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House of Commons

Thursday 17 October 2013

The House met at half-past Nine o’clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy Bills

1. Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. [900513]

6. Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. [900520]

18. Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): What steps he is taking to help households with their energy bills. [900537]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): With your permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to group this question with several others.

I am taking many steps to help, which come under three broad categories—

Mr Speaker: Order. I think the Secretary of State is seeking to group this question with Questions 6 and 18. I understand the concept of the broad brush, but it can be taken a bit far. We need greater specificity.

Mr Davey: As always, I am very grateful for your advice, Mr Speaker, as I am sure the House is, too.

I will start again. I am taking many steps to help households with their energy bills. Those steps come under three broad categories: first, direct help for millions of people, with money off their bills and money to help to pay their bills, through the warm home discount, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments; secondly, energy efficiency, to help people to cut their bills by wasting less energy, through the energy company obligation, the green deal and smart meters; and thirdly, competition. I am intervening to make electricity and gas markets in the UK ever more competitive, so that energy companies cannot exploit people through market power.

Ian Lucas: Does the Secretary of State think that SSE’s proposed increase of 8.2% is reasonable?

Mr Davey: Of course I am disappointed by energy companies that are putting up their prices. The key thing is competition, and we in this Government have pushed competition hard. The big six were the creation

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of the last Government, when we saw the number of companies reduced. Under this Government, competition is increasing. I would urge people who are disappointed by increases from their energy company to shop around and switch, because there are some very good deals out there.

Mrs Glindon: Last week the Prime Minister said that Labour had definitely “struck a chord” on energy prices and that

“There’s a certain amount you can do freezing prices,”

so will the Minister freeze prices, which will benefit more than 47,000 households in my constituency?

Mr Davey: The hon. Lady was obviously not at Prime Minister’s questions yesterday, because the Prime Minister called it a con, and he is right. Labour’s energy price freeze is a con. Let me explain to the Opposition why it is a con, because when people see a politician promising something for nothing, they do not believe them. The policy cannot control prices before Labour’s price freeze and it cannot control prices after it, so energy companies are likely to hike prices before and after. Consumers will be worse off as a result of such a measure.

Ian Lavery: Energy bills have already risen by £300 and are set to increase by perhaps another £100 this year. In my constituency, more than 36,000 people would benefit if the Government took action to freeze bills this year, which could save up to £120 per household. Why will the Government not stop defending the big six companies and other companies, and get on the side of the consumers and help them out this winter?

Mr Davey: We are on the side of the consumer, because we are promoting competition. The hon. Gentleman and his party, through their price freeze, will hurt competition. Let me explain it to him. Whereas we have seen companies entering the market under this Government, a price freeze would hurt small suppliers. If he doubts my word, he should listen to the small suppliers themselves. Nigel Cornwall, of the Energy Suppliers Forum, says that Labour’s policy

“ignores real progress made in increasing competition in the market over recent years”.

Small suppliers do not like Labour’s policy because they know it would hurt consumers.

Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that nobody suffers more than consumers in rural areas that are off grid? The ECO system was supposed to ensure that 15% of the funding went to upgrade hard-to-reach homes in rural areas, but the evidence on the ground is that the big six are unwilling to assist with supplying new oil-fired liquefied petroleum gas boilers. Given that energy bills are more than 50% higher in off-grid areas, will he raise the issue with the energy companies and ensure that all households can receive help?

Mr Davey: My hon. Friend raises an interesting question. Almost all aspects of the energy company obligation are working well, but the rural sub-obligation—the bit he is referring to—is not working so well, and we are looking at how it can be improved.

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Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): The Opposition want to have their cake and eat it. They say they want to decarbonise the energy market, yet they also say they do not want people to pay for it. Can my right hon. Friend bring some reality and honesty to the argument and tell us how we decarbonise the economy while at the same time trying to keep costs to consumers to a minimum?

Mr Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Energy Bill and electricity market reform do just that. He may be interested to know that we have today asked the Leader of the Opposition 10 questions about Labour’s policy. If we look at it, we not only find that it is a con that will reduce competition and hurt the small suppliers, but that it will hurt investment, too, which is needed to keep energy security and to decarbonise. Labour’s policy is economically illiterate.

Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): SSE’s 8.2% average price increase—we should remember that some people have to pay more than that—is unacceptable when the company is boasting on its website about the large dividends it pays out to its shareholders every year. I see competition as the answer. Will my right hon. Friend tell my constituents what concrete steps are being taken to improve competition and when they will be able to have a much wider choice than they have at the moment?

Mr Davey: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. When big energy companies make these high price rises, I would urge all their customers to look at the competition available. There is a lot of choice out there. In fact, there is far more choice than there has been for a long time—possibly ever. The last Government killed choice and reduced competition; under this Government, we have seen a big increase.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): Let me tell the Secretary of State that if Labour is elected, our price freeze will happen, and if companies collude to increase prices beforehand, we will take action. The right hon. Gentleman is the one in government, so if companies try to hike up their prices beyond anything that can be justified before 2015, will he stop them—yes or no?

Mr Davey: We will help customers to get the best deals. The right hon. Lady knows that. She knows that on the current market, customers can get much better deals than those offered by the big six. She knows that the number of small suppliers has increased. She knows that in 2011 there were no independent suppliers with more than 50,000 customers. Thanks to our policies, there are now three with more than 100,000 and a further seven companies have entered the market in the last two years. That is the choice; that is the solution: people can cut their bills significantly by changing supplier.

Caroline Flint: There you have it, Mr Speaker: every single time, this Government put the energy companies before consumers. According to figures from the House of Commons Library, energy prices are rising three times faster under this Government than under the last Labour Government. Our price freeze will save money for 27 million households and 2.4 million businesses while we reset the market. It is the right hon. Gentleman’s

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policy that is a con; he says everyone will be put on the cheapest tariff, but is it not a fact that 90% of people will see no benefit from his policy at all?

Mr Davey: Millions are seeing benefits from our policy of competition. The right hon. Lady has made a very interesting point today. In response to our charge that Labour’s policy is a con, because energy companies could push up bills beforehand and after, she said that Labour would take action if they do. Does that mean that she is going to introduce full price regulation? Is Labour now promising that, because that is the implication of what she said?

Energy Efficiency

3. Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency. [900516]

11. Ann McKechin (Glasgow North) (Lab): What steps he is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency. [900525]

16. Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): What steps he is taking to help households improve their energy efficiency. [900534]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): For the first time ever, the UK now has a national energy efficiency strategy. This is something no Government have put in place before. Helping to cut energy bills is at the heart of this drive through the green deal, energy company obligation, electricity market reform, smart meter roll-out and support for innovation, research and development. They all demonstrate the Government’s determination to drive unprecedented investment into energy efficiency.

Alex Cunningham: I think that just 25 people have benefited from the green deal in my constituency so far, but thousands of people across Stockton-on-Tees could have warmer homes thanks to a tremendous project to externally clad their homes run by the borough council and deliverer partner, Go Warm. This has attracted £20 million of investment and 300 jobs. Sadly, a legal judgment means that BT is the only company that can remove the eyelets that support the wires in the houses that are benefiting from the scheme. This is slowing the programme down because of insufficient resources to do the work in a reasonable time. Will the Minister please intervene, tell BT to get its act together, get the work done more quickly and give my constituents the warmth they deserve?

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman raises a legitimate point about BT. I will certainly look at this in more detail and would be happy to meet him to discuss it. We want to press ahead. We have an ambitious efficiency programme, which is led by the energy company obligation. We believe that through a combination of the ECO and the green deal, nearly 250,000 people will have seen their homes improve by Christmas.

Ann McKechin: Fuel poverty is increasing, but the amount of money spent on energy efficiency programmes

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directed at the fuel poor has decreased by 50% since 2010. Is it not time that the Minister changed his priorities?

Gregory Barker: The hon. Lady seems to be confusing the record of the coalition with that of the last Government. During the last Parliament, fuel poverty rose in every single year; under the coalition, it has fallen in every year. [Interruption.] The definition has not been changed yet. It will be changed next year, on a cross-party basis.

We still have a great deal to do, but this Government are rolling up their sleeves and making a difference, unlike the last Government. They had the chance to deal with fuel poverty, but it rose in every single year of the last Parliament.

Luciana Berger: The Government forecast that the green deal and the energy company obligation would create 60,000 jobs, but earlier this year the Insulation Industry Forum confirmed that more than 4,000 jobs had been lost during the transition to the ECO. Just the other week, Carillion, a leading green deal provider, was forced to announce a restructuring that is expected to lead to further job losses in the green deal sector. That is a disaster for the workers who are affected, for their families, and for our low-carbon industry. Can the Minister confirm the number of people who have lost their jobs since the scheme was launched, and can he explain why this is happening?

Gregory Barker: We are certainly seeing a change in the industry, and we expect to see a structural change. New companies are now entering the market. The growth that we are seeing is not in the big energy companies created by the last Labour Government, but in the small and medium-sized enterprises, the independents and entrepreneurs who are being championed by the coalition. The ECO is helping more than 215,000 households, and we expect it—in combination with other measures—to enable nearly a quarter of a million homes to benefit from insulation, and from a range of new products that were not available before, by the end of the year.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that fuel poverty would be worsened if the cost of the capital required for the billions of pounds of new investment rose because of heightened political risk associated with the United Kingdom? Indeed, is that not exactly what the Leader of the Opposition has achieved? Surely his comments will make fuel poverty worse.

Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend, who has huge experience in these matters, is absolutely right. Labour’s policy would scorch investment. According to an analysis by Cornwall Energy, which leads the monthly forum for independent energy companies, Labour’s policy is “wrong”, and

“based on imperfect information, flawed assumptions and emotion, which will cost the consumer dearly. There are at least five significant problems with it.”

Labour’s policy would indeed have an impact on the cost of capital and on investment, and consumers—particularly vulnerable consumers—would be left to pick up the pieces.

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Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): A report by Anna Walker did a huge amount to improve energy and water efficiency. What are the Government doing to educate people, and to advise them not to heat water beyond what they use and to become more energy and water-efficient?

Gregory Barker: Any green deal assessment will feature a number of recommendations. We have found that people are very pleased with their assessments. More than 80,000 people have had a green deal survey, and 81% said that as a result of a survey they had taken action, would be taking action or were currently taking action, while 72% said that they were recommending the green deal to their friends. It is still early days, but the green deal, with its range of measures from handy tips to big structural changes in homes, is the way forward.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I have been contacted by a pensioner constituent whose annual heating bill is £700. He lives in a terraced house in the middle of Kettering with a solid wall that requires external insulation and rendering. He has been in touch with 17 local companies, and has been told that he must pay between £4,000 and £15,000 to get the work done and that the green deal is not available to help with that type of work. Can the Minister please advise?

