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House of Commons

Thursday 10 February 2011

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Energy and Climate Change

The Secretary of State was asked-

Oil Prices

1. Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): What steps he is taking to mitigate the effects of high oil prices on energy consumers. [39408]

7. Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): What steps he is taking to mitigate the effects of high oil prices on energy consumers. [39414]

12. Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): What steps he is taking to mitigate the effects of high oil prices on energy consumers. [39420]

13. Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): What steps he is taking to mitigate the effects of high oil prices on energy consumers. [39421]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Oil is an internationally traded commodity with prices derived from the global market and, as such, the Government cannot control fuel prices. Within the UK, we have an open market for oil, which we believe provides the best long-term guarantee of competitive prices for the consumer. We are encouraging more energy-efficient cars and homes, and we have asked the Office of Fair Trading to report on the heating oil market. Internationally we are working to improve the functioning of the global oil market, and we are reinforcing the work of the international energy forum, especially by increasing transparency. The key is speeding up the shift to the low-carbon economy by getting us off the oil price hook.

Alun Cairns: On 17 November, one of my constituents paid £490 for 1,000 litres of kerosene heating oil. By 18 December, they were forced to pay £745 for 1,000 litres of heating oil. Although fuel price is an issue for everyone across the UK, does the Secretary of State recognise the particular plight of people who live in rural areas and who do not have the option of mains gas and other sources of energy?

Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right; this is a key issue in rural areas to which the ministerial team have given a lot of attention. The Energy Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), has suffered the effects of this in his own home and feels strongly, as we all do, that we need to get a grip on this.
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That is precisely why we asked the Office of Fair Trading to look at the heating oil market. We want to be absolutely assured that there is no exploitation and that the market is open and fair, which in the long run is the best guarantee. But we are also concerned about these off-gas-grid homes, and in the longer term we want to ensure that they have the best benefits from the green deal.

Stuart Andrew: Back in December, Age UK expressed concern about the rise in heating fuel cost. What response has my right hon. Friend had to his announcement on the investigation into the heating oil and liquefied petroleum gas market?

Chris Huhne: There has been cross-party support for the investigation and we await the outcome with interest. There is a genuine concern throughout the House that we need to be confident that people in this position can secure the best possible deal in the marketplace.

Henry Smith: Tomorrow is suggested as national fuel poverty awareness day. What steps are the Government taking to ensure that people have access to better environmental enhancements, particularly to their homes, for the sake of the environment and the economy?

Chris Huhne: The key part of the green deal, which is the centrepiece of the Energy Bill making its way through the Lords at the moment and shortly to come here, is an emphasis on being able to tackle fuel poverty. If we get to the roots of fuel poverty, which is often not low income per se, but people relying immensely on energy because they have poorly insulated homes, we can tackle the problem at its core, rather than merely stick on plasters.

Nadhim Zahawi: The renewable heat incentive is one way to mitigate this. My constituents, who are early adopters of ground-source heat pumps and other renewable sources, are disappointed that it appears they will not be able to access the RHI as they will not have installed their equipment before the launch of the incentive. Will the Secretary of State therefore please clarify the position on RHI in relation to individuals who have not installed equipment before the initiative is launched, as it appears that not only is the current uncertainty about new installations confusing constituents, but it is affecting the renewables industry?

Chris Huhne: Obviously, we are trying to eliminate uncertainty as rapidly as we can and trying to be as clear as possible about the policy framework. As can be seen from the announcement of the review of feed-in tariffs, it is important to get these policy details right. We cannot have a situation in which the budgeting is so badly miscalculated that there simply will not be the money to support it. We are determined to go ahead with this. Individuals will be supported under the renewable heat incentive and the details will be forthcoming.

Mr Speaker: May I ask the Secretary of State to face the House when speaking and not look behind him with his back to the Chair?

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Secretary of State mentioned that the Office of Fair Trading was looking at off-grid gas customers who have been ripped off in the way the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan
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(Alun Cairns) explained. Will the Secretary of State consider extending the scope of Ofgem to look at both on-grid and off-grid energy supplies so that there is a level playing field? The OFT takes an awfully long time and looks only at competition, whereas Ofgem has a wider responsibility.

Chris Huhne: Ofgem of course keeps the market under review and is looking at it at the moment, and there would be a possibility of referral if it decided that that was appropriate. Clearly, it is crucial that we have competitive markets, because that is the best guarantee that consumers will get the best possible deal.

Mr Chuka Umunna (Streatham) (Lab): It has been mentioned that these issues affect those living in rural areas, but of course they also hit people living in urban areas. One in five homes are now affected by fuel poverty, which is the highest rate in 15 years. Will the Secretary of State tell us how the various other measures that the Government have introduced, such as the housing benefit changes and the VAT rise, will help those living in urban areas such as my constituency to deal with high and rising energy prices?

Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we have announced the Warm Homes discount, which will ensure, through legislation, that the particularly high fuel bills suffered by those in fuel poverty are tackled, which is a considerable advance on the voluntary arrangements that we have had until now. I come back to the point I made in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Crawley (Henry Smith), which is that we must tackle the roots of the problem. The energy bills of people on low incomes can vary by a factor of six. If they are lucky enough to be in decent home standard social housing, they will have low energy bills, but if they are in private rented housing they may have very high energy bills. That is what we have to tackle and that is what we will do with the green deal.

Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted about the investigation into domestic fuel prices, which my hon. Friend the Member for North West Durham (Pat Glass) and the official Opposition have been calling for, and glad that the Government have finally acted. Rising oil prices, as my hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr Umunna) and others have indicated, are only part of the problem. The Government's record on standing up for consumers is, frankly, very poor. In recent months, we have seen price rises of between 2% and more than 9% from all the main energy suppliers, yet Ministers sit back and refuse to intervene. We have seen Consumer Focus abolished, with insouciance from the Secretary of State on what that means for consumers. At the same time, we have seen mis-billing and doorstep selling investigations showing that not all is well with the big six energy companies. The Government's response is that we must leave them alone or they will not invest. Does he understand that that investment is customers' money? Can he tell the House that he is entirely confident that customers are getting a fair deal?

Chris Huhne: The hon. Lady will know that it is precisely because we are not confident that customers are getting a fair deal that we have, for example, asked
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the OFT to look at the heating oil market and why procedures are under way to investigate doorstep selling. In all markets we must be ever-vigilant, which is precisely what the Government have been. We have put the consumer's interests first.

Oil Prices (Supply)

2. Nick de Bois (Enfield North) (Con): What assessment he has made of the likely effects on oil prices and supply of the political situation in Egypt. [39409]

11. Nigel Mills (Amber Valley) (Con): What assessment he has made of the likely effects on oil prices and supply of the political situation in Egypt. [39419]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Egypt accounts for 2.1% of the world's oil production. We do not expect that disruption to Egyptian oil production and oil transiting the Suez canal is likely. The secretary-general of OPEC and the Saudi oil Minister Ali al-Naimi have both stated that, in the event of disruption to the Suez canal, OPEC would increase production to provide market-calming measures. About 5% of overall crude and petroleum products goes through the Suez canal.

Nick de Bois: I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Will he outline what measures his Department may be planning to affect price stability?

Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend may be referring to the debate that has been going on about the fuel duty stabiliser, but that of course is the responsibility of the Treasury and the Chancellor of the Exchequer. I understand that work is continuing on that. The key for my Department is to ensure that we speed the transition to a low-carbon economy as quickly as possible. We have to get off the oil price hook, and this episode of oil prices rising above $100 a barrel demonstrates the urgent need to make good progress on that, which is precisely why the Government are, for example, bringing forward subsidies for electric vehicles, pushing within the European Union for tougher standards on energy-efficient vehicles, and why we have the green deal. We want to ensure that our population is not vulnerable to precisely those sorts of shocks. Our policies will be-

Mr Speaker: That is extremely helpful.

Nigel Mills: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that information, but, given the current high price and the risk of uncertainty increasing it further, does he agree that there is now no need to encourage my constituents and his to change their behaviour through further duties, and that if we do such things we risk driving our constituents out of economic activity completely?

Chris Huhne: As I say, the fuel duty stabiliser is a matter for the Treasury. I merely point out that, over time, all European countries-in fact, all developed countries with the exception of the United States-have taken the policy view that, for all sorts of reasons,
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including national security, we should encourage energy efficiency in our oil use. Any short-term concession that goes against that will make us more vulnerable in the long term.

Hugh Bayley (York Central) (Lab): I agree with the Secretary of State that our country needs to reduce its dependence on oil. Does he agree with me that the Government should do all in their power to promote democracy in north Africa and the middle east? Democratic countries are better for the people who live in them, better in terms of human rights and make for better trade partners of countries such as our own.

Mr Speaker: Order. A brief answer that relates to oil prices would be helpful.

