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House of Commons

Thursday 7 January 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

business before questions

Canterbury City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read the Third time on Thursday 14 January at Three o'clock.

Nottingham City Council Bill

Motion made, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be read the Third time on Thursday 14 January at Three o'clock.

Bournemouth Borough Council Bill [ Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 14 January.

Manchester City Council Bill [ Lords]

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 14 January.

Leeds City Council Bill ( By Order)

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 14 January.

Reading Borough Council Bill ( By Order)

Motion made, That the Bill, as amended, be now considered.

Hon. Members: Object.

Bill to be considered on Thursday 14 January.

7 Jan 2010 : Column 250

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked-

Greenhouse Gas Emissions (Aircraft)

1. Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) (Lab): Whether his Department has made an assessment of the effects on greenhouse gas emissions of the temporary grounding of aircraft following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001. [308886]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): The Department has not made an assessment of the effects on greenhouse gas emissions of the temporary grounding of aircraft following the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington DC on 11 September 2001.

Mr. Allen: When all air traffic in the western world was grounded after the 9/11 incident, within three days the global temperature change was 1°, and when traffic resumed it went back by 1°. Is not that a very significant scientific statement? Will my hon. Friend ensure that the Department looks into why this happened, and the impact that it should have on our future policies? I asked this question of her predecessor five years ago, and I would appreciate an answer.

Joan Ruddock: I am grateful to my hon. Friend-and it has not taken me five years to dream up an answer. First, this is not a question of greenhouse gases. The scientific interest that followed the grounding of the aircraft was do with the issue of contrails, which are the evaporation and condensation trails emitted by aircraft. We do not know the science of contrails very clearly, but there are two possible effects: first, that they reflect radiation back beyond the earth, and therefore have a cooling effect-or, secondly, that they become cirrus clouds and trap radiation, and therefore have a warming effect. The phenomenon that was observed was thought possibly to be due to the absence of contrails leading to a heating effect. However, the Department has followed subsequent studies, and we now believe that there is no evidence that contrails, or the lack of them, were responsible for the temperature rise observed at the time, and that it was a natural fluctuation.

Carbon Capture and Storage

2. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What his most recent assessment is of progress in the competition to build a commercial scale carbon capture and storage power plant in the UK; and if he will make a statement. [308887]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): We are currently evaluating two bids to select, which will receive funding from the £90 million set aside for the front-end engineering and
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design stage, with the result to be announced shortly. This is one of the four demonstration projects to which we are committed, funded by the levy for carbon capture and storage under the Energy Bill, which will ensure the largest investment in CCS of any country in the world.

Michael Fabricant: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his answer. He recognises, as does the whole House, the importance of this work in creating jobs, apart from anything else. However, he will also know that we have fallen behind China, Australia, Canada, Germany, Norway and Belgium because we have been so late in developing this technology. When are we going to start doing something?

Edward Miliband: This is a line that the Opposition like to peddle, but it is absolutely untrue. One need only look at what has happened since 2007. We have had the pre-qualification phase and the application phase for these projects. Hundreds of pages of applications have come into our Department and are being scrutinised, as one would expect in any procurement project. We have a CCS levy before this House; we have agreement in Europe for up to 12 demonstration projects, pushed by the United Kingdom; we have a commitment in this country to four demonstration projects, which we have not had before; and we have legislation in the Energy Bill for the storage of carbon dioxide from CCS projects. We are making progress. Indeed, there is as yet no post-combustion project in the world on the scale that we are talking about in this country.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): The Secretary of State will know that burning coal cleanly is important both in his constituency and in mine. He will also know that there are plans to extend that process at Harworth colliery, but a loan from the European Investment Bank cannot be made until a guarantee of clean coal technology is available for that coal. What can he do to help the men at Harworth?