Gregory Barker: That is very puzzling, because the ECO, which is designed to complement the green deal, has exactly that sort of consumer in mind. I should be happy to meet my hon. Friend to discuss his constituent and see how we can help.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): During the passage of the Energy Bill I raised with the Minister the way that the Government’s policy on simplifying tariffs is resulting in some customers paying more. Ofgem’s recommendation of the reintroduction of standing charges is resulting in some customers who are energy-efficient, increasing, rather than lowering, their bills. That cannot be right. Why cannot the Government look into it?

Gregory Barker: I am sorry, but I did not catch all of the hon. Gentleman’s question. He raises a serious point, however, and I will be very happy to talk to him in more detail about our tariff plans. This is a Government who are taking real action to simplify tariffs, to get on the side of the consumer and to deliver better value for money after years of inactivity and inaction under the last Labour Government.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): Because this Government will not stand up to the energy companies, Ministers in other Departments are clearly eyeing up the ECO scheme that funds energy-saving measures as a short-term, although counter-productive, way to reduce bills, but is not the poor running of the ECO scheme by Ministers what has made it so vulnerable? It is too bureaucratic, it is not geographically focused and it does not prioritise the genuinely fuel-poor. What is the Minister going to do to sort it out?

Gregory Barker: First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his post? I am not sure whether he is the 10th or 11th member of the Labour party I have had

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opposite me on the Labour Front-Bench, but I hope he has a long stay on the Opposition Front-Bench—a very long stay indeed.

The hon. Gentleman’s criticisms of the ECO are misplaced. I am not saying it is perfect, and as we go forward we will always look to improve the scheme, but, as I said earlier, we anticipate that between 215,000 and 230,000 homes will be helped by the ECO by Christmas this year—that is nearly a quarter of a million families benefiting from warmer homes and cheaper bills. I will be very happy to organise a briefing for the hon. Gentleman, so next time he can, perhaps, come to questions a little better prepped.

Nuclear Power

4. Mr Marcus Jones (Nuneaton) (Con): What progress he has made on encouraging investment in new nuclear power. [900517]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Michael Fallon): The Government are committed to securing the right conditions for investment in new nuclear power in the UK. This is the first nuclear programme in a generation and it is progressing well, with projects to build new power plants moving forward with EDF, Horizon Nuclear Power and NuGen. Between them, those projects involve plans to develop at least 12 new reactors on five different sites.

Mr Jones: My constituents are extremely concerned about future energy prices and continuity of supply. With one fifth of UK generating capacity due to come offline within the next decade, does the Minister agree that we need to bring forward this new nuclear capacity as a matter of extreme urgency?

Michael Fallon: Yes, I do. We are living with the legacy of 13 wasted years in which absolutely nothing was done to replace our ageing nuclear stations. Under this coalition Government plans are now progressing, as I said, and we have every prospect of 12 new reactors on five separate sites.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): The Minister will know that I am not a convert to nuclear power, but I accept that the coalition Government have done a deal that says there will be no nuclear power that has public subsidy—so public subsidy will not be provided. How is the Government’s position reconcilable with an application for derogation from the EU rules on state aid?

Michael Fallon: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State’s predecessor set out to this House the circumstances in which support would be offered for the new nuclear technology we are negotiating on with EDF in respect of Hinkley C. When we conclude those negotiations—which I hope we will do very shortly—we will, of course, report the details of the investment contract to the House. I also note that the party of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) is now a supporter of nuclear power.

David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): The Minister may be aware that when Hinkley Point C comes onstream it will produce as much electricity in a year as every

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single onshore and offshore wind turbine we currently have. Given that, will he assure the House that there will not be a further 10-year delay in respect of future nuclear stations?

Michael Fallon: Nuclear power is a very important part of our energy mix and of our future energy security, which makes it all the more criminal that nothing was done for the long, long period of the Labour Government to replace the nuclear stations that are coming offline in the late 2020s and 2030s.

UK Energy Market

5. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): What recent assessment he has made of the competitiveness of the UK energy market. [900518]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): I keep the competitiveness of the UK energy market under constant review and have acted to make it more competitive. In retail markets, where companies are supplying customers, we have acted by deregulating to increase the number of suppliers and by reforming bills and tariffs. In wholesale markets, where companies are selling power they are generating to suppliers, Ofgem measures and measures in the Energy Bill will boost competition and market access for independent generators across the UK.

Chi Onwurah: Npower told my constituent Alan Gowers, a pensioner, that his tariff was ending and his new one would be 50% more expensive. SSE estimated that my spend would go up by 10% and so it tripled my direct debits. I have worked in competition regulation for six years and I can tell the Secretary of State that this is not a competitive market. When a market is not functioning—when it is fuelling a cost of living crisis—do a Government who stand up for people not intervene?

Mr Davey: We are intervening, because the market we inherited from the previous Government was not as competitive as it should have been. Before Labour’s previous energy market reforms, there were three generators and 14 suppliers—17 companies—but after those reforms the number went down to six, so Labour reduced competition. Labour is the party of the big six. This coalition Government have acted to make sure that we have competition to take on the big six, so the hon. Lady should speak to her Front Benchers because Labour is the party of non-competitive energy markets—the party of the big six—whereas our coalition Government are taking on the big six.

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire North) (Lab): As part of the competition assessment, the Secretary of State could do worse than visit the workers at Ineos at Grangemouth, who supply the energy needs for the whole of Scotland and, indeed, the north of England, and whose jobs are now under threat from a belligerent employer that has walked away from talks with the trade unions and, more seriously, is now demanding taxpayers’ money in order to invest in the company.

Mr Davey: I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s question. I hope he will be reassured by the fact that I have spoken personally both to key Unite trade union

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leaders and to Ineos. We persuaded them to go into ACAS talks. I regret that those talks have broken down, but I urge both parties to resume them and try to resolve this situation without industrial dispute. May I take this opportunity to say that, working with the Scottish Government and industry, we have done everything we can to make sure that if there is a dispute, the fuel will flow through Scotland’s economy?

Tom Greatrex (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) gave two of the many examples that hon. Members could give of how the retail energy market is not working in the interests of households or businesses. Ensuring that all power trading is on an open exchange and stopping companies selling power to themselves at secret prices, as we are proposing, will reset the market, encourage other entrants and ensure that people know why they are paying what they are paying. Will the Minister confirm the speculation in The Times at the weekend that his Government will shortly perform a welcome U-turn and adopt our proposal to introduce a pool that will bring clarity, fairness and transparency to the UK retail energy market?

Mr Davey: No, we will not, because we have got a much better policy. Working with Ofgem and in the Energy Bill, as the hon. Gentleman ought to know now, we are tackling the real problem in the wholesale market—a problem that the previous Labour Government completely failed to deal with. Interestingly, Labour’s new policy reverses the policy that Labour implemented in government —talk about confused; never have an Opposition been so confused in their policies.

Exploratory Drilling (Balcombe, West Sussex)

7. Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): What progress has been made on exploratory drilling in Balcombe, West Sussex. [900521]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): The licence holder, Cuadrilla, has drilled a well, including a horizontal section, in accordance with the planning permission granted by West Sussex county council, to explore for oil. Apart from the scrutiny by the planning authority, the proposals were subject to scrutiny by the Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive and my Department to ensure that the operations are safe and that the environment is protected.

Nicholas Soames: My right hon. Friend will know that Balcombe lies in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr Maude), who, as a Cabinet Minister, is unable to ask parliamentary questions. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the exploratory drilling at Balcombe was, as he said, subject to the most rigorous monitoring and regulation, that further detailed regulatory approvals would be needed before fracking could take place and that the recovery of these valuable energy resources will not override the need for local residents’ understandable concerns to be heard and registered?

Mr Davey: My right hon. Friend will know that I have spoken to our right hon. Friend about that. We have also ensured that the regulatory regime applying

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not just to west Sussex but across the country is as tough as any regulatory regime anywhere in the world and we keep it under review to ensure that it remains that tough. He might be interested to learn that the Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Michael Fallon), as Energy Minister, will meet west Sussex MPs next week to discuss the issue.

Renewable Energy

8. Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): What proportion of UK energy demand is met by renewable sources. [900522]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): In 2012, under the measure used for the 2009 EU renewable energy directive, renewable sources contributed 4.1% of gross final energy consumption. In terms of renewable electricity, however, the share of overall generation has more than doubled in the last three years, from 6% in the second quarter of 2010, when the Labour party left government, to 15.5% in the second quarter of 2013.

Jeremy Lefroy: I welcome that answer from my right hon. Friend. Alstom in my constituency supplies component parts for turbines used in tidal lagoons, such as those proposed by Tidal Lagoon Power, a consortium of which Alstom is a member. What is my right hon. Friend doing to support such tidal projects, which generate clean electricity and provide critical base load energy?

Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend will know that this Government have put much greater emphasis on driving forward the efforts to develop the potential for marine energy around our shoreline. We have created two marine energy parks to do that. Tidal lagoon is a very interesting technology. The project in Swansea is at a pre-planning application stage, so I cannot give a specific answer on that project, but we are interested in working on research and development to drive the technology forward.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): I do not know whether the Minister is as early a riser as I am, but on “Farming Today” there was a poor farmer who had been encouraged by a £1 million grant to grow willow and miscanthus. There is no market for it, nor great storage for it, so what kind of policy is that? Will the Minister listen to that programme, even if he has to listen to it on iPlayer, and do something about farmers who are trying to contribute to renewable energy?

Gregory Barker: A poor farmer with a £1 million grant seems a slight oxymoron, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is making a real point. I will happily look into the programme he mentions, but I regularly meet the National Farmers Union, the Country Land and Business Association and a range of stakeholders with an interest in bioenergy. We are making great progress under this Government and picking up the slack left by the last.

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr Sheerman) is wittering away from a sedentary position and meanwhile the right hon. Member for

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Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) is chuntering about the merits of cricket bats. I have not yet had the pleasure of observing the right hon. Gentleman bat, but I feel sure that that delight awaits me in due course.