Chris Huhne: Mr Speaker asks me to relate oil prices to democracy, which is the sort of A-level question that would test any Member.

Obviously, and crucially, open societies in particular are easier to deal with and easier to understand, and in our experience they tend to be more stable. That is a point we make to our friends right the way around the world.

Mr Speaker: I think the Secretary of State gets an A*.

Wind Power

3. Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): What estimate he has made of the level of (a) onshore and (b) offshore wind generating capacity in 2020. [39410]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Modelling undertaken for the Department in 2009 suggested that the UK could have about 14 GW of onshore wind and 13 GW of offshore wind generating capacity in 2020.

The Government do not set targets for individual technologies; we take a market-based approach to energy generation. The actual amount of capacity that comes forward, and the timing, will depend on a range of factors, including how the market responds to the incentives that we have put in place.

Mr Hollobone: My constituency has at Burton Latimer a successful wind farm that is soon to expand, but my constituents would like to see greater incentives from the coalition Government to encourage offshore wind energy, and rather reduced incentives for onshore wind farms, because we do not want the English countryside despoiled by hundreds of wind farms all over the place.

Charles Hendry: My hon. Friend makes an important point, with which a significant number of colleagues in the House agree. There was a democratic deficit in the way the policy was driven forward in the past, and we want to move on from the hectoring approach that the previous Administration took. There do need to be appropriate incentives; wind farms should be put in place in the appropriate locations; and a banding review of the ROC-renewables obligation certificate-regime is coming forward this year, when we can look at those issues.

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Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC): Ports are a reserved matter. How are the Government enabling Welsh ports to participate in the offshore industry, and to what extent and in what way are they working with the Welsh Assembly Government?

Charles Hendry: We took a view that the best way for the funding to go forward was through an economic generation programme linked specifically to manufacturing projects, meaning that it ceased to be a ports programme and became an economic development matter. Funding was allocated through the Barnett formula to the Welsh Assembly Government for them to take forward their own programmes in the area, and we have also asked the Crown Estate to work with ports throughout the United Kingdom to see how they can all benefit from the renaissance.

Mr Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Lochaber) (LD): Given the huge obvious potential in the sector, the Minister will understand the renewable energy sector's natural impatience to know how the green investment bank is progressing and whether the Department is receiving the necessary support that it looks for from the Treasury. Given that potential, can he update us on how things are progressing towards May? Big sites, such as Nigg and Kishorn in my constituency, are really looking to the Government for a lead.

Charles Hendry: My right hon. Friend picks up on an issue that is of great interest across the House. We are making good progress on the discussions about a green investment bank, and an announcement will be made shortly. We see this as a fundamental building block for bringing new investment into an area which is a massive driver for economic growth and recovery in this country.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): The Government have very warm intentions for community engagement through the Localism Bill, although The Daily Telegraph has today rather cruelly portrayed it as "bribes for windfarms". Mike Landy, who is very well respected and has 25 years of experience of renewables internationally, says:

So I have a straightforward question: what will be the average time taken for an onshore wind farm application by the end of this Government?

Charles Hendry: We are determined to stop the top-down approach that was taken by the previous Administration. We believe it is imperative that local communities should have an active engagement in the siting of big facilities in their communities, and the changes we are making will give them greater discretion. We will stop the regional spatial targets and strategies, but put in place significant benefits so that communities can see how they benefit from hosting a facility on behalf of the national interest instead of seeing it as something that is imposed on them, as at present.

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Liquefied Petroleum Gas

4. John Pugh (Southport) (LD): What assessment he has made of the potential role of liquefied petroleum gas in reducing carbon emissions. [39411]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): In the heating sector, the carbon emissions associated with LPG are slightly higher than those for natural gas. It does, however, have the potential to reduce carbon emissions for those not on the gas grid, as it has a smaller carbon footprint than alternatives such as heating oil and electric heating, though higher than that of renewable energy technologies such as efficient ground-source heating pumps.

John Pugh: I thank the Minister for that response. He has adequately satisfied my curiosity on the subject, and I have no supplementary question, Mr Speaker.

Mr Speaker: I am very grateful.

Low-carbon Technologies

5. Karl Turner (Kingston upon Hull East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues on attracting private sector investment into low-carbon technologies. [39412]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): Ministers in DECC have regular discussions with ministerial colleagues right across the coalition on new ways in which Government can attract private sector investment in low-carbon technologies. This includes discussions on the potential form and functions of Europe's first green investment bank as part of the coalition Government's comprehensive commitment to an ambitious green growth agenda.

Karl Turner: I am sure that the Minister will join me in congratulating the previous Labour Government on the work that they did to encourage E.ON and Siemens to invest in my constituency. Will he ensure that the Government continue that support and build on Labour's success?

Gregory Barker: We are determined to transform the level of green growth in this country, and certainly on the level that we inherited from the last Labour Government. It is instructive that in the offshore wind industry, 80% of those huge installations, on average, were contracted and manufactured abroad under Labour. That has to change; we need the investment and supply chain here in Great Britain.

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): Will Ministers make time in their diaries to visit the Bicester eco-town project, which is a private sector-led initiative intended to be an international exemplar of how to build large-scale, low or no-carbon housing and develop large numbers of green-collar jobs?

Gregory Barker: That is a real recommendation coming from my hon. Friend, who has considerable expertise and a long-standing interest in these matters. The place he mentions sounds extremely interesting, and I hope that perhaps one day he will think of proffering an invitation to me to come and visit.

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Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): We heard from the Secretary of State about speeding the transition to the low-carbon economy, and his Minister has reiterated the Government's commitment. If we were to measure the Secretary of State's success by headlines, as I am sure he is often keen to do, then we, like him, would say "A good job done." However, we judge on actions, not words, and we have seen nothing but confusion, dither and indecision. There is no detail on the renewable heat incentive, and change is afoot on feed-in tariffs and the green investment bank. Today we hear again that there will be discussions on the green investment bank, but when will the Minister decide on it, or is the Department simply being hobbled by the Treasury?

Gregory Barker: It really is a bit rich to have lessons on banking from Labour Members, who brought the British banking sector to the very brink of ruin and the country's finances into utter disaster. Their handling of the City was utterly catastrophic. We will bring forward, in good time, a robust new institution that will be a key part of the financial architecture of green growth, and we will take no lectures on any of this from Labour.

Meg Hillier: Well, all sound and fury signifying, so far, nothing. Let us be clear: there is talk about the new green investment bank, but no new money, and no detail, and different dates for when we will hear about it. Why? Because the announcement was made by the Secretary of State at the time of the comprehensive spending review without a deal having been pinned down with the Treasury. We are still waiting. When will we have the detail on the green investment bank and when will businesses get the certainty about investment that they need for green growth?

Gregory Barker: I tell you what-it will not take us 13 years to come up with a plan for a green investment bank. It was this Chancellor of the Exchequer who announced plans for a green investment bank, this coalition that is working on plans for it and this coalition that will bring it forward. The hon. Lady will just have to contain her excitement. She would do better to dwell on the Opposition's abysmal record on green investment, instead of asking fatuous questions from the Dispatch Box.

Tariff Information

6. Mr John Baron (Basildon and Billericay) (Con): What plans he has for the inclusion of provisions on cheapest tariff information in the forthcoming Energy Bill. [39413]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): We are taking powers in the Energy Bill to require energy suppliers to provide their domestic customers with clear information about their lowest tariff. Initially, we are seeking the suppliers' agreement to provide that information voluntarily. However, if there is no satisfactory agreement to do so by the end of the summer, we will use this power.

Mr Baron: The Minister will recognise the importance of this issue, given the recent price increases and the confusion caused by the hundreds of different tariffs.
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He will be aware that I submitted detailed proposals about how cheapest tariff information could be displayed on domestic bills, in consultation with the consumer magazine Which?. Will he meet me to discuss this issue further?

Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend is one of the House's leading experts on this issue. It is complex and the answers are not easy. He has submitted information to my Department, which has been extremely valuable. We are determined to get this right and I would be delighted to meet him in the Department.

Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): We welcome the Government's proposals requiring energy suppliers to display the cheapest tariff information on their bills. It is a positive first step, but more needs to be done to ensure that consumers get a fair deal from their energy companies. Given that the Government are scrapping the energy watchdog Consumer Focus, which last year uncovered that one energy supplier had overcharged about 1.8 million customers, it is fair to say that the Government have a lot of work to do to be considered a champion of the consumer.

Will the Minister commit to going further? Will he examine what can be done to help vulnerable households that pay a poverty premium because they cannot access cheaper payment methods such as direct debit or because they use a pre-payment meter, to ensure that they get the best deal possible from their energy supplier?

Gregory Barker: The hon. Lady makes some valid points in a sensible way. She is right to say that we need to do a lot more to help the poorest. There is a debate about rising block tariffs, but they, too, can have perverse consequences. We are determined to simplify the tariffs system, and I would like to do that on the basis of consensus. If she would like to contribute to the thinking, I invite her to meet me and share her ideas.