Edward Miliband: As my hon. Friend will be aware, we have been in touch with the European Investment Bank and continue to have dialogue with it about these matters, including the specific issue that he mentions. As we look forward to carbon capture and storage in this country, it is important to say that there is also a role for indigenous coal. My Department is very clear about that, and we do all we can, working with others, to support that process.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): The Secretary of State's fellow Ministers have heard the evidence given to the Public Bill Committee on the Energy Bill this week, with people describing the need for regulatory certainty if we are going to get investment in this new technology. Industry and environmental groups all agree that the terms for investment must be set for decades, not just the next few years, so will the Secretary of State agree that the Government should now take powers to set an emissions performance standard for a maximum level of emissions for new fossil fuel plant, as proposed by ourselves, the Liberal Democrats, many of his own parliamentary colleagues and many outside, to provide that regulatory certainty and show a real commitment to a low-carbon economy?

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Edward Miliband: Obviously, we will look at any proposals that come forward, but I say to the hon. Gentleman-perhaps he has not followed the matter as closely as he might have done-that we have unveiled the most environmentally stringent conditions for new coal-fired power stations of any country in the world. We consulted on them and we have now put them into national policy statements. The proposals have been widely welcomed, both by the green groups that he mentions and by energy companies, as striking the right balance. A plant-level emissions standard could also have a role. As I understand it, the Environment Agency already has powers to introduce one, but we will examine any proposals that come forward.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that pre-combustion carbon capture has the advantage of producing chemicals, especially hydrogen, and that we ought to encourage commercial interests in that area as well as in post-combustion carbon capture? Has he had any negotiations with BP, which pulled out of the Peterhead experiment?

Edward Miliband: I think I am right in saying that the Peterhead proposal was for a gas-fired power station. Our concentration in spending significant amounts of money has been on coal-fired power stations. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that pre-combustion has an important role. We have said that of the four demonstration projects up to two will be pre-combustion, precisely because we recognise the importance of that technology. It is important to say that as we spend a significant sum on carbon capture and storage-as I said, it is the largest sum spent by any country in the world-we need to test all the technologies to drive it forward, including pre-combustion.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): In evidence to the Public Bill Committee on the Energy Bill, some witnesses have suggested that the 2014 target of having a demonstrator up and working is just one of the conditions and may be allowed to slip. Can the Secretary of State assure us that it will be a principal condition that the demonstrator must be up and working by 2014?

Edward Miliband: As I think I have said in previous answers on this matter, that was set out as one of the conditions for the demonstration project and remains one of the conditions, and we are certainly considering that closely as we consider the bids that have been put forward.

Fuel Inefficiency

3. Danny Alexander (Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey) (LD): What recent assessment he has made of the contribution of fuel inefficiency to fuel poverty. [308889]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): Fuel poverty is caused by three factors: incomes, prices and household energy efficiency. We are acting on all three, including through higher winter fuel and cold weather payments this winter, and through compulsory help with bills for the most vulnerable, which is being legislated for in the current Energy Bill. In the pre-Budget report, an extra £150 million was provided for the Warm Front programme next year, building on the 2 million households helped in the last decade.

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Danny Alexander: I am grateful to the Secretary of State for that answer, but he will know that, especially in cold spells such as the recent one, it is those in the most energy-inefficient homes, which tend to be the hardest to treat, and those who use expensive sources of heating off the gas grid such as heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas, who suffer most. Despite the warm words about such homes and about the people who use those energy sources, precious little has been done to warm them up. They tend to come at the end of the queue. What can the right hon. Gentleman say to assure me that in future, people in hard-to-treat homes off the gas grid will come at the front of the queue?

Edward Miliband: I recognise that that is an issue to consider throughout the country, including in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and I shall try to explain our strategy to him. First, we have said that social price support will be focused on electricity bills, to ensure that everyone gets the benefit of it, not just those on the gas grid. Secondly, we have recently increased the amount that poor households off the gas grid can get under Warm Front to a £6,000 maximum grant for oil-based or renewable heating systems. Thirdly, the renewable heat incentive is being introduced, precisely to encourage the take-up of different forms of heating by those who are not on the gas grid, and fourthly, the community energy-saving programme will work in rural areas to see what can be done to provide whole-house efficiency. There is more that we can do, but we are trying to make a difference to the households that are difficult to reach.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): Will my right hon. Friend say something about the current Warm Front funding, and how long it is taking individual households, particularly those that do not have central heating or whose boilers have been condemned, to get action? There seems to be some concern that it is taking up to six months. In this weather, that is six months too long.