Bill Wiggin (North Herefordshire) (Con): If The Times is correct that the nuclear industry will receive twice the wholesale price for electricity, what are the implications for renewable energy, and does that mean that we can continue to grow the sector?

Gregory Barker: The thing about this Government’s energy policy is that we want a range of technologies. Energy security will come from diversity, and we are committed to driving forward the nuclear programme in a way that the previous Labour Government did not, but not to the exclusion or detriment of significant investment in a range of other technologies, including, importantly, renewables and energy efficiency.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): What are the Government doing to ensure that the investment in the renewable industry paid for by UK taxpayers and UK energy bill payers results in jobs in the UK, not jobs elsewhere?

Gregory Barker: That is a very good question. We are doing a great deal more than the previous Government. The London Array, for example, was a fantastic installation, but it is a shame that 80% of it was constructed and contracted abroad. We now have an industrial strategy. We are working in partnership with the industry to establish, mobilise and grow a supply chain here in the UK. Only if we have a really vibrant UK supply chain is the roll-out of renewables at scale genuinely sustainable.

European Energy Markets

9. Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): What steps he is taking to promote competition in European energy markets. [900523]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Michael Fallon): The Government strongly support a competitive and better connected energy market across Europe. Increased competition can put downward pressure on energy prices in the long term and help us maintain secure supplies. We are involved in a number of areas to drive competition, including the development of EU-wide market rules, regional infrastructure initiatives and cross-border projects, including more interconnectors.

Neil Carmichael: I thank my right hon. Friend for that expansive answer. Does the Minister agree that, in contrast to Labour’s energy price con, the Government’s focus on more competition through the single market by enhancing the role of energy within that market is right?

Michael Fallon: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, and I could not have put it better. I shall be pursuing these issues later this afternoon in Brussels in the Commission.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): Why have the Government failed to include interconnection with Europe as part of the capacity payment arrangements that they recently announced as part of the DECC implementation programme?

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Michael Fallon: We have not ruled that out for the second stage. A number of proposals have been put to us for new interconnectors, and we are looking at each of them.

Julie Elliott (Sunderland Central) (Lab): As a result of weak competition and ineffective regulation, electricity prices in Britain—according to the Department’s own figures—are the sixth highest in the EU15, the third highest in the G7 and almost 20% above the EU15 and G7 average. The Minister will know that energy bills are the second biggest cost that businesses face, and that ever higher prices cost jobs and deter investment. Why will he not support Labour’s policy to stop unfair price rises by freezing energy bills until January 2017, saving the average business some £1,800, and reform the energy market to reintroduce competition and rebuild trust?

Michael Fallon: I welcome the hon. Lady to her new responsibilities. I think that the prices she quoted were pre-tax rather than post-tax, but the answer is simple—to bear down on prices, we need more competition. The Labour party left us with the big six. It started with 14 retailers; we ended up with the big six. The answer is more competition, easier switching and ensuring that the most vulnerable people are placed on the lowest possible tariff.

Wind Energy

10. Mr Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth East) (Con): What assessment he has made of the adequacy of support for offshore and onshore wind energy. [900524]

12. Andrea Leadsom (South Northamptonshire) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the adequacy of government subsidy for onshore wind farms. [900528]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Michael Fallon): Support for onshore and offshore wind projects is provided under the renewables obligation and, from next year, under contracts for difference. Support rates take account of the costs of each technology, and are intended to be sufficient to support delivery of our renewable energy and carbon reduction targets, while minimising costs to consumers.

Mr Ellwood: I am grateful for that reply. I hope that the Minister agrees with me that Bournemouth is one of the most attractive and popular seaside resorts in Britain. Whatever one’s views, tourism is important to the town and the area, but many of my constituents are concerned about the visual impact of the proposed offshore wind farm in Poole bay. There are many questions such as how many turbines will be built, the exact locations and how high they will be. I would be grateful for a meeting with the Minister to discuss this important matter.

Michael Fallon: I am very much aware of my hon. Friend’s strong concerns about the proposal. No application has been made, but let me assure him that the visual impact and acceptability of any installation is one of the factors that would be considered by the planning inspectorate and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in determining any application of this kind.

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Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his reply on the subject of subsidies, but given that the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has said that current planning applications give

“insufficient weight . . . to local environmental considerations like landscape, heritage and local amenity”,—[Official Report, 10 October 2013; Vol. 568, c. 31W]—

does he agree that the subsidies provided to developers need to take account of the very real local concerns about how these things are blighting the countryside?

Michael Fallon: We have reduced the support for onshore wind projects from April this year and the draft strike prices that we have set out are reduced over time up until 2018, but the new planning policy framework makes it clear that local authorities should have policies in place to ensure that any adverse impacts, including visual impacts and cumulative impacts, are addressed satisfactorily. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made it clear that he intends now to call in more applications at appeal to ensure that the new planning practice guidance is meeting the Government’s intentions.

Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): May I advise the Minister that while the incentives are clearly proving sufficient to encourage a number of prominent local Conservatives to apply for wind farms to be built on land in Northumberland, what concerns many of my constituents is whether landscape, which the Minister mentioned, and proximity to residences can be taken properly into account at every stage in the planning process?

Michael Fallon: Yes. I want to reassure my right hon. Friend. Planning applications in respect of onshore wind should be approved only if the impacts are acceptable to the local community. The new planning guidance from the Department for Communities and Local Government helps to deliver the balance that we expect, ensuring that proper weight is given to the visual impact, the cumulative impact and any heritage implications for particular sites.

Carbon Reduction Targets

13. Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): What progress his Department is making towards the UK’s carbon reduction targets. [900529]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): The Government are fully committed to meeting the greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets set out in the Climate Change Act 2008, and I am pleased to tell the House that the UK is now 25% below 1990 emissions levels and on track to meet our 2020 34% reduction target.

Andrew George: Many people query why that is important. The recently published Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change fifth assessment report confirms both the nature and the scale of climate change and human contribution to it. Does my right hon. Friend believe that any Government engaged in evidence-based

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policy making can afford to ignore these trends? What would be the risks and consequences if we attempted to do so?

Gregory Barker: This Government are very clear that we will continue to drive forward the decarbonisation of the energy sector and of the wider economy, consistent with meeting our targets in the Climate Change Act, which we are committed to. But we need to make sure that we do that in a way that keeps our industry competitive, does not put a burden on consumers and is consistent with growing prosperity. I think this coalition is absolutely up to that job.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): Why, then, did the British Government this week help Germany scupper a very important European agreement on reducing CO2 emissions from the most polluting vehicles?

Gregory Barker: We did not. [Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I think I heard the right hon. Member for Exeter (Mr Bradshaw) make an allegation of dishonesty. I must ask him to withdraw that word. I think he used a three-letter word which implied direct dishonesty.

Mr Bradshaw: I apologise, Mr Speaker, but perhaps the Minister could clarify how Britain voted.

Mr Speaker: We cannot continue the debate in that way. Topical questions will continue the exchange, but I must ask the right hon. Gentleman to withdraw that word.

Mr Bradshaw: I happily withdraw it.

Mr Speaker: I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. All these matters will be aired further, I am sure.

Graham Stringer (Blackley and Broughton) (Lab): It is true that emissions are down both from this country and in Europe, but the contribution of Europe and the United Kingdom to atmospheric carbon dioxide is increasing because of imported manufactured goods. What is the Minister going to do about that?

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman does have a point. Ultimately, we will not defeat dangerous manmade climate change unless there is a global solution. Although we can play our part, the important thing is that we secure a global deal involving all the major economies, particularly China, America and the other fast-growing developing economies, and get everybody on a sustainable economic path. That is why we are putting more and more effort into securing a meaningful, robust global treaty in 2015.

Energy Support (Northumberland)

14. Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to ensure that residents of Northumberland who are off the grid have sufficient support during cold weather this winter. [900531]

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The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Michael Fallon): The Government want everybody to be able to access secure and affordable fuel supplies for heating their homes. This year’s “Buy oil early” campaign was launched on 11 September to encourage consumers to stock up early and join oil-buying groups, where cost savings can be found. I will continue to work through the all-party group and the ministerial roundtable on off-gas grid issues to see what further action is required.

Guy Opperman: I thank the Minister for that answer. Our concern should particularly be for vulnerable residents caught out by sudden spring cold snaps. Does he agree that there is scope for a pilot project in Northumberland in which a consortium of oil-buying clubs, parish councils and credit unions could be funded to assist such residents?

Michael Fallon: Yes; we very much welcome the development of local initiatives that can help promote a more affordable supply of heating oil to consumers. I look forward to seeing my hon. Friend’s final proposals for a pilot project in Northumberland and will then ask my officials to consider what support might be made available to assist him in taking it forward.

EU Anti-dumping Tariffs

15. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): What assessment he has made of the potential effects of proposed EU anti-dumping tariffs applicable to solar PV cells manufactured in China; and if he will make a statement. [900533]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): Following a robust intervention from the UK, including a delegation of key industry players that I took to Brussels, the European Commission has negotiated an agreement with Chinese exporters that is a significant improvement on the initial EU position. The agreement should mean that we will not undermine the future of the UK solar PV industry or deprive UK consumers of the benefits of cheaper solar panels.

Michael Fabricant: I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. It is good to hear that he stands up not only to the energy companies, but to the European Commission. Does he not agree that if the European Commission had had its way, its tariffs would have not only been inflationary, but damaged the photovoltaic industry, which does so much good in employing people in this country?

Gregory Barker: How typical of my hon. Friend to align himself with an energy source driven by sunshine. I am grateful to him for pointing this out. The UK’s solar sector now has a strong future, thanks to our reforms. It is affordable for consumers, who pay for the subsidy through their bills, and it is now scalable. We are working with the industry to drive down the costs and make this an attractive proposition for consumers up and down the country.

Fuel Poverty

17. Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): What steps he has taken to reduce fuel poverty this winter. [900536]

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The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): This year the green deal and the energy company obligation have already transformed the homes of 216,000 low-income and vulnerable households, cutting bills and keeping people warm. Additionally, this winter our warm home discount scheme will pay out to 2 million households, including over 1 million of the poorest pensioners. The Government have also permanently increased cold weather payments to £25 a week, and all pensioners will receive winter fuel payments.

Andrew Stephenson: I thank the Minister for that answer. My constituents want practical help with energy bills, not a rearrangement of the deckchairs at the regulator, Ofgem. Will he confirm what steps the Government are taking to help my most vulnerable constituents keep warm this winter?

