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House of Commons

Thursday 11 February 2016

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-efficient Homes

1. Dr Rupa Huq (Ealing Central and Acton) (Lab): What estimate she has made of the number of homes that need to be brought up to the minimum band C energy efficiency standard by 2030. [903584]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): According to my Department’s latest fuel poverty statistics, less than 5% of fuel-poor households in England have a minimum energy efficiency standard of band C, leaving 2.2 million households below this standard. Bringing these households up to the minimum standard is a challenging ambition, but one we are determined to meet. That is why we have been clear that available support needs to be focused on those most in need. We will be reforming both the renewable heat incentive and the energy company obligation, to make sure that both schemes are sufficiently targeted towards the fuel poor and to tackle the root causes of fuel poverty.

Dr Huq: The Government recently spent £50 million of taxpayers’ money assisting a bunch of big businesses such as Sainsbury’s to change their lightbulbs. Meanwhile, they halved home insulation funding in the last Parliament, which was meant to help families out of fuel poverty. I will not ask how many Tories it takes to change a lightbulb, but does that not show whose side they are on?

Amber Rudd: The hon. Lady is in danger of misunderstanding demand-side reduction. Two pilots have been launched, and both have been effective in reducing the amount of energy used, which is one of our key targets in carbon emissions and energy security. That in no way interferes with our key objective of ensuring that we reduce fuel poverty at all levels.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): Would my right hon. Friend be good enough to publish the statistics for Northamptonshire for the number of homes that do not meet that standard? One of the big issues we have in Northamptonshire is the very large number of new houses being built. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that all those new houses are required to meet that minimum standard?

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Amber Rudd: I would be delighted to publish those statistics and will write to my hon. Friend with them. New-build houses are always built to a far higher standard than the existing build. The challenge of fuel poverty is almost eradicated for new builds, so I hope his constituents will be able to welcome affordable, warmer winters in future.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Has the Secretary of State managed to have any discussions with her Welsh Government counterparts about the wonderful Arbed scheme? Arbed in Welsh is to save. The scheme worked with 28 social landlords in its first phase, and worked with more than 5,000 homes on energy efficiency in its second phase. It is funded partly by European structural funds. It is a great example of energy efficiency and a great reason for Wales to stay within the European Union and the United Kingdom.

Amber Rudd: That is a very interesting proposal from the hon. Gentleman. I clearly should spend more time talking to my Welsh counterpart in order to learn from the good work that the Welsh Government are doing to address fuel poverty.

Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): The Energy Saving Trust has a useful website that directs people to the boiler grant scheme that we operate in Northern Ireland—a package of energy efficiency and heating measures is tailored to each household. Will the Minister consider that Northern Ireland example and consider providing something similar on the mainland UK?

Amber Rudd: I am aware of the interesting boiler scheme that is being run in Northern Ireland. I welcome such initiatives to address the difficulty of fuel poverty and of reducing heat and carbon emissions. The Mayor of London has launched a similar scheme. We will look carefully at how that works to see whether we can adopt it in the United Kingdom.

Onshore Wind

2. Chris Heaton-Harris (Daventry) (Con): What progress she has made on ensuring that local authorities decide all onshore wind applications. [903585]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): My hon. Friend has worked incredibly hard to support local communities in having their say on the siting of wind farms. The Department for Communities and Local Government updated planning guidance alongside its written ministerial statement on 18 June 2015, giving local authorities the final say. Now that the Energy Bill has completed its Committee stage, with my hon. Friend’s support, I can tell him that we are making excellent progress on delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment.

Chris Heaton-Harris: I thank the Minister for that answer. Like me, she will know that the Conservative manifesto contained two pledges on onshore wind: one to remove subsidies and the other to change planning guidance. Given the growing concern about amplitude modulation coming from onshore wind turbines, when will planning guidance on that be given to local authorities?

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Andrea Leadsom: My hon. Friend has personally done some excellent work researching this serious issue, and my Department has commissioned an independent review that includes many of the issues he has raised. We expect to receive the final report of the review shortly, and the Government will then consider how to take forward their recommendations, including on whether a planning condition might be appropriate.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister must be aware that applications for onshore wind power should be based on merit. Given what has happened over the past five years, is there not a real danger that the barmy army of nimbys on the Benches behind her will ensure, working with their local councils, that no good proposal goes through?

Andrea Leadsom: I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to some of my excellent hon. Friends, who are superb constituency MPs. We will have to agree to disagree. I am sure he would agree, however, that the role of an MP is to represent the interests of their constituency as they see them. We have now struck the right balance between the country’s need for superb renewables—it is now a very successful sector—and the need of local communities to have their wishes and their environment taken into account.

Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP): Prior to the Energy Act 2013, Scottish Ministers had full control over the renewables obligation. That power was removed on the clear understanding and promise that there would be no policy implications. Why was that promise broken, and will the Minister commit to backing the Scottish National party’s calls for that power to be returned to Holyrood as part of the Energy Bill?

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman is aware that the reason we are closing the subsidy for onshore wind a year early is in great part to avoid the additional costs to the bill payer of extra deployment beyond our calculations of what could be expected. This is about trying to keep consumers’ bills down. We have had a number of debates about fuel poverty, and striking that balance is absolutely vital. It is in the interests of the whole of UK that we do not keep burdening bill payers with more costs.

Ms Margaret Ritchie (South Down) (SDLP): What discussions has the Minister had with her colleagues in the devolved Administrations to ensure that wind applications made in those jurisdictions are able to be processed effectively?

Andrea Leadsom: As the hon. Lady will know, we have frequent conversations with Ministers in the devolved Parliaments and we try to ensure that they are included in all the discussions, as they certainly have been with those on onshore wind. As she will know, planning at all levels is being devolved to local planning authorities, and it will then be for the Scottish Parliament to decide exactly what the appropriate planning process should be for onshore wind in Scotland.

Andrew Gwynne (Denton and Reddish) (Lab): Can we have some consistency from the Minister? Why does she support the imposition of fracking on communities against their will? Why can she not extend the same courtesy to those communities that she has extended to those affected by wind farms?

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Andrea Leadsom: As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, onshore wind has already been deployed to a great extent. As I have just said, it is already at the level of deployment we expected to see by 2020, so it is right that local communities’ views should be taken into account. With hydraulic fracturing, however, absolutely no shale gas extraction is taking place anywhere in the UK at the moment. There are no wells, and there is not even any exploration, yet it is vital to the UK’s energy interests that we explore this home-grown energy, which could be vital for jobs, growth and of course energy security.

Capacity Market Auctions

3. Kate Hollern (Blackburn) (Lab): What changes she plans to make to the structure of capacity market auctions before the next auction round. [903586]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): Security of supply is my No. 1 priority. The capacity market was put in place to ensure sufficient security of electricity supply. It supports existing technically reliable plants to remain in the market and, as coal and other ageing plants retire, it will enable new plants to be financed and built, securing our energy supplies for the future. Following the capacity market auction conducted at the end of last year, I have been considering whether any changes are needed, and I hope to be able to announce my conclusions shortly and to undertake any consultation quickly if we decide that any regulatory changes are needed.

Kate Hollern: Is the Secretary of State concerned that the latest capacity market option is having the unintended consequence of undermining capacity, as unfavoured power stations are mothballed or closed? Can the Government be certain that they can maintain security of electricity supply while reducing investment in the solar industry?

Amber Rudd: I do not share the hon. Lady’s views. The whole purpose of the capacity market is to guarantee security three or four years out and that is exactly what we are delivering. As I said earlier, however, having had two capacity auctions so far, we will be reviewing how we can improve so that the third delivers even more certain security going forward.

Andrew Stephenson (Pendle) (Con): I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State is willing to look again at the way the capacity market works to encourage cleaner forms of energy rather than a reliance on fuels such as diesel, which, sadly, was a large beneficiary of the latest round. Will she give us a timescale for when the new proposals will come forward?

Amber Rudd: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, which gives me the opportunity to point out that diesel was in fact 1.5% of the capacity market—a very small amount. However, it is absolutely essential to make sure that we have no risk at all to security, which is why diesel was included at that stage. I cannot give him an exact timeline, but I can say we are working on it intently at the moment and will be coming forward with proposals shortly.

Mr Angus Brendan MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): Will the right hon. Lady look to make changes to the capacity market, so that battery energy storage

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can compete and provide an alternative to thermal generation? Will she also look at final consumption levies that are affecting battery storage, because battery storage is not, of course, final consumption? It is just storage.

Amber Rudd: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and share his enthusiasm for storage. We are at the moment working with Ofgem to address how we can best encourage it within a secure regulatory environment. I cannot at this point say whether it will be within the capacity market, but that is certainly one of the considerations we will be looking at.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): It is with sadness that I stand here without Harry Harpham in his familiar place. He was my Parliamentary Private Secretary and a much-loved and valued member of the shadow Energy team. Owing to his background, Harry never let us forget that energy is about people. Last month, he told the Yorkshire Post that he would be the last deep coalminer elected to this place. Our promise to Harry is to ensure that the voice of working people remains at the heart of the energy debate. I will miss him enormously. We will never, ever forget him.

The capacity market was supposed to bring forward new investment in gas power stations and ensure that we have enough back-up power stations in case of a power crunch. We know that it has failed on the first count. Now, one of the companies contracted to provide back-up capacity, SSE, has pulled the Fiddlers Ferry power station out of the scheme, throwing the Government’s entire policy into doubt. Will the Secretary of State give the House a guarantee that no other power stations will pull out?

Amber Rudd: Before I answer that question, I join the hon. Lady in sharing our condolences from the Conservative Benches on the sad loss of Harry, her friend and able Labour Member of Parliament.

On the capacity market, I reassure the hon. Lady that we are looking at it again to ensure that it delivers the mix of sources. As far as losing old power stations is concerned, she is as aware as I am that these are very old power stations and that it is not surprising that some of them are closing. In our plans for capacity and in our discussions to ensure security, we always plan for a certain amount of closures. We do not feel it is a threat to security of supply, but we take nothing for granted and will never be complacent. We will always make sure we have a secure supply.

Lisa Nandy: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Unfortunately, it is not the answer to the question I asked her. No new gas stations have come on stream since the Prime Minister took office. The final investment decision on Hinkley has been delayed yet again. Analysts said recently that renewables investment is about to fall off a cliff. I ask the Secretary of State again: can she confirm that no other power stations will pull out of this scheme?

Amber Rudd: I simply do not recognise the picture the hon. Lady portrays. It is, of course, a bit rich from Labour to point that out when it has absolutely no record of planning for the future. We are the Government who are delivering the first nuclear power station. We are

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the Government who are taking the difficult choices for the next 10 to 15 years. I remind the hon. Lady that the Carrington closed cycle is going to start this year.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): One!

Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman says one. That is, of course, more than the zero to which his hon. Friend referred. This is exactly why we will be looking at the capacity market again, to ensure it delivers new gas.

Electricity Storage

4. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): What plans she has to support the development of electricity storage. [903587]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): Energy storage was identified in 2012 as one of the eight great technologies where the UK can lead the world, and I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I am a very keen supporter. More than £80 million of public sector support has been committed to UK energy storage research and development since 2012. We now are looking at what more we can do to improve the incentives for electricity storage in particular. We will be publishing a call for evidence soon. I do hope he will put his thoughts into that call for evidence.

Kelvin Hopkins: I thank the Minister for her answer, but may I be a bit more specific? As a spin-off from developing battery-driven cars, domestic battery storage is now becoming practicable and commercially viable, and indeed in America it is now taking off. What are the Government specifically doing to promote the adoption of domestic battery storage in homes?

Andrea Leadsom: As I say, we will shortly issue a call for evidence on energy storage at grid level—at battery generation level—to try to ensure that we give as much scope and capacity to energy storage in the system. At domestic level, people are starting to look at those systems and, as part of the improvement of house-building performance, builders are required to look at other opportunities such as battery storage, solar panels and the like. There will be more work on that, but, as the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is still at a fairly early stage as things stand.

Margaret Ferrier (Rutherglen and Hamilton West) (SNP): The energy storage industry sees 2016 as a breakthrough year, with many emerging technologies coming into the mainstream. Will the Minister concede that current subsidy cuts to renewables are lacking the foresight needed if we are to promote a genuinely green future in this truly innovative industry?

Andrea Leadsom: I certainly would not. Since 2010, £52 billion has been invested in renewables. The pipeline is still enormous. There are lots of new projects that will be coming to the fore over the next five to 10 years. It is simply not true to say that support for renewables is in any sense dropping off a cliff. The advantage of energy storage will be to deal with the intermittency of renewables, so it should be a win-win for the UK.

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Onshore Wind

5. Brendan O'Hara (Argyll and Bute) (SNP): When her Department plans to publish proposals on delivering a subsidy-free contract for difference mechanism for onshore wind. [903588]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): Our priorities are to decarbonise at the lowest price while always ensuring our energy security. That is why we have taken steps to end new subsidies for onshore wind. It was interesting, after my right hon. Friend’s announcement, to hear companies almost immediately seeking a subsidy-free contract for difference, which suggests that our analysis that this industry can stand on its own two feet was correct. We are calling it a market-stabilising CfD and we are listening carefully to industry on how it can be delivered.

Brendan O'Hara: The early closure of the renewables obligation has severely damaged investor confidence in onshore wind, which is a vital part of the fragile economy of my Argyll and Bute constituency. The Government desperately need to restore that confidence quickly. The Minister could make a start today by announcing a date for the introduction of subsidy-free CfD. Why will she not get on and do exactly that?

Andrea Leadsom: As I said to the hon. Gentleman, we are looking at it. It is not something that we would introduce just on the back of a fag packet; it requires careful consultation and consideration. He will appreciate, alongside all the other priorities, that a subsidy-free CfD is not cost-free or risk-free to the bill consumer, and we are absolutely determined to ensure that we keep the costs down for consumers in his constituency as well as right across the UK.

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Does my hon. Friend recognise, when she comes to introduce a subsidy-free contract for difference, that it will be subsidy free only if the price reflects the value of the electricity, and the value of the electricity depends on the time that it is produced, where it is produced and how reliably it is produced? Therefore, variable renewable electricity is worth much less than regular supplies from ordinary power stations.

Andrea Leadsom: My right hon. Friend points out exactly correctly that there are limitations to intermittent renewables technologies, and that there are costs associated with ensuring energy security when we become over-reliant on renewables. That is an absolute case in point. On the subsidy-free CfD, he is also right that we must take into account all the various costs. We are looking at the matter very closely. I am not making any promises here, but, alongside other subsidies and other CfDs, we are looking carefully at the proposition.

Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): May I follow the previous comments by suggesting that we introduce subsidy-free CfDs as quickly as possible? The most important thing that was needed in relation to onshore wind was to make sure that local communities did not have it imposed on them. The Government have rightly done that. What can the Minister do to ensure that where communities do want it, we get as much onshore wind as we can at the lowest possible price?

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Andrea Leadsom: I completely agree. The important thing was to give local communities the final say. I agree also that where local communities want more onshore wind, that should be supported. Nevertheless, as I said, even what we are calling a market-stabilising CfD would not be without risk or cost to the consumer, and our priority is to keep bills down for all energy consumers.

Solar Energy

6. Alex Chalk (Cheltenham) (Con): What steps she is taking to support small-scale solar energy production. [903589]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): The solar industry is an amazing UK success story, with 99% of all solar panel installations taking place since 2010. We are determined to keep supporting this great industry, but we are also mindful of the need to keep costs down for consumers, so with our feed-in tariff review we have tried to find the right balance between the needs of the bill payer and those of industry. We project that the revised FIT scheme could support up to 220,000 brand new solar installations between now and 2019.

Alex Chalk: A reduction in the solar feed-in tariff was probably inevitable given the falling commodity prices, but many of us want to see a thriving solar industry in the UK. Although it is early days, what assessment has been made of the impact of the 63.5% reduction on jobs and prosperity in the UK solar industry?

Andrea Leadsom: I know that my hon. Friend has big constituency interests in the success of this industry. I can reassure him that our tariff reset was built on a huge data set submitted by industry and, in terms of domestic rates of return, nearly 5% will still be offered for well-sited projects. After our announcement, the Solar Trade Association said:

“The new tariff levels are challenging, but solar power will still remain a great investment for forward-thinking home owners”.

14. [903603] Philip Boswell (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (SNP): The Scottish Government have led the way, setting ambitious building standards for every new build home, the Glasgow Commonwealth village being a prime example. Does the Minister agree that our goal should be for every suitable home to be equipped with solar PV?

Andrea Leadsom: I agree with the hon. Gentleman up to a point. What is essential for the UK right now is that new homes get built. That is our absolute priority; people are in desperate need of more homes being built. I can assure him that since April 2014 builders have had to consider the use of renewables in all their designs, and I am pleased that during the previous Parliament the energy standard for new buildings was improved by 30%.

Coal-fired Power Stations

7. David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): What representations she has received from her international counterparts on the proposed closure of the UK’s coal-fired power stations by 2025. [903590]

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The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): As the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, the UK owes a great debt to the coal industry for all it has done to keep the lights on and keep our economy moving. Both I and officials in my Department regularly discuss a range of energy and climate change issues with our international counterparts, and it is clear from these conversations that the UK remains respected internationally for our ability to reduce emissions while at the same time growing our economy.

David Mowat: The Secretary of State will be aware that the day after the UK announced the closure programme, Germany commissioned a brand-new lignite building unabated coal power station as yet another addition to its coal fleet. In Belgium, Holland and Spain, coal use increased in 2014. Much of that electricity will be imported to this country through interconnectors, yet in my constituency the closure of Fiddlers Ferry was announced last week. Many of the workers there ask me how these various factors can be part of a coherent European energy policy. What should I tell them?

Amber Rudd: I start by expressing my sympathies for all those workers in my hon. Friend’s constituency who have been impacted by the recent announcement of the closure of Fiddlers Ferry, as well as of Ferrybridge. On different countries in the EU making different choices about how to deliver their renewables targets, it is up to them to address how they reduce their emissions. Germany, for instance, is also having an enormous amount of solar. It has 52 GW of solar at an eye-watering cost of €10.5 billion.

Jeff Smith (Manchester, Withington) (Lab): The question is how we phase out coal use. Will the Secretary of State be taking new legislative measures to deliver on the Government’s commitment?

Amber Rudd: On coal—I think that was the subject of the hon. Gentleman’s question—we will be consulting and looking at the different methods we might or might not need. Those may be regulatory, or they may be legislative, but we have an open mind about how we achieve these things. That consultation will begin shortly.

12. [903600] Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): My right hon. Friend will know about the recent announcement of the closure of Rugeley power station, which is half in my constituency and half in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Amanda Milling). The station was sited there in the first place because of a coalmine, which, like many others throughout western Europe, is long gone. However, the closure may mean that up to 150 people are made redundant, although ENGIE says it will try to redeploy them elsewhere. Will my right hon. Friend commit to speak to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions about actively playing a role in making sure that those people can be re-employed somewhere else?

Amber Rudd: I thank my hon. Friend for that question, and we have, of course, spoken already this week about this matter. I have also spoken to his neighbour, whose constituency covers half the Rugeley power plant area. I will, of course, actively engage with my hon. Friend and his colleague to make sure that we do what we can for the people who have lost their jobs.

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George Kerevan (East Lothian) (SNP): Given that the timetable for the closure of coalmines is linked to the construction and bringing online of new nuclear power, and given that the board of EDF—a cash-strapped company that is dripping with debt—has this month yet again postponed giving a green light to the construction of Hinkley C, will the Minister commit to meeting EDF’s board and reporting back urgently to the House as to what the project’s status actually is?

Amber Rudd: I would dispute with the hon. Gentleman the direct connection he has made. The closure of coal will be part of a consultation, but it is influenced by many different things, including the age of the fleet, the wholesale price that is being delivered and other matters. On his question about EDF, may I reassure him that I have regular conversations with the board and the chief executive? I am confident that we will have good news soon.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): The Secretary of State, in her energy reset speech, said that taking “coal off the system” by 2025 will

“only proceed if we’re confident that the shift to new gas can be achieved within these timescales.”

Bearing in mind that no new large gas-fired power station has commenced building in the past six years, and that the last two capacity auctions have underwritten the building of only one power station, which will probably not be built, what plans does she have to procure the building of new gas-fired power stations to ensure that her pledge is actually met?

Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right: the plan is to move from coal to gas so that we can reduce our emissions and have secure investment going forward. I am delighted to say that the Carrington closed cycle gas turbine will commission next year, and we have 12 additional CCGTs commissioned. I have also stated that we will have the capacity market adapted to make sure that we can deliver gas. It is going to be an essential part of the low-carbon mix, and it is this Government who are making the plans and securing energy sources for the future.

Electricity Distribution

8. Ian Blackford (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (SNP): If she will create one national electricity distribution market. [903591]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): The Government do not intend to introduce national electricity distribution pricing as this would weaken each network company’s local accountability to its customers and risk an overall increase in network costs across Great Britain. We are currently consulting, however, on the level of protection provided to consumers in the north of Scotland, which amounts to an average of £41 per household this year.

