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The Government constantly talk of investing when they really mean spending. The Minister who is to respond to this debate is among those who do that most of all, I think. The money put into research and

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development is surely proper investment in the strict sense of the word. The problems of achieving sufficient land-based wind and river generation in these crowded, environment-aware islands are daily more apparent. Offshore shallow-water generation has its limits too. We must now encourage the move further out to sea. There is plenty of deep water out there where waves, currents and winds abound, but research and development are central to that and are mightily expensive. To limit incentives as the Bill does is short-sighted, to say the least. I hope that the letter from the Minister that the noble Lord quoted indicates that the Government will accept the amendment, or something like it, because it sounded as though both ROCs and grants will be permissible in these circumstances. I support the amendment.

Lord Moonie: My Lords, in supporting this amendment, I do not intend to detain the House for long. I wonder how many other noble Lords noticed the irony that the Minister who was chiefly responsible for promoting wind energy over the past year has now become the Minister most responsible for opposing it, as he is in charge of the Ministry of Defence. It will be interesting to see his first Question Time, if the issue is raised. I am sure that he will not mind me drawing attention to the fact that often in government you have to argue black on one occasion and white on the next.

If we are to accept that wind energy is to play a part in the future generation of power in this country, not even going for the rosy prospects that some people argue are possible, it is clear that it will not be done by the low-hanging fruit of sites conveniently close to shore. We will have to move more deeply offshore, which means moving to areas where predicting costs is a chancy business. That is why this amendment is so important. The Government must recognise that while the principle of banded ROCs is sound, and one that we would all support, there are occasions when it may be necessary to look more favourably at development projects, such as the Beatrice project, that involve not only a great deal of expense but uncertainty about how much expense. I hope that my noble friend will look favourably on the amendment.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change & Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): My Lords, the whole House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, for raising this important question. He will have noted that, as he spoke, the House filled up, which is a measure of the interest in this subject. We were pleased at the prospect of overtaking Denmark in offshore renewables. He is right to point out that we cannot be complacent and that we have a long way to go, but it is a mark of progress. He is also right to raise the importance of research and development. I assure noble Lords that there is no question but that, in relation to the new ROC system and the banding, R&D grants will be available. We are debating the transitional arrangements and how they impact on organisations that have already received an R&D grant under the existing scheme. I am also indebted to the noble Lord because, as I will explain, as a result of his amendment and the work that we have now done in

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discussion with him, we found a defect in the drafting of Bill. I shall table an amendment at Third Reading to deal with that.

Noble Lords will know that the transitional provision ensures that current renewables projects in receipt of a grant have the option to surrender that grant and take advantage of the new banding proposals or can choose to retain the grant and continue to receive one renewables obligation certificate per megawatt hour. We think that the arrangement gets the system right by allowing a transition, by respecting the original investment decisions of the companies involved, by ensuring value for money and by complying with the state aid rules. I shall come to the point made by the noble Lord about whether we are hiding behind the state aid rules.

Two issues come from that: first, whether we should require projects that have already received grants to repay the grant if they wish to benefit from additional support under banding; and, secondly, whether projects in receipt of grants awarded at some future date should be allowed to benefit from higher levels of support under a banded RO.

With regard to the first point, where a project is awarded a grant, the amount awarded is determined on a calculation of how much money is needed, taking account of the expected future income at the time of award. In cases where a grant has been awarded prior to our announcement of banding, that would have been on the basis of the project receiving one ROC per megawatt hour. A higher level of support under the new banded RO, in addition to the full grant, would not be good value for money either for the taxpayer, who ultimately funds the grant, or for the consumer, who ultimately bears the costs of the RO.

When we announced the banding proposals, there was a risk that we might create a perverse incentive for projects that were due to become operational during the transitional period to delay their operation until the new banding regime came into force. To avoid this, we decided to provide companies with the option either to surrender their grant and receive the higher level of support or to retain the full grant and remain on one ROC per megawatt hour.

The noble Lord’s amendment specifically addresses research and development grants and seeks to exempt generators benefiting from such grants from having to repay the grants in order to be banded up. I accept that research and development grants are often awarded to projects in the early stages of technology development to test the workability of the technology. However, the decision to accept a grant and proceed with a project is still fundamentally a commercial decision by which the company should be expected to stand. The sums of taxpayers’ money involved may be significant and we must ensure value for money.

