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House of Commons

Thursday 8 April 2010

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked-

Housing (Energy Efficiency)

1. Mr. Andrew Pelling (Croydon, Central) (Ind): What recent steps his Department has taken to improve the energy efficiency of housing; and if he will make a statement. [325604]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): Since 2002, the carbon emission reduction target has helped fund over 7 million insulation measures. We recently published a household energy management strategy for pay-as-you-save insulation, devolution of powers over energy efficiency to local authorities and new standards of regulation in the social and private rented sector that together will help reduce emissions from households by 29 per cent. by 2020.

Mr. Pelling: Such a Government initiative has been of great benefit to New Addington in Croydon, a significant social housing estate that was excellent for the 1950s in terms of space and good design. What can be done to support the initiative of local people who want the area to become an eco-town? What prospects are there?

Edward Miliband: The hon. Gentleman raises an important issue. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing recently announced the first wave of eco-towns and funding under that. We want to do more on this. There is great enthusiasm in local areas for this to happen, including in the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I hope that we can take this forward.

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Greg Barker. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman had indicated that he wanted to come in on this question.

Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): I had not expected to, Mr. Speaker. I apologise for my inattention, as I had been expecting to intervene on Question 2. However, at your direction, I shall intervene on Question 1 because what I want to say is still apposite.

After 13 years of Labour government, we still have the most energy-inefficient homes in Europe and many, many millions more homes require action. Will the Government now embrace our green deal, namely £6,500 of energy-efficiency improvements for every home? Or, given that B&Q, Marks and Spencer, Tesco and leading energy companies have all embraced our approach, is this another issue where Labour is at war with business?

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Edward Miliband: I had expected a music hall atmosphere this morning and the hon. Gentleman did not disappoint. As we can see from the general election campaign, the difference between us and the Conservative party is that we published earlier this month clearly worked-out and costed plans on pay-as-you-save insulation, on regulating private sector landlords to improve energy efficiency and on local authorities. The Conservatives talk about the £6,500, but as with so many other things from them, they have no idea where the money is coming from.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): Can I tell companies such as EA Technology and Energetix in the Capenhurst area that the work they are doing on energy-saving measures, load balancing and novel technology solutions will be supported by the next Labour Government? Will my right hon. Friend commit to working with the Science Minister to ensure that the good work of such companies is brought into production in the UK by UK companies by the next Labour Government?

Edward Miliband: Yes, I can give that assurance. I thank my hon. Friend for his championing of these issues. Over the past 18 months or two years, we have seen an increasing understanding of the reality of the connection between tackling climate change and green jobs in this country. We have seen that with announcements on the offshore wind industry, electric cars and a whole host of other matters. He is right that Government support for private sector business is essential in this area.

Fuel Poverty

2. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): When he expects figures to be available on the level of fuel poverty in the UK in 2008; and if he will make a statement. [325605]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr. David Kidney): The 2008 fuel poverty statistics report will be published on 14 October 2010. This will contain the 2008 fuel poverty numbers for England and the UK. Final figures can be produced only after analysis of the detailed housing survey results. However, to address this lag, we published projected levels of fuel poverty for 2008 and 2009 in England in the most recent annual report on fuel poverty statistics.

Michael Fabricant: The Government's own prediction, which the Minister mentioned, said that one in four homes will now be in fuel poverty. Given that domestic fuel prices have risen 80 per cent. since 2004, is it not time for a public inquiry into the discrepancy between wholesale and retail fuel prices?

Mr. Kidney: The hon. Gentleman, who is my near neighbour in Staffordshire, is right that there were sustained price rises between 2004 and 2008 that have increased fuel poverty. That is a matter of concern to all hon. Members. We are adapting our policies to cope with that, not least, I hope, by obtaining the House's final approval tonight for the Energy Bill, which will allow us to introduce social price support for the poorest households. What is not necessary is what I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about: referral of the whole energy market to the Competition Commission. This is a time when we need sustained investment in the future of our infrastructure, and that would only delay it.

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Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): As my hon. Friend knows, there are over 100 years of coal underground. Should we not look at a strategy for extracting that coal? That would make a major contribution to the eradication of fuel poverty.

Mr. Kidney: I am sure it is right that a diverse energy supply will help us to keep control of energy prices, and clean fossil fuels such as coal will assist in that. That is why we are world leaders with our levy for supporting four commercial demonstration models of carbon capture and storage.