Ian Blackford: I thank the Minister for that answer, but may I point out what she said just before Christmas:

“It is not right that people face higher electricity costs just because of where they live”?

I agree with her. Why does she not now take action to introduce fairness into the electricity market? Why are people in the highlands and islands paying 2p per kWh more than people elsewhere? Why are people in my constituency being discriminated against? Do the right thing and create a national market.

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Andrea Leadsom: As I have said to the hon. Gentleman —we have had this discussion a number of times—I sympathise with his point, but he needs to appreciate that a national charge would mean lower charges in some areas and increases in others. Specifically in Scotland, 1.8 million households would face higher bills while 700,000 would see reductions. This is a very serious problem; he cannot just wave a magic wand and have us change it.

Energy-efficient Homes

9. Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con): What steps the Government are taking to increase the contribution made to meeting targets on energy efficiency and on the use of low-carbon energy by residential buildings; and if she will make a statement. [903592]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): Our new domestic supplier obligation will provide support to over 200,000 homes per year from 2017 for a period of five years by improving energy efficiency, tackling fuel poverty, and continuing to deliver on our commitment to insulate 1 million more homes during this Parliament.

Mike Wood: Will my right hon. Friend work with industry bodies such as the Sustainable Energy Association to bring forward ideas for a comprehensive strategy to increase uptake of energy efficiency measures?

Amber Rudd: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to raise this. We will engage with the industry in order to reform these grants—the renewable heat incentive and ECO, the energy company obligation. The Sustainable Energy Association is one of the stakeholders we will work with to make sure that our reformed system delivers even better value for the people who are really in need.

Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central) (Lab): We know there is a link between cold homes and excess winter deaths. Last winter, 43,000 people died completely unnecessarily as a result of the cold. What work is the Secretary of State doing with colleagues at the Department of Health to reduce excess winter deaths, specifically by ensuring that households meet minimum energy efficiency standards?

Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to point this out. Any excess winter deaths are too many, and we work very hard across Departments to make sure that we do what we can to help people who are in the poorest homes. We do work with the Department of Health, but also with the Department for Communities and Local Government. There is more we can do through regulation to address cold homes and some of the energy efficiency measures that I would like to put in place in existing homes.

Steve Brine (Winchester) (Con): Yesterday the Park Homes Owners Justice Campaign was here launching its new PARK-LINE helpline and talking to Age Concern about its warm homes campaign. It then delivered a petition to the Secretary of State. Can she confirm that she has it and will give it active and proper consideration?

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Amber Rudd: I did receive the petition yesterday. We have already taken steps to help people in park homes by ensuring that they are eligible for the warm home discount of £140 and can apply for ECO where appropriate. However, I am always looking for opportunities to be more helpful and to give more support for people in need, so I will look carefully at the petition.

Matthew Pennycook (Greenwich and Woolwich) (Lab): The Data Communications Company is an integral part of the roll-out of the Government’s smart meter programme, but it is now nine months behind schedule, and the delay is narrowing the window for the installation of SMETS 2 meters, with the risk that any additional cost might be borne by consumers. At the very minimum, can we have an updated impact assessment to reflect these delays and ensure that we are getting value for money for customers?

Amber Rudd: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are making good progress on smart meters. My colleagues and I have regular meetings with the energy companies about progress, and some of them are even ahead of schedule. However, we will continue to monitor the situation and continue to ensure that customers get the best value from smart meters, because this is an incredibly important infrastructure project that will help to reduce bills.

Shale Gas

10. Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): What steps she is taking to safeguard protected areas from shale gas development. [903594]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): Shale gas could become a very valuable new industry, and it is in the strong interests of the UK to explore its potential. However, we are determined to protect our most valuable spaces and have consulted on banning surface-level drilling in the most precious areas. We have also regulated to set the minimum depth of hydraulic fracturing under sensitive areas.

Graham Evans: Last month, I held a second successful fact-finding fracking meeting at Helsby high school, ably assisted by the Environment Agency, Public Health England, and the Health and Safety Executive. Over 400 constituents from Frodsham and Helsby left better informed. What steps is the Minister taking to encourage regulatory bodies to engage further in such public meetings?

Andrea Leadsom: I am impressed by my hon. Friend’s managing three F-words in one parliamentary question. It is vital for local communities to have access to the facts about fracking and our stringent regulations, and I congratulate him on organising those important events. We are working with the regulators to make sure that they have every opportunity and encouragement from the Department to engage with the public. The Environment Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, the Oil and Gas Authority and Public Health England regularly attend public meetings such as the one he mentioned, and they will continue to do so.

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Mr Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): An application was made to start drilling at a little place called Calow in the Bolsover area. Most of the villagers were against the application, and it was turned down by the local planning committee. It then went to the Government inspector, because Cuadrilla wanted to appeal, and the Government inspector turned it down. Now I am told that it is possible that the Government are quite capable of overruling the decision of their own inspector and allowing fracking. Is that correct?

Andrea Leadsom: First, may I wish the hon. Gentleman a very happy birthday? I am sure that all Members would want me to do so.

Mr Skinner: I spent it on the picket line yesterday with the doctors.

Andrea Leadsom: The hon. Gentleman is a real challenge to, but a role model for, the House in the work that he does. I genuinely congratulate him and wish him a very happy birthday. In terms of the appeal, he has set out exactly what is supposed to happen. Local communities have their say and feed into the process. Developers can appeal, of course—it is right that they should be able to—and the inspector can turn it down. There is an appeal process. I am not sure about the specifics of the case he mentions, but the point is that democracy is done, and is seen to be done. That is very important.

Mr Skinner: Whatever happened to localism?

Andrea Leadsom: That is localism in action.

Climate Change: Adaptation Costs

11. Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): What discussions she has had with her Cabinet colleagues on limiting climate change to prevent greater future expenditure on adaptation. [903595]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): I am clear that the only way to address climate change effectively is through global action, building on the global agreement that the UK was instrumental in achieving in Paris in December. All countries need to act if we are to bring down emissions and minimise adaptation costs in the future. I want the UK to continue to set an example by addressing the 1.2% of global emissions that we are responsible for, while at the same time continuing to grow our economy.

Cat Smith: The Government’s advisers have warned them that if global temperature rises are not limited, there will be a big increase in flooding in the UK. The effects of flooding were felt acutely in the Lancaster district during Storm Desmond, when our substation was flooded and we lost the electricity supply for three days, affecting tens of thousands of homes and businesses. Will the Secretary of State commit to upgrading our adaptation plans, including our flood defence budgets, especially those for defending our electricity supplies?

Amber Rudd: I am aware of the impact of flooding in the hon. Lady’s constituency, and I remember her speaking during the debate that we had on the subject with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

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The best way to address dangerous climate change and its potential impact on extreme weather events is to get a global deal, which is why we have been so focused on trying to do so. I reassure her that I will work closely with my colleagues in DEFRA to ensure that we have a national adaptation programme in place.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): One thing that we have to do in the UK to meet our obligations under that international deal is to reduce further our emissions from buildings. When people buy a more efficient car, they pay less tax than they would on a less efficient model. Should not the same apply to the taxation of buildings?

Amber Rudd: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that addressing buildings is an incredibly important part of trying to meet the renewable energy targets that we have set for 2020 through the EU. I am working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to see what action we can take to address that, but buildings are an important part of the mix.

Mr Speaker: I would be reassured to know that the Secretary of State does not literally address buildings.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Surely one of the most important things that the Secretary of State can do to limit climate change is publicly to state how she will meet the shortfall in our legally binding renewable targets for 2020. She knows that beyond 2017, her Department projects a 25% shortfall across the heating, electricity and transport sectors. The Eurostat data released yesterday show the UK to be missing its target by the widest margin of any European country. What assessment has she made of the potential fines the UK may face as a result of that failure?

Amber Rudd: I do not share the hon. Gentleman’s catastrophic view of the progress that we have made. We already have nearly 25% of our electricity coming from renewables, and we believe that we may well exceed our target of 30% by 2020. In terms of the overall renewable target, I hope he will welcome, as I do, the fact that we have already exceeded our interim target, which was 5.4%; we are now at 6.3%. However, we are aware that we need to make more progress, and we have set out clearly what we will do during this Parliament to address the shortfall.

Offshore Wind

13. Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): What steps her Department is taking to ensure the long-term future of the offshore wind industry. [903602]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): My hon. Friend will be aware that I announced last November that, in addition to the 10 GW I expect to be installed by 2020, the UK could support up to 10 GW of new offshore wind in the 2020s, subject to costs coming down. The next contract for difference round will take place by the end of this year, and I will set out further information in due course so that potential bidders can start planning their bids.

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Oliver Colvile: I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. Offshore wind is an important part of renewable energy policy but so, for that matter, is marine energy. What progress have the Government made on the marine energy park to be situated down in the south-west?

Amber Rudd: I am aware of the good work that my hon. Friend has done this year and the progress he has made, and that Plymouth’s world-leading expertise is at the heart of the south-west marine energy park. Last year, I was delighted to host, with him, a conference in Plymouth to take forward marine energy planning. I can reassure him that we will continue to work with him to ensure that Plymouth stands at the front of any marine energy park.

Nic Dakin (Scunthorpe) (Lab): The development of Hornsea Project One by DONG Energy will be funded by UK taxpayers and UK energy bill payers. How will the Government use their new procurement guidelines to ensure that UK content, such as UK steel, is used in that development?

Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to raise this matter. May I reassure him that we are having regular meetings with DONG and with the MPs involved to ensure that the UK content is as high as possible, within the procurement rules?

Energy Prices

15. Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): What steps her Department is taking to ensure that changes in gas prices are passed on to consumers. [903604]

16. Martyn Day (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (SNP): What steps she is taking to ensure that reductions in the wholesale price of energy are passed on to consumers. [903606]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): As the hon. Gentlemen may be aware, average domestic gas prices fell by £37 during 2015. Six major suppliers have announced a further cut in their tariffs; two more have announced that this morning. It is a good start, but the Government expect all suppliers to pass on reductions in the costs of supplying energy to consumers. I have met all the major energy suppliers in recent months to make that point clear.

Jim McMahon: Will the Secretary of State join me in celebrating the work of our local councils in assisting people to save energy? Oldham Council’s collective buying scheme has attracted 8,700 households to sign up to it, each of which will save about £170. In Nottingham, the first local authority energy company, which employs 30 staff, is hoping to sign up 10,000 households.

Amber Rudd: I will join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating his council on doing that. Some individual councils are doing exceptionally good work on group switching and are trying to help their constituents. I visited Nottingham last year to see the good work that has been done there. I hope that more councils will follow that lead.

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Martyn Day: Does the Secretary of State think that the Competition and Markets Authority should, as part of its investigation into the energy market, introduce measures to make switching suppliers easier, as the consumer group Which? has called for?