Gregory Barker: Absolutely. There will be no return to the 1970s under this Government. We will offer practical help to people struggling with energy bills. This winter, as I have said, that means: a warm home discount worth £135 for 2 million households, including 1.1 million pensioners; guaranteed winter fuel payments for all pensioners; and cold weather payments permanently uprated to £25. Of course, we are also rolling out the most ambitious energy efficiency programme to date, which I am sure will be of great help to my hon. Friend’s constituents.

Topical Questions

T1. [900538] Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Selly Oak) (Lab): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): Since the last Energy and Climate Change questions we have been busy. The Energy Bill is continuing its progress through Parliament and we hope that it will achieve Royal Assent by the end of the year. That will help deliver the modernised infrastructure and cleaner energy that the country needs to meet our energy security requirements and climate change obligations. The House might be interested to know the latest figures we have on investment: we have seen at least £35 billion invested in increased electricity infrastructure alone since 2010, a 56% year-on-year increase in renewable energy investment and a doubling of renewable electricity generation under this Government. Also, our policies to help the fuel poor are in place for the winter.[Official Report, 1 November 2013, Vol. 569, c. 7MC.]

Steve McCabe: Pensioner Val Soames has been in touch to advise me that E.ON has told her that it is scrapping its fixed-rate StayWarm pensioner tariff as a result of Government policy, just in time to increase the bills of thousands of pensioners this winter. When exactly did the Minister last speak to E.ON about this problem, and how is he going to put it right?

Mr Davey: I speak to E.ON and other energy suppliers and generators frequently. We are looking at the tariff reforms to make sure that they deliver the competitive markets that Ofgem believes they will. We believe that a large number of people will be really benefited by these reforms.

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T3. [900540] Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The Government are rightly encouraging investment in energy infrastructure by institutional investors through initiatives such as the Treasury’s pensions infrastructure platform. Will the Minister’s Department tell the Treasury how important it is that that investment in infrastructure is low-carbon and compatible with our overall climate change goals, and will he welcome ShareAction’s campaign to encourage institutional investors to invest in truly green energy futures?

Mr Davey: My hon. Friend knows that we are a champion of low-carbon energy investment. I strongly welcome ShareAction’s campaign to promote responsible investment by pension funds and fund managers. People who operate these pension funds should think long term, and there is no longer-term problem and challenge for the people they are investing for than climate change.

Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): During these questions British Gas has announced that from 23 November it will increase its gas prices by 8.4% and its electricity prices by 10.4%. This is the company that, with Centrica, has passed on the highest share of its profits to its shareholders while making the least amount of investment into what we need to ensure our energy security in future. Two years ago the accountancy firm BDO warned that the big six energy companies could be under-reporting their profits and recommended tighter rules, but the Government and Ofgem failed to act. We backed the new rules, and so did a recent Select Committee report, but in their response all the Government could say was, “Government is not in a position to comment.” Why will not the Secretary of State stand up for consumers, support Labour’s price freeze and make the energy companies tell us exactly how much money they are earning?

Mr Davey: First, that is extremely disappointing news for British Gas customers. British Gas will need to justify its decision openly and transparently to bill-payers. British Gas was the only energy company not to meet its targets under the previous obligation to make its customers’ homes more energy-efficient. That left more homes cold and its customers paying over the odds. British Gas has form in failing to meet its targets, the last of which was set by Labour. I hope that the right hon. Lady will join me in making sure that British Gas is more transparent about its costs. We are pushing competition, and I urge British Gas customers who are unhappy to change their supplier.

T4. [900541] Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): I welcome the emphasis on microgeneration, including ground-source and air-source heat pumps, plus deploying solar PV on rooftops and brownfield sites where appropriate, and I recognise its potential, but what is being done to stop deployment of the unwanted large-scale ground-mounted PV farms?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): My hon. Friend makes a good point. We have an ambitious plan for solar, focused on rooftops, on-site generation and brownfield sites. That is why this summer we toughened up the planning guidance, distributed it to local authorities, and made it absolutely clear that the need for renewable

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energy does not automatically override environmental protections and the planning concerns of local communities. I want to see our guidance in force, and I will be writing to local planning bosses to make sure that they take it on board.

T2. [900539] Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): Under this Government, according to Ofgem’s latest figures, average household fuel bills have increased by £315 a year, while wholesale energy prices have gone up by just £145 a year. That leaves a gap of £170 a year. How much of that is made up by the extra tax taken by the Government from consumers, and how much by higher profits taken by the energy companies?

Mr Davey: The hon. Gentleman will know that the vast majority of the rises in people’s bills have come from wholesale prices, as he said, and network cost rises. He should know that a bill is made up of a host of things: the biggest portion is wholesale and the next biggest is network cost. They are the big cost measures that people are unfortunately experiencing.

T7. [900544] Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): In my constituency there are two major brick-manufacturing companies. As hon. Members will know, brick making is highly energy-intensive, and I am concerned that, without action, increased energy costs will make their product potentially unaffordable to the construction industry, which is getting on with the essential task of building the homes we desperately need. What is my right hon. Friend doing to address this urgent and pressing issue?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Michael Fallon): I will certainly look at my hon. Friend’s specific points about the brick industry. We have an energy-intensive industries support scheme and are already making payments under it. We hope to conclude further payments by the end of this month. I will certainly see what can be done to help the brick-making industry and see whether it can be included in our measures.

T5. [900542] Gregg McClymont (Cumbernauld, Kilsyth and Kirkintilloch East) (Lab): On the question asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) about British Gas price rises, will the Secretary of State explain how British Gas has increased its operating profit to nearly £1.6 billion, as announced in June 2013, and yet people around the country will now see their prices rise by 8% and 10%? How can that be fair to this country’s consumers? When will the Government get a grip on this and finally do something about it?

Mr Davey: We are doing things about it. Not only are we promoting competition and urging people who are unhappy with suppliers such as British Gas to change and choose others—there are plenty out there, thanks to this and not the hon. Gentleman’s Government—but we are also making sure that the energy companies are more transparent. I urge British Gas to publish and be more transparent about the increased policy costs that it is blaming for these bill rises. We have looked at its

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initial figures and question whether the policy costs, which it claims are putting up the bill, are the root cause.

T9. [900547] Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Given the importance that the Minister has placed on converting coal-fired power stations to biomass, including the plans for those in Drax and Eggborough in my constituency, and also in the light of National Grid’s winter outlook report, which states that capacity reserves could be as low as 5%, will he update the House on the progress of those two strategically important projects?

Michael Fallon: We recognise the importance of biomass projects such as those in my hon. Friend’s constituency. We included draft strike prices for biomass in the prices we published at the end of June and we expect to confirm them by the end of the year. We hope that between 1 GW and 4 GW of biomass will come onstream.

T8. [900546] Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): The Minister previously promised me that he would discuss cold alarms with the energy suppliers and let me know their response, but he has not. With people choosing between heating and eating, and with prices ridiculously high, will he please now tell me what progress he has made on cold alarms, which will alert vulnerable people and their carers when temperatures become dangerously low and prevent more unnecessary deaths this winter?

Gregory Barker: I apologise to the hon. Lady. I am not sure whether she actually wrote to me, which I invited her to do following her question. I will look at the issue again after these questions to see where we are, and I will write to her later today.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): Will the Minister confirm that he is continuing to work with industry to agree a long-term strategy for the offshore wind sector that will secure large-scale private investment and create thousands of jobs in my constituency and other coastal constituencies?

Michael Fallon: We have an offshore wind industrial strategy, which we published earlier this summer, and I look forward to taking it forward with the Offshore Wind Industry Council, which I co-chair. Offshore wind is part of the energy mix. We have put draft strike prices out for consultation, which has now closed, and we are analysing the responses. We expect to confirm the final strike prices for offshore wind by the end of the year.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): A missive from Ineos Grangemouth, which supplies 80% of the fuel for Scotland and the north of England and accounts for 10% of the gross national product of Scotland, says that the plant is

“shut and will remain shut”.

I have kept all Ministers informed through the Secretary of State for Scotland, as well as those on the Opposition Front Bench. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change said earlier that he wanted people to get back to ACAS. However, he has also made it clear that supplies will still get through to Scotland by other means. The company has prepared for this and the cold

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shutdown of the refinery and petrochemical plant has been done deliberately. It must be urged to start up the plant again and to take the knife from the throat of the workers and the gun from the head of the Scottish people.

Mr Davey: I know that the hon. Gentleman takes a close interest in this matter and is a voice of moderation. He knows that I have worked hard to get the ACAS talks going. They did get going, but unfortunately they broke down. I repeat my request that all sides get around the table and resolve the matter without a dispute. I am pleased that Unite called off the strike. We have been working with the Scottish Government and the industry to ensure that Scotland gets the petrol, diesel and heating oil that it needs.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): When will the Government publish the Atkins report and their response so that we can begin to unlock the huge potential in Cornwall and the UK for deep geothermal energy?

Mr Davey: That is an important report. I cannot give my hon. Friend an exact time, but it will be published relatively shortly.

Andy McDonald (Middlesbrough) (Lab): Given the announcement from British Gas, would the Secretary of State not be best advised, rather than just expressing disappointment and urging transparency, to send out the message that there will come a point when he will intervene on these companies that are jacking up prices? At what point will he intervene?

Mr Davey: I have done more than that from the Dispatch Box. I have said to British Gas customers that if they are worried about the prices, they should change supplier. A range of competitors and alternative suppliers are offering much better deals. By the way, those suppliers are there because of the actions of this Government. In 2011, no other independent supplier could compete with British Gas and SSE, and none had more than 50,000 customers. We now have strong, independent suppliers that customers can turn to and I urge them to do so.

Julian Sturdy (York Outer) (Con): In welcoming the new solar road map, in which the Minister sets out guiding principles for the appropriate siting of solar PV, may I ask what added protection from solar farms the road map gives to green-belt land?

Gregory Barker: The road map sets out our industrial strategy. The right place to protect important areas such as the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and grade 1 agricultural land, about which we care passionately, must be the planning process. In particular, we must ensure that local people have a proper say. That is why I am reminding local planning authorities that they have a duty to enforce that.

Mr Speaker: I do not know why the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) was not heard with his first question, but I hope that he will be heard this time.

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Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): A number of times today, the Secretary of State and his Ministers have defended the policy of simplifying tariffs for energy customers, but they have not once addressed the fact that low energy users, who are often people on low incomes, are worse off because of the recommendation from Ofgem to reintroduce standing charges. Will he look at that issue and ask Ofgem to reconsider the policy that it appears to be imposing on the energy suppliers?

