25 Feb 2010 : Column 427

25 Feb 2010 : Column 427

House of Commons

Thursday 25 February 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Business before Questions

London Local Authorities Bill [ Lords] ( By Order )

Second Reading opposed and deferred until Thursday 4 March (Standing Order No. 20) .

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked-

Fuel Poverty

1. Mr. Douglas Carswell (Harwich) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the level of fuel poverty in the UK. [318540]

5. Mr. David Amess (Southend, West) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the level of fuel poverty in the UK. [318544]

6. Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): What recent estimate he has made of the level of fuel poverty in the UK. [318545]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr. David Kidney): The estimated number of households in fuel poverty in the UK was around 4 million in 2007, the latest year for which figures are available.

Mr. Carswell: Three and a quarter million of those 4 million households in fuel poverty are designated as being vulnerable households. How are the Government going to meet their 2010 target for eradicating fuel poverty in such households, if that is still possible?

Mr. Kidney: We have to recognise the additional challenge that has been set by rising energy prices over the past few years, but we still intend to work as hard as possible for those vulnerable households, giving help through the obligation on suppliers to insulate homes and through Warm Front, through which we directly fund home insulation. We are also giving help through people's incomes by means of measures such as the winter fuel and cold weather payments, and through the control of prices, including the present voluntary agreement, which we are seeking to turn into a mandatory social price support scheme through the Energy Bill.

25 Feb 2010 : Column 428

Dr. Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend accept that a large element of fuel poverty relates to the energy efficiency of the homes in which fuel-poor people live? Does he also accept that efforts to ensure that those homes are made properly energy efficient are a vital part of our attack on fuel poverty? What is his assessment of the likely impact of community energy response teams, community energy saving programmes, and other schemes, such as the Great British Refurb, on improving the energy efficiency of homes?

Mr. Kidney: I agree that the most sustainable way of helping people to stay out of fuel poverty is to ensure that their homes are energy efficient. That is why we have concentrated so much on the energy companies' obligation, under which more than 6 million homes have been insulated. Another 2 million have been insulated under Warm Front. The community energy saving programmes scheme is also important in guiding us towards choosing the best policy for sustainable energy programmes, which we intend to reveal shortly in our latest strategy.

Mr. Amess: As the promoter of the Bill that became the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation Act 2000, I am naturally disappointed that the targets that were set will not be reached this year. The Department is undertaking a review, so will the Minister tell the House when the results will be announced? What instructions will be given to officials to ensure that the strategy is put back on track?

Mr. Kidney: I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who has a long and distinguished record of campaigning on these issues in the House and outside it. He is right to say that we are undertaking a review of our present policies to see whether they can be made more effective, or whether we need new ones. I am giving evidence to the Select Committee in March, and I hope to be able to talk about the emerging findings of the review at that time.

Mr. Baron: In order to fight fuel poverty, Ofgem is now going to force energy supply companies to print on customers' bills details of how their tariff compares with the company's standard direct debit tariff. Why will that information be given out only on an annual statement? That will discriminate against active switchers who might not get such a statement because they have not been with a company for 12 months.

Mr. Kidney: Again, I think that praise is called for. The hon. Gentleman knows that I wrote to him to praise his campaigning on the issue of supplying information to customers, and I am happy to take this opportunity publicly to do so again. The annual reports start this year, so it is perhaps a little early for us to say that it is not a good enough scheme. Every energy bill will contain information about consumption and costs to customers, and I am working with Consumer Focus, the watchdog and champion of all consumers, on improving the quality of such information so that we will be able to give better information to members of the public every day of the year.

25 Feb 2010 : Column 429

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that there are three components of fuel poverty: dwelling energy efficiency, fuel prices, and household income? Should not Opposition Members recognise that, although things are harder because of fuel prices, a lot more people would be living in fuel poverty if it were not for the increases in child benefit, the working tax credit and the winter fuel allowance?

Mr. Kidney: My right hon. Friend is right about those three issues, and this Government have been determined, even during the worst global recession of my lifetime, to maintain spending on measures such as the winter fuel payment and child tax credits. Such payments have helped vulnerable consumers to pay their bills.

Natascha Engel (North-East Derbyshire) (Lab): Given that, when we talk about fuel poverty, we are actually talking about poverty itself, what specific measures are being targeted at people who live in council houses?