Amber Rudd: Like the hon. Gentleman, I am impatient to receive the comments of the Competition and Markets Authority. It was predominately to address the difficulties with switching and the difficulties that some consumers find in engaging with the energy market that the Prime Minister referred the energy market, via Ofgem, to the authority. I certainly hope that it comes forward with such suggestions.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): Just over a year ago, the Government announced an investigation into whether families should pay less for their energy because of the fall in the wholesale price of gas. The Chancellor told The Telegraph:

“Falling oil and gas prices should bring cheaper household bills”.

A spokesman added that the Government were conducting a series of studies of utility companies to examine whether action was needed. The investigation was backed by the Prime Minister, the then Energy and Climate Change Secretary and the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury. It was reported that Ministers would be watching the energy companies “like a hawk”. What happened to that study, and what action was taken?

Amber Rudd: I can reassure the hon. Lady that we continue to watch the energy companies like a hawk. I am pleased that we continue to see reductions, with two more being announced just this morning, and I hope she will join me in welcoming them. The great news for consumers is that they are not faced with the price freeze that I cannot forget Labour promised last year. If that had happened, none of these reductions would have taken place.

Mr Speaker: Progress has been rather slow today, on account of some quite long questions and some long answers, but I do not like Back-Bench Members who are waiting patiently to lose out. The hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne will not lose out. I call Angela Rayner.

Solar Energy: VAT

17. Angela Rayner (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab): Whether the Secretary of State has had discussions with the Chancellor of the Exchequer on proposals to increase VAT on solar panels. [903607]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): A recent European Court of Justice ruling found that the reduced rate of VAT on certain “energy saving materials” was in breach of EU law. As a result, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs recently consulted on changes to the rate of VAT and is considering the responses. If the rate of VAT does change, we will consider the options for how to maintain a suitable rate of return for investors under the feed-in tariff.

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Angela Rayner: May I, along with the Minister, wish my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) a happy birthday? I am so pleased that he is still winning. He is fantastic.

Following on from the question from the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), the proposed hike in VAT would raise the typical cost of a 4 kW residential solar PV system by nearly £1,000, even though industry experts advise us to retain the lower tax rate for solar under the recent ECJ judgment. The Government are keeping the lower rate for heat pumps, biomass boilers and combined heat and power units. The same should surely apply to solar PV thermal; otherwise we will have the perverse situation in which electricity generated from fossil fuels is taxed at 5% VAT, while homeowners have to pay 20% VAT for their own renewable energy. Can the Minister not persuade the Chancellor to reverse this tax hike and, if she cannot, will she make commensurate increases?

Andrea Leadsom: I want to be clear with the hon. Lady that this is not the Chancellor’s choice. As I have made very clear, this is an EU Court ruling; it is not our choice. In the event that we have to impose an increase in VAT, we will look at the returns to investors under the feed-in tariff.

Topical Questions

T1. [903609] Nusrat Ghani (Wealden) (Con): If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Amber Rudd): Since the last Question Time, there has been a dramatic fall in the oil price. The Government are clear that the broad shoulders of the UK are 100% behind our oil and gas industry, the hard-working people it employs and the families it supports. The Government have set up the Oil and Gas Authority to drive collaboration and productivity in the industry. We recently set out an action plan to back the export of our world-class skills in oil and gas, and to diversify the economy of the north-east of Scotland, including through investment in exploration, innovation and skills.

Nusrat Ghani: Will the Secretary of State outline what progress is being made to secure vital infrastructure investment in the energy sector? Are not thinking for the long term and investing in infrastructure the best way to get secure, low-cost electricity for my constituents in Wealden? Before I forget, I wish the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) a happy birthday.

Amber Rudd: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We are tackling the legacy of under-investment, the failure to deliver the next generation of energy projects and the energy security black hole that were left by the last Labour Government. We are getting on with the job of building a system of energy infrastructure fit for the 21st century. We have made substantial progress in securing infrastructure investment. The UK has enjoyed record levels in the deployment of renewables over recent years and it maintains a healthy energy investment pipeline, as is shown in our national infrastructure plan.

Lisa Nandy (Wigan) (Lab): Last week, a Bloomberg report showed that the UK is the biggest beneficiary of European Investment Bank funding for clean energy projects and we are the third largest recipient of the new

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European fund for strategic investments, which is being spent mostly on energy. Some 70,000 jobs are expected to be created as a result. Does the Secretary of State agree that that is further evidence that Britain should stay in the European Union?

Amber Rudd: There are, of course, tremendous benefits from a united energy market, and I am interested and excited to work on the progress of the energy union.

T4. [903612] Sir David Amess (Southend West) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend ensure that energy companies automatically switch their customers to the cheapest tariff possible, because many constituents find the current system confusing and somewhat disappointing?

Amber Rudd: My hon. Friend puts his finger on a sensitive and tricky issue about delivering the best for consumers, which is what the Government want to achieve, while also encouraging competition. I ask him to wait for the Competition and Markets Authority report, which I hope will address the issue, and then I believe we will make some progress.

Callum McCaig (Aberdeen South) (SNP): At Prime Minister’s questions on 27 January, the Prime Minister said about oil and gas:

“I am determined that we build a bridge to the future for all those involved”—[Official Report, 27 January 2016; Vol. 605, c. 260.]

Following his visit to Aberdeen, it is clear that that bridge will be built on the cheap. Industry needs meaningful support in the forthcoming Budget, so can we have less talk about the broad shoulders of the UK, and will the Secretary of State put her back into delivering the change we need?

Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman is being a little churlish about the significant investment that the broad shoulders of the United Kingdom are putting into the north-east, particularly to ensure that jobs and skills are secured. I am working across Departments, and chairing a ministerial group, to ensure that those skills are preserved, and I will be working with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to ensure that we have a taskforce to take that forward. I hope he will also welcome the £250 million put into Aberdeen for its city deal, but there is a lot of progress to be made and a lot more to take forward.

T6. [903614] Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con): Will the Secretary of State consider how the current system model, including the National Infrastructure Commission, National Grid and Ofgem, could be reformed to make it a more flexible and independent part of an energy infrastructure that is fit for the 21st century?

Amber Rudd: My hon. Friend has a great deal of experience in this sector, and he will be aware, as I am, that National Grid as system operator has played a pivotal role in keeping the energy market working. As our system changes, we must ensure that it is as productive, secure and cost-effective as possible. There is a strong case for greater independence for the system operator, to allow it to make the necessary changes, and we will work alongside the National Infrastructure Commission to consider how best to reform the current model.

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T2. [903610] Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): As Valentine’s day approaches, will the Secretary of State support the climate coalition “Show the love” campaign and encourage all Members to wear the green hearts that we have been sent, which symbolise how so much of what we love, wherever we are in the world, is affected by climate change?

Amber Rudd: That is a very interesting approach, and it is always good to welcome Valentine’s day. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman could give one of those hearts to the birthday boy who is sitting in front of him.

T7. [903615] Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): Dozens of my constituents are employed in the solar power industry, and I meet them regularly. May I add my voice to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) in asking the ministerial team to continue to assess and analyse what effect the changes to solar subsidies are having on microbusinesses and small and medium-sized businesses that are engaged in the solar industry?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): As my hon. Friend knows, the solar industry is a great UK success story, and we are set to exceed massively our targets for solar power, achieving almost 13 GW of solar energy capacity forecast for 2020. With our revised tariff we expect up to 220,000 brand-new solar installations between now and 2019, which will give a rate of return of nearly 5% to well-sited installations.

T3. [903611] Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP): Pinsent Masons recently published a report on the prospects for the oil and gas sector in 2016, which highlighted that 67% of oil and gas executives see the UK as a prime opportunity for growth over the next three years, under the right fiscal environment. What fiscal support is being considered for the oil and gas industry ahead of the Budget?

Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that fiscal changes are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, but I reassure him that we take seriously the support that we want to give to the UK continental shelf and all the jobs around it. I chair the cross-ministerial group, which also includes a member from the Treasury.

Peter Aldous (Waveney) (Con): The new Anglia local enterprise partnership’s oil and gas taskforce has developed a package of measures to support businesses and workers at this difficult time. Will the Secretary of State consider a proposal from the LEP for the Government to match the local funding that it is providing?

Amber Rudd: I hesitate to agree to any financial commitments in this Chamber, but I am always interested in looking at proposals from my hon. Friend.

T5. [903613] Mr Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): What progress is the Secretary of State making on getting state aid consent for the strike price for island communities in offshore wind projects? When does she expect to go out to consultation on what that strike price should be?

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Andrea Leadsom: We absolutely appreciate that industry, across all technologies, needs clarity on Government policies in future allocation rounds so that it can manage its investment decisions, and we aim to support that. We are currently working with Her Majesty’s Treasury to finalise the budget for future auctions, and we will set out more information as soon as we can.

Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): I thank the Minister for her robust and informative response to my Adjournment debate about the Humber estuary on Tuesday evening. May I draw her attention to a statement issued to the local media by DONG Energy? The statement is wet, woolly and non-committal. Will she reaffirm her determination to be involved in the future developments in northern Lincolnshire?

Andrea Leadsom: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his excellent support for his area. I was delighted to respond to him in the Adjournment debate, and I can absolutely assure him that there will be no wriggle room; in order for the UK to benefit properly from our decision to support new offshore wind, we will require UK content and the UK supply chain be a key beneficiary of it.

T8. [903616] Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): What plans does the Secretary of State have to allow large-scale solar generators to apply for a contract under the contract for difference mechanism?

Amber Rudd: We do not have plans at the moment for a large-scale solar contract. What we have found is that the large-scale ground mounted solar industry has confirmed to us that it does not need any subsidy and that because costs have fallen to such a great degree, it can continue, subject to planning permission, to develop and to supply electricity without a formal contract. That is surely in the better interests of the taxpayer and the bill payer, if it can be achieved.

Antoinette Sandbach (Eddisbury) (Con): Given that Cheshire has a centre of excellence in relation to the nuclear industry, what steps are the Government taking to ensure funding for new nuclear centres in the universities in the north of England?

Amber Rudd: My hon. Friend may be aware that in the recent spending review one area where we did get an increase was in innovation. Specifically, we have allocated half of the new increase for small modular reactors. We are working on delivery in that area with universities and with Innovate UK and we will continue to do so.

T9. [903617] Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): The Select Committee has found that scrapping the Government’s support for carbon capture and storage technology puts at risk the UK’s international commitments on tackling climate change and makes it more expensive to do this. We have also lost out on about £250 million-worth of EU investment. Can the Minister just explain to me how this makes sense?