Feed-in Tariff Review

8. David T. C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): What progress he has made on the feed-in tariff review; and if he will make a statement. [39415]

14. Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): What recent progress he has made on the feed-in tariff review; and if he will make a statement. [39422]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): The first comprehensive evidence-based review of the feed-in tariff scheme has started. It will consider all aspects of the scheme, but we will fast-track consideration of large-scale solar projects with a capacity of more than 50 kW and farm-scale anaerobic digestion projects. Above all, we want to provide a sustainable platform for ambitious growth across the range of renewable technologies, and to work collaboratively with industry to achieve that.

David T. C. Davies: I welcome the Minister's answer. Will he assure the House that the review will ensure that there are no perverse incentives to build smaller schemes operating at a higher capacity? If he has time in his ministerial diary, he is welcome to visit Monmouthshire, where we have three excellent hydroelectric schemes up and running.

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Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend makes a good point. The scheme that we inherited from the previous Government was in danger of offering perverse incentives, particularly for micro-hydro. We will use the opportunity of the comprehensive review to iron out those incentives and get the scheme absolutely right. We are keen to see an expansion of hydro, which is a great renewable source. I will certainly look to see whether I can visit my hon. Friend.

Neil Parish: I very much welcome the Minister's comments on anaerobic digestion, because I think we can get a great deal more of it. Can he assure us that feed-in tariffs will be set at a fair rate? As we push up energy prices to the consumer, we push more people into fuel poverty. When he tapers the tariffs, will he ensure that hospitals and schools get a fair crack of the whip?

[Official Report, 1 March 2011, Vol. 524, c. 1MC.]Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend makes some excellent points. We will endeavour to ensure that we are very fair in the review, and we certainly want to sustain investment in renewables in schools, hospitals and other community projects that fall above the 40 kW review level. We also need to ensure that we get value for money for consumers and that we do not offer what Labour did-an open cheque book approach to the industry.

Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): When the Secretary of State made his announcement about the feed-in tariff review on Monday, he included in it the fact that anything over 50 kW would be regarded as large photovoltaic solar, but everybody knows that anything marginally above 50 kW is not large. The effect of the review will be to eliminate a large number of schools, hospitals and other facilities from the feed-in tariff. Does the Minister accept that a mistake has been made in that calibration, and is he prepared to go back and reconsider the number to ensure that the right figure is put in place?

Gregory Barker: I think the hon. Gentleman is unduly concerned. The 50 kW level simply refers to the current legislative definition of microgeneration. It is not our intention to place draconian limits on those above 50 kW, particularly in relation to the school and hospital schemes that he mentions. However, there is a real problem with large solar fields, and that is our primary focus. Going for 50 kW allows us to settle the matter discreetly, quickly and before the summer recess.

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): Because of the confusion that the 50 kW limit has caused, should not the review be completed swiftly so that community organisations know where they stand?

Gregory Barker: The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right, and that is why we are moving very quickly indeed and expect to publish the consultation in March. There is no reason for anyone involved in the community schemes that he advocates to be unduly concerned. We are very lucky that capital costs, installation costs and financing costs have all fallen quickly, and we must ensure that the taxpayer gets good value for money.

Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Does my hon. Friend see any inconsistency between the position of the Secretary of State, who earlier claimed that the Government were doing their best to keep oil
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and energy prices down, and his support for a tariff that, according to his own costings, means that energy costs 20 times as much as when it comes from conventional sources? Will his review consider the experience of the Dutch Government, who have just scrapped a similar scheme, the German Government, who have limited entry to their scheme, and the Spanish Government, who have nearly been bankrupted by theirs?

Gregory Barker: I think I can reassure my right hon. Friend that his concerns are misplaced, and that the ministerial team is absolutely united in supporting an ambitious roll-out of renewables. The current feed-in tariff scheme for microgeneration would add something like £8 to the total energy bill of the average household by 2030, which means that it is not getting out of control in any way, shape or form. However, we have to be prudent.

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): Labour's feed-in tariffs have created thousands of green jobs and real growth in the nascent microgeneration power sector, which now hang in the balance because of the Government's panicked response to the narrow issue of solar parks. They are bringing forward an early review that throws the healthy baby out with the bathwater, jeopardising schemes for community housing, hospitals and schools. When the Secretary of State stood on the doorstep of Sharp in Wrexham a fortnight ago and announced the potential for 300 new jobs in British solar photovoltaics manufacturing, had he already made the decision to cut the legs away from under the emerging solar manufacturing and installation industry? Did he tell the managing director and the work force?

Gregory Barker: We know that the Labour party is a party of deficit deniers, who are in denial about their record. They are obviously also in denial about the potential costs of unchecked solar. We want to create a sustainable framework for long-term investment that is good for the industry. That is why we are fast-tracking the review and will improve the imperfect system that we inherited from Labour to make a much safer and securer platform for long-term green growth.

Mr Speaker: Order. We really must speed up. There is a lot to get through, and I want to serve the interests of Back-Bench Members who want to ask their questions.

Low-carbon Generation

9. Mary Macleod (Brentford and Isleworth) (Con): What assessment he has made of the potential effects of his proposed electricity market reforms on the ability of the UK to attract investment in low-carbon generation. [39416]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): We estimate that by 2020, the cumulative investment needed in electricity generation, transmission and distribution will be in excess of £100 billion. We believe that the policies set out in our consultation on electricity market reform will deliver this investment and the further investment needed to meet our longer-term targets, making the UK a prime location for low-carbon energy development.

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Mary Macleod: I am delighted that the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Treasury have joined forces to launch the electricity market reform project. How will those proposals build the necessary confidence to invest in low-carbon options over the long term and manage the transition period to ensure that stability is maintained?

Charles Hendry: My hon. Friend is absolutely right to pick up one crucial element of our reforms. We must remove uncertainty, because that is one of the biggest threats to investment. We therefore propose that the current regime run alongside the new regime for a period of years, giving people a choice of which system they work to. We believe that that deals with the transitional challenges.

Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): Low-carbon generation was hugely incentivised by Labour's feed-in tariff, which in the last month provided 300 new jobs in my constituency. Those jobs are endangered by Monday's announcement. Sharp says that the Government's investment will stop investors-private investment-in their tracks. How can the Government possibly justify their absurd claim to be in favour of growth and green manufacturing when they make an announcement as stupid as the one they made on Monday?

Charles Hendry: I remember well the debates on the introduction of feed-in tariffs. It was the force of Conservative, Liberal Democrat and Labour votes- [ Interruption ]-Labour Back-Bench votes. That was the combination that forced the then Labour Government to accept feed-in tariffs. This Government are ensuring that that money can be targeted on areas where we can see a massive roll-out. It should not be diverted into big solar farms. We want to ensure that the maximum number of people can benefit, which is why we are undertaking our review.

Feed-in Tariff

10. Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) (Con): What recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the feed-in tariff payments system for electricity generated by domestic solar panels. [39418]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): We want to drive forward deployment of decentralised renewables, and we are very pleased with the growth to date of solar photovoltaics supported by feed-in tariffs. However, we believe that the system can be improved and placed on a more secure and sustainable financial footing, which will be to the long-term benefit of consumers, industry and investors.

Jason McCartney: One of my constituents has contacted me because he has waited for up to three months for payments for electricity generated by domestic solar panels. Does the Minister agree that the public body that hands out those payments should speed them up?

Gregory Barker: I would be happy to look into that case, but obviously, the energy supplier and not Ofgem, the regulator, is responsible for dishing out those payments, which should be made quarterly. If my hon. Friend is
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aware of longer delays in Colne Valley-he is a doughty champion for his constituents-I will be happy to look into those specific cases on his behalf.

Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Is the Minister aware of the concerns in Scotland that the take-up of domestic solar panels through the feed-in tariff has been hampered by the unsatisfactory nature of the microgeneration certification scheme? Will he or his officials meet installers' representatives to discuss why the Department refuses even to engage with their proposals for a scheme to meet specific Scottish needs?

Gregory Barker: I am aware of considerable unease about the MCS, which was set up by the previous Government. A number of complaints have been made to the Department, and I take them extremely seriously. I would be happy to look at the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises.

Wind Power

15. Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): What the net contribution of wind-powered electricity generation to energy supply was in the final quarter of 2010. [39423]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): The Department publishes data on electricity supplied to the UK electricity grid on a monthly basis. Figures for the final quarter of 2010 in full will be published on 24 February. DECC's latest figures show that for October and November 2010 in total, wind generation by major power producers contributed 3.5% of all electricity supplied to the UK electricity grid.

