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Does the hon. Gentleman agree with us that it is important to have consistent measures of fuel poverty, so that Governments of any colour
cannot wriggle out of their responsibilities, and that therefore clause 14, to which my hon. Friend the Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) drew our attention earlier and which appears to give the Secretary of State the power to change and flex the definition, is rather dangerous and ought to be removed?
Dr. Whitehead: There is a distinction between ensuring that the definition of fuel poverty works in the way that I have described and a clause in a Bill that enables a Government simply to declare that fuel poverty does not exist. As the hon. Gentleman says, it would be a bad outcome if a Government were able, by a legislative ruse, to declare that fuel poverty did not exist. However, as we all know that it does exist and as we have a definition in the Bill that is not to be removed, the question is how we ensure, through a combination of fuel-poverty proofing, social tariffs and reduced tariffs, and through how they cross over for people living in particular houses, that fuel poverty is combated rather more effectively than previously.
I want to say a few words about the future of our energy supply. As my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) mentioned, the test of the success or otherwise of our whole strategy of moving towards a low-carbon fuel economy will be the extent to which we effectively replace the 40 or so per cent. of our existing electricity supply with a low-carbon electricity supply. Over the next 10 to 15 years, all but one of our nuclear power stations will go out of commission, as will all our coal-fired power stations, a number of gas-fired power stations and, as things stand, all our oil-fired power stations, through a combination of age, end of life, the European large combustion plant directive and associated activities. It is imperative that that process should take clear note of the need to ensure, first, that we have a base load capacity in our fuel economy and, secondly, that we do not require investors in new plant-let us be clear: by and large, the investors in any new plant will be the energy companies that currently supply our energy investment in the UK-to invest in plant that will become redundant or a stranded asset as soon as it is installed.
That will require two things to happen. First, we need to ensure that the capacity exists to invest in both coal and gas, while at the same time squaring the circle of that investment for a future low-carbon economy. Secondly, it is absolutely right that we should send out strong signals about carbon capture and storage for those new investments. It is also absolutely right, therefore, that we should put in place a legislative framework through this Bill to move ahead with carbon capture and storage, both pre-combustion and post-combustion, coupled with a serious tranche of new powers for the regulator to ensure that the energy market works in a more carefully regulated way.
One thing to emerge as a result of those changes is that in future we will live in a far more regulated energy economy. Indeed, it is right that we should do so, because we have serious targets to reach, a short time in which to reach them and a series of replacements that we need to make in our generating capacity to enable us to reach them, rather than standing against them. Therefore, a combination of this legislation and Ofgem being able to recast the market arrangements for the generation of
electricity, so that it underpins new investment in a positive way, will be a good achievement of the Bill should it become law.
If we are to regulate positively to achieve our aims, it is important that we all face in the same direction, and that we do not place on the statute book legislation that resiles from those aims. I was therefore concerned to hear proposals from Conservative Members for legislation to prevent onshore wind energy from being put in place anywhere in the country if it is less than a specified distance from a house or dwelling. The aim of that proposal is not, as has been suggested by Opposition Front Benchers, to involve communities more in onshore wind development. It is simply to stop onshore wind farms being put in place.
Giving that kind of signal through legislation would prevent the investment in our energy supply that we need to replace our ageing equipment, and create uncertainty in the market. Our claim to be able to move forward on to a low-carbon economy would effectively be rugby tackled by legislation that would make that impossible to achieve. I am sorry that, when those on the Opposition Front Bench were given the opportunity to repudiate that approach today, they simply ducked the question and said that it was nothing to do with them. It is something to do with them.
We should place on record that we will put on the statute book legislation and regulations that will move us solidly in the direction of a low-carbon economy, to ensure that the people who are going to be paying their bills in such an economy are not so disadvantaged by what that economy is going to produce that they cannot take part in it. We should all face in the same direction on this, and we must make it clear that we do not support anything that goes against that. I hope that when the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman sums up their case on this Second Reading debate he will take the opportunity to repudiate that it is any part of their policy to stop the development of onshore wind farms by placing distance barriers in the way of such developments, thereby preventing them from going ahead.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead), but I must begin by correcting him. He has spent the past 10 minutes talking about Tory policy, and I hope that that theme will not continue through the debate. I want to clarify the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) put clearly into context the remarks about wind farms made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke).
It was, however, the comments made by the right hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping)- [ Interruption. ] I have inadvertently promoted him. The hon. Member for Sherwood made a thoughtful speech, and he made two points that I hope those on both Front Benches will listen to. First, he talked about the rising cost of winter fuel allowances, which needs to be addressed. Is it right that we should pour so much money into heating houses, rather than making them capable of requiring less heat by insulating them? He also raised the possibility of power cuts in 2017-I see him nodding-
which is a prospect that the Secretary of State refused to acknowledge even though he wrote about it not long ago.