Andrea Leadsom: Our view is that CCS has a potentially important role to play in long-term decarbonisation. We continue to invest in the development of CCS; we are investing more than £130 million to develop the

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technology through innovation support. My Department is looking at what our new policy is to develop this important technology.

T10. [903618] Roger Mullin (Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath) (SNP): Electrical network losses from theft and so-called “copper losses” are estimated by the Department to cost consumers in excess of £3 billion annually. What recent analysis has the Department undertaken on the potential contribution of power line carrier technology to address this issue?

Andrea Leadsom: This area interests me personally a great deal. Obviously, it is a complete disaster if pipeline tapping—in effect, stealing—takes product away from consumers which then has to be paid for. This is a vital area and I am looking at it. I am not familiar with the proposal the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, but if he would like to write to me about it, I would be happy to take a look at it.

Rachael Maskell (York Central) (Lab/Co-op): Historically, all mining has been prohibited under the city of York. City of York Council passed a motion to say that no licences should be given for fracking, yet a licence has been given. What guarantee will the Minister give that the local voice now will determine what happens?

Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving me a chance to explain that the licence is not a

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licence to frack—that sounds a bit Bond-like; it is simply a licence to be able to consider the seismic opportunity of the shale gas that is potentially underneath. It is absolutely not a guarantee that anything will happen at all. There is then a whole planning process to go through, including environmental assessments, health and safety assessments and so on. And there is a very clear local planning process, which is very well communicated and with which she will be very familiar.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): This morning, energy experts reported that we were way behind on the target emission levels set at the Paris COP and in the fourth carbon budget. This comes only weeks after the important agreement in Paris. How on earth can this be the case?

Amber Rudd: The hon. Gentleman might be aware that the Paris agreement called for temperature increases to be limited to a maximum of 2°, yet the intended nationally determined contributions—the voluntary contributions from each country—only reached 2.7°, so that comes as no surprise. Everyone who signed up to the agreement—let us celebrate the fact that nearly 200 countries did so—knows that there is more work to do. It is not the end of the journey; it is just the start.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker: Order. I am sorry to disappoint remaining colleagues, but we must now move on.

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Short Money and Policy Development Grant

10.35 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab) (Urgent Question): To ask the Leader of the House to make a statement on Short money and the policy development grant.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (John Penrose) rose—

Hon. Members: Where’s the Leader of the House?

Mr Speaker: I call the Minister with responsibility for constitutional reform.

John Penrose: That includes the policy development grant, Mr Speaker.

As the shadow Leader of the House will already know, the Electoral Commission has been consulting on changes to policy development grant, and there have been informal discussions about parallel changes to Short money between the political parties as well. I can confirm that we plan to initiate further, more formal consultations on Short money shortly. There will be plenty of time and opportunity for views to be expressed on both sides of the House, and I am sure, if he runs true to form, he will use those opportunities well.

I am also required, under the terms of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, to lay a statutory instrument before the House to adjust the shares of policy development grant between political parties to reflect the results of the recent general election. This statutory instrument is nearly ready and will be laid soon. I am sure it will then be scrutinised and debated carefully by the House, if it wishes, in the usual way.

Chris Bryant: Does the Minister agree that it

“cannot be right…for Opposition parties to be under-resourced, particularly when…the Government have increased substantially, from taxpayers’ money, the resources that they receive for their own special advisers”?—[Official Report, 26 May 1999; Vol. 332, c. 428-9.]

Those are not my words; they were the words of Sir George Young, when he was the Conservative shadow Leader of the House, arguing for even more Short money for the Tories when the Labour Government trebled it for them in 1999. In opposition, the Prime Minister said he would cut the number and cost of special advisers, yet in government he has appointed 27 more than ever before and the cost to the taxpayer has gone up by £2.5 million a year. There is a word for that, Mr Speaker, but it is not parliamentary.

In opposition, the Conservatives banked £46 million a year in Short money, yet in government they want to cut it for the Opposition by 20%. There is a word for that, Mr Speaker, but it is not parliamentary. How can it be right for the Government to cut the policy development grant to political parties by 19%, when they are not cutting the amount of money spent on their own special advisers? Surely history has taught us that an overweening Executive is always a mistake. Surely, if a party in government needs financial support in addition to the civil service, it is in the national interest that all the Opposition parties should be properly resourced as well.

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The Government have briefed journalists that they will publish their proposals on Short money tomorrow—in the recess—and that, basically, is what the Minister just admitted. Surely, above all else, this is a matter for the House. Short money was created by the House, and amendments have to be agreed by the House, so surely the House should hear first. Why, then, has the Leader of the House made absolutely no attempt to meet me or representatives of any other political party for proper consultation? Why did he fail to turn up for three meetings yesterday? Why is he not doing his proper job and standing at the Dispatch Box today? Mr Speaker, what is the word for this behaviour? Is it shabby, tawdry or just downright cynical?

John Penrose: I apologise fulsomely for not being the Leader of the House. I am sure that the shadow Leader of the House is looking forward to his weekly arm wrestle with him, but in the meantime I hope that he will accept having the other policy Minister—I am responsible for policy development grants—responding to his question and treat it as an amuse-bouche for his later work-outs with the Leader of the House.

To clarify one further point, I did not say we were launching “proposals”; I said we would be launching further “consultations”—and it is extremely important to understand that consultations involve a dialogue. The determined assault of the shadow Leader of the House is rather blunted by the fact that he will have a huge opportunity to contribute, as will others of all parties, as required, as soon as this consultation is launched.

One important point that the shadow Leader of the House managed to gloss over—I am sure inadvertently—is that Short money, contrary to the impression given by his remarks, has actually risen very substantially over the course of the last five years. It has gone up by more than 50%; it is more than 50% higher than it used to be. If we make no changes over the next few years, it will continue to rise still further. The population—the voters—who have had five or more years of having to tighten their belts to deal with the—[Interruption.]

Mr Speaker: Order. I appreciate that this is a high-octane issue, and it is because I judged it worthy of treatment today that the urgent question was granted. Members must, however, listen to the Minister who is, to be fair, among the most courteous of Ministers. He must be heard—[Interruption.] Order. There will then be a full opportunity for colleagues to question him.

John Penrose: Thank you, Mr Speaker. To finish my point, the country will not understand why politicians should be exempt from having to deal with the effects of the financial deficit that we were bequeathed by the last Labour Government. The reason why we have to tighten our belts as a nation is that whopping financial deficit. It cannot be right for politicians to argue that they should be in some way exempt—a special class—and not have to do their bit. Short money has gone up by 50% so far, and it will continue to rise if we do nothing. I think that the country expects us as politicians to set an example and to do our bit.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I have great sympathy for my hon. Friend the Minister who has been sent here to be shouted at by the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) because I doubt

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whether he is the author of this policy or that he is responsible for determining the outcome. If the policy is as reasonable as the Minister insists, however, it is quite clear from these exchanges that the Government have handled the matter in a clumsy manner so that the Opposition feel they have not been consulted. On the other hand, could there be an agenda behind this change, which is rather more political in its intent?

I would like to inform Members that my Select Committee has already received correspondence from another Conservative Chair of a Select Committee expressing concern about this matter. We are looking into it and will be holding an inquiry. All sides should have a fair hearing so that these matters can be agreed by consensus.

John Penrose: I welcome the Select Committee Chairman’s pledge of a further consultation. That will provide further opportunities to air the issues around this matter in addition to—and possibly in parallel with, depending on the timing—the consultation I mentioned in my earlier remarks.

Patrick Grady (Glasgow North) (SNP): I declare an interest as the national secretary of the Scottish National party. I echo the points already made on Short money. Government is growing, special advisers are growing, the House of Lords is growing, but our ability to hold the Government to account is being stripped back. There is one rule for Tory cronies and another rule for everyone else.

The policy development grant poses serious issues for the headquarters, especially of smaller parties and especially given the prospect of a cut in the middle of devolved election campaigns. Will the Minister take on board the recommendations of the Electoral Commission? What opportunities will be there be for further consultation and cross-party negotiation on both these issues?

John Penrose: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that the policy development grant has a slightly different mechanism. It has to be dealt with through a statutory instrument rather than by resolution of the House. The statutory instrument will be laid as soon as it is ready, whereupon the hon. Gentleman and everybody else will have an opportunity to debate it. The hon. Gentleman is also right to say that the Electoral Commission has been consulting carefully and making recommendations about the revised shares to reflect the results of the last general election. I look forward to hearing his further comments at that point.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): May I make two points on behalf of my constituents? First, I absolutely agree with the shadow Leader of the House that the growth in the number of special advisers has got completely out of hand. If the Government want sensible policy advice, they should speak to their Back Benchers. After all, we are the ones who are in touch with our electorate.

Secondly, there should be some mechanism for measuring the effectiveness of the Opposition, because from where I am sitting it would seem that, pro rata, the Scottish National party offers a far more effective opposition than the present Labour party.

John Penrose: The shadow Leader of the House delights in using the standard format, “There is a word for that.” He has used that rhetorical device on several

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previous occasions, but one of the words he has not used is “shambles”, which is perhaps what my hon. Friend is suggesting about Labour’s performance on at least one or two issues.

I can happily confirm that the cost of Spads has started to fall since the last general election, which is tremendously important. I also heartily endorse my hon. Friend’s point that, in order to remain in touch with both the feelings of the House and those of the electorate, Governments need to listen to Back Benchers as well as to others very carefully indeed.

Margaret Beckett (Derby South) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that I was fortunate enough to be the Leader of the House who put through the settlement on Short money to which my hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) has referred? At the time, we had a massive majority and every opportunity to use office to disadvantage our opponents, had we wished. The Conservative party was politically on its knees, and financially as close to it as it had ever been. We had experienced one of the features of the proposal that is being considered, namely the freezing of the grant after it has been cut. We experienced inflation of 10% to 15% under the triumphant preceding Conservative Government. Consequently, not only did we treble the money and make special provision for the special needs of the Leader of the Opposition, but we inflation-proofed it. That is why the money has gone up for the past five years: it is his party’s own record on inflation that the Minister is criticising.

John Penrose: The right hon. Lady makes a very important point, but there is a crucial difference between the situation when she was in charge and the current situation: we have a huge deficit to deal with, while Labour inherited an economy that was doing incredibly well and a set of Government finances that were in a far stronger position. The difference is the deficit, and the reason for the deficit is sitting opposite me. I am afraid that that is why politicians and the rest of the country have to tighten our belts.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield) (Con): Will my hon. Friend, despite all the outrage on the Opposition Benches, just remind us again by precisely how much Short money has risen since 2010?

John Penrose: It has gone up by 50% when everybody else has had to tighten their belts, and if we do nothing, it will continue to rise further.