Chi Onwurah: On Monday I visited Siemens in Byker, just outside my constituency, to see the significant investment it is making to train apprentices in renewable technologies. However, Siemens told me that it would not take on more apprentices until there were more confirmed renewable power projects. The Secretary of State has delayed the green investment bank and the renewable heat incentive and is reviewing the feed-in tariff. When will he give the renewable industry the positive signal it requires?

Charles Hendry: The renewable heat incentive is not actually related to the offshore wind development sector, in which Siemens is looking to operate. We are working closely with Siemens. Yesterday I chaired the offshore wind developers forum to consider the barriers to potential investment. We see this as a massive opportunity for Britain to secure the sort of green jobs that the hon. Lady is talking about in her constituency, and which Siemens is looking at more generally in areas such as Humberside.

Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): In order to encourage greater wind generation, what assistance can Ministers offer to communities that live very close to large wind farms or turbines? How can they share the benefits of having those on their doorstep?

Charles Hendry: Our evidence shows that community schemes-where there is community ownership of the scheme-get through the planning process much more readily than non-community schemes. As we move forward,
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we are keen to see schemes that will keep the local business rate within the local community and provide additional benefits through community ownership, so that communities can see exactly what they are getting out of having such a facility in their areas, rather than, as sometimes happens, getting the pain but not the gain.

Monopoly Electricity Suppliers

16. Elizabeth Truss (South West Norfolk) (Con): What steps he is taking to ensure that electricity consumers in areas with only one supplier are not charged excessive amounts. [39424]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Ofgem regulates distribution network operators through price controls that limit the amount that they can charge for connection services. For most connection services, DNOs can recover only expenses that are reasonably incurred. When a customer disputes a connection charge, they can raise the issue with the DNO through its complaints procedure. Ofgem has powers to determine whether a connection charge is reasonable after other avenues are exhausted.

Elizabeth Truss: My constituent David Goulty has been quoted £1,200 for a connection by UK Power Networks. Also, the Snetterton industrial site near the A11 has been quoted £6 million to £8 million for connecting it to the national grid. I am concerned that this company is the sole supplier in this area, and I would like to know what action the Government and Ofgem are taking to ensure that it is not charging over the odds for connections.

Charles Hendry: My hon. Friend raises a very important point, which I hope she will pursue through Ofgem as well. The costs of those mechanisms are calculated by the local area network using a methodology agreed by Ofgem, which means that it can recover only reasonable costs associated with the connection work. If the complaints procedure has been exhausted, Ofgem can then determine whether the costs are reasonable. Consumers can also consider using an independent connection provider that might be able to offer a better deal.

Energy Prices

17. Mr William Bain (Glasgow North East) (Lab): What recent discussions he has had with energy companies on tariff and pricing policies affecting consumers. [39425]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Ministers and officials in the Department of Energy and Climate Change meet Ofgem and suppliers on a regular basis to discuss market issues. Ofgem monitors the market closely and reports quarterly on retail prices. Its latest report shows large increases in estimated supplier margins for the year ahead, largely owing to recent price increases. We are disappointed on behalf of consumers by this development, and welcome the announcement of Ofgem's review of the retail market.

Mr Bain: The Minister will be aware from a written answer to me on 10 January that without further Government action, by 2013 the impact of the Government's proposed electricity market reforms will
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be felt by the poorest 10% of households three times more heavily than by the richest 10%. Will he therefore adopt Save the Children's excellent idea of obliging the energy companies to offer a compulsory rebate to the poorest families?

Charles Hendry: We have indeed introduced a new obligation for energy companies to help the most disadvantaged people. We are determined to take forward that agenda, and to ensure that we do it rather more effectively than it has been done in the past. We also have to ensure that we secure the investment necessary to rebuild our energy infrastructure, which was badly put off under the previous Administration.

Energy Efficiency (Rural Areas)

19. Sir Alan Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed) (LD): What recent steps he is taking to improve the energy efficiency of privately rented housing in rural areas. [39428]

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): I want to see the energy efficiency of privately rented housing improve across the country, including in rural areas. Our green deal, due to be launched in late 2012, will help enable this to happen. It will offer landlords, in both urban and rural areas, a real opportunity to invest in the energy efficiency of their properties at no up-front cost. If they do not, we are taking powers in the Energy Bill to enable tenants to insist on the green deal. Furthermore, we will allow councils to ban rentals in F and G-rated properties. My Department is looking at how best to incentivise renewable heating for those off the gas grid, particularly those in rural areas.

Sir Alan Beith: I welcome what my right hon. Friend is doing on this matter, but I ask him to keep in mind the fact that some of the poorest people in my constituency live in former farm cottages that are stone-built, have landlords who are reluctant to improve them, are not connected to a gas supply and are at the mercy of monopolistic heating oil firms.

Chris Huhne: I entirely sympathise with my right hon. Friend's point about the problems that often exist in rural areas. Such problems are often overlooked precisely because they are not necessarily concentrated in large numbers, but poverty, including fuel poverty, can be a dramatic problem in rural areas. The green deal will be particularly helpful to the sort of constituent whom he has mentioned, because there will also be support for hard-to-treat homes, which will involve subsidising solid-wall insulation.

Mr Clive Betts (Sheffield South East) (Lab): I am sure that the Secretary of State is aware that many older privately rented properties do not have cavity walls. Therefore they can benefit from loft insulation, not cavity-wall insulation, and external or internal cladding is often problematic. In those cases, will he consider giving extra priority under the green deal to offering assistance with double glazing?

Chris Huhne: We are looking at exactly what the specifications should be under the green deal. I want us to get in as much as possible. Given that the scheme will be much bigger than any that we have had before, one of
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the points that we are discussing with the industry is whether those economies of scale can be reflected in the prices of energy-saving products. If we can do that, we can make them susceptible to the green deal to a much greater extent. However, I would also refer the hon. Gentleman to my answer to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) concerning solid-wall insulation. There are technological improvements being made in this area that I would not rule out as a source of comfort for the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

Anaerobic Digestion

20. Dr Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal) (Con): What recent steps he has taken to facilitate direct passage of the gas generated from anaerobic digestion into the national transmission system. [39429]

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): The coalition is committed to a huge increase in energy from anaerobic digestion. In addition to reviewing tariffs, we are simplifying the regulatory regime for operators of AD installations. The Health and Safety Executive has been asked to assess the quality of gas that can safely be injected into the grid, and Ofgem is consulting on what measures are required to overcome barriers to biomethane injection into the gas grid.

Dr Coffey: I thank the Minister for that answer. Would he be kind enough to meet with me to discuss the case of Adnams Biogas in my constituency? Adnams Biogas was set up by Bio Group and was the first to take methane and put it straight into the grid system. National Grid is happy with that, but Ofgem now seems to have a big issue with it. It seems ridiculous that we should have to add fossil fuel gases to natural gases in order to be greener.

Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend can rightly be proud of the Adnams facility in her constituency, and she is particularly well placed to understand its potential as she has a PhD in chemistry. I would be happy to meet her to discuss how we can make it easier for more companies to connect, because we are talking about a very important technology.

Topical Questions

T1. [39433] Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Since the previous departmental Question Time we have published proposals to increase liabilities for nuclear operators under the Paris and Brussels conventions. We have also opened a consultation on the long-term management options for the UK's civil plutonium stocks, and launched a review of the feed-in tariff scheme to ensure that we have investment certainty at reasonable budgetary cost.

Mr Hollobone: Britain's electricity system is at its most vulnerable during winter cold snaps when the wind is not blowing and the wind turbines are not
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moving round. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to ensure that the plant capacity margin is big enough to ensure that we can keep the lights on with power from conventional sources during those periods?

Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend is right to highlight that as an important and ongoing issue, and it is one to which we have devoted a lot of attention in the Department. In the short term, the key is that the capacity margin has increased quite comfortably-sadly for the wrong reasons: because of the impact of the recession-but in the long run we are trying to ensure that we pay for capacity through electricity market reforms. That is in the consultation documents that we have tabled, and I believe that it will provide a long-term solution and ensure that we have an adequate margin.

T3. [39436] Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills came to the Environmental Audit Committee last week and told us that DECC had been heavily involved in the development of the green investment bank. What input has this Secretary of State had to the formation of the bank? Can he tell the House whether he is in favour of a bank or a fund-and whether the Treasury is pushing him towards a fund in order to keep the scheme off its books?

Chris Huhne: There are ongoing discussions between Ministers-[Hon. Members: "Ah!] I would merely make the point to Opposition Members that it is more important to get this right than to do it quickly and get it wrong. With the green investment bank, let us remember that we are looking at an institution that will be crucial in supporting the transition to a low-carbon economy not over a two or three-year period, but over 40 years. If we look back at our economic history, and at similarly massive changes in the way our economy has been powered-for example, the move to coal and then oil, with the internal combustion engine-we see that these things do not happen in a day. Let us get the green investment bank right. That is what Ministers are going to do, and announcements will be made in due course.