We have gathered here today to debate the Second Reading of this Bill, but there is another gathering taking place in Copenhagen. That involves a significant grouping of international leaders who are hoping to move the debate on the 1997 Kyoto protocol forward. We must all wish that conference well, but also bear in mind that it took more than eight years for much of that protocol to become law. Our hopes are high that we shall see agreement on the targets for greenhouse gas emissions, on financial support for adaptation to climate change in developing countries and on the carbon trading scheme. I shall not hold my breath while waiting to see any of that put on the statute book, however, because of the slowness of planning and the delays involved in Government agreements. All that goes against the grain of what we have heard on both sides of the House about the urgency of dealing with climate change and the demise of this country's natural resources.
I visited Cumbria last week. We do not know whether the flooding there was caused by climate change, but many of the images that we saw on television are still vivid in our minds. I want to place on record the fact that Cumbria is very much open for business. Yes, there have been problems in Cockermouth, but Lake Windermere is back to its normal levels, and the people there are calling for tourists to visit the area. When we debate climate change, we need to be careful not to label or identify places that have been affected and simply leave it at that. We can incur damage if we do not subsequently confirm that repairs have been made. The fighting spirit of the people in Cumbria has got it back to business as normal, and we owe them a debt of gratitude. We can show that gratitude by sending out the message that the Lake district is very much open for business.
I am delighted to be participating in this Second Reading debate, not only to underline my own views on climate change but to comment on the demise of our own natural resources. As I said in my interventions on the Secretary of State, I am very concerned about what has happened to those resources over the past decade. History will look back on that decade with concern that we did not do enough in time to make people aware that our resources were being so greatly reduced.
The risk of blackouts in the future is now a reality, yet we hear denials of that from those on the Government Front Bench. Instead, we get lists of initiatives. Some of them are very good: we have just heard about the longer-lasting light bulbs initiative, and that is fantastic. Unfortunately, however, it does not address the question of what we should do when the oil and gas run out. That is exactly what is happening. In addition, our nuclear power capability used to contribute 30 per cent. of the UK's energy needs; the figure is now down to 12.5 per cent. and falling. We have had many discussions on the further use of coal, but it is now seen as too dirty to use on its own. Extra investment is required, as is further research, because the scale on which we could use carbon capture and storage has yet to be confirmed.
We have also had big debates about renewables. The subject was just raised by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test. I do not doubt that there have been
problems over planning in Conservative councils and in others across the country. It is worth putting on record the fact that there are more Conservative councils than there are Labour and Liberal Democrat councils put together, so of course there will be more issues and question marks in relation to those matters. I would like to see more incentives provided by the Government so that councils, regardless of their colour, would be encouraged to look at renewables as opposed to other energy sources.
David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I do not think that that point has substantial weight. The same sort of attitudes were present before the major wave of new Conservative councils was elected two years or so ago. Often, in the more balanced councils-in terms of political control-it was the Conservative councils that led the opposition to energy initiatives of this kind, so I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman's point is all that significant.
The point is that today, we are where we are. If councils are not embracing the opportunity for renewables, we need to look at ways of incentivising them to do so. What is wrong is that despite 10 years of commitment by this Government, the contribution to Britain's energy requirement made by renewables has gone from 1 per cent. to 1.3 per cent. That is not good enough, considering the pressure that we are under to find other ways of providing our energy. It is almost as if a pilot were to take off without knowing how much fuel was in the tanks and then started searching around for somewhere to land to refuel. That is not sensible planning for the future. That is my basic argument. What has happened in the last 10 years, as the oil and gas have been running out? The initiatives that we need to prepare ourselves for the future when the lights may be threatened, or indeed turned out, have not been forthcoming.
In Germany it is against the law to run out of fuel while driving a car on the motorway: one has to plan ahead. I wonder what the fine would be for a Government who were running towards empty, or if their tank ran out completely. It would probably be more than this Government could afford.
It is helpful to remind ourselves of our energy needs. It is fair to say that for many years we have been blessed with energy efficiency in this country, as we have had an ample supply. Our requirement is roughly around 60 GW, although it is likely to decline this year, simply because of the recession and the consequent reduction in requirements. Current capacity is 76 GW, so one might ask what all the fuss is about. According to the Government's own statistics, our energy requirements are likely to increase by around 40 per cent. over the next 20 years.
Let us look at our resources more closely. We have known for years that North sea oil is on the decline. Surely the recent oil price spike at $147 a barrel would have set the alarm bells ringing to say that what we are doing is not sustainable. We clearly cannot carry on this way-and not only on account of the cost of the fuel, because it is simply running out. Labour has watched, like a rabbit caught in the headlights, as the North sea oil dials swing round towards empty.