Mr Douglas Carswell (Clacton) (UKIP): I am delighted that the Government are cutting Short money; few things this Administration have announced have pleased me more. Does the Minister agree that this is public money and that the public will deeply resent it being spent on politicians to do more politics? Does he agree that the rules on Short money need to reflect the fact that the cost of doing politics—of doing policy, research and communication—have come down? We live in a world where Google is at our fingertips, so we do not need researchers. We also have Twitter and blogs so we do not need a whole department of press officers. Does he agree that the public will resent using public money to pay for Spads and shadow special advisers, who have watched too much of “The West Wing”, to sit in Portcullis House at public expense?

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John Penrose: I agree with large parts of what the hon. Gentleman says. I think that the public will look at these contributions from the public purse—which taxpayers fund without choice, unlike other forms of political donation about which people do have a choice—and wonder why the political classes think that they should be exempt, particularly because, as the hon. Gentleman rightly points out, it is far more possible nowadays to do this work in an efficient fashion and to deliver greater efficiencies. I believe that he has in the past turned down potential allocations of either Short money or the policy development grant to which he was theoretically entitled, and I compliment him on that principled stand.

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Speaking as one who managed Short money and the policy development grant for the Conservative party when we were in opposition, I think that they are critical elements of what we need in order to function effectively in a democracy. I recognise that the grants have increased significantly, but I would gently say to those on the Front Bench that when making proposals about the future of these sums and how they are to be spent, due consideration should be given to the risks of their being spent more broadly in political parties, and also the opportunities that exist to fund a great deal of the work involved from sources outside political parties in the modern age of politics.

John Penrose: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and, as he says, he speaks from personal experience. I think that the crucial point we all need to remember—the guiding star—is that at some point whoever is in government will be in opposition, although I hope it will not be for a great deal of time in our case. We must therefore come up with rules that we are all happy to live with, whichever side of the aisle we are on.

Mr Nicholas Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne East) (Lab): The Government are setting to one side all the conventions for dealing with issues of this kind. There is no precedent for them to proceed in this way. In fact, what they are doing does not amount to anything more than Bullingdon Club bullying of Parliament. They are treating Parliament as if it were a Department of Government, and an unfavoured Department of Government at that. Will the Leader of the House—sorry, I mean the Minister, although it ought to be the Leader of the House—tell us what he has done to defend the interests of Parliament, rather than the narrow political interests of the Conservative Government?

John Penrose: I would gently and respectfully demur from the right hon. Gentleman’s starting point. We have been undertaking some informal discussions between parties, which we are planning to make much more formal in the future, and I think that means that there will be plenty of opportunities for cross-party views to be gathered. There is absolutely no intention to subvert the will of Parliament. In fact, as you know, Mr Speaker, whatever proposals are made will have to be subject to debate and passage through the House when they eventually materialise.

Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): Will my hon. Friend tell me how much money we are talking about, in cash terms? If he does not know, will he write to me about it, please?

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John Penrose: I shall.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): Can the Minister reassure me that all parties in the House will be fully involved in every stage of all the consultations? Will he also bear it in mind that a flat cut in both Short money and policy development grant will have a disproportionate effect on smaller parties, particularly regional parties? They are important elements in allowing us to function properly.

John Penrose: I can give the right hon. Gentleman exactly that reassurance. We will ensure that all political parties are involved in our consultation.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): If this is about responding to the deficit and the cuts are therefore justified, will the Minister explain how it is justified that the number of Spads has risen from 79 to 95, at an extra cost of more than £2 million?

John Penrose: As I said earlier, the cost of Spads has started to fall in the current Parliament. It is also important to remember that the total amount of Short money and policy development grant comes to dramatically more than the cost of Spads or anything of that sort.

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington) (LD): The Government, and the Conservatives, have form when it comes to rigging the electoral playing field. The Conservatives may have broken the law by spending more than the legal limit at by-elections. They are ramming through one-sided changes in the funding of political parties, while leaving in place their ability to raise huge sums from hedge fund managers. Now they intend to slash the Short money which ensures that Opposition parties can hold Governments to account. Can the Minister guarantee that the cuts will not be the final chapter in our transition from a multi-party state to a one-party state in which Robert Mugabe would be at home?

John Penrose: I do not know where to start in trying to rebut some of the absurd assumptions in that question, but I think that the short answer to all of them is “No.”

Liz McInnes (Heywood and Middleton) (Lab): These proposals come on the back of the Government’s attack on Labour’s funding via the Trade Union Bill. It is clearly part of a partisan move to hit the Opposition and give the Government an unfair advantage, while leaving their own funding base of big donors untouched. Can the Minister confirm that the Government are now in favour of rigging the rules to suit themselves?

John Penrose: The hon. Lady will be unsurprised to hear that I disagree strongly with almost every word of her question. I am happy to confirm that I and my hon. Friend the Minister for Skills in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will give evidence on the Trade Union Bill to the House of Lords Trade Union Political Funds and Political Party Funding Committee later today, when we will perhaps have an opportunity to debate the proposals in even greater depth.

Mr David Winnick (Walsall North) (Lab): The name is after the Leader of the House at the time, Edward Short, who provided money for the Opposition parties, particularly the Tories. Is the Minister aware that the

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measure he has announced will be seen, despite all his denials, as sheer spite against the Opposition parties, particularly the main Opposition party? The Government should be thoroughly ashamed of taking such a measure together with others to introduce, as was rightly said, a one-party state.

John Penrose: I am terribly sorry to disagree with such a senior and experienced Member, but I must remind the hon. Gentleman and others that the public at large have had several years of belt-tightening. They have had to deal with the effects of the deficit and have all had to contribute to try to close the yawning financial gap that we were bequeathed by the previous Government. They will just not understand—they will judge politicians and the political classes, as they see them, extremely harshly—if we are not willing to do our bit and make this work.

Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): There is a great sense of fairness in the British public at large and a much better sense of fairness among some Government Back Benchers. When the Minister is talking to the public about belt-tightening, it does not wash very well when they see the gala fundraisers the Conservative party is currently holding. If the proposal comes to this House of Commons for a vote, I warn him that reasonable people who value democracy and a healthy Opposition will not give him a majority.

John Penrose: The measures will in due course come to the House for a vote, and rightly so. They will be subject to proper democratic scrutiny in due course, so the hon. Gentleman will have his opportunity to try to persuade others of his point of view, but I again draw a crucial distinction between the provision of public money, funded by taxpayers, who do not have a choice about whether the money goes to political parties, and voluntary political donations made by whoever it may be—individuals or trade unions. In the end, people should have a choice. That is the crucial distinction between those two sources.

Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (PC): Short money and the policy development grant are vital for parties such as mine in developing ideas and policies, which are the vital ingredients of any functioning democracy. If the UK Government are serious about cutting the cost of politics, why do they not reduce the membership of the over-bloated other House?

John Penrose: We are extremely serious about cutting the cost of politics. As you know, Mr Speaker, we have plans to reduce the size of this Chamber from 650 to 600 MPs, as was agreed in the last Parliament. The number of peers is going up, but the cost of the upper House is falling. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will welcome that news and the news that there are ongoing political discussions on a cross-party basis on how other reforms might be effected in the House of Lords.

Paul Flynn (Newport West) (Lab): If the money for democracy is cut and if the ermine-clad pantomime of the House of Lords is further bloated, contrary to what the Minister just said, is it not likely to bring shameless hypocrisy into disrepute?

John Penrose: There were an awful lot of negatives in that question, but I think that I get the hon. Gentleman’s drift. I take his point on the concerns about the overall

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size of the House of Lords, but it is important for us not to forget that it has managed to reduce its total costs. As I mentioned earlier, there are ongoing cross-party discussions on how to address its overall size. I encourage their lordships to continue those discussions and, with any luck, to produce proposals shortly.

Jo Stevens (Cardiff Central) (Lab): The Minister has repeatedly spoken this morning of tightening belts, but will he confirm that, when in opposition, the Conservative party took every penny of the £4.8 million Short money it was offered each year? There was no tightening of the belts then.

John Penrose: I cannot speak for what happened while we were in opposition, but I can confirm that we have on occasion handed back parts of, I think, the policy development grant because we were unable to spend it and we felt that it was appropriate to ensure that the taxpayer was reimbursed.

Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that 63% of the British population did not vote for this Government, and those people need to have their voices heard when policies hurt them. This is not about money for hotel rooms during by-elections; this is about democracy. Will the Minister start the consultation after the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee has reported?

John Penrose: We are all anxious to crack on with this as soon as we can, and we would like to start the consultation shortly. Given the level of interest that has been made evident during this urgent question, I am sure that we would be criticised further if we were to delay the consultation. I would like to get on with it soon, if we can, and to allow plenty of time for people to respond over a period of weeks. I am sure that the Select Committee’s Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin), will understand that timetable and that he will time his Committee’s investigations appropriately.

Nick Thomas-Symonds (Torfaen) (Lab): The Chancellor of the Exchequer has increased the pay of one of his special advisers by as much as 42%. How on earth can it be justified for the Chancellor to lecture the rest of us on tightening our belts when that does not seem to apply to him?

John Penrose: As I mentioned before, the total cost of Spads since the general election has started to fall.

Jim McMahon (Oldham West and Royton) (Lab): This cannot be taken in isolation. The fact is that the Government do not like being held to account. That is precisely why we now have the Trade Union Bill, why charities are being gagged by the Charities (Protection and Social Investment) Bill and why the Government are cutting the money to the Opposition. The truth is that they might be able to win a vote, but they cannot win the argument.

John Penrose: I keep on coming back to the central point that it is perfectly possible to undertake policy raising and policy development tasks more cheaply than before, as the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) mentioned.

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The rest of the country would not understand why, when everyone else has had to become more efficient, politicians should somehow be a special case. They would accuse us of feathering our own nests, and it would be extremely hard to justify that kind of action to anyone outside this place.

Jim Fitzpatrick (Poplar and Limehouse) (Lab): Mr Speaker, you said earlier that the Minister was one of the most courteous in the House—indeed he is—but he has now been in denial for the best part of half an hour. Does he not accept that the combination of a Trade Union Bill attacking Labour party funds, a boundary review that is likely to favour the Conservative party and a reduction in Short money and policy development money gives the impression outside this place that the Government are acting like the bully in the playground? The damage will be inflicted not on a child but on the integrity of Parliament and on the health of our democracy.

John Penrose: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned the boundary review. It is important that we all sign up to the principle that everybody’s vote, right the way across the country, no matter which constituency they might be in, should weigh the same. It cannot be right to have a system in which, in the past, Members of Parliament from some political parties have been elected in constituencies with many fewer people than others. People might justifiably ask why the Labour party, which benefited from that system for a very long time, is so against the notion of having equal votes for equal weight. I commend the new changes and the equalisation of the size of constituencies to all here.