Mr. John Baron (Billericay) (Con): Given the customer confusion caused by more than 4,000 different tariffs, will the Minister congratulate Scottish and Southern Energy on putting its cheapest tariff information on all its energy bills-going beyond the Government's wish of annual statements-and will he encourage other energy companies to follow suit?

Mr. Kidney: In recent months I have seen good examples of energy companies trying to improve the clarity of their bill-plain English, the way the bills are set out and the information that they give. I applaud the example that the hon. Gentleman gives and encourage other energy companies to do the same. I would like to be returned to Government, in this Department, to do more on this subject after 6 May.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): One of the best means of reducing fuel poverty is tough regulation of the energy marketplace. Has the Minister read with the same concern as I had the report by Consumer Focus into the performance of Ofgem in regulating npower's price-sculpting mechanism and assure me that a future Government will take a more robust approach to the rather flaccid efforts of this regulator?

Mr. Kidney: Again, I hope that later today the House will approve the Energy Bill, which contains measures to strengthen the powers of Ofgem and sharpen its act in terms of being more proactive in its support for consumers. I would love to be back in the next Parliament, taking action to ensure that Ofgem does its job properly.

Housing (Energy Efficiency)

3. Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What mechanisms he has put in place to increase the level of energy efficiency in rural homes classified as hard-to-treat. [325606]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Joan Ruddock): The carbon emissions reduction target-CERT-obligates energy companies to install a variety of household energy efficiency measures, including those suitable for hard-to-treat homes. CERT is delivered throughout Great Britain including in rural areas.

Additionally, Warm Front fits energy-efficient measures in vulnerable households. Any rural household could be eligible for Warm Front assistance as long as the applicant is the home owner or tenant in the private sector, and is in receipt of a qualifying benefit.

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Sir Alan Beith: Is the Minister aware that in areas such as Northumberland many of the poorest people live in stone-built properties with no cavity wall, no gas supply, no dual fuel tariff, dependence on bottled gas or solid fuel, and often difficulty in getting access to warm home schemes? Does she recognise that further targeted steps are needed and perhaps an easing of the rules to ensure that some of the people most in fuel poverty in rural areas are helped?

Joan Ruddock: I acknowledge every point that the right hon. Gentleman has made, and we have been working on every aspect of those problems. Ofgem is encouraging connection to the gas grid, where that is possible and economic-with support, of course. In January this year it announced that all four gas networks will be linked in partnerships to enable new connections to be made, and we expect that up to 20,000 new households will be connected to the gas grid under that scheme. In a year's time we shall have the renewable heat incentive, which will benefit particularly those who wish to switch from liquefied petroleum gas and other expensive fuels. We also have CERT, which is increasingly being incentivised to cope with hard-to-treat homes and solid wall insulation. Over 56,000 homes have already been insulated, so there is some progress.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I once lived in a 17th century stone cottage in a rural area, so I know how difficult it is to take those measures-[ Interruption.] Hon. Members seem to be amused by the fact that I lived in a stone cottage. The Government have done such good things in terms of Warm Zone and Warm Front, and the Minister knows of the proud record of Kirklees and Huddersfield. Is it not about time that a useless organisation-the National House-Building Council, which, as every lawyer will tell you, issues certificates that are not worth the paper they are written on-stopped allowing any building that does not conform to a high level of sustainability?

Joan Ruddock: My hon. Friend knows that we have made huge progress in increasing building regulation demands, not only for new build, which will be carbon-neutral by 2016, but for retrofitting of existing homes. There is already a huge Government undertaking on this subject. I shall not comment on the organisation named by my hon. Friend, but I intend to look into it when I return to this job.

Electricity Demand/Capacity

4. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): What assessment he has made of the balance of generating capacity and likely demand for electricity in the UK in the next 10 years; and if he will make a statement. [325607]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): We are confident that we will meet demand for electricity over the next decade. About 18 GW of plant is due to close by 2020, but already 20 GW is either under construction or has planning consent. The most recent analysis in the "Energy Markets Outlook" in December 2009 suggested that the electricity capacity margin remains above 10 per cent. for the whole of the next decade.

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Peter Luff: I hope that the Secretary of State's optimism is well founded. Does he understand that when the obituary of this Government is written in a few weeks' time, one of the most critical passages will relate to the 2003 energy White Paper and those seven fateful words-

words that undermined our nation's nuclear skills base and which cost us vital years in the fight to avoid severe power shortages in the next decade. I genuinely fear that there will be such shortages.