Mr. Kidney: My hon. Friend is right to say that general poverty is an important issue for the Government to address, which is why we have worked so hard to eradicate pensioner poverty. Now we are even legislating to eradicate child poverty in this country. We pay attention to helping council house tenants, through the payment of their rent and council tax through the benefits that we offer them.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): It is nearly 13 years since the beginning of this Labour Government, and is it not a sign of the priority that they have given to dealing with the massive fuel bills that customers regularly receive-we still have no strategy to make every home a warm home-that within three months of the end of this Parliament there is still no coherent Labour policy on the issue?

Mr. Kidney: Now come on. We have arranged, through the energy supply companies' obligation, for insulation to more than 6 million homes. Through Warm Front, we have directly funded insulation for an additional 2 million homes. We have a policy that every home with a cavity wall or loft that is uninsulated will be insulated by 2015. Having dealt with those so-called easy wins, we recognise that the next issue for us to tackle is hard-to-treat properties, such as those requiring solid wall insulation. Our strategy, which we will unveil shortly, will show how we will address those matters too.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): I thank the Minister for his kind words to my hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Amess) and for Billericay (Mr. Baron) for their campaigning on fuel poverty issues. Has he seen the recent report by Ofgem showing that the number of customers falling into debt on their electricity bills has increased by 105 per cent. on the previous year, and by a shocking 147 per cent. in the case of gas customers, and that those figures are getting worse? Does he recall the Secretary of State brushing aside our calls in 2008 for a Competition Commission investigation into energy prices, saying that it would cause two years of uncertainty? Does he accept that such an investigation would have been completed by now, and we could have had real evidence about the level of electricity and gas prices rather than the understandable suspicion and anxiety?

25 Feb 2010 : Column 430

Mr. Kidney: No. The investigation by the Competition Commission of the domestic oil companies took five years from complaint until remedies. In fact, Ofgem conducted a probe, completed its conclusions and issued the new licence conditions, which are now all in force, in less than two years. I completely reject the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): My hon. Friend will be aware of the profit results announced by British Gas today. Does he agree that now is the time for energy companies such as British Gas to cut their prices to consumers?

Mr. Kidney: I completely agree with my hon. Friend. We have just come through one of the most severe winters for decades, with customers struggling to pay their high energy bills. Any help that energy companies can give to those customers at this difficult time is welcome. As we can see from energy companies' profit results, they can afford that help, so others should follow the lead that British Gas gave earlier this month and cut their prices now.

Gas Storage

2. Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell) (Con): How much additional gas storage capacity he expects to become available in the UK by 2012. [318541]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): National Grid's recent "Ten Year Statement 2009" expects just over 0.5 billion cubic metres of additional gas storage capacity to be commissioned by 2011-12, or an addition of more than 10 per cent. to capacity, including Aldbrough, which will be the second largest facility in the country. In addition, 20 other projects are planned for completion beyond that date, including the Gateway project, which will provide 1.5 billion cubic metres of extra capacity by 2014. That storage capacity is on top of the increase in import capacity in recent years, representing 125 per cent. of annual demand.

Mr. Mackay: But in layman's language, does that not mean that there will be just two days of additional gas storage available by the end of 2012? At a time when we are hugely dependent on imports, is the Secretary of State satisfied that that is sufficient?

Edward Miliband: I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman was present for the energy security debate in the House some weeks ago, but the hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) discovered in that debate and through asking other questions that simply quoting storage numbers when we have the North sea, import capacity and liquefied natural gas facilities tells only a small part of the story. Indeed, the National Grid dismissed his statistics as a "meaningless number". We do need more storage capacity, but the most important thing is changing the planning system. We are doing that through the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will now be responsible for onshore wind. The suggestions of the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) would best be directed at those on his Front Bench, who oppose our reforms in relation to the Infrastructure Planning Commission.