Cat Smith (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Lab): The Minister is desperately trying, and failing, to justify the 19% cut to the Short money in the context of a Trade Union Bill that takes funds from the Labour party, of stuffing up the House of Lords and of changes to the electoral register and general election boundaries. We he now admit that the so-called one nation party is trying to create a one-party nation?

John Penrose: I compliment the hon. Lady on a well-rehearsed soundbite, but I have to tell her that I am not feeling terribly desperate at the moment. Indeed, I am feeling quite principled, because we are trying to make the system fairer and to ensure that our democracy works in a fairer fashion in future.

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Diana Johnson (Kingston upon Hull North) (Lab): The Minister has said several times we all need to tighten our belts, so can he just answer this question: how come the Chancellor of the Exchequer can increase his Spad’s pay by 42%? Just answer the question, please.

John Penrose: I believe that I already have. The cost of Spads has fallen since the general election.

Mr Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich West) (Lab/Co-op): The Minister is right when he says that in times of austerity politicians have to take their cut in expenditure. Will he therefore give a commitment that any percentage drop in Short money for the Opposition is more than matched with cuts in expenditure on Government Spads?

John Penrose: I can go broader than that. I can promise that the proposed cuts are the same as those being applied to all non-protected Departments right the way across the Government. This is not picking on any particular area at all. This is the standard cut, which every other Department that has not been protected has had to deal with. That is an important point to get across to the rest of the country.

Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde) (Lab/Co-op): The number of Government political advisers is up to nearly 100. The number of political advisers on the highest pay grade up 150%. The Prime Minister’s reportable salaries have increased by 51% and the Chancellor’s reportable political salaries have increased by 277%. When the Minister told us, just minutes ago, that the Government were tightening their belt on their political budget, did he deliberately mislead the House?

Mr Speaker: Order. I think understand what the hon. Gentleman was driving at, but it is wholly disorderly to deliberately mislead the House. The notion that somebody might do so should not be put to a Minister. The hon. Gentleman is extremely felicitous of phrase and I feel sure he can find another way to convey the thrust of what he wishes to communicate to the Minister. I very politely now invite him to do so.

Jonathan Reynolds: It appears that the facts contradict the Minister, so I just wonder if he made an inadvertent mistake in the statement he has made to us today.

Mr Speaker: Very dextrous.

John Penrose: Not as far as I am aware.

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Business of the House

11.6 am

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): Will the absentee, part-time Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Chris Grayling): It is a pleasure to follow an urgent question responded to by the Minister responsible.

The business for next week is as follows:

Monday 22 February—Second Reading of the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill. I also expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement, following the European Council meeting.

Tuesday 23 February—Consideration of Lords amendments to the Welfare Reform and Work Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Education and Adoption Bill, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

Wednesday 24 February—Opposition day (19th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion. Subject to be announced.

Thursday 25 February—General debate on European affairs.

Friday 26 February—Private Members’ Bills.

The provisional business for the week commencing 29 February will include:

Monday 29 February—Estimates (1st allotted day). There will be a debate on the science budget, followed by a debate on end-of-life care. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: First Report from the Science and Technology Committee, The Science Budget, HC 340, and the Government response, HC 729; and Fifth Report from the Health Committee, Session 2014-15, HC 805, and the Government response, Cm 9143; First Report from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Follow-up to PHSO Report: Dying without dignity, HC 432; Sixth Report from the Public Administration Committee, Session 2014-15, Investigating clinical incidents in the NHS, HC 886.]

Tuesday 1 March—Estimates (2nd allotted day). There will be a debate on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the 2015 spending review, followed by a debate on the reform of the police funding formula. At 7 pm, the House will be asked to agree all outstanding estimates. Further details will be given in the Official Report.

[The details are as follows: First Report from the Foreign Affairs Committee, The FCO and the 2015 Spending Review, HC 467, and the Government response, HC 816; and Fourth Report from the Home Affairs Committee, Reform of the Police Funding Formula, HC 476.]

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 25 February will be:

Thursday 25 February—Debate on the seventh report from the Communities and Local Government Committee on litter and fly-tipping in England.

Chris Bryant: Let me pay tribute to Harry Harpham. I know others have done so, but there are few miners left in this House and my constituents in the Rhondda

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would want to mark his passing with a warm comradely salute. And talking of miners, I would like to wish my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) an 84th happy birthday. He has still got the oomph of a 48-year-old.

I hope that the announcement made by the Leader of the House got you all excited, Mr Speaker, and that you were all atingle. I am genuinely excited, because if you read between the lines you will have spotted that Monday 22 February is going to be a very special day indeed. It is not just that the Prime Minister is making a statement on the EU Council. Far more importantly, 22 February 2016 will be the day the Government abandon collective responsibility on the EU. Cabinet Ministers will be hurtling down the corridors of power to get to television studios to be the first to go live on air to declare themselves an out-er. Forget the relief of Mafeking; forget the liberation of Paris; forget “Free Willy”; and even forget “Free Nelson Mandela”, because the 22 February 2016 will be known hereafter as the National Liberation of Grayling Day. Buy your bunting now, Mr Speaker.

Talking of the 22 February, the Leader of the House has also announced, finally, the mystery Second Reading Bill, which will be a Northern Ireland Bill. Will he ensure that the Committee and Report stages of that Bill are all taken on the Floor of the House, so that all Northern Ireland Members can take part in the debate?

Can the Leader of the House tell us the date of the State Opening of Parliament? We have fixed-term Parliaments now, so can he tell us whether it will even be in May? If it is to be in May, there are four possible Wednesdays. The 4 May is the day before local elections, so that is out. The 25 May is just before the bank holiday and would fall in purdah for the EU referendum, so will it be the 11 or the 18 May? Come on! Or are the Government intending to keep this Session going indefinitely, way beyond the European referendum, into the autumn and into next year? If so, will he give us some more dates for private Members’ Bills as we have no more Fridays allocated?

We have been saying for a while that the Trade Union Bill is partisan, petty-minded and vindictive, but now we know that the Government think so, too. After all, the Minister for Skills, who is the Minister in charge, has written to the Leader of the House, saying that large chunks of the Bill need redrafting—would you believe it?—because they are simply not “rational”—his word. He is seeking clearance on possible concessions to ease handling in the House of Lords.

Apparently, one concession under consideration relates to check-off—obviously, I do not mean the playwright—whereby most trade union members have their union subscriptions deducted from their pay and sent to their union by their employer. The Government want to ban check-off, but the leaked letter makes it absolutely clear that it would be illegal to do so in Scotland and Wales due to devolution, but how on earth can it be right for the Government to ban check-off at all? The Government’s own website makes it absolutely clear that this arrangement is entirely voluntary. This is what it says:

“There is no legal requirement for your employer to do this”.

For petty, partisan advantage a Conservative Government are intending to outlaw a perfectly sensible private contract between employer and employee. How does that fit with Edmund Burke and Adam Smith?

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When the Bill was in this House, the hon. Member for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy) quite wisely tabled a perfectly sensible amendment to allow check-off to continue. Why does the Leader of the House not stand up today and tell us that that is one of the Government’s concessions?

Also speaking of the Trade Union Bill, Lord Adebowale, a Cross Bencher, said:

“If ever there was evidence that the intention of the Bill is not entirely honourable, it is in the refusal to allow electronic workplace ballots”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 11 January 2016; Vol. 768, c. 63.]

Would it not be utterly hypocritical to campaign for the Tory candidate for Mayor of London, who was elected by Tory Members in an e-ballot, while refusing to allow trade unions to e-ballot their own members?

Will the Government finally back down on their preposterous 50% minimum threshold proposal for strike action? How many MPs would be sitting in this House if we had to get 50% of the electorate? Can the Leader of the House confirm that not a single Conservative MP achieved that? He got just 43%, so by his own logic he should not be here, but, frankly, by his own attendance record at the moment, he is not here anyway.

Going back to that letter that was sent to the Leader of the House, what really fascinates me is that it was leaked not to TheDaily Telegraph, The Times, or Daily Mail but to the Socialist Worker. What is going on? Is there something the Leader of the House wants to tell us?

Talking of two-facedness, can we have a debate on pork barrel politics? After all, the Government were so terrified of losing their local government allocation yesterday that they bought off their own Members with a special slush fund of £300 million. How on earth did they decide how that money was to be allocated? Did Tory Ministers just sit down with their address books and shout out the postcodes of their friends and relatives and people who went to the black and white ball, while the Local Government Minister notched up £24 million for Surrey, £19 million for hard-up Hampshire, £16 million for Hertfordshire and £9 million each for Buckinghamshire and for the Prime Minister’s backyard in Oxfordshire? Why on earth are the five poorest councils in the land, with the toughest circumstances and with multiple levels of deprivation, getting not a single penny of extra money, while the richest are being showered with £5.3 million? It is thoroughly disreputable—it is Robin Hood in reverse.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman is clearly incapable of keeping his remarks to five minutes.

May I start by echoing the hon. Gentleman’s comments about Harry Harpham? It is always a tragedy when any Member of this House passes away, particularly after such a short time in this House. I am sure I express the sentiments of all hon. Members in sending good wishes to his family.

I, too, extend birthday wishes to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). I suspect he will not join me, although I hope that the shadow Leader of the House, as a great champion of equalities issues, will in celebrating the 41st anniversary of the first woman party leader in this country—a woman who became one of our greatest Prime Ministers, a great leader of this country. I am sure he would want to celebrate her achievement in demonstrating that the Conservative party is the one that creates opportunity for all.

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As we heard yesterday at Prime Minister’s questions, there is no doubt about the winner of this week’s quote of the week award:

“Oh dear oh dear omg oh dear oh dear need to go rest in a darkened room”.

The surprising thing is that that tweet from the hon. Member for Bridgend (Mrs Moon) was not about her party leader’s stunning success in launching his local election campaign 2016 in Nottingham, a city which this year has no local elections. Of course her comments came in the wake of her party being briefed on progress in its defence review. The party was told that Trident would soon be as obsolete as Spitfire because of a new generation of demon underwater drones that no defence specialist has ever heard of. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, indeed. This is the madness that has now engulfed the Labour party. And the hon. Gentleman still thinks he has any credibility sitting in the shadow Cabinet.

I am pleased to have been able to confirm that the Northern Ireland (Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan) Bill will receive its Second Reading on 22 February. I place on record my thanks and congratulations to all those who have been involved in the negotiations leading to the publication of the Bill. I am also grateful for the constructive discussions that have taken place between the Government and Opposition parties about the Bill.