An amendment such as this would remove the opportunity for companies to choose whether to surrender their grants and benefit from banding. To preserve value for money to the public, we would be forced to limit those projects to one ROC per megawatt hour for the lifetime of the RO and no longer offer the owners a choice of giving up the grant for a higher level of banded support. The noble Lord referred to a particular project. One never knows whether it is right to debate

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the details of one project, but I accept that he used it to illustrate a more general point, which I understand, that the costs in practice were larger than expected when the application for a grant was made. The issue is about balance and who accepts the risk. The Government’s view is that the company must accept the risk.

I understand that the treatment of biomass stations takes account of the competition for biomass fuels and of the ongoing costs for the station, which is not the case for wind projects, where wind is free. That is why they have been treated differently. The example used in the consultation document is wave and tidal energy, which is being supported under the renewable development fund, an R&D programme. We do not propose a different treatment for those projects.

I assure the noble Lord and the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, who also made an important contribution to this debate, that we are not hiding behind state aid rules to justify our position, although we must take account of them. We are currently discussing with the European Commission the proposed changes to the RO to obtain clearance for our banding proposals under state aid rules. The Commission has indicated that processes to prevent projects from being oversubsidised, whether they receive research and development grants or capital grants, will be an important consideration. That is why we oppose his amendment.

The noble Lord wants me to clarify the position on future projects, and I will do so again. We have looked again at whether the powers in the Bill and the forthcoming renewables obligation order, which sets out the detail of this policy, allow us to deliver our stated policy. Our intention has always been to allow projects that become operational after our banding proposals are introduced to benefit from increased support under the RO where appropriate, without ruling out in a blanket manner the possibility of also receiving a grant. We are grateful to the noble Lord because, on reflection, we find that new Section 32E would not allow projects awarded a grant after 1 April 2009 to receive more than one ROC per megawatt hour. I want to assure noble Lords that that is not our intention and that I will bring forward an amendment at Third Reading to deal with it.

At Third Reading, I will also be dealing with an issue in relation to the transfer of the relevant powers to Scottish Ministers. The operation of the renewables obligation in Scotland is already devolved. In the past, transferring RO powers to Scotland has typically been achieved by way of an Order in Council made under Section 63 of the Scotland Act. That was our original intention. An order would have needed to be laid and debated in both the UK and Scottish Parliaments and then be considered and made by the Privy Council before the RO order in Scotland could be introduced. However, we want to implement these changes, including banding, by April 2009 and the timetable to achieve this will be made even more difficult by the need to debate any RO-related amendments. Our solution is to expedite the process by transferring the functions to Scottish Ministers on the face of the Bill rather than waiting until it is finalised and then going through the process of putting the Section 63 order in place. I will bring forward an amendment on this at Third Reading, which I hope will find favour with noble Lords.

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Again, I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness. They have raised a relevant matter because in the future, as in the past, R&D grants will be very important. However, we have a particular issue in relation to the transitional provisions.

Lord Wallace of Tankerness: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister. I shall not detain the House because I rather suspect that it has filled up for reasons other than the discussion of R&D grants. I also thank the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, for her support and, indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Moonie, who as a former Defence Minister now probably finds himself arguing the opposite case on the side of the angels, which he seemed to be more comfortable with.

I welcome the Minister’s full response, particularly his final comments about bringing forward amendments to clarify the situation on future projects and to ensure that the position north of the border is regularised. Obviously I am disappointed that he is not willing at this stage to accept the arguments put forward with regard to historic projects. I cannot believe that all that many have been caught out in this way. I want also to consider what he said about biomass and mixed waste plants, because there is a precedent where the position was allowed to continue for existing plants. I am grateful for his constructive reply and for his specific proposal to bring forward amendments. In the circumstances, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Small Businesses

4.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Lord Mandelson): My Lords, with your Lordships’ permission, I should like to make the following Statement.