T2. [39434] Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): The green deal will bring huge fuel efficiency benefits in heating homes. Will the Secretary of State consider extending it to cover water efficiency, and in particular to educating households to save water, and to save energy by heating only the water that they need to use?

Chris Huhne: I am very sympathetic to my hon. Friend's points. There is an important agenda for trying to make water use sustainable, as well as the other elements covered by the green deal. The difficulty lies in attaching measures that would affect water to an electricity and gas Bill, and that has so far proved insuperable for the ministerial team. We would like to see real improvements, however, and we have been working across Government on this. I know that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my right hon. Friend the Member for Meriden (Mrs Spelman) is also concerned about this, and is working hard on proposals.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): The Secretary of State will be aware that the Hatfield colliery in South Yorkshire is in administration. It has more than 100 million
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tonnes of coal. Has he had meetings with the owners or their representatives to try to resolve the situation, and will he agree to meet me and other representatives to discuss it?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): We had regular contact with the owners prior to the administration. We have not had direct face-to-face contact with them subsequently, because we believe that this is a matter for them to sort out with the administrators. However, we recognise the great potential of that location and of the technology that is being developed there for carbon capture and storage, and as we take forward our plans for CCS, we hope that the plant will still be able to bid into the process.

T5. [39438] Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): Is the Minister aware of ECCO, a not-for-profit co-operative in Harlow that recycles textiles and batteries? Will he visit ECCO with me to see this important example of the big society, and to see whether such a contribution to recycling could be rolled out across the country?

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): It is important to take a holistic approach to these green and sustainability questions. My hon. Friend is a fantastic champion of the big society in Harlow, and I would be delighted to go there with him to see what is being achieved there.

Lilian Greenwood (Nottingham South) (Lab): As the Minister knows, the Meadows neighbourhood in Nottingham South is striving to become a low-carbon community. The three local primary schools, the community gardens and 55 local families are now benefiting from the feed-in tariff through their community-owned energy company, MOZES. Can he guarantee that his review of the feed-in tariff will not endanger its continued success?

Gregory Barker: I am delighted to answer this question, not least because I had the privilege of going to the Meadows last autumn and was very impressed with what I saw there. I can absolutely confirm that there is nothing retrospective about the feed-in tariff review. Any community, group or individual claiming the tariff will see no change in their tariff.

T6. [39439] Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): Has my hon. Friend had any discussions on the future of the treaty of Almelo, particularly in relation to modifying it to allow British and European companies to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by China's expanding programme of civil nuclear power?

Charles Hendry: May I begin by paying tribute to the important work that URENCO, which is based on the outskirts of my hon. Friend's constituency, does in this area? The treaty of Almelo was signed in 1970 by the Governments of the UK, the Netherlands and Germany, and covers the operation of the tripartite URENCO uranium enrichment company. It is not a vehicle for the promotion of specific commercial opportunities, and if there were to be any change in its nature there would have to be a new treaty, or an adaptation to the existing one.

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Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): We have recently begun to see the decoupling of oil and gas prices, and technological innovations enabling us to exploit shale gas might expand that decoupling still further. How is that affecting the Government's thinking on electricity market reform, and what repercussions do they foresee?

Chris Huhne: That is absolutely right; this is one of the most interesting things happening in energy markets. The last figures that I looked at were very striking, showing that the price per therm in the United States is virtually half what it is in the UK or on the continent of Europe. Any electricity market reform must obviously involve a framework that could accommodate such changes, if this turns out to be a long-run trend. For example, if gas with carbon capture and storage were a particularly attractive technology providing low-carbon electricity for our consumers, the electricity market reform would have to enable it to be produced. It is not our job to pick winners in technology, but it is our job to ensure that we have low-carbon electricity and that the market framework can deliver it.

T7. [39440] Claire Perry (Devizes) (Con): Farmers in my Devizes constituency really welcome the inclusion of anaerobic digestion in the overall tariff and review currently taking place. That is long overdue, and an important way of reducing emissions and cutting waste from the farming industry. However, communities living close to existing or proposed sites are expressing real concerns about the possible impacts-an increase in traffic, unpleasant odours and so forth. What can be done to reassure communities and farmers that those things can co-exist in the countryside?

Gregory Barker: Obviously, the Environment Agency will continue to have oversight of such matters, but the brilliance of farm-based anaerobic digestion is that it is an on-farm solution, so it should diminish the number of road journeys that need to be made. As my hon. Friend the Energy Minister said earlier, at the heart of our proposals for an ambitious roll-out of renewables is the idea of community consent. We want a bottom-up approach, in which everyone has a chance to participate and be incentivised, rather than have things imposed from the top.

Mr Speaker: We have got the message about bottoming up; we are grateful.

Catherine McKinnell (Newcastle upon Tyne North) (Lab): The north-east of England has a burgeoning offshore wind sector, supported by the new renewable energy centre in Blyth. What is the Department offering to support the growth of that industry now that the very successful regional development agency, One North East, which provided a lot of vital support, is being wound down?

Charles Hendry: As the hon. Lady will know, the £60 million for the building of the manufacturing facility on the ports could be of massive benefit to the north-east and to other parts of the country. Companies such as Gamesa, Siemens, Mitsubishi and General Electric are already looking at the United Kingdom because of the massive opportunities that they see here. We are determined to have the jobs coming to this country, whereas historically too many of them have gone overseas.

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T9. [39442] Richard Graham (Gloucester) (Con): Solar power offers a great opportunity to reduce both our carbon footprint and our household costs. Will the Minister say what his Department is doing to encourage its use in cities such as mine of Gloucester?

Gregory Barker: We recently launched "Community Energy Online", which demonstrates to communities and local authorities the easy steps that can be taken to benefit from the range of schemes and initiatives that DECC has already launched and will launch in the future. I encourage people to look at this online initiative, which is easy to access. If my hon. Friend has any feedback about it, I would be delighted to hear it.

Tom Blenkinsop (Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland) (Lab): How does the Secretary of State intend to help the chemical and steel industries and other manufacturers of energy-intensive products, which will be less able to compete globally or even within the EU in response to his proposals for electricity market reforms and CO2 floor prices?

Charles Hendry: The hon. Gentleman raises an extremely important issue. We have to be careful not to have carbon leakage and to ensure that the measures put in place in this country do not drive British manufacturing jobs abroad. That is why there is cross-co-ordination between DECC, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Treasury to make sure that we fully understand any knock-on implications and avoid any such unintended consequences: it is critical to keep those manufacturing jobs in Britain.

Duncan Hames (Chippenham) (LD): We have heard how households such as those off the gas grid, of which there are many in my constituency, would benefit from the new green deal. If demand for it initially outstrips supply, how will the Secretary of State determine who should have access to it first?

Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend raises an interesting point; it is a high-class problem. Up until now the main difficulty Governments have faced is in encouraging consumers to go for energy efficiency measures, which are enormously beneficial economically. For example, the payback period for both cavity-wall insulation and loft insulation is less than 18 months, yet there are still millions of homes outstanding. I look forward to having to deal with the problem of high demand, but it is not one that has detained us greatly as yet. We want to make sure that the market takes off, and that is where we have been focusing our attention.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): The all-party offshore oil and gas industry group heard this week of the difficulties faced by developers of small oil and gas fields in accessing infrastructure at a reasonable tariff. They say that the existing mechanisms do not work, and that the legal process for determining resolution has never worked either. Will the Minister turn his attention to that and ensure that they have proper access at reasonable tariffs, because it is these small developers that will be the future of the offshore oil and gas industry in the North sea?

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Charles Hendry: We want a different relationship between Government and the offshore developers. We are considering restructuring PILOT, the organisation that deals with such matters. One of the most important aspects of its work will be access to infrastructure, alongside decommissioning and other issues that have been intractable for a long time. I am grateful for the work that the all-party group is doing in the House.

Sarah Newton (Truro and Falmouth) (Con): I welcome the Minister's recent meetings with private sector organisations in Cornwall that are working on deep geothermal and marine energy. Can the Secretary of State confirm that both those exciting technologies will be included in the review of the banding regime for renewables obligation certificates?

Gregory Barker: I am grateful for my hon. Friend's ongoing enthusiasm and determination to fight for geothermal energy. She has made some excellent points. The ROCs banding review will examine those issues and others to ensure that the right incentives are there to drive forward the whole green economy.

Nia Griffith (Llanelli) (Lab): May I return the Secretary of State to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland (Tom Blenkinsop)? Will he agree to meet a delegation from the all-party parliamentary group for the steel and metal-related industry to discuss the effects of the carbon floor pricing proposals on high energy users such as the steel and ceramics industries?

Chris Huhne: The hon. Lady will know that we have been in close contact with high energy users. We are happy to continue to meet them to discuss their concerns.

Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): Is the Department still considering the marine energy parks project, which was proposed before the election? What is its perspective on opportunities for the marine energy sector?