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend asks an important question. The amount of money allocated to the Warm Front programme was due to fall next year. Thanks to the Chancellor-in tough times-making the decision to allocate another £150 million to it, the amount of Warm Front money will be significantly enhanced next year. That should help with some of the queuing issues to which my hon. Friend refers. Warm Front is a very popular programme-lots of households want to take advantage of it-and it is good that the Chancellor recognises both its importance and its success, and has provided more resources for it.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): Now that we have reached the 13th, and coldest, winter of this Labour Government, what excuse is there for the fact that according to Government figures, only one in 100 British households is properly insulated, when lack of insulation is the biggest contributor to fuel poverty in this country?

Edward Miliband: It is characteristic of the Liberal Democrats to blame the Government for the weather. On the hon. Gentleman's serious question about energy efficiency and insulation, there is more to do, but it is important to point out that under our programmes,
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1.5 million homes a year are being insulated and getting the help they need. The Warm Front programme, which did not exist before, has helped 2 million homes since its inception. There is more to do. That is why we are planning a decade-long improvement in energy efficiency, including a pay-as-you-save mechanism, to make it possible to do more.

Simon Hughes: The Secretary of State has given us a piecemeal answer to a much bigger question. Before his Government are frozen out by the electorate, is he willing to commit himself today to a national 10-year warm home programme and to support the amendment to the Energy Bill that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, which would mean that the programme could start this year?

Edward Miliband: I will look at the amendment-but the last Bill that came forward from the Liberal Democrats was an uncosted shopping list, with no basis for paying for it. That is a luxury of opposition but not a luxury of government. We are planning, and I can commit to, a national energy programme over the next 10 years. We are consulting on it, and will have more to say about it in the coming weeks.

Derek Twigg (Halton) (Lab): Ofgem, the regulator, has a very important role in reducing fuel poverty, but the Public Bill Committee on the Energy Bill has just heard evidence that it does not necessarily have the confidence to know legally when it can intervene to force companies to do more. Will my right hon. Friend comment on that, and say how the Energy Bill will help to make it clear to Ofgem what responsibilities it has to help people?

Edward Miliband: I look forward to reading the report of proceedings in the Energy Bill Committee-it sounds as if many interesting things were said. One purpose of the Bill is precisely to strengthen Ofgem's powers in a number of respects and to make it a more proactive regulator-a regulator that not only relies on competition to help consumers, but realises that it has a duty to be proactive on their behalf. It has done more of that in the past year, including taking action on prepayment meters and other issues, but I am sure there is more to do.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Has the Secretary of State read the report on fuel poverty published in 2008 by the Select Committee on Business and Enterprise? It said that to keep fuel affordable, increasing gas storage

What increase in storage capacity has there been since then?

Edward Miliband: More gas storage is coming on line, including the Aldbrough gas storage project, which recently completed its first phase. The hon. Gentleman is going around saying that gas storage is a big problem for the UK and citing figures, but National Grid is quoted in the papers this morning as saying that his figures are meaningless, because they ignore the role of the North sea, which provides 50 per cent. of our gas storage, and the role of UK import capacity.

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Greg Clark: The Secretary of State should listen to the Select Committee and note that North sea production is in decline, and he should listen to Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, his junior Minister, who said that the new storage capacity opened in the past year has been the equivalent of five hours' worth-which is about as much time as it takes the Secretary of State to decide whether or not to back the Prime Minister. Gas storage helps to offset fuel poverty by allowing us to buy supplies when they are cheap in the summer, to be used in the winter. Is he aware that if we had had just half of France's storage capacity, British consumers could be paying £1 billion less for their gas this winter? What is his policy on how much gas storage is needed?

Edward Miliband: We need more gas storage, and there are more projects planned. The hon. Gentleman has cited figures for gas storage, but The Independent this morning says that

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