This Government understand the real difficulties of many small firms as a result of the credit crunch and world-wide economic slowdown. These companies are critical to our long-term economic success. Over 99 per cent of UK businesses are small or medium-sized enterprises. They contribute as much as large businesses to UK output and nearly 60 per cent of private sector jobs. We have always made getting the business environment right for SMEs a priority, and since 1997 1 million more small businesses have been created. UK SMEs employ 1.5 million more people; they are more productive, more innovative and survive longer.

Most recently, our enterprise strategy set out our renewed vision to make the UK the world’s most enterprising economy and the best place to grow and start a business. We increased the Small Firms Loan Guarantee lending allocations by 20 per cent for 2008, boosted enterprise programmes and committed to a new approach that avoids placing unnecessary regulatory burdens on small firms. These tough times have only made us more determined to help SMEs.

We need to be practical, we need to be innovative, and above all we need to ensure that what we do makes a real difference. We are meeting with business organisations and businesses across the country to

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discuss the problems they are facing such as cash flow, access to finance, higher bank charges and costs, and to ensure that their views are reflected in government action.

Our first priority has been restoring financial stability. Without a strong financial system, small businesses cannot access the credit they need, homeowners struggle with their mortgages, and trade in the high street slows down. But as the impact of the global financial squeeze hits small businesses further, the Government believe that it is not enough for us to focus only on financial stability. So, building on the measures we have already brought forward, yesterday the Government announced further action to help SMEs through these tougher times, with immediate effect.

For SMEs, cash dominates: cash in—that is, prompt payment—and cash out, to their workforce, payment for inputs and to the Revenue. Over the last year, the time organisations take to pay their bills to suppliers has increased, intensifying the cash flow pressures of many businesses. The Government are determined to do everything they can to help. Central government will aim to pay its suppliers as soon as possible, and within 10 days at the latest. This will bring forward billions of pounds worth of payments, on top of the majority of payments already made within 10 days. The regional development agencies, which spend around £750 million annually with suppliers, have also committed to this timetable. And yesterday, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote to the Local Government Association, and the chief executive of the NHS wrote to NHS Trusts, asking these public bodies to review their payment performance and follow central government’s lead.

I recognise the essential role that Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ approach to business tax compliance can play in managing an economic downturn. HMRC already has a policy of flexibility in dealing with struggling businesses, and I know the Treasury will continue to impress upon it the importance of implementing and publicising this policy in the current climate. We are also working with the Institute of Credit Management and all leading finance and business organisations to promote prompt payment and to ensure that businesses have the best advice and guidance on managing cash flow.

The Government’s measures of financial support to the banking industry are designed to stabilise UK banks and support the long-term strength of the economy, which helps small businesses. As part of the recapitalisation package, RBS, HBOS and Lloyds TSB committed to,

Small businesses must know that the banks are open for business. RBS, HBOS and Lloyds TSB make up 50 per cent of small business lending; but given that they operate in a competitive environment, we can expect other banks to follow suit.

The Government will monitor how recapitalised banks are delivering their commitment on SME lending. We will ask the banks how they will achieve this, including the availability of capital and liquidity allocated

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for small businesses, their marketing plans, and their principles for SME lending, from head office to the branch level. We want to see banks taking appropriate risk assessments on SME lending, being responsible but not being unduly risk averse, and not passing on unreasonable costs. The Chancellor and I will be meeting all the banks and building societies tomorrow to discuss these issues and what small businesses can expect from them.

The Government have also been brokering contact between UK banks and the European Investment Bank. The four largest UK banks have now signalled their initial interest in negotiating loans totalling about £1 billion from the EIB to lend to UK SMEs. I hope we will be able to make rapid progress on this for small businesses.

It is critical at this difficult time that businesses have access to support and advice that help them survive now and succeed in the future. Business Link advisers will provide a free health check for every small business, whatever its size, sector or location, and other advice on how to adapt to changing economic conditions and to be ready for the economic upturn.

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills yesterday announced that small businesses are the focus of £350 million of government funds to help them get through the tougher economic climate by building the skills and enterprise of their workers. The Government are making improvements to Train to Gain that will deliver advice and funding for training, with the minimum of bureaucracy or delay.