Gregory Barker: We think that there is huge potential for growth in the sector, which now needs to be gripped
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and driven forward. There has been about a decade of talking about the issue, but no real growth. I was delighted to go to the south-west to convene the new marine energy programme board and to announce that the south-west would host the first marine energy park, consisting of a cluster of marine energy firms. I hope that that will be replicated all round the coast of Great Britain.

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Much of the new low-carbon capacity plan will require either enhanced or new transmission lines. Will the Department encourage National Grid to consider installing underground and submarine cables as well as enhancing existing pylons?

Charles Hendry: The hon. Gentleman has raised a particularly important issue, which I know is of great significance to his constituency because of the possible building of a nuclear plant there. I am pleased about the work being done by the Institution of Engineering and Technology, which is trying to establish in detail what the costs of undergrounding will be. Additional work is being done by National Grid to ensure that we fully understand the relative costs of the various approaches, which will be one of the most contentious issues.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): The Minister will be aware that the development and expansion of wind and wave technology are having a very positive impact on research and development and manufacturing in my constituency. What discussions is he having with his counterparts in the Northern Ireland Assembly to ensure that the economic as well as the environmental benefit is harnessed?

Charles Hendry: The hon. Lady will be pleased to know that we have regular contacts with members of the Northern Ireland Government, as well as with devolved Governments elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We are keen to adopt an all-islands approach. We intend to assess the potential throughout the British Isles, including the channel islands and the Irish Republic, to establish where the resources are greatest and how they can be harnessed for the greatest overall good.

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Business of the House

11.33 am

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House give us the forthcoming business?

The Leader of the House of Commons (Sir George Young): The business for the week commencing 14 February will be as follows:

Monday 14 February-Second Reading of the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill [ Lords].

Tuesday 15 February-Motion to approve a money resolution on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, followed by a motion to approve a money resolution on the Public Services (Social Enterprise and Social Value) Bill.

Wednesday 16 February- Opposition Day (11th allotted day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by, if necessary, consideration of Lords amendments.

Thursday 17 February-Motions relating to the draft Social Security Benefits Up-rating Order 2011 and the draft Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order 2011.

The House will not adjourn until the Speaker has signified Royal Assent.

Colleagues will wish to be reminded that, subject to the progress of business, the House will rise for the February recess on Thursday 17 February and return on Monday 28 February.

The provisional business for the week commencing 28 February will include:

Monday 28 February-Business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.

I should also like to inform the House that the business in Westminster Hall for 3 and 10 March will be:

Thursday 3 March-A debate on the Public Accounts Committee's report on tackling inequalities in life expectancy in areas with the worst health and deprivation.

Thursday 10 March-A debate on the Work and Pensions Committee report on changes to housing benefit announced in the June 2010 Budget.

Hilary Benn: I am grateful to the Leader of the House for that reply.

We are due to have the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill at some point. Our clear understanding is that the legislative consent motion from Holyrood will be finalised before we start consideration in Committee. Will the Leader of the House confirm that that is still the case?

This week, we learned that more than half the donations to the Tory party have come from City financiers. A party spokesman denied that City donors were influencing policy, but may we have a debate on this?

Scarcely was the magic ink dry on Project Merlin-that was some conjuring trick-than the Lib Dem Treasury spokesman in the other place, the noble Lord Oakeshott, could contain himself no longer. He called the deal "pitiful", the Treasury negotiators incompetent and
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arrogant-I wonder who he could have been thinking of-and he then said this about the bonus deal:

Clearly, this was all too much for the truth deniers on the Treasury Bench, and especially his colleague the Chief Secretary to the Treasury who, it seems, sacked him live on television. Does this not all show that when it comes to the Conservatives and the "spivs and gamblers"-not my words, but those of the Business Secretary last September-they certainly are all in it together?

The truth deniers have taken another battering this morning. Some 88 Liberal Democrat council and group leaders have signed an extraordinary letter in The Times attacking their own Government. This is what they say:

They accuse Ministers of

and the Communities Secretary of letting them down. May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State so that he can finally admit that getting rid of a few chocolate biscuits and cutting a few salaries is not going to do it, and that the price of his policies will be paid by shut libraries, disappearing Sure Start centres, people losing their jobs and volunteers discovering that there is nowhere left to volunteer? That is why the big society is now in big trouble, and why advisers at No. 10 are trying to blame each other for the mess. So may we have a debate on the deep sense of betrayal that many in the voluntary sector feel, because having been marched up the big society hill, they now discover that on the other side there is not a pot of gold, but a precipice? Is that what Lib Dem MPs really signed up for last May?

To cap what has been a terrible week for Ministers, we heard this morning the sad news that the Deputy Prime Minister has had to cancel his trip to Latin America because the Government have been defeated again in the House of Lords on their gerrymandering Bill. Frankly, I am surprised that the Deputy Prime Minister has not taken the opportunity to flee the country after the battering he received on television last night from angry students. Still, Rio de Janeiro is just about waking up to the news that it will not be enjoying his company next week, and I would not be surprised if the students there try to bring forward the carnival and take to the streets to celebrate.

The House was surprised to discover this week that the Department for International Development gave nearly £2 million of its precious development budget not to vaccinate children or put them into a classroom, but to help pay for the costs of the Pope's visit to the UK. May we have a debate on this extraordinary use of our development spending, and will the Leader of the House assure us that when the DFID aid reviews are complete they will be reported to the House by the Secretary of State in an oral statement?

Finally, I have been reading the Leader of the House's blog again and very interesting it is too. I was particularly intrigued to see that he described answering business questions as

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As he invites me, and as almost everyone in the country now accepts that the cuts are being made too fast and are too deep, I will ask a question that is puzzling many people and perhaps he can provide the answer: why on earth should anyone vote Lib Dem in May? And for the bonus question: why should anyone vote Tory either?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that. I note that in our exchanges over the past four months he has never actually challenged the business that I have laid before the House. I hope that there is a broad consensus on the way in which the Government are conducting the business and putting it before the House, and that that is commanding support on both sides.

On the legislative consent motion, it is indeed our intention to secure that before we reach the appropriate stage in proceedings on the Scotland Bill, and I will contact my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to confirm that. We would be more than happy to debate party funding and draw attention to the fact that some 80% of the Labour party's funding comes from the trade unions, whereas my party has a much broader base. Any notion that we are over-influenced by any donations we may get from the City might have been destroyed by the statement on Wednesday, when £800 million was extracted from the banks in the City. I hope that will put an end to that particular myth.

On the statement made yesterday by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, it was the Labour party that gave a substantial sum of money to the banks and got absolutely nothing in return. By contrast, as the right hon. Gentleman will have seen from the statement that we made yesterday, we secured substantial concessions from the banks-on lower bonuses, on more support, and on money for the big society bank. He needs to contrast the deal that we got with the deal that his party totally failed to secure.

I have indeed read the letter in The Times today from the Liberal Democrat councillors, and let me just remind the right hon. Gentleman of what it said:

So that is where they are coming from.

On the next issue that the right hon. Gentleman raised about local government, we had a substantial debate yesterday about local government. The fact is that we are borrowing an extra £400 million every day to plug the gap between spending and income, and that means tough decisions for all Departments, including the Department for Communities and Local Government. The right thing to do is now to sort out the deficit and end Whitehall domination of local government.

On local government funding and closures, may I remind the right hon. Gentleman of what the right hon. Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) said when she was Culture Minister? She published a libraries consultation paper, in which she said:

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We hope that local authorities will respond to the challenges that face them and that they will have a comprehensive and efficient library service, which is what they are required to do by statute.

On the Deputy Prime Minister's movements, the Bill on which we are debating Lords amendments next week is a Bill that he is sponsoring and it is entirely appropriate that he should be here to support it in the House. On the Department for International Development, the Catholic Church does a fantastic amount in terms of aid to underdeveloped countries and it seems entirely right that we should have recognised that in the support we gave to the Pope's visit. Finally, we look forward to the local government elections and we are confident of not only retaining the seats we have, but winning even more seats from the Opposition, who are still in total denial about the problems that they have left this country with.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr Speaker: Order. As usual a very large number of right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. I am keen to accommodate people as best I can, but the House will be conscious of the fact that an important and very heavily subscribed debate is taking place afterwards under the auspices of the Backbench Business Committee, for which I must provide adequate time. So the emphasis is on short questions and short answers.

Nicholas Soames (Mid Sussex) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the middle east given that the Foreign Secretary will return, over the weekend, from an extremely important visit to some of our very important allies, and given that events taking place in Egypt and possibly elsewhere are of the first importance to the House and the country?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question. He is right that the Foreign Secretary is making a key visit to the middle east, and the Government will want to keep the House informed. We have had a debate on middle eastern matters in Back-Bench business time, but the Government have reserved the right, if necessary, to have debates in Government time on issues such as the one he refers to.

Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): I thank the Leader of the House for listening to Back Benchers and allocating the next Back-Bench business slot in the Chamber to Monday 28 February. The leader is always very generous on a Thursday in pointing Back Benchers in the direction of the Backbench Business Committee when they demand debates in Government time. Will he emphasise that all non-Government business is legitimate Back-Bench business and that the Backbench Business Committee welcomes representations with open arms every Tuesday at 1 pm? Given the obvious and necessary conventions during statements and questions, will he meet me to discuss how I can make my public service announcements without thinly veiling them as rather convoluted questions?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that. We did indeed listen to the representations that she and others made that Back-Bench business should not take place exclusively on Thursdays and, as she has generously recognised, we now have a Back-Bench debate on a Monday. I am a keen supporter of the Wright recommendations, which worked out the allocations for
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what the Government and her Committee ought to do, and we are anxious to abide by those. I welcome her public service announcements in the middle of business questions. In due course, we will move to a new regime, when we have a House business Committee, and there might then be an opportunity for her and other hon. Members to make such announcements in a different format.

Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May we have a debate on the increasing threat to endangered wildlife throughout the world? Is my right hon. Friend aware that growing demand for ivory in China is causing endangered African elephants to be butchered in ever-increasing numbers? If we cannot have a debate, will the Government at least tell the Chinese that all civilised countries in the world want to see an end to this sickening, barbaric and illegal trade?

Sir George Young: I entirely endorse what my right hon. Friend says and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the Foreign Secretary, who will then want to respond in appropriate diplomatic language to the Chinese. On the broader point, it will be possible for the Backbench Business Committee to listen to his representations that the House should debate this crucial matter and I hope that on a Tuesday, at the appropriate time, he might present himself to the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel) and her Committee.

Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): Could we have a debate on the efficiency of the Cabinet Office, which appears to have got a bit rusty since my day? It has double-booked the Deputy Prime Minister-he has an important piece of legislation next week and he has cancelled a trip to Brazil. How much has that cost?

Sir George Young: The reason we are debating the Bill next week rather than earlier is because of the performance of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in another place, who have taken much longer to process the Bill than they needed to. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman would expect, putting the House first next week.

Greg Mulholland (Leeds North West) (LD): May we have a debate, led by the Leader of the House, on the conduct of Members in the Chamber? This follows the revelations that a Member who happens to have a disability was subject to mimicry, face-pulling and jeering. The response given was that had some of those Members known about that Member's disability, they would not have done that, but the inference is that they still feel that mimicry, face-pulling and jeering is acceptable, but it is not. Let us stamp it out.

Sir George Young: I think I am verging on to your responsibilities, Mr Speaker, in commenting on the performance of Members in the House, but I am sure that Members on both sides will condemn the way in which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) was treated when he made that speech on child trust funds. I very much hope that there will be no recurrence of that incident. On the general point about behaviour in the Chamber, responsibility for that happily rests with you, Mr Speaker, and not with me.

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Hazel Blears (Salford and Eccles) (Lab): Last week in Munich, the Prime Minister made a very important speech about the need to tackle extremist Islamist ideology. At the same time, I hear that there have been significant cuts to the organisation Quilliam, which is a very effective counter-extremist organisation. Will the Leader of the House therefore arrange for us to have a debate about how we can tackle these extremely important, complex and difficult issues, and particularly about the role of Quilliam in being very brave on that agenda?

Sir George Young: I join the right hon. Lady in paying tribute to the Quilliam Foundation, which does heroic work in that important area and continues to receive six-figure funding from the Government. I will draw her comments to the attention of the Home Secretary. I hope there will be broad endorsement of what the Prime Minister said in his speech on multiculturalism about the need to tackle extremism in all its forms. We cannot allow extremists to propagate their message unchallenged and we need less of the passive tolerance of recent years and more active, muscular liberalism. I would welcome a debate on that subject.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): May I ask my right hon. Friend if we could find time for a short debate about the role of the Committee of Selection? Will he confirm that he is aware that one of our hon. Friends, who was elected to this House to major on the health service, was apparently asked by a Whip and a Minister to decline from tabling any amendments or speaking in the Health and Social Care Public Bill Committee, otherwise she would not be appointed to that Committee? I understand that she has not been appointed to that Committee. We are all grown-ups; we know that whipping happens, but are there not limits to how much Whips and Ministers should be seeking to influence the scrutiny process, and does not this make the case for making the Committee of Selection elected rather than full of people appointed by the usual channels?

Sir George Young: I heard the speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) made in Westminster Hall last Thursday in the debate on parliamentary reform, when she shared with those there her disappointment at not being appointed to that Public Bill Committee. I served on the Committee of Selection probably for longer than anyone else in this Chamber as a non-Whip, and there was a Bateman cartoon moment when I called a Division, which apparently had not been done in the Committee of Selection for a very long time.

Speaking personally, I think that every hon. Member should have the right to put their case to the Committee of Selection that they should be considered for service on a Public Bill Committee, and then it is a matter for the Committee of Selection to decide. I personally would welcome the presence on the Committee of Selection of not just business managers but representatives of Back Benchers.

Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): I am sure the whole House will join with me in extending our sympathy to those who have been killed this morning in the crash of the Belfast-Cork flight and extend our best wishes for the early recovery of those injured.

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May we have a debate in Government time, before the Budget, on the high price of fuel in Northern Ireland-the price of domestic heating oil and the prices at the pump for diesel and petrol, which are the highest in the UK?

Sir George Young: I am sure the whole House will share the sentiments that the right hon. Gentleman has expressed about the casualties in the aircraft at Cork and want to send our good wishes for the survivors.

We had a debate last night on precisely the subject that the right hon. Gentleman mentioned-the high price of domestic heating oil-which was answered by the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry). I will indeed see, perhaps in conjunction with the Backbench Business Committee, whether there are any other opportunities for debate; the right hon. Gentleman might like to apply for a debate in Westminster Hall or another debate on the Adjournment, which might focus on the specific situation in Northern Ireland.

Chris White (Warwick and Leamington) (Con): In Warwickshire, the number of people employed in manufacturing has fallen from 34,000 in 2001 to just over 26,000 in 2009-a fall of nearly 25%. As the latest Department for Business, Innovation and Skills report, "Trade and Investment for Growth", made clear, boosting manufacturing is vital not only to increase employment but to rebalance our economy. Will the Leader of the House provide Government time for a debate on how we can achieve the manufacturing growth that is so essential to our economy?

Sir George Young: I endorse the sentiments that my hon. Friend expresses. Next Thursday there will be an opportunity to raise the matter with BIS Ministers, who will be at the Dispatch Box. We have acted to improve the environment for manufacturers, both nationally and in the midlands, with lower and simpler business taxes, investment in apprenticeships, wider access to finance and the Government-wide commitment to boosting exports-plus, of course, the regional growth fund, for which my hon. Friend's constituents will be eligible to bid.

Nick Smith (Blaenau Gwent) (Lab): Early-day motion 1367 has received support from over 100 MPs in just 10 days.

[That this House recognises and honours the immense courage and patriotism shown by UK armed service personnel and their dependants; commits to providing them with the highest levels of support and reward; notes with concern the Government's proposed permanent switch to the consumer prices index from the retail prices index for the annual indexation of benefits and pensions since this represents a year-on-year reduction which will impact when the economy has returned to growth; further notes the cumulative financial loss this will cause service personnel and their dependants, including war widows and those serving in Afghanistan now; warns that a double amputee 28 year old corporal will lose £587,000 by the age of 70 and a 34 year old widow of a staff sergeant killed in Afghanistan will lose almost £750,000 over the course of her lifetime; and urges the Government to commit to making this switch temporary so that as soon as the fiscal climate allows and the deficit has been paid off our forces and their dependants receive that higher rate of pensions and benefits they deserve.]

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It calls on the Government to honour the military covenant and give our disabled soldiers and war widows RPI, rather than CPI increases on their pensions. Our servicemen have done their duty for our country, and are being let down when their need is greatest. Will the Leader of the House please agree to a debate on this important matter, so that the Government can hear the views of MPs who want a fair deal for our armed services families?

Sir George Young: I pay tribute to the work of our armed forces. We will soon publish a new tri-service armed forces covenant, which will be the first of its kind, setting out the relationship between the armed forces community, the Government and the nation. As the hon. Gentleman may know, the Armed Forces Bill, which is currently going through the House, places on the Secretary of State a commitment to lay before Parliament every year a report on what is being done to live up to the covenant, and he will have heard the Prime Minister yesterday, at this Dispatch Box, outlining the steps we have taken to support our armed forces.

Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): With co-ordinated strike action being planned by the paymasters of the Opposition-the trade union movement-will the Leader of the House make Government time available for a debate on reform of trade union laws?