The only rather surprising thing is that when the shadow Leader of the House started jumping up and down last week about the Second Reading on 22 February, no one on his side had apparently bothered to tell him that all those discussions were happening. But we know that the hon. Gentleman is not much in the loop with his party these days anyway. At these sessions he asks for debate after debate, but when I give him and his colleagues an Opposition day and they pick their subject, it is virtually never on the subjects he says are important. He has asked for various things this morning. I have given him a new Opposition day, but I bet his party still does not listen to him.

It has not been a great week for the hon. Gentleman. He managed to turn an important debate about domestic violence into one about whether Welsh rugby fans should sing the Tom Jones song “Delilah” at the start of matches. He ended up in a spat with the songwriter, who said that the hon. Gentleman did not even know what the song was about. He may love the sound of his own voice, but right now it is not unusual to find that no one is listening to him.

Andrew Bingham (High Peak) (Con): The roads around Glossop in my constituency have been gridlocked this week owing to the closure of Long Lane in Charlesworth. It is a short country road used as a shortcut. The congestion was so bad that a child who was taken ill on her way to school had to wait 20 minutes for an ambulance to get through. A road is proposed in our road building programme, but may we have an urgent debate about when and which is the quickest way we can get this overdue bypass built? The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) talks about out-ers; my constituents would like to get out of Glossop to get to work.

Chris Grayling: I congratulate my hon. Friend, who has been an assiduous campaigner on these issues. I know that the Department is considering road improvements

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in his area and has plans in development. I also know that he has an Adjournment debate planned for the week after next, when I know he will put his points across to the Minister with his customary effectiveness.

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): May I too thank the Leader of the House for announcing the business for the week after next? We on the Scottish National party Benches also express our condolences to the family of Harry Harpham. Obviously, we also wish the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) a happy 84th birthday. We might have had a bit of a difference with him initially about sharing the Front Bench, but we could not have a finer Member of Parliament to share it with.

We may be approaching Valentine’s day, but there is not much love coming from the Leader of the House. This morning, we saw the report on English votes for English laws from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee—and what a report it was. I hope we will start to see the death knell of the absurdity that is EVEL. It is over-complicated and ad hoc, it lacks transparency, and it is incompatible with Barnett. Those are not the words of the Scottish National party, although I would be proud of every one of them; they are the words of a Select Committee of this House with a Conservative Chair and a Conservative majority. Can we not just conclude that this dog’s breakfast is not fit for purpose? It commands no support beyond the ranks of the Conservative party, and it is deeply divisive. Let us go back to equality—equality of membership of this House—and not have division by nationality or geographic location of constituency. We have tried that. It has failed. Let us now move on.

One striking anomaly in this mess is that we still have to contend with Barnett consequentials. We all remember what the Leader of the House said: this is nothing to do with legislation, and there is no such thing as Barnett consequentials—a bit like the Easter bunny, I suppose. That is what he said: Barnett consequentials would be found in the consolidated spending Departments’ estimates process, but there is no difference in the way we are debating estimates—it is business as usual. Will he tell us, then, how we are supposed to examine the Barnett consequentials when the Speaker is invited to disregard it in English-only certification, and we cannot find it in anything to do with the estimates? Will he tell us where we can have these debates, and if necessary Divisions, on Barnett consequentials, because we cannot do that at all just now?

Everybody is working extremely hard to get a deal on the fiscal framework, and the Leader of the House will know of and appreciate their efforts. I hope the Scottish Affairs Committee report will help to find a solution to these difficult and fragile conversations. However, there does seem to be a real distance to go in achieving a coming together of minds on the “no detriment” principle. Will the Leader of the House tell us what happens if no agreement is reached? What would happen to the Scotland Bill if the two Governments reached no agreement on the fiscal framework? Can he categorically rule out this Government imposing a deal and a solution on the Scottish Parliament?

Last week, the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis)—I am glad he is in his place—asked the Leader of the House when we could expect the Trident maingate decision, and we got the usual response from

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the Leader of the House that it would be sometime. I really hope that he—I hope he will rule this out—is not using the chaos and crisis in the Labour party on this issue to play games on something so important. I hope he will bring this critical decision to the House, regardless of the mess the Labour party is in, so that the House can properly debate it and vote on it.

Chris Grayling: The hon. Gentleman was right to echo the birthday wishes to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). We do look back nostalgically to last summer —to those mornings when the Scottish nationalists and the more Union-focused members of the Labour party rushed for the same seats. They then reached a peace agreement and an accommodation, and it seems as though happiness has reigned on those Benches ever since.

The hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) asked about English votes. I have to say that the English votes process has bedded down pretty well in this House. I do not accept what he says about the changes we have put in place: they were set out in detail in the Conservative manifesto, and they are the right thing to do. At the moment, it is still the case that the hon. Gentleman’s responsibilities are very different from mine. I have a duty to represent my constituents on issues such as education and health; in his constituency, it is a Member of the Scottish Parliament who deals with those issues. It is therefore only right and proper that we have a settlement that reflects the reality of devolution and gives the English a fair say in what happens as well.

On the estimates debate, I have always regarded the hon. Gentleman as an influential Member of this House. However, the topics for the estimates debate are picked by the Liaison Committee. As a Committee Chair himself, he is a member of the Liaison Committee, so he is in a most effective position to secure the debates on estimates that he wants. Knowing how influential he can be, I cannot understand what went wrong. Why did he not get the debates he wanted? He needs to go back to his colleagues on the Committee and try to do better next time.

On the fiscal framework, the hon. Gentleman asked what happens if it does not work. Well, I am afraid that I am not going to accept the concept of failure. We will reach an agreement. It is in his party’s interest to do the right thing for Scotland and in our party’s interest to do the right thing for Scotland, and I am sure that we will.

On Trident, we will bring forward the motion for debate in due course. In the meantime, I think we are all enjoying the spectacle of the utter chaos on the Labour Benches. Surely not even those Front Benchers who are doggedly determined to hold on to their jobs could avoid the reality that they are now a total shambles.

Mr Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): While the world focuses on the crisis in Syria, it is all too easy to overlook the unfolding crisis in Africa. The drought in Ethiopia is putting at risk over 10 million people who are in desperate need of food aid. The Government have responded, but much more needs to be done. Can the House consider this matter as a matter of urgency? Given that we are in recess next week, will my right hon. Friend bring it to the attention of the Secretary of State for International Development to see what urgent relief can be brought to those people?

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Chris Grayling: I think we would all regard the current situation in Ethiopia as enormously distressing. I can assure my hon. Friend that discussions about this have already taken place within Government. The Government are already providing more than £100 million of aid to address this challenge, and we will continue to work with international agencies to do everything we can to alleviate what is potentially a dreadful humanitarian crisis.

Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House make time to debate the Government’s manifesto commitment to install smart meters in every household by 2020? This important move will help to end the pre-pay rip-off if the customers affected are prioritised in the smart meter roll-out.

Chris Grayling: This is a focus of the Government, as are broader changes to try to ensure that consumers get a better deal. We will make more information about this available in the months ahead. I shall make sure that the hon. Lady’s concerns are passed to the relevant Minister. She may also want to bring the matter to the Floor of the House through the Backbench Business Committee or an Adjournment debate.

Mr Ian Liddell-Grainger (Bridgwater and West Somerset) (Con): We are going absolutely over the top with the European debate at the moment. The only place that can make a decision to stop this is the House of Commons. May we have a debate in Government time so that all Members across the House can have a say on the EU referendum before it takes on a life of its own and we start to get more and more innuendos on the front pages of the press? Will the Government please make two to three days available so that Members can say what they really want?

Chris Grayling: First, I congratulate my hon. Friend on the role he has taken up in the Council of Europe on behalf of this country. This issue is enormously important. Of course, as I said earlier, we will be making time available for a debate. He is right that the debate that takes place both in this House and in this country needs to be a measured one that is based on facts and information. With all the talk about “project fear” and innuendo, we have to table information and make arguments in a measured way so that the public can make an informed decision before they vote in the summer, or whenever it is.

Ian Mearns (Gateshead) (Lab): The Backbench Business Committee was aware that there was a possibility of getting some time on Tuesday 23 February, and we have a number of debates that we would possibly like to table for then. However, it is now only two sitting days away and we have not yet had an undertaking that there will be guaranteed time for such debates. We have an application for a debate on the serious issue of gangs and serious youth violence, but we would be reticent to table it unless we were guaranteed that it would get a good airing. We also have two debates that are time-sensitive for which we would like notification on tabling: one on Welsh affairs, which we would like to have as close as possible to St David’s day on 1 March; and one on International Women’s Day, which we would like to have as close as possible to 8 March. May I have some undertakings from the Leader of the House on this?

Chris Grayling: I am very much aware of the requests for the last two debates. We are discussing that and will seek to find the best way of making sure it can happen.

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As for the business on Tuesday week, there should be plenty of time available. We have consideration of two sets of Lords amendments, but I am confident that there would be time for a debate to take place on that day. Looking back at the experience of the past few weeks, it has tended to work okay, but I continue to keep the matter under review.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): Today, the report of the Joint Committee on the Draft Investigatory Powers Bill was published, and the Intelligence and Security Committee published a report on the Bill earlier this week. There is a lot of public interest in the matter. Will the Leader of the House ensure that sufficient parliamentary time is allotted to consideration of what the Prime Minister has described as the “most important” Bill of this Parliament, so that the matter can be properly explored and debated?

Chris Grayling: I express the Government’s thanks to all who have been involved in scrutinising the draft Bill. My hon. Friend is right to say that the House must have appropriate time to scrutinise and debate the legislation. It will come before the House shortly, and we want to make sure that people have the opportunity to deal fully with the issues that it contains.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): The Prime Minister makes great play of the fact that as part of his European negotiations, he will strengthen the role of national Parliaments. Is the Leader of the House not therefore a little bit embarrassed about the fact that the debate on European affairs will be after the Prime Minister has negotiated, and that the Government have not given Parliament a proper day’s debate to consider what the Prime Minister should negotiate on?

Chris Grayling: I do not think that anyone in the House has been short of opportunities in recent months to make their views on the matter known. We have had extended statements and extended opportunities for questions. As the Prime Minister has conducted the negotiations, I do not think that he has been under any illusion about the different views that exist in this House.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): I know that the Leader of the House will not tell us today the date of the forthcoming debate and vote on the Trident successor submarines, but will he at least tell the House whether the Government have made up their mind to hold that debate soon, or whether they are determined to spin things out until the Labour party conference in October?

Chris Grayling: As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear yesterday, he will bring forward the matter for debate at an appropriate moment. In the meantime, perhaps we can have a debate on where the mysterious underwater drones that will render Trident redundant will come from.