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Mr Davey: We believe, and there is a huge amount of evidence for this, that the Ofgem reforms will lead to more competition, because they will get rid of a lot of the confusion and complexity. The last Government failed to act on the multitude of tariffs, which have got in the way of the consumer’s ability to choose. There may well be a few people who see an increase in tariffs in the short term because of Ofgem’s reforms, but because of the extra competition that will bear down on prices, the majority of people will get a better deal.

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Al-Madinah Free School

10.33 am

Tristram Hunt (Stoke-on-Trent Central) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Education to make a statement on the failings of the Al-Madinah free school revealed in the Ofsted inspection report.

The Minister for Schools (Mr David Laws): I welcome this opportunity to make a statement on the Al-Madinah free school, and I apologise to the House for the absence of the Secretary of State, who is abroad. We have received the letter that the hon. Gentleman sent to the Secretary of State on 15 October, raising issues relating to that school, and Lord Nash and I will respond to it shortly.

The Al-Madinah free school serves children and young people between the ages of 4 and 16 in the Derby city community, and it has been open for just a year. After a steady start by the school we became aware of potential breaches of the conditions in its funding agreement late this summer, and at the end of July we began a wide-ranging investigation into the financial management and governance of the school. We investigated whether it was delivering on its commitment to be inclusive, and we investigated allegations about the imposition of a dress requirement on female members of staff. Our investigations did indeed find significant and numerous breaches of the conditions in the school’s funding agreement, and our concerns were such that we requested Ofsted to bring forward its planned inspection.

The Ofsted report is published this morning. It found that the school is dysfunctional, and inadequate across every category of inspection: achievement of pupils; quality of teaching; behaviour and safety of pupils; and leadership and management. We were already taking decisive action before we received the Ofsted report. Lord Nash wrote to the chair of the trust on 8 October, following the previous investigations, and set out all the requirements for the trust to take swift and decisive actions to deal with the serious concerns. We have been clear with the trust that failure to do so promptly will result in the school’s funding being terminated. We have also been clear that the trust must address all the breaches identified. We will not let any school, whether a free school, an academy, or a local authority school, languish in failure. The Ofsted report confirms that we are taking the right actions. We are not prepared to allow a school to fail its parents, its children and its community. We said we would take swift action in these cases, and that is exactly what we are doing.

Tristram Hunt: Today’s Ofsted report exposes the fact that the Government’s free school programme has become a dangerous free for all, an out-of-control, ideological experiment that has closed a school, leaving 400 children losing an entire week of learning. It is a devastating blow to the Education Secretary’s flagship policy, and reveals that pupils have been failed on every possible measure. Parents will want to know why the Education Secretary has allowed that to happen.

Contrary to what the Minister said, in a pre-registration report in July 2012, Ofsted deemed the school to be failing to meet basic child protection standards, even before it was opened. Why did Ministers not act on

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those concerns before signing a funding agreement for the school? Why have Ministers allowed a school to be run by large numbers of unqualified staff? Why have Ministers sanctioned “dangerous levels” of safety and behaviour, and why have they allowed children with special educational needs to be left to struggle? In a city where every child needs to be supported and educated to the highest possible level, the Education Secretary has sacrificed learning for ideology. It is not just Al-Madinah school that is dysfunctional; it is the Education Secretary’s free schools policy.

Mr Laws: The support of the Labour party for free schools did not last long, did it? I do not know how the hon. Gentleman has the nerve to come to the House. On Sunday he was going around television studios and saying that Labour was shifting its position on free schools. He said:

“We will keep those free schools going”.

Within the same set of Department for Education press cuttings in which he announced he was shifting his position in favour of free schools, we find a headline stating that Labour now plans to rein in free schools. It is complete and utter incoherence from the hon. Gentleman, and he should be ashamed.

Let me respond in detail to every single serious point the hon. Gentleman made—it will not take very long—and go back over what has happened in Al-Madinah school and the scrutiny to which it has been subjected. The school opened in September 2012. It had a pre-registration Ofsted report, as all such schools do—such a report is not sensational. In the report, Ofsted set down a number of requirements that it wanted met before the school opened. In advance of the school opening, the trust went through the requirements with the lead contact in the Department for Education. It produced certificates to show that it had done the safeguarding and first aid training, and a certificate—[Interruption.] The shadow Secretary of State ought to listen to this. The school produced a certificate authorised by the director of planning and transportation at Derby city council saying that the building was fit for occupation. After that, the Department sent an adviser to the school two months after it opened, who saw the good progress that the school was making at that stage.

In July 2013, we became aware of concerns about equalities and management issues at the school and acted immediately on that. We established an Education Funding Agency financial investigation into the school and sent our advisers to it. We asked Ofsted to bring forward its inspection, which has now taken place. Prior to receiving that inspection, the Under-Secretary of State, Lord Nash, wrote to the school setting out precisely the actions that it will take, and making it clear that its funding will not continue unless it addresses those things.

If the shadow Secretary of State is so supportive of free schools, why does he not have the responsibility to put the failure of the school into context? Seventy-five per cent. of the free schools that have opened have been rated good or outstanding by Ofsted. That is a higher proportion than the proportion of local authority schools. We did not hear that from the hon. Gentleman.

On complacency, which I believe is the allegation the hon. Gentleman makes, may I remind him of the record of the Labour Government whom he defends? At the

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end of their period in office, 8% of schools in this country —more than 1,500—were rated as inadequate, many had been so for years, with no action. By focusing on one school in which the Government are taking action, the hon. Gentleman is failing schools in this country, including ones that failed under the Labour Government, when little action was taken.

People listening to these exchanges and to the hon. Gentleman, and reflecting on what he said on Sunday and how he has stood on his head today, will see nothing other than total and utter opportunism and shambles from Labour’s education policy.

Mr Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): The leaked Ofsted report states that

“the governors have failed the parents of this community who have placed their trust in them.”

Will Ministers intervene to replace the current board of governors with an interim executive board? Looking to the future, what steps will the Minister take to ensure that the training available to the governors of free schools properly equips them for that important role?

Mr Laws: I can assure the hon. Gentleman—the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education—that Lord Nash and I are taking decisive action to ensure that the school improves its leadership and governance. The hon. Gentleman will understand why I cannot go into all the details of that, although the clear requirements are set out in the letter Lord Nash wrote to the school on 8 October, which has been published.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The leaked report has rung an alarm bell. Will the right hon. Gentleman learn the lessons from it, because what begins as a good idea—having unqualified and sometimes untrained teachers in an establishment—can, in some cases, be very dangerous and damaging? May we have an explicit word from him this morning to say that, in this country, no establishment and no school—this should not even happen in home schooling—should treat girls in a subservient way and differently from boys?

Mr Laws: The hon. Gentleman, the former Chair of the Select Committee, is absolutely right: different treatment for boys and girls is unacceptable. We have made that absolutely clear and required the school to change those practices immediately, for both pupils and teaching staff. He is a reasonable man and will know that it is sensible and responsible to draw the right conclusions from one school, and balance them against the success of many free schools. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) wanted to praise and associate himself with that success on Sunday and withdrew his support by Tuesday.

Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): I declare an interest as chair of governors of St James’ Church of England primary school in Bermondsey and as a trustee of Bacon’s college in Rotherhithe. Having seen the report that states clearly four findings of inadequacy, nine significant failings and only three strengths, will the Minister tell us the timetable for Al-Madinah school, if it is to continue, to be found good, satisfactory or excellent? What is the

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process for new schools on how soon inspections can happen? What is the trigger for parents and concerned parties in any school to start a process of additional inspection, and what is the speed at which that can be done?

Mr Laws: I assure my right hon. Friend that we are following a two-pronged strategy to deal with these concerns. The Minister with responsibility for free schools, Lord Nash, set out clearly, in a letter on 8 October to the chair of governors, a series of actions that are expected to be taken by the free school in swift order—within this calendar month. We will report back to the House and others on those actions, including the issues identified by Ofsted, to ensure that they have been taken and dealt with. In addition, given the highly critical nature of the report, Ofsted will follow up to ensure improvements are rapid. We will consider, very swiftly indeed, whether the governing body and the existing leadership have the capacity to make those improvements.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): The Minister will know that the majority of children who attend the school are of the Muslim faith: this is a faith school that is also a free school. Earlier this year, on 15 March, the Secretary of State opened the first Hindu free school that is a faith school in my constituency, which I applaud and welcome. Will he confirm that nothing he has said today will affect the Government’s policy if a faith school wishes to be a free school?

Mr Laws: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we will still allow faith schools to be free schools. We must not lose sight of the fact that some of the best schools are faith schools. That includes Muslim schools—both free and non-free schools—some of which have secured impressive levels of attainment and progress.

Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): My right hon. Friend will be aware of the mess that the previous Government made of education, but he may not be aware that the chair of the education trust and chair of governors at Al-Madinah free school is a member of, and fundraiser for, the Labour party and recently stood as a candidate in the Derby city council elections. Does the Minister think the mess the school is in could have anything to do with a local leadership that seems to come directly from the national Labour party?

Mr Laws: What I can compare favourably is the swift action that this Government take when we find a school that is failing. That contrasts with the previous Labour Government, who had more than 1,500 schools categorised as inadequate. I do not remember any occasion where the same scrutiny was given to those schools.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): Surely this situation demonstrates the need for those working with children to be properly trained and qualified. Will the Minister change course, follow our lead and require all teachers to be qualified?

Mr Laws: We want to ensure that teachers in schools have good qualifications and the capacity to teach. The hon. Lady will know, however, that there are plenty of teachers who may not have formal qualifications but who still do a superb job. We are ensuring, through the

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Ofsted inspection process, that every single teacher has the capability to teach. All classes are assessed for quality, and that is the right way to ensure a backstop of high standards.

Mr James Clappison (Hertsmere) (Con): There are 170 free schools across the country and plans for more, including one serving my constituency. Will the Minister assure me that, notwithstanding this isolated case, the Government’s plans for these schools will go ahead so that they can continue raising standards?

Mr Laws: I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. The speed with which the shadow Secretary of State has stood on his head regarding Labour policy on free schools will unnerve many free schools across the country and undermine the confidence of the many free schools that are doing a fantastic and innovative job. I just draw attention to the fact that the proportion of free schools that are outstanding and good is higher than in the rest of the school population, even though many of them have only been in existence for two years.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): The Minister reports that his Department had concerns about this school. Which other free schools does his Department have concerns about?