The story with gas is not much different; about a third of our requirements are now imported. UK storage capacity has also changed little. That was pointed out a number of times to the Secretary of State, who gave the most waffly reply I have heard in this Chamber about the reasons why we cannot have a legal requirement, as France and Germany do, to keep a certain number of days' supply of gas in storage in the UK. In France it is 125 days; in Germany it is 95 days; in the UK we average around 15, but last winter we went down to just four days' capacity, coming very close indeed to running on empty.
The question has been raised-the hon. Member who raised it is no longer in his place-about an issue that the Front-Bench teams need to answer: rough storage, and who owns the gas itself. Germany owns a number of the companies that operate in the UK, but is it right that when they are running low on gas, they can remove gas from rough storage here in the UK and take it back to Germany to look after their own residents? The Government should provide an answer to that question.
The nuclear story provides another tale of woe. Again, 30 per cent. of energy needs were once being met, but we are now down to 12.5 per cent. The Magnox fleet is going to disappear almost completely over the next few years, as are pressurised water reactors. These cannot be replaced overnight. The Government are at last waking up, but they will turn around and say, "What are the Conservatives going to do?" That is not a powerful argument, when it is under their watch that the nuclear power capability has been reduced to the point at which we cannot replace those power stations, like for like, in time to meet the same energy requirements as before.
As I said in an earlier intervention, it took 22 years to get planning permission to build the Dungeness nuclear power plant. The processes have been speeded up, but the technology is no longer here in the UK. Virtually every nuclear power station is different-unique-as we have built one, learned from it and then moved on to build another one. That is not a good story. Much of the technology and the people have moved elsewhere, to places such as South Africa, Canada, the United States and France. We should be looking to international organisations to come over here to teach and train us so that we have the right nuclear capability to meet our needs in the future.
Mr. Jamie Reed: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments about Cumbria, but on the subject of the nuclear industry, I urge him please not to talk down the capability of the UK industry. Many of the points that he has made are not true. I know he is supportive, which I welcome, but let us stick to the facts.
Mr. Ellwood: I am sticking to the facts. I am on the all-party nuclear energy group, and we have made a number of visits across the globe. We meet British people-now slightly aged, I have to say-who worked in the British nuclear industry and have now moved away from it. I could mention the CANDU systems in Canada, the pebble-bed systems in South Africa, and other systems developed in France and Sweden, all of which benefited from British interest and British know-how, as they started off here in the UK.
The second absence from the Bill is any mention of nuclear fusion, and I suspect that not many Members are aware of what is going on in that connection. The Minister of State shakes her head, and if she were to
intervene now, she would no doubt say, "Oh, that's 20 years away." Well, it will continue to be 20 years away, so long as we continue to fail to invest in it. Given that that is effectively nuclear power utopia, I cannot understand why we are not doing more to find something that would allow us to build only one more set of nuclear fission reactors before moving over to nuclear fusion. Nuclear fusion combines hydrogen, turning it into helium, creating water, so it is very safe: there is no radioactive material and there are no CO2 emissions, making it extremely clean. Yet we are doing nothing-no research, no discussion in the UK of how to move that debate forward. Scientists know that that power can be harnessed, but because it a long time in the future, the attitude is that it will not happen on our watch; I am afraid that that is not the right attitude.
As for coal, we have a supply, but as we have known for a long time, it is a big polluter. If we have known that for a long time, why are we only now coming to terms with the challenges, issues and benefits of carbon capture and storage? Again, it is all too late in the day.
Mr. Ellwood: I repeat that that took place before I had the opportunity even to comment on it; I was still at school studying chemistry. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for 10 years now, and this Government have been responsible for 10 years, so at what point do the Government finally stop using, "Oh, it was the last Government's fault," as an excuse to cover what they are not doing now. That debate is getting very old indeed.
I put it to the Minister that the levy that the Bill introduces will penalise the entire industry, including those who do not produce any CO2 emissions. Would it not be an incentive for the producers of electricity and energy-and, indeed, the consumers-to move over to greener forms if they knew that they would not then have to pay the levy? I am ready to give way to the Minister to explain, but it does not look as if she is going to intervene. We will wait for her summing up.
Finally, on renewables, the point has been made that we have managed to increase our capability in the UK by only 0.3 per cent. There are more imaginative ways of using renewables. The point has been made that there are so many buildings-council-owned buildings and other public buildings-that would readily provide a place for wind turbines of varying sizes, in order to increase our contribution. Those are not all Tory council town halls either, as there are myriad places where we could do that. That is the approach that we need.
To have 10,000 wind turbines by 2020 is a fantastic target, but this Government did not manage to save a major wind turbine company close to my constituency, in the Isle of Wight. What a shame that it has now gone out of business. I am afraid that this provides another example of people upping sticks and moving out of this country: their experience, technology and resources have now left these shores.
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