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Mr Graham Allen (Nottingham North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In this age of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, and in light of your remarks about seeking advice, will you reassure us that we will be able to talk to a human being and interact with the Clerks rather than have to put it all in an e-mail to your good self?
Mr Speaker: The whole issue of IPSA and concerns about it have already been significantly aired this morning, and the hon. Gentleman was in his place for business questions and can testify to that himself. He will also have heard the Leader of the House indicate his readiness to play his part, as appropriate, with others in ensuring that there is a good, smooth and fair new system. It would, frankly, be superfluous for me to say anything more on the subject today, but the hon. Gentleman has given another object lesson to new Members in how to ensure that he gets his point on the record.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. With regard to your particular comments about security, which is certainly a very important issue, the Leader of the House announced earlier that we will be coming back for a two-week period in September. If I remember correctly, on a previous occasion when that happened, we had security issues because of the amount of maintenance on the parliamentary estate, and I think that that is when the pro-hunt protesters broke into the Chamber. Will you provide some reassurance, Mr Speaker, that you will take this matter on board and ensure that the appropriate authorities are looking at issues of both maintenance and security on the parliamentary estate, given that we are returning for that two-week period?
Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman makes a perfectly reasonable point. All these matters have been, and will continue to be, taken on board. Although what the hon. Gentleman says about the past is, of course, entirely right, he will be well aware that we have entered a brave new world. That is the situation.
That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, as follows:
Most Gracious Sovereign,
We, Your Majesty's most dutiful and loyal subjects, the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled, beg leave to offer our humble thanks to Your Majesty for the Gracious Speech which Your Majesty has addressed to both Houses of Parliament.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): It is a privilege to open this debate on the Gracious Speech and its plans on energy and the environment. Both of these areas are very clear priorities for this Government. Just as the first Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), worked with hon. Members on both sides of the House to ensure that long-term climate change targets had cross-party support, I look forward to continuing to develop the necessary consensus on our long-term energy security and climate change goals. I hope that we can all remember that there is much that unites us on this agenda.
I am delighted that one of the first actions of this Government has been to announce the cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow. Given the speed with which the right hon. Gentleman gained nominations for the leadership after making public his "very heated arguments" in Cabinet over Heathrow, I hope that by 25 September leaders of all parties will agree on this matter.
Although there is no specific legislation relating to the environment in this Session, my right honourable colleague the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be driving forward an ambitious agenda: protecting the environment and biodiversity for future generations; ensuring thriving biodiversity and wildlife by preventing habitat loss and degradation; making our economy more environmentally sustainable by ensuring that the economic value of our natural resources is understood by both Government and society, so that those resources are managed better and will continue to provide for us; improving our quality of life and well-being by ensuring clean air, clean water and healthy food; and supporting the farming industry and encouraging sustainable food production, working across the whole food chain to ensure a secure, sustainable and healthy supply of food, while minimising food waste.
During business questions, the Leader of the House was asked why the grocery market ombudsman legislation had not been included in the Queen's Speech, given that the grocery supply code of practice has been in operation since February. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us?
Has he made representations to his colleague at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that the legislation is introduced at the earliest possible opportunity? There is cross-party consensus on the issue, I presented a private Member's Bill on it, and it was in all our manifestos.
Chris Huhne: As the hon. Gentleman knows, that legislation is not my departmental responsibility, but it did appear on the coalition Government's programme. As he also knows, it is not always possible to legislate for everything in a Government's programme in the first Session, but there is a fairly weighty programme for the first Session, and I hope that the legislation to which he has referred will be introduced rapidly.
My right honourable colleague the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will also be working with the businesses for which her Department is responsible to help them to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions, and to help businesses and communities to adapt to the effects of a changing climate. Climate change is one of the gravest threats that we face, and we have a very short period in which to tackle it before the problem becomes irreversible and out of control.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): The Secretary of State has told us that there will be no environmental legislation as such, but given his emphasis on the importance of environmental issues, will he give the House a guarantee that-notwithstanding the announcements that have been made about cuts elsewhere-the essential work that is being done on the environment and climate change will be protected financially, and will not be compromised? I am thinking particularly of the Committee on Climate Change, which has a very important role in relation to the House.
Chris Huhne: I agree that the committee has an extremely important role to play. However, the hon. Lady must be aware of the financial legacy that this Government have inherited from the Labour Government. We have inherited the largest budget deficit in Europe bar none. It is even larger than, for example, the budget deficit of Greece, which, as we know, has experienced a substantial loss of market confidence in recent weeks. For precisely that reason, I do not think it would be wise for anyone to suggest that we should continue to seek all possible ways of ensuring that we can live within our means. If the hon. Lady looks at the manifesto on which she stood for election, she will observe that no such commitment was made in that manifesto; and it was not made in ours either.
Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new post, in which I am sure he will serve with distinction. What are his views on carbon capture and storage? He will recall that in 2003 the last Government stressed the urgent need for action. I have seen no plan to move forward to 2050 that does not include carbon capture and storage if we are to meet our ambitious targets, and yet that Government failed to make any real progress on that when they were in office. The demonstration projects were endlessly delayed. Will my right hon. Friend supply the commitment and drive that were so sorely lacking when the Labour party was in power?
Chris Huhne: I shall deal with that issue later, but I certainly believe that it is crucial for us to inject a real sense of urgency into the aspects of our agenda that concern climate change and energy security.
It is because of the urgent need to deal with climate change that we are committed to making this Government the greenest ever by taking that urgently needed action at home and abroad. This is not merely an aspiration; it is essential. The actions of this Government in this Parliament will define our ability to combat climate change in the decades to come. That is why, in the first week of the new Government, the Prime Minister announced that Departments would reduce their carbon emissions by 10% in the next 12 months-an early indication of our intention to take real action rather than merely setting meaningless targets.
Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab): One thing that was mentioned in the Queen's Speech was high-speed rail. Will the right hon. Gentleman please give us a commitment on the date on which high-speed rail investment will begin? Will it begin in 2012, and will high-speed rail come to Leeds? The Labour Government made both those commitments in the last Parliament.
Chris Huhne: Parties on both sides of the House were committed to high-speed rail and it is crucial that we make progress on this agenda, but the hon. Lady would not expect me to announce quite the detail that she is awaiting at this stage of the Government's work. There is no doubt that we will be making serious progress on that agenda.
Internationally, we will work towards an ambitious global climate deal that will limit emissions. We will explore the creation of new international sources of funding to support countries both in limiting emissions and in adapting to the unavoidable consequences of climate change. Often the very poorest and most vulnerable countries are at greatest risk from the impacts of climate change, yet they have the least resources to participate in discussions that directly affect their future, so we will explore ways of helping those countries to take part in the international climate change negotiations-for example, in providing technical support.
David Tredinnick (Bosworth) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that 2010 is the United Nations year of biodiversity and the very countries that he is mentioning are losing many species? Our own bumble bees and other species are under threat. Without a Bill, what specifically will he do to help stop the loss of species?
Biodiversity is absolutely crucial, particularly in those tropical areas where concentrations of biodiversity that are under threat potentially have enormous implications for our collective human future
if they are lost. The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will address that point in detail when she winds up.
Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I want to bring the Secretary of State back to the answer that he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) on high-speed rail. The previous Government-supported by the Liberal Democrats-had a very clear commitment that one branch of high-speed rail should go to Sheffield and to Leeds. Is he now saying that the Government are not necessarily committed to that policy? Is he saying that it is being reviewed and reconsidered? What is the position, because people in Sheffield and Leeds want to know?
Chris Huhne: Let me be absolutely clear for the hon. Gentleman: this is a matter for the Department for Transport in due course, and my colleague the Secretary of State for Transport will come forward with plans. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he supported a Government who have just left office and who did not make clear those details. It is unreasonable at this point to ask for that level of detail from this Government.
The EU has the opportunity both to press for ambitious action internationally and to show the world its commitment to making the transition to a low-carbon economy. We will push for the EU to demonstrate leadership in tackling international climate change, including by supporting an increase in the EU emission reduction target to 30% by 2020. We cannot expect poorer developing countries to cut their emissions if we do not take the lead.
Emma Reynolds (Wolverhampton North East) (Lab): I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on his promotion. I worked in the European Parliament when he was a Member of it. Will he use his powers of persuasion to persuade some of the Tory MEPs to act and to vote on climate change issues in that Parliament, given that the EU is a force for good on climate change? Without those MEPs voting for legislation on climate change, that will not be possible.
Chris Huhne: I certainly agree about the importance of the EU in tackling environmental issues and the climate change agenda. We would not have made as much progress as we have internationally on climate change had it not been for the efforts of the EU.
There are two major threats to our energy security-our growing dependence on imports of fossil fuels and the retirement of much of our electricity generating capacity. After years of self-sufficiency in the production of fossil fuels, we are now becoming ever more dependent on imports. For example, National Grid suggests that gas imports will account for 70% of UK gas demand by 2018, up from 1% in 2000.
Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on taking up his post. What message on gas imports, gas security and the whole pricing structure of gas will he give to my constituents-and, indeed, those of my hon. Friends the Members for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt)-among whom there are manufacturers of ceramic ware who are dependent on that gas and, more importantly, on fluctuations in the price of that gas, which can vary widely from week to week, and almost from day to day?
Chris Huhne: The key to many of these issues will be long-term contracts ensuring security of supply, and I have not seen any projections of our energy security that do not involve a very important continuing role for gas in the transition to a low-carbon economy. I hope that that provides some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman's constituents.
Much of our generating capacity is reaching the end of its working life or will not meet the increasingly stringent controls on emissions that will be imposed by the large combustion plant directive. By 2020, at least a third of our coal-fired capacity and nearly three quarters of our nuclear capacity is likely to have closed down.
Clive Efford: Will the Secretary of State explain to the House his policy on nuclear power and on nuclear energy meeting the future energy needs of this country, and while he is doing so, will he also explain the policy of the Government?
Chris Huhne: I think the hon. Gentleman is unwise to assume that the policy of Government is different from the policy I am putting forward, but I will very happily come on to those issues in the next section of my speech.
In order to meet these climate and energy challenges, we must diversify our energy mix, making better use of our own natural resources such as wind and marine, and developing the clean coal technologies required to allow coal-fired power stations to continue to be part of a low-carbon mix. It is a scandal that in 2009 the UK still generated only 6.6% of our electricity from renewables. We have outstanding potential within the EU for renewable energy, yet we come second to bottom in the class of all 27 member states in our attainment from renewables. That must, and will, change.
Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): My right hon. Friend last week took time to visit the all-energy exhibition in Aberdeen. Will he acknowledge from his experience there that running the North sea oil and gas industry and the expanding offshore renewables industry is, in fact, a partnership rather than a competition as the same companies and technology can deliver both, provided that they move in tandem?
Chris Huhne: I fully agree with my right hon. Friend, who makes an extremely good point. I was very struck when talking to some of the companies involved by the fact that the expertise and technology that had been developed in very hostile environments in the North sea for the offshore oil and gas industry can now be pressed into service to provide platforms for renewable wind.
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