Mr Laws: I think the hon. Gentleman is talking about the concerns we identified in July and August. We acted swiftly on those, and we would act swiftly on any other concerns.

Mr Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Is it not right that the Government should take action, whether a free school or a Government-run school is having problems, and is it not wrong to leap on one single instance of a problem, because it is being tackled, and blame the other 169 schools, too?

Mr Laws: The hon. Gentleman is exactly right. When we consider how to intervene in failing schools, we need to consider the challenge of intervening just as swiftly as we are in this school in the hundreds of other schools across the country that are performing inadequately. The hard reality is that under the last Government and some previous Governments, too many inadequate schools across the country were able to sustain inadequate performance for long periods. The challenge is to ensure that the focus on this school is also on all those other maintained schools, which the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central seems far less attracted to focusing on.

Mrs Mary Glindon (North Tyneside) (Lab): The local authority in this case has neither the power nor the capacity to help, so who will help the school to improve and take the action the Minister is requiring it to take?

Mr Laws: We certainly will take action. The local authority concerned should reflect on some of the schools that it is responsible for in the area, many of which are not good or outstanding. It should focus on doing its job; we will do ours.

Pauline Latham (Mid Derbyshire) (Con): Is the Minister as surprised as I am that, interestingly, whereas the hon. Member for Derby North (Chris Williamson), who has

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been vociferous in the national and local press about this school, because he is totally against free schools, wants it brought within the remit of the local authority, the chairman of governors, who wanted to be a Labour councillor, was quite happy with it? Labour’s policy is all over the place. I thought that the hon. Gentleman was at odds with the shadow Secretary of State, but clearly he is not.

Mr Speaker: Order. First, the question was too long; secondly, the Minister has absolutely no responsibility for the attendance or stance of absent or present Members. Perhaps we can deal holistically with the issue, rather than with the minutiae.

Mr Laws: The hon. Lady has succeeded rather well in highlighting the fact that anybody trying to understand what Labour’s policy on free schools this week would be rather confused.

Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): The Minister spoke about the safeguards in place to prevent this sort of thing from happening, but his comments were unconvincing given that it has happened and children are suffering as a result. Will he now acknowledge that the Secretary of State in Whitehall cannot possibly provide the level of scrutiny, oversight or support that schools need and which the local community, through the local authority, is much better placed to provide?

Mr Laws: The very fact that we are having this urgent question about one particular school that has performed very badly shows the degree of scrutiny there is on free schools. The challenge is to ensure that every other failing school across the country has the same level of scrutiny.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): The failing of any school is regrettable, be it a free school or non-free school, but does the Minister accept that we need to see it in the context of the success of the policy? Can he reassure me that strong action will be taken and that the model that has worked successfully elsewhere will also be used in this case?

Mr Laws: I can give precisely that assurance. I can assure my hon. Friend that those of us on the Government Benches will not ignore and run down the achievements of the vast majority of free schools, which have done an absolutely fantastic job in the last two years.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): The Minister says he wants to ensure that teachers are qualified and supervised, but last year his Department announced that teachers in free schools and academies did not need to be qualified to be appointed and never did. As a result, Al-Madinah school appointed virtually all its teachers on an unqualified basis. Does he think that is any cause for reflection on the announcement he made last year about unqualified teachers being acceptable?

Mr Laws: The governing body and the school leadership have a clear responsibility to recruit teachers who are fit to do the job, and if they are failing to do that, we will act against them.

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Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): I salute the Government’s swift action on this matter. Does the Minister agree that it also reinforces the argument that we need strong and effective leadership in schools, especially through school governance?

Mr Laws: I certainly do. If Members, particularly on the Opposition Benches, reflect more carefully on this issue, they will see that one of the lessons is that the speed with which we have acted on the concerns expressed should be reflected in the speed with which we see action in all schools that are weak.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): Will the Minister ensure that one sector of these children—children with special learning difficulties—is looked after more than others? They are the ones who suffer most in any school that this happens to. Will he ensure through his office that those children get adequate cover while this period of uncertainty continues?

Mr Laws: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to put the spotlight on the young people in the school, whose concerns need to be top of our list of priorities. We will ensure that those with special needs—indeed, all the pupils—are properly catered for through this period, which is one reason why Lord Nash has acted so swiftly to ensure that the school resolves the outstanding problems.

George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) (Con): The free school revolution has triggered a renaissance of educational hope and lit a thousand candles around the country, with people investing and taking an interest in new education. May I welcome the speed with which those on the Front Bench have acted on this school, but also urge the Minister and the team not in any way to allow the intellectual and political gymnastics of Opposition Front Benchers—who have opposed progressive reforms in education for years and have now seized on one case of failure—to slow down these important reforms, which are giving hope to millions?

Mr Laws: I can assure my hon. Friend that we are not impressed or distracted by the gymnastics we have seen over the last week or by the desperate attempt by the shadow Education Secretary to resolve his differences with his own Schools Minister, who has a totally different view about free schools. We will remain focused on improving this school—and, indeed, all schools across the country that need improvement.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that this urgent question demonstrates the Opposition’s political dogma on education? They are using one failing free school to criticise all free schools. Given that the comprehensive school that I attended is now sadly in special measures, does he not think it is telling that the Labour party is not asking questions—

Mr Speaker: Order. I must have told the hon. Gentleman over three and a half years a score of times—I now tell him for the 21st time—that questions must be about the policy of the Government, not the Opposition; nor is this an occasion for general dilation by Members on their own educational experiences. The urgent question

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is narrowly focused on a particular school; it is with that, and that alone, that we are concerned. I hope my point has now finally registered with the hon. Gentleman.

Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I thank the shadow Education Secretary for asking this urgent question on such an important issue. We should be focusing on this particular school, not making party political points, although, interestingly, more Government Members are interested in this subject than Opposition Members. Can the Minister confirm that, if necessary, he has the power to close the school down if it cannot be reformed?

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I can certainly confirm to him that we have powers to take action against the school, as Lord Nash has already made very clear in his letter.

Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): Parents will have pressed for the Al-Madinah free school to be established because they felt that the school would provide a suitable education for their children. I am reassured by the actions already taken, but will the Minister also ensure that pre-applications are thoroughly scrutinised?

Mr Laws: I will certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. We scrutinise free school applications very carefully and reject many of them for a variety of different reasons. We will continue to scrutinise them very closely.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): The OECD report published last week places Britain near the bottom of the international literacy and numeracy league tables. Does that not make the case for continued innovation in education? Will the Minister ensure that this poor example does not undermine the excellent and innovative free schools programme?

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend makes a telling point about the educational challenges for this country and about the need to focus on educational failure from wherever it comes. It speaks volumes about the Labour party that it should choose to have an urgent question on this one individual school while across the country there are hundreds of other schools facing similar challenges in which it seems to have no equivalent interest.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite the failings of this particular school, free schools, university technical schools and the pupil premium are transforming education in our country and that we should not use the failure of one school to become the enemy of choice for parents who want to set up their own schools?

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Under-Secretary of State for Education, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss), will publish information showing the progress made across the country in last year’s exam results—progress that, thanks to our reforms and to Ofqual, we can be assured is real progress and not simply inflated progress.

Bob Stewart (Beckenham) (Con): What is actually happening for the children at this school to make sure that we look after them?

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Mr Laws: What is happening is that Lord Nash is taking decisive action to address, one by one, all the deficiencies identified in the Ofsted report. He has already received detailed responses and assurances on many points from the free school, and we will make sure that we get assurances on all those issues. We will then make a judgment about whether the people running the school are fit to continue running it in the future.

Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend agree that actions taken in respect of Al-Madinah school demonstrate that this Government are tough on low standards wherever they occur—whether it be in free schools, local authority schools or academy schools?

Mr Laws: My hon. Friend is right. If we reflect on some of the schools that were able to languish in failure for many years under the last Labour Government without decisive action being taken, we will find that our actions in this case compare very favourably indeed.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I welcome the action taken in respect of this school and the fact that the majority of the 170 free schools are outperforming local authority schools. Does the Minister agree that one bad apple does not spoil the barrel, and has he learned anything about Labour’s policy on free schools?

Mr Laws: I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. It is interesting that the shadow Secretary of State who speaks for the Opposition on these matters has not concluded that the Labour party’s last academies programme was deficient because some of those academies have failed. There is a basic lack of logic in Labour’s position and an ideological resistance to innovation in the school system.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Whether it be at the Al-Madinah school or any other school, most of my constituents would take the view that it is completely inappropriate for any school uniform policy to include a requirement for schoolgirls to wear the full-face Islamic veil. Is that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government, or is it up to each school to decide?

Mr Laws: I agree with my hon. Friend that we do not want these impositions on children or on staff—and we have made that clear to this school.

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Business of the House

11.4 am

Ms Angela Eagle (Wallasey) (Lab): May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Tom Brake): The business for next week will be as follows:

Monday 21 October—A general debate on the future of the BBC, followed by a debate on a motion relating to the state of natural capital in England and Wales. The subjects of both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Tuesday 22 October—Second Reading of the Immigration Bill, followed by a debate on a reasoned opinion relating to the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Wednesday 23 October—Opposition Day [8th allotted day]. There will be a debate on dealing with the past in Northern Ireland, followed by a debate on air passenger duty. Both debates will arise on a motion in the name of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Thursday 24 October—A debate on a motion relating to the Financial Conduct Authority’s redress scheme for the mis-selling of interest rate swap derivatives, followed by a general debate on aviation strategy. The subjects of both debates were nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Friday 25 October—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 October will include the following:

Monday 28 October—Second Reading of the Local Audit and Accountability Bill [Lords].

Tuesday 29 October—Remaining stages of the Pensions Bill, followed by a motion to approve a European document relating to reform of Eurojust and the European Public Prosecutor’s Office.

Wednesday 30 October—Opposition Day [9th allotted day]. There will be a debate on an Opposition motion; subject to be announced.

Thursday 31 October—Remaining stages of the High Speed Rail (Preparation) Bill.

Friday 1 November—Private Members’ Bills.

I should also like to inform the House that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that the autumn statement will be made on Wednesday 4 December, and that the business in Westminster Hall on 24 October will be a debate on planning, housing supply and the countryside.

Ms Eagle: I thank the Deputy Leader of the House for announcing next week’s business. I also send my best wishes to the Leader of the House as he recuperates from his minor operation.

Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who yesterday won the election to become Deputy Speaker. I hope that she will not mind my saying that it is unusual to see a Scottish Tory being elected. I am sure that I speak for many Labour Members when I say that it has certainly been an experience to be on the receiving end of the vote-gathering techniques of the Conservative party. We

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enjoyed welcoming all the candidates to a parliamentary Labour party hustings, and I am pleased to say that we managed to resist the temptation to set them a bushtucker trial.

Last week, I asked where the Offender Rehabilitation Bill (Lords) had disappeared to. I note that it is still missing. Will the Deputy Leader of the House confirm my suspicion that the Government are deliberately holding up the Bill so that they can privatise the probation service before they bring the Bill back to the House of Commons?

When the Government announced new plans for the funding of social care, they claimed that no elderly person would be forced to sell his or her home to pay for it. At the Tory party conference, the Health Secretary was at it again, promising

“for those who need residential care…We’ll stop them ever having to sell the home they have worked hard for all their life to pay for the cost of it.”

However, during the debate on the Care Bill in the other place, those grand ministerial claims have been exposed as empty PR posturing, and the truth has finally emerged: older people will be helped only if they have less than £23,000 in the bank. Given the huge disparity between the Health Secretary’s claims and the modest reality, will the Deputy Leader of the House arrange for an urgent statement to be made?

It is a rare treat to face the Deputy Leader across the Dispatch Box. I often wonder what he is thinking when he is sitting next to the Leader of the House on Thursday mornings. I suppose that we are going to find out today. I am sure the Deputy Leader is aware, however, that for 39 of the 40 months for which the Government have been in power, prices have risen faster than wages. Labour’s promise to freeze energy bills until 2017 would be of real benefit to those who are struggling. What is the Government’s policy? The Tories want to scrap energy efficiency measures for the poorest in order to reduce bills, but the Deputy Prime Minister thinks that that would put prices up. What does the Deputy Leader think? We have heard only this morning that British Gas is going to increase its prices by nearly 10%. Is the Deputy Leader proud that the Government are arguing among themselves while the cost of living squeeze just gets worse? Would it not be easier to freeze energy bills?

Yesterday the Prime Minister could not clear up the confusion over his own policy on marriage tax breaks, which will benefit only one third of couples. The Deputy Prime Minister has made his opposition clear. So when this policy eventually comes to the House, will the Deputy Leader of the House and his party be voting against it, or will this just be another example of the Liberal Democrats saying one thing and doing another?

The Deputy Leader of the House will remember that before the last election he signed the National Union of Students pledge to vote against any increase in tuition fees. I am sure he also remembers that just months after the election he was voting to treble them. I noted this week with interest that the Deputy Prime Minister has made another Lib Dem pledge on tuition fees: he has promised not to increase them to £16,000 a year. Will the Deputy Leader be signing up to that one, too, or has he learned his lesson? I am sure nothing will worry the hundreds of thousands of young people considering going to university more than another promise from the Liberal Democrats on tuition fees.

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I understand that the Deputy Leader is heavily involved in his local save St Helier hospital campaign. In fact, he is so involved that the phone number and address on the campaign website is that of his own constituency office. To clear up any confusion, can the Deputy Leader of the House confirm that he is actually a part of the Government who are closing the hospital? Is there not a pattern of behaviour here: the Deputy Leader is campaigning against himself on St Helier, the Deputy Prime Minister is campaigning against himself on library closures forced by Government cuts in Sheffield, and now they are ready to sign up to a new pledge on tuition fees? The more they protest, the more we see right through them: you can’t trust the Liberal Democrats.

Tom Brake: May I start by thanking the shadow Leader of the House for her kind words, which I will pass on to the Leader of the House, who is recovering well? I am grateful to her for those remarks. I also echo her comments about the hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing), who not only is a Scottish Tory who got elected, but who did so under the single transferable vote, which is clearly very welcome, too.

On the issue of the funding of social care, I am sure the hon. Lady will be aware that no decision has been taken on that, and the consultation is still open and if Members want to make a submission, they have until 25 October to do so.

We have just had a full hour of Department of Energy and Climate Change questions, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State did a very good job of explaining why Labour’s policy of freezing energy prices is a con. In case the hon. Lady was not here to hear that, it is because prices will go up both before and after the freeze, and the Leader of the Opposition has indicated that if things changed globally during the freeze, he would not be in a position to hold prices down. That is why we do not support Labour’s position, but what the Government have done is maintain winter fuel payments, worth £300, cold weather payments of £25, and the warm home discount, which is worth £135. Indeed, more generally in relation to cost of living issues, under this Government 25 million basic rate taxpayers will be £700 better off next year, and 3 million people have been taken out of income tax entirely.

The hon. Lady mentioned the save St Helier hospital campaign. I thank her for promoting that and, of course, I am fully behind that campaign. It seems as though she is chiding me for running a campaign in support of my local hospital, something I will make sure Labour-inclined voters are aware of, but the important thing about the save St Helier campaign is that the review that has taken place was not conducted by politicians, but the proposals came from a team of clinicians and, on that team, St Helier hospital was under-represented, which is why we are campaigning against this. I am very pleased to be able to conclude my remarks on the subject of save St Helier hospital, because that is a campaign I intend to win.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Last week, the all-party group on excellence in the built environment, which I chair, published its report on the Government’s green deal for the domestic residential market. I was delighted that the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my

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hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Nick Boles), who is responsible for planning, attended the launch. May we have a debate on this issue, so that the Government can bring us all up to date on the progress they are making on the green deal and how better insulation in homes will help to reduce the number of families and individuals living in fuel poverty?

Tom Brake: I do not know whether my hon. Friend was able to be here for Energy questions earlier, but energy efficiency and the green deal came up then. Let me detail some of the specific things that the Government have done. In October 2012, the Department of Energy and Climate Change offered English local authorities the opportunity to bid for funding to reduce the extent of fuel poverty, and £31 million is now going into 60 projects involving just under 170 local authorities. Of course, we have the Warm Front scheme—it was closed in January for new applications but we are still processing others and measures are being taken on the back of that. In response to the shadow Leader of the House, I also set out the measures we are taking to support people who are in fuel poverty or are struggling to pay their bills with a range of initiatives, including the warm home discount, winter fuel payments and cold weather payments.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the debate next Wednesday on the fate of the Arctic Sunrise crew, who are still being held captive in Murmansk. It is nearly a month since the Russian authorities hijacked the boat and unlawfully detained and arrested the crew, including six Britons, three of whom are from Devon. They have now been charged with the ludicrous charge of piracy. May we have an urgent statement from a Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister on what the British Government are doing to secure their release?

Tom Brake: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question, which raises a significant issue. Indeed, the Prime Minister responded to it yesterday in Prime Minister’s questions, because one of his constituents is also affected. The British Government have rightly made representations, and I want to see those people released as soon as possible.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): Following its recent survey of businesses, the Hull and Humber chamber of commerce stated that

“the economic recovery in the Humber region is gathering pace”.

Constituencies such as mine contain a large proportion of low-income and middle-income households, and we need to ensure that they are the first to benefit from the recovery. Will the Deputy Leader of the House find time for a debate when these issues may be fully aired?

Tom Brake: Clearly, we want to ensure that those on low incomes and middle incomes benefit first from the recovery, and that is exactly what is happening in the tax measures we are introducing. I am pleased that my hon. Friend is detecting good news economically in his constituency. Some 1.4 million more people are in work today in the private sector than there were at the time of

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the general election. On a whole number of indicators things are moving in the right direction. There should be no room for complacency, but we are beginning to see very positive indicators in the economy generally.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): May we have an urgent debate on the ever-increasing cost of in-work benefits, given that it would appear that the taxpayer is having to subsidise employees of companies that are earning millions of pounds in profits? It is not about time that they paid decent wages and cut the welfare bill?

Tom Brake: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that where employers are in a position to pay the living wage, they should do so, but that should not be at the expense of jobs. So he makes a valid point, but how employers address that is a decision for them.

Mr David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): There is a great deal of concern about the protection of vulnerable children, so may we have a debate on how child protection services in Somerset, which were adjudged to be outstanding just five years ago, were last year judged to be inadequate, with Ofsted saying this year that there has been no improvement? Does it not show an astonishing failure of political leadership and management that Somerset county council, which does not face overwhelming demands on its social services, is now considered to be among the 17 worst local authorities in the country at protecting our children?

Tom Brake: May I say what a pleasure it is to respond to a question from my hon. Friend, who did such a good job as Deputy Leader of the House before me? The Government take any failure to deliver adequate children’s social care services very seriously. I recognise the challenges that local authorities can face in delivering strong child protection services, but it is right that Ofsted should identify weaknesses clearly and set out the areas where improvement is needed. I can assure him that Ministers are acting robustly to ensure that failure is turned around quickly and sustainably. In Somerset, that process has happened. Department for Education officials have met senior representatives from Somerset council and Ministers intend to issue the council with a notice to improve. Clearly, my hon. Friend’s strong concerns are now on the record, too.

Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): The earnings limit for carers allowance was last increased in April 2010. Carers in my Bridgend constituency tell me that if they work more than 16 hours on the national minimum wage, they will lose their carers allowance. Carers are critical to our economy; they provide a vital service and support to vulnerable people. Is it not wrong that they should be punished in this way? May we have a debate on how we can support carers and ensure that changes to the benefit system do not leave them worse off?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Lady for that question, because it gives me an opportunity to reinforce her point about the excellent work that carers do, which is acknowledged on both sides of the House. She has raised a specific issue about the earnings limit and I will ensure that her concerns are passed on to Ministers at the Department for Work and Pensions.

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Mr David Nuttall (Bury North) (Con): May we have a debate on the effect that decisions taken by one Government agency have on other Government Departments and on the public purse? Training for Travel in my constituency, which provides training for the travel industry, was days away from transferring its training providing business to another provider when the Skills Funding Agency told it that it was cancelling its training contract. The result is that that company is likely to fold, resulting in hundreds of thousands of pounds having to be paid out by other Government Departments in statutory redundancy and the like.

Tom Brake: The issue my hon. Friend raises is quite complex and I have a significantly complex reply that I could give him, but in the circumstances I think it would be better for me to ensure that he is written to. He might also want to raise the matter in Business, Innovation and Skills questions next week, if that is appropriate.

Mr Speaker: That is immensely considerate of the Deputy Leader of the House and we thank him for that.

