification-the other CO2 problem. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently visited Plymouth. When we were walking from the railway station to the university-yes, we walked there-to attend a question-and-answer session, I said to him that I must represent one of the most environmentally literate constituencies in the country, as there are 450 marine scientists working in it and some 1,400 to 1,500 environmental students at the university. Some of these people serve on international forums and work with scientists across the globe, including, particularly, Dr. Carol Turley of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, who has served on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and who plays a leading role in the ocean acidification reference user group.

Even before the Secretary of State arrived, I was receiving e-mails from disappointed people who could not attend the question-and-answer session asking me to make sure the Secretary of State was fully seized of the importance to climate change of the other CO2 problem of ocean acidification. He went away with a heavy load of papers. I promised to let him have a CD of an animation that the Ridgeway school at Plympton made, and which has been shown at Copenhagen international conferences. It outlines this problem, graphically setting out the consequences and the way in which the sea has acted as a buffer for 25 per cent. of the CO2 produced since the industrial revolution. A key consequence is that the seas have become more acidic as carbon dioxide absorbed in the ocean becomes carbonic acid, and the sea water acidity has increased by 30 per cent. over that period. Without the steps proposed to limit our carbon emissions, this will accelerate and by 2060 sea water acidity could have increased by 120 per cent., an increase greater than any in the past 21 million years.

This matters because at the bottom of the food chain in the oceans are many tiny creatures: zoo plankton, which have tiny shells and skeletons; shellfish, which are slightly larger; and molluscs, which play a very important role in daily diets across the world, and particularly of those of some poorer communities. The very existence of these creatures is threatened, as ocean acidification dissolves their small shells and skeletons.

The air we breathe depends on a healthy ocean for the production of oxygen, and the productive layers of seas stimulate clouds that help to shade the planet. These are just a couple of a cocktail of essential processes in the ocean that will be impacted upon by carbon emissions if the climate change talks do not come to a
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successful conclusion. If unchecked, carbon emissions could progressively affect whole ecosystems and trigger a chain reaction through the food chain. Apparently, there remains a degree of uncertainty in some people's minds about the impacts of climate change. The chemical changes in the ocean are much more certain and predictable, however. Although they are relatively minor at present, the impact of unchecked carbon emissions will be incremental, and the acidification process adds considerable weight to the arguments for immediate and significant cuts in CO2.

If my city is one of the most climate-change and carbon-emission literate, I believe the south-west region and the United Kingdom will be among the most literate at Copenhagen. We have big responsibilities to lead, and to persuade not only that we have a problem, but that it must be tackled as a matter of urgency. It is characteristic of what happens in any period of change that there are leaders, early and late followers and laggards. If there are any late followers and laggards during the Copenhagen discussions, I hope our hon. and right hon. Friends who will be representing us there will tell them of the other CO2 problem, which is about not the sometimes too benign sounding "global warming", but the acidification of the oceans, which cover 70 per cent. of the globe. I hope they will tell them about the 80 years of long-term plankton data recording science at the second oldest marine laboratory in the world on Plymouth Hoe, which is the basis of the work of the current scientists who are leading globally in their field and of some of the eight Nobel scientists who have been based at that laboratory.

Of course, we have to walk the talk. The Energy Bill does further work in that regard in implementing elements of the UK low-carbon transition plan in important ways, and by changing the remit of Ofgem in a way that is essential to the implementation of that plan by making sure that not only competition but climate change and the transition plan feature in the important decisions Ofgem makes in regulating the market. There are important measures at the other end of the spectrum as well, such as putting in place statutory protection for vulnerable customers. I would like that to extend-I am not sure it does this in its current form-to making sure some of the poorest customers do not have to pay higher tariffs.

A number of Members from both sides of the House attended a National Housing Federation reception yesterday, at which we were reminded of the continuing prepayment rip-off of the difference in respect of dual tariff from many of the big providers. The difference between prepayment and the average direct debit cost is £106 for British Gas, £77 for EDF, £105 for npower, £99 for E.ON UK, £108 for Scottish Power and £102 for Scottish and Southern Energy. These still amount to very significant sums of money for some of the poorest households in the country, and I wish the Bill had touched on that. No doubt a measure to deal with that problem is one that a Member who is fortunate enough to be drawn in the private Member's Bill ballot might wish to try to take forward, if that is not achieved through this particular Bill.

At that reception, the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney), heard about how more is being done in his constituency to encourage low-income families to switch to the best tariff. I was particularly
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struck by the work the Stafford and Rural Homes housing association is doing to ensure that any incoming tenant to a new home is encouraged to look at the best tariff for them. Among lower income households, not nearly enough use is made of the ability to switch from one provider to another who will often offer them significantly better tariffs.

I took the opportunity to ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look at one way in which fuel poverty, water poverty and water use generally overlap. I know that our colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, East and Saddleworth (Mr. Woolas), was well seized of the links when he was water Minister. I believe that his successor, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies), is also taking these issues on board. Our all-party group report "The Future of the UK Water Sector", which was published last year, points out that

There is, thus, an enormous potential for saving both energy and water. Pipe runs between the point of heating and the point of use are often long, which means that water is drawn off and hot water left in the pipes. There is a big job to be done both on retrofitting and on ensuring that the new building standards deal with that effectively. I am pleased to see that the potential for such savings is acknowledged in the interim report of the Walker review on metering and charging. I hope that when its final report is published-I hope that will be before Christmas-it will hold out real help for the too long hard-pressed water users on low incomes all over the country.

Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Does the hon. Lady regret that the Flood and Water Management Bill, which has just been published, does not incorporate anything from the Walker review's interim findings or anything that addresses the issue of social tariffs and tariffs for the least well-off water customers?

Linda Gilroy: In common with a number of Liberal Democrats, I have been involved in several Adjournment debates over the many years leading up to the Walker review, and I have pressed the relevant Minister on that issue. We should be able to examine any pressing matters that arise from the review to see whether they can be incorporated. However, I must acknowledge that some of the measures in the Bill are of immediate and pressing importance, especially in the context of what has happened this week. These things were recognised in the all-party group's report.

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