For the first time, training at Level 2 will be free for all SME employees, regardless of whether they already have qualifications at that level, and there will be free bite-size courses in business-critical areas, including business improvement techniques and customer service, in order to raise productivity. Management and leadership training will also be opened up to the smallest employers so that it is now available to employers with between five and 250 employees.

Small businesses drive our economy forward. During this global economic downturn, the Government are determined to give the millions of people who run and work for SMEs the chance to maintain their livelihood and prepare for better times in the future. That is why we have brought forward these measures. We will continue to do all we can, through the National Economic Council, to look for and implement solutions that help SMEs.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.41 pm

Lord Hunt of Wirral: My Lords, first I declare the interests that are shown against my name in the register. I welcome the Minister to his first Statement. I shall go no further than that: apparently my previous remarks in welcoming him caused three well known journalists to be sick because I went a little too far. But I do welcome him, and thank him for the advance sight of his Statement. Perhaps such thanks are unnecessary in this respect, for I heard the Statement being made in another place by his junior Minister, Mr Ian Pearson, several hours ago. The Chief Whip kindly acknowledged

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this earlier, but we must find a better way to organise these things in this place. I am well aware that we have different sitting hours, but there must be a way through.

My main question is why this Statement was made today and not yesterday. The current edition of the ministerial code states clearly:

“When Parliament is in session ... the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, in Parliament”.

This announcement saw the light of day first when I heard it on the “Today” programme early yesterday. It was then the subject of one of the Minister’s departmental press releases. It then provided, I understand, the principal theme of a public appearance by the Minister, together with his new best friend the Prime Minister, recorded as it is on the No. 10 website. He also managed to ventilate these announcements before the Select Committee in another place. The willingness of the Prime Minister to find a slot in his diary, given his busy schedule, might be taken to indicate that this announcement was considered important. That being the case, why was the announcement not made in this House yesterday? If measures to help ensure the survival of small and medium-sized enterprises are not important, then what on earth is?

The Minister said in this House:

“I am very well aware that I am here to toil, not to spin ... I will take very seriously the accountability that I have to Parliament through this House ... At this Dispatch Box, I know where my duty lies”.—[Official Report, 16 October 2008; col. 861.]

Does he remember saying that? This House is not a convenient place into which prospective Ministers can be parachuted, to give them a parliamentary platform that they can use when they deem it convenient. It is part of a bicameral system, and the rules are clear that a Statement by the responsible Minister must be made here.

I draw your Lordships’ attention to paragraphs 5.04 and 5.31 of the Companion, designed to protect this House against the Executive. All I ask is that the Minister will now give the firmest possible undertaking that this apparent relegation of your Lordships' House to second-class status will not arise again on his watch.

Anyway, we are where we are: we are in some sort of time loop because many of the issues we are going to debate have already been debated in the other place. Fortunately, the internet has provided me with some much needed help and support. I am indebted to the website for invaluable guidance. Apparently,

That sounds familiar.

Let us go through the measures already announced. There appears to be some confusion on a number of the points. We have heard of about £350 million for training. Will the Minister confirm that this is entirely new money? I am also interested in the commitment for the public sector to pay firms within 10 days. Is that an aspirational and notional target, or will it be enforceable? If so, by whom, and in what way?

I was also intrigued by what the Minister said about the banks. I hope that he will recognise that it sounded somewhat complacent, because Her Majesty’s

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Government are now a major stakeholder in the banking sector—in effect, its owner of last resort. Does he agree that, on the basis of the recapitalisation agreement to which he referred, we should expect to see some of the larger institutions making greater efforts to ensure that an affordable supply of funds is available for the small and medium-sized enterprise sector? By the way, how anyone can judge whether they are genuinely seeking to do so at 2007 levels is beyond me, so perhaps the Minister could explain.

Furthermore, much of the concern about banking practices—so superbly exposed by my parliamentary colleagues, led by Alan Duncan in the other place; by the Daily Mail in its small business charter campaign; by the Daily Mirror, and by a number of other leading newspapers—is not about the availability of new funds but about the behaviour of banks towards smaller customers with regard to existing loans. In particular, what are the Government going to do, not about the Bank of England base rate, but about real-life borrowing costs to which the base rate appears to bear no relation whatever? Those real-life borrowing costs are now approaching something close to penal rates, so something has to be done.

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