Keith Vaz (Leicester East) (Lab): May we have a debate or a statement about the regulations governing major retail developments in local areas? Late last night, I was contacted by residents on Melton road who were complaining bitterly about Sainsbury’s, which is trying to put up a huge store on the junction of Melton road and Troon way. The work goes on throughout the night. We are trying to make Leicester into the city of culture; Sainsbury’s is trying to make Leicester into the city of roadworks.

Tom Brake: There might be an opportunity for the right hon. Gentleman to raise the subject at Communities and Local Government questions on Monday and we will have a debate on Thursday on planning, housing supply and the countryside, and he might be able to raise the issue as part of the planning aspect.

Mark Pritchard (The Wrekin) (Con): May we have a debate on restoring public trust in the police? Is it not the case that David Shaw, the chief constable of West Mercia police, should take immediate and appropriate action against the officer implicated in lying against my right hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell)?

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for that question and I am sure that he will have heard the Home Secretary and the Prime Minister state their position. The behaviour was unacceptable and action would be appropriate, but clearly that is something for the Crown Prosecution Service and others to consider, rather than Ministers.

Mr Iain Wright (Hartlepool) (Lab): Has the Deputy Leader of the House seen this week’s article in The Economist, which referred to towns such as Hartlepool, Hull, Middlesbrough and Wolverhampton as “rustbelt Britain” and urged the Government to ignore and abandon them? May we have a debate on the issue so that we can reject that ridiculous notion and highlight the promise and potential of my area, or would such a debate merely confirm that the Government have already abandoned areas such as Hartlepool?

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Tom Brake: I assure the hon. Gentleman that this is a matter on which there is agreement. No one wants to abandon any towns or cities, and that is why the Government have invested as heavily as we have in the regional growth fund to ensure that jobs in the private sector are there. We want to work constructively with him on that issue.

Andrew Selous (South West Bedfordshire) (Con): May we have a debate on the factors that lead to business investment and job creation? Honeytop Speciality Foods in my constituency has already exported naan bread to India. It is creating 200 extra jobs this month, and it has turned Dunstable into the crumpet capital of the United Kingdom. But it gets even better. I have now learned of an extra £22 million investment to produce the fastest burger bun plant in the whole of Europe. Is it not critical that we have this type of investment across the whole of the United Kingdom?

Tom Brake: I am aware that the hon. Gentleman raised the same issue last week. He will remember that the Leader of the House promised to go and sample a crumpet if he was in his constituency. Last night I was at a planning meeting at my local authority to support strong local opposition to the opening of a fast-food restaurant, so it would be hypocritical of me to offer to come and eat a burger with the hon. Gentleman. However, he has put on record the fact that substantial, welcome investment is going into his constituency, which I am sure will create lots of jobs, building on what the Government have already achieved—the 1.4 million jobs that we have helped to create in the private sector.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): The prison population is approaching record highs and the numbers of prison staff are approaching record lows, and that is causing prison staff up and down the country to have great health and safety concerns. The situation has been described as a powder keg. May we have a debate on how we approach safety and health for prison staff before we as politicians suffer greatly as a result of a tragic incident that is waiting to happen in the Prison Service?

Tom Brake: I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on drawing attention to that. Clearly, we all want our prisons to be safe environments both for prison staff and for prisoners. He has made a specific request about staffing levels and the impact on health and safety, and I will ensure that a written response is sent to him.

John Hemming (Birmingham, Yardley) (LD): Far too often, constituents of mine end up in destitution when their claim for employment and support allowance ends. Whereas they qualify for jobseeker’s allowance or income support, such a claim is not put in place. Will the Government introduce a motion to authorise the Department of Work and Pensions to institute automatically a claim in appropriate circumstances while the legislative environment is resolved?

Tom Brake: I thank my hon. Friend for that question. He said something on which we can achieve consensus, which is that no one should be left destitute. If there is an appropriate way of ensuring the transition to which he referred, I am sure that DWP will seek to find it.

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Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): May I ask the Deputy Leader of the House to take time this week to read the article that I published in The House magazine this week about how we treat the people who work in this Parliament of ours? Most of our constituents and certainly mine in Huddersfield believe that this place should be a beacon of good treatment of people at work. Zero-hours contracts, no contracts and short-term contracts dominate this House now and it is about time we put our shop right. Let us lead; let us be a beacon. Let us treat our staff well.

Tom Brake: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was able to speak in the Opposition day debate on that very subject yesterday. If he did, he will have heard the Minister’s response. I agree with him that we should be an exemplar in terms of how we treat people who work in this place. I will endeavour in the next few hours to track down a copy of The House magazine so that I can read his article.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Over the past five years QinetiQ in Boscombe Down in my constituency has doubled the number of new graduate trainees and apprentices that it employs. It has also set up the 5% campaign to challenge other companies to aim for 5% of their work force being drawn from apprentices and new graduate trainees. Will the Deputy Leader of the House make time for a statement on how the Government can encourage this worthwhile campaign?

Tom Brake: My hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention to the importance of employers taking on graduates and apprentices. He will be aware that we have created a million extra apprenticeships, which is beginning to have a real effect. I am sure that in the contacts that both he and I have with employers, they underline how much added value apprentices bring to their company. So he has helped publicise this today, and I am sure that all Members will want to do so in the contacts that they have with employers.

Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): The Deputy Leader of the House said that he was in the Chamber for Energy questions. He will have heard me tell the House that Grangemouth oil refinery and chemicals is shut down until further notice. It is not only the first time that there has been a full, cold shutdown of that plant, which represents 10% of the Scottish economy, in the 21 years that I have represented the town, but it is the first time since I first worked there as a student in 1967. The replies from the Energy Minister were all about securing supply and everyone getting supplies. May we have a statement from the Business Secretary and a debate in the Chamber about the fact that planning clearly went into this so that the company, which is owned by one man and two others but mainly by one man, who may be the equivalent of a Russian oligarch and may have been involved in collusion with this Government to store up supplies so that he could take on the work force and break them because he wants to take £50 million out of the terms and conditions of employment of the people on that site, so we need a debate on collusion—

Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman probably should seek an Adjournment debate on the matter in order fully to give vent to his multiple concerns on the issue. Business questions is an occasion when a brief request for a debate is made.

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Tom Brake: The hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) has put on record his concerns for a second time. I will not repeat some of the language that he used, but clearly from the Government’s perspective we would encourage the employers and the unions to work together to ensure that the matter is resolved. If he feels as strongly about the issue as he clearly does, there will be an opportunity for him to raise it again next Thursday during questions to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Julian Smith (Skipton and Ripon) (Con): The editor of The Guardian recently boasted online that he was “taking precautions” to prevent UK security services from having access to the files of vital national security information that he had sent outwith the remit of the UK courts to The New York Times. Security sources are still trying to decrypt these files, which The Independent described as “highly detailed” and a “threat to national security”. May we have a statement to reassure the House that The Guardian will be asked for a decryption key and if none is forthcoming, action will be taken?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman has been successful in securing a debate on Tuesday next week, when I am sure he will get a much more detailed response to his concerns than I am able to give him. Clearly, he is right that intelligence leaks are causing serious damage to the UK’s national security. The Government have a duty to protect national security and should make it clear to media organisations that publishing highly classified material damages our ability to protect this country. Journalists are not in a position to make national security assessments on what should or should not be published. As he will be aware, however, it is a matter for the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to determine whether a crime has been committed and what action should be taken as a result. As I said, he will have an opportunity on Tuesday to raise these matters in detail.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): In view of what we have just heard and what was said by the Prime Minister yesterday, by the Home Secretary before the Home Affairs Committee and by the head of MI5, is the Deputy Leader of the House aware that many of us believe that what is happening at present are threats and smears against The Guardian for publishing details, which is not in any way a threat to the security of our country, but information which the public have a right to know? As the Liberal Democrats are supposed to be ardent defenders of our civil liberties, perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will bear it in mind that it would be useful to have an overall debate on intelligence and security matters and not just leave it to the Committee which meets in private session.

Tom Brake: I will not restate what I have said, but the Government clearly have a duty to protect our national security. If a newspaper—whichever one—is in the business of publishing information that damages our national security or circulating information that has the potential to do so, the Government are required to respond. If that newspaper publishes information on certain matters that have no relevance to national security, clearly we want them to be able to do so.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): In the next few days we will hear an announcement on the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which is

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obviously vital to UK plc. The Government will no doubt make a statement to that effect, which will be welcome, but may we have a debate in the Chamber to consider it more closely, because of the importance to skills and inward investment and what it will mean for UK plc over the next 100 years?

Tom Brake: The hon. Gentleman is right to expect a statement on the matter very soon, and it would be appropriate for him to take that opportunity to make his point and to listen to the responses to all the other questions that will be asked.

Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): May we have a statement on the Government’s support for traditional music, as this year Wingates brass band is celebrating its 140th anniversary? On 26 October it will hold a concert at which two new specially written pieces will be introduced, as well as the launch of “From Bible Class to World Class”, a book about its history. Will the Deputy Leader of the House join me in congratulating Wingates brass band on that fantastic achievement?

Tom Brake: I join the hon. Lady in congratulating that musical ensemble. I am afraid that my briefing pack, although extensive, did not run to traditional music, but she has put the matter on the record and I am sure that in future all Members will want to know more about that important subject.

Margot James (Stourbridge) (Con): The Commission on Human Medicines has today recommended that schools should be permitted to keep an asthma inhaler for general use for when children who do not have recourse to their own inhaler suffer an attack, which Members will be shocked to learn is currently against the regulations. May we please have a debate on support for children in our schools who suffer from chronic conditions such as asthma?

Tom Brake: I congratulate the hon. Lady on campaigning on the matter. The Government are grateful to the Commission on Human Medicines for its recommendation and intend to act on it. We will consult on changing the regulations to allow schools, if they so wish, to hold a spare asthma inhaler for emergencies and to develop appropriate protocols for their staff to ensure its safe and proper use. She will have opportunities on Monday, during Communities and Local Government questions, and on Tuesday, during Health questions, to raise the matter of schools and health.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): We already know that accident and emergency departments in the north-east are to receive no extra funding this winter, but this week we learnt that the South Tees clinical commissioning group’s per-head funding is to be cut significantly, alongside other north-east CCGs. Following that, Monitor indicated that it will be investigating South Tees Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust for a persistent failure to meet targets on waiting times, and on clostridium difficile and for a rise in never events. May we have a debate in the House in Government time about NHS funding for the north-east?