25 Feb 2010 : Column 431

Nick Ainger (Carmarthen, West and South Pembrokeshire) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be well aware of the major contribution, certainly over the past few months, of the two LNG import terminals in Pembrokeshire and the Isle Of Grain in Kent. Up to 27 per cent. of annual consumption is provided through those terminals. Bearing in mind the future reduction of North sea capacity, and the possible risks of the continental connection, will the Secretary of State talk to the Crown Estate, with which the UK gas storage association is having major difficulties in reaching agreement about offshore storage?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend has made two important points. The first was about LNG facilities. I can tell him that the LNG facility at Milford Haven, which was not in operation last year, currently meets about 10 per cent. of total UK gas demand. That is one of the ways we are meeting our gas needs as the supply of the North sea declines. As for my hon. Friend's second point, although the Crown Estate is independent of Government, we continue to think about the issues involved. The recent licensing of the Gateway project suggests that they can be dealt with.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): The right hon. Gentleman agrees that we need more gas storage. Can he tell us how many days' supply we have at this moment?

Edward Miliband: There are different estimates. It depends whether we take account of the North sea, LNG facilities, and the fact that medium-range storage can be refilled.

The hon. Gentleman tried this in January, when we experienced very cold weather. It was not me but National Grid that said he was producing a "meaningless number". I can tell him that alarmism about energy security does him, and political debate, no good at all.

Greg Clark: I should have thought that the Secretary of State would inform himself of the day-to-day storage levels. For 18 months the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff), has been warning that we need more gas in storage. Let me give the Minister the answer that he was unable to give me. As of last night, we have three days' worth of gas in storage. That is the lowest level for many years, despite the fact that as imports increase we need a greater security margin. Other countries have more storage, Ofgem says we need more storage, and the Select Committee says we need more storage. Does the Secretary of State agree that it is time the Government had a policy on what our security margin should be?

Edward Miliband: The strange thing about the hon. Gentleman is that, although he talks a lot about gas storage, he has not one single policy in favour of having more of it. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks me, from a sedentary position, what my policy is. The single most important policy that we are pursuing relates to the Infrastructure Planning Commission, which will deal with one of the biggest gas storage issues that we face by reforming planning. What is the hon. Gentleman's policy on the Infrastructure Planning Commission? His policy is to abolish it, and that says all we need to know. Once again, the Conservative party's policy has not been thought through, and they are not ready for government.

25 Feb 2010 : Column 432

Greenhouse Gases (India and China)

4. Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): What recent discussions he has had with the Indian and Chinese Governments on their policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. [318543]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): I had many discussions with Indian and Chinese representatives at the Copenhagen negotiations which led to the Copenhagen accord, in which both China and India set targets in time for the 31 January deadline. Since Copenhagen I have also discussed climate issues with the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom-until she recently became China's Vice Foreign Minister-and various issues, including those relating to climate and energy, with Anand Sharma, the Indian Minister for Commerce and Industry.

Mr. Bone: Many people in this country do their bit to cut carbon dioxide emissions-I, for instance, drive a biofuel car-but that will pale into insignificance unless we can persuade the Indian and Chinese Governments to do more. Why does the Secretary of State think so little progress has been made?

Edward Miliband: I think more progress has been made than would seem apparent from the disappointment of the Copenhagen negotiations. The Copenhagen accord covers about 80 per cent. of global emissions. This is the first time that we have secured an agreement that covers such a wide range of emissions across the world. We need to turn it into a legally binding document, which is, in a sense, the biggest challenge that we face. The reason the task is so difficult is that these are very big issues about the future of different economies across the world.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that not far from his constituency, in Brigg and Goole and other constituencies on the south Humber bank, are companies such as Corus, Singleton Birch and, in Goole, Guardian Glass, which are being expected-rightly-to reduce emissions as part of the Government's overall strategy, but are competing against companies that are setting themselves up and building new plants in countries with fast-growing economies, such as India and China. They feel that is unfair and that there is no level playing field, because they are having to take action that the companies in those other countries are not. When will my right hon. Friend be able to make more progress, so that we can report to workers in this country that they are not being unfairly discriminated against?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend has made an important point. It is because of that situation that there are provisions in the EU emissions trading scheme to protect against so-called carbon leakage. We give out allowances free to the most exposed sectors, rather than auctioning them. The European Commission is currently examining the different criteria, and will make further announcements later this year.

The other point I would make is that there is also a first-mover advantage for us in getting ahead in this low-carbon technology, and it is important that we do that as well.

Next Section Index Home Page