Edward Miliband: The interesting thing is that three or four years later the Leader of the Opposition was saying that nuclear should remain a last resort. It is this Government who led the debate on nuclear power. I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I have to tell him that we need all forms of low-carbon energy, including renewable power. He brought before the House an exclusion zone proposal on wind farms-a proposal with which I disagree. Let us have low-carbon energy; that is what we are driving towards with planning reform, nuclear power and renewables.

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): In the past two weeks we have seen the true cost of trying to run the world on cheap coal, with 150 Chinese miners trapped underground in a country where 6,000 miners die every year, and 25 miners killed in West Virginia-employees of a serial violator of mine legislation. Will the Government take on the role of leading the international debate on the ethics of putting miners' safety before profits?

Edward Miliband: My hon. Friend raises an important issue, which I have discussed with him. It is right that we take up these issues through organisations such as the International Labour Organisation and other international bodies and I have said to him that we will do so.

Simon Hughes (North Southwark and Bermondsey) (LD): At the end of term, I pay tribute to the Secretary of State and his team for their energy and commitment. Do they realise that they would be wise as well as energetic if they gave up the new deception they now share with the Conservative party that nuclear power is what we need to have a safe, clean and secure energy future? Why is his party, like the Tories, willing to put the health, wealth and personal security of the people of Britain at such great risk in the future?

Edward Miliband: I thank the hon. Gentleman for the first part of his question, but I profoundly disagree with the second part of his question. When we look at the scale of the task in terms of low-carbon energy, we have very ambitious targets on renewables-approximately a sixfold increase in renewable energy by 2020-and nuclear must be part of the energy mix. We need to move on all fronts-nuclear, renewables and clean coal-because the scale of the challenge of cutting carbon emissions by 80 per cent. by 2050 is so enormous that we need every form of low-carbon energy.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): Are we looking at the Thames estuary, eastwards of Thurrock, for tidal power generation comparable to the wonderful innovative scheme in operation at Strangford lough in Northern Ireland? Would the Minister care to join me in my retirement at Strangford lough, where I can show him this wonderful technology?

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Edward Miliband: Let me take the opportunity to pay tribute to my hon. Friend. The House will sorely miss his character and the passionate way in which he took forward a whole range of issues.

We need tidal power in this country, and it can play an important role. I look forward to joining him after the election-I hope in my current post-with the newly elected Labour Member of Parliament for his constituency, to see what tidal power can do.

Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Whatever the future holds for us all, we have much enjoyed our exchanges with the right hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends across the Dispatch Box, but it is not over yet. Eight weeks ago, the energy regulator said:

Is the energy regulator another of those who have been deceived?

Edward Miliband: Let me start by saying that I have also enjoyed our exchanges. The hon. Gentleman shadowed me when I was the Minister for the Third Sector and since then when I have been Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change. I look forward to him continuing to shadow me in his present post after the general election.

The energy regulator put forward a series of projections based on modelling in the Project Discovery document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The difference is that what I read out are actual plans that are being taken forward for 20 GW of new power. I am confident about security of supply, but the big question for Britain is whether it should be low-carbon or high-carbon security of supply. That is why it is so important that we move forward on nuclear and indeed renewables, on which the Conservative party has a bad record locally.

Greg Clark: Of course, it is not just the regulator. The Government's own chief scientist told the BBC that there is a worry that in 2016 there might not be enough electricity. In 13 years, we have had 11 Energy Ministers, from the right hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) to Lord Truscott, eight Secretaries of State in charge of energy from the right hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East and Wallsend (Mr. Brown) to Lord Mandelson, five energy White Papers, and more than 100 consultations. Is it despite all that or because of it that the Government officially expect blackouts during the decade ahead?

Edward Miliband: I feel like I am hearing the hon. Gentleman's greatest hits this morning, but they are not that great. We are not predicting what he said would happen in 2017, and he knows from the "Energy Markets Outlook" that that is not so. The truth is that we have moved forward in a whole range of areas to provide the power that the country will need in the coming decade, but I return to the point that the big question is whether we take the difficult decisions on, for example, planning. We finally have a planning system in this country that business supports, but the Conservative party says that if it got into government it would overturn it on day one. That will not help the low-carbon transition in this country.

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