Sir George Young: If my hon. Friend looks at the Queen's Speech, she will realise that we are not planning any reform of trade union law in this Session of Parliament, which is already fairly congested. However, I would welcome a debate, perhaps in Back-Bench time, on the relationship between the trade unions and this House and the trade unions and society generally, and I hope that in that debate the moderate elements within the trade unions will put their case forward and see off some of the hotheads.

Mr Michael McCann (East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow) (Lab): Last August, I received information that DFID Ministers had plans to cut 165 jobs at DFID in East Kilbride. At that time I was accused by Ministers of scaremongering and putting information into the public domain that was wholly inaccurate. At 10.30 this morning, the staff at DFID were told that more than 140 jobs will be lost in that office. Will the Leader of the House confirm to me, therefore, that DFID Ministers will make an oral statement to the House, explaining why these job losses are taking place, explaining the impact on both the multilateral and the bilateral aid reviews, and finally, apologising to the staff of DFID at East Kilbride and me for misleading them last year?

Sir George Young: Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern about the loss of jobs in his constituency. Next Wednesday, there is half an hour of questions to DFID Ministers, where there will be an opportunity for him to raise the subject. I will let my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State know that he is likely to be in his place to raise that important issue.

Dr Julian Lewis (New Forest East) (Con): May I endorse what the right hon. Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears) said about the cuts to the grant to the Quilliam Foundation, and call for a statement specifically on that? While I welcome the Leader of the
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House's response to her, may I point out to him that there is a great difference between a six-figure sum of about £124,000 and a six-figure sum in excess of £800,000? The right hon. Lady did very important work on this matter when she was a Cabinet Minister and her views deserve to be listened to very attentively.

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that. I repeat what I said to the right hon. Lady. The Home Office receives a wide range of bids for funding from many organisations, and as with other areas of public spending that funding is subject to value-for-money and effectiveness assessment, but I will ensure that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is aware of the very strong views in the House on that grant.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP): In response to the question that the shadow Leader of the House asked about the Scotland Bill, the Leader of the House said it was the Government's intention not to proceed until they had secured the legislative consent motion. Notwithstanding that this Government cannot secure any such thing-that is a matter for the Scottish Parliament-can we have a guarantee that the Committee stage of the Scotland Bill will not proceed until the Scottish Parliament has finished its deliberations and the LCM has been voted for?

Sir George Young: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. I prefer to rest on the answer that I gave to the shadow Leader of the House. It is our intention to secure the LCM before we proceed with the Committee stage of the Bill.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): A recent e-mail to Members from the Stop HS2 campaign was riddled with inaccuracies, exaggerations and distortions. The high-speed rail link between London and Manchester is absolutely essential for promoting investment in northern constituencies such as mine, but unfortunately a ragtag alliance of luddites and nimbys appears to be making ludicrous arguments against the plans. May we have a debate on high-speed rail so that these falsehoods can be tackled head on?

Sir George Young: The Attorney-General will have heard the robust language used by my hon. Friend to describe other hon. Members. I think that I am right in saying that there is a bid to the Backbench Business Committee for a debate on HS2, and I hope that that will be an opportunity to debate the matter further. I remind my hon. Friend that, as he knows, it is the Government's policy to proceed with this investment.

Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): May we have a debate on the big society and the yawning gap between the Prime Minister's warm words and the reality? Home-Start is a wonderful charity, working with the most vulnerable families in your constituency, Mr. Speaker, and that of the Leader of the House, and it has been repeatedly praised by the Prime Minister, yet funding is being completely withdrawn from 70 of its branches, including mine in Exeter, many of which are closing. Is that really what he means by the big society?

Sir George Young: I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that some 3 million people in this country want to volunteer but at the moment are not doing so
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and that there is an untapped potential that we want to unlock through our big society initiative. There is a good tradition of volunteering in this country and it is right for the Government to try to develop that.

Nadhim Zahawi (Stratford-on-Avon) (Con): May we have a debate on the financial code on bonuses, which was introduced on 1 January? The Chancellor has introduced the toughest such code of any financial centre of any size in the world, but, most importantly, it should encourage behaviour that creates value by bonuses being deferred for at least three years, being linked to performance and being taken in shares, which can go down as well as up.

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He may have heard the statement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor made yesterday when he contrasted the previous Government's lack of success in getting a number of banks to sign up to the code with the large number that we have persuaded to sign up to it, which, as he said, is one of the toughest in Europe.

Ian Austin (Dudley North) (Lab): May I add my voice to a call for a debate on the Prime Minister's important speech at the weekend, so that we can discuss in the House how we can build a much stronger sense of what it means to be British, based on the contribution that people are prepared to make, whether they want to work hard, play by the rules, pay their way, whether they are prepared to speak English, because that is the only way to play a full role in British society, and their commitment to the great British values of democracy, equality, freedom, fairness and tolerance?

Sir George Young: I very much welcome the hon. Gentleman's contribution, which is very much in the same vein as that of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I would welcome such a debate, for which I think there is an appetite in the House. We should be absolutely clear what is meant by my right hon. Friend differentiating Islamist extremism, which is a political ideology, from Islam. As I said, we need a genuinely liberal country such as this one, which believes in certain values, and we should do more actively to promote them.

Stuart Andrew (Pudsey) (Con): Greenfield sites in my constituency and across Leeds are being lost to development at appeals, despite their being turned down by local councillors. May we have an urgent debate on how to prevent and preserve these sites, and reintroduce a sequential approach to planning, particularly during this interim period while the Localism Bill goes through the Parliament?

Sir George Young: My hon. Friend will welcome the provisions in the Localism Bill, which will give much greater weight to the views of local people than the present top-down arrangement. He raises a key issue about what happens before the Bill kicks in, and I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government.

Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): In view of recent events in Sudan, most of them positive, but still in a challenging context, does the Leader of the House agree that there should be a debate
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on the Floor of the House so that the many Members who are interested in this very important issue can participate?

Sir George Young: I understand what the right hon. Gentleman says, which reinforces a remark made by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Sussex (Nicholas Soames) that there is an appetite in the House to debate the middle east. I would like to reflect on what he says and see whether we can find an appropriate opportunity for the House to share its views on these important issues.

Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): As a proud trade union member, not affiliated to the Labour party, will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the safety of NHS workers. As I highlighted in my early-day motion 1409, many nurses in my constituency of Harlow and the nearby villages work alone late into the night. They are not always given safety equipment, such as panic alarms and torches, and they are not allowed travelling companions. Will he write to the Health Secretary to raise this issue?

[That this House is concerned by the risks and threats posed to nurses when working alone, especially when working late shifts in the evenings and at night-time, especially in Harlow or the surrounding villages; notes that nurses are not always supplied with panic alarms or torches, and that many are affected by lone working policies, where they do not have organised chaperones or a buddy system, even very late at night; further notes that this is almost never the case for a GP or doctor; regrets that mobile telephone signals are not wholly reliable in some areas for emergency contact; and therefore calls on the Government to look at what urgent steps might be taken to protect NHS nurses on the frontline .]

Sir George Young: Like my hon. Friend, I am also a non-trade union member. I was expelled from the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs in the 1970s and described as a "pin-striped bovver boy".

My hon. Friend raises a serious issue about the safety of staff working on their own for the NHS, which has a responsibility to look after its staff. The management service has rolled out an alarm protection service for NHS staff who work alone, and employers can take advantage of the service by providing staff who work alone with alarms. I understand that his PCT has taken advantage of this service.

Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): I think that the business statement implies that on Tuesday we will have a chance to debate the Lords amendment on a threshold before the referendum on AV becomes mandatory. As an electoral reformer myself, I want the referendum to go through and I will vote yes, but it would be difficult to accept that the result could be compulsory on an extremely low turnout. What is the Government's attitude likely to be towards this on Tuesday?

Sir George Young: I think that I am right in saying that when we debated the matter in this House, Opposition Front Benchers were against a threshold, and that certainly remains the position of the Government. But there will be an opportunity on Tuesday, as I said, for the House to debate the Lords amendments, including the one on the threshold.

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Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): In the light of the comments by the shadow Chancellor claiming that the UK did not have a structural deficit before the recession, and figures from the House of Commons Library showing that it did in every year from 2000-01 onwards, may we have a debate on facing up to reality?

Sir George Young: In a sense, we had that debate on Tuesday, when the Chancellor took the shadow Chancellor to task. For the shadow Chancellor to deny that there was a structural deficit even before the banking crisis is simply to deny reality.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Yesterday, the Government's chief scientific adviser, Sir John Beddington, launched the Foresight project's report on global food and farming futures. May we have a debate in Government time to consider the implications of the report and its effects on climate change, biodiversity, poverty, hunger and water shortages throughout the world?

Sir George Young: I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. It is an important report. I suggest that he apply for a debate in Westminster Hall, which I am sure would be well attended in view of the importance of the subjects that he has raised.

Brandon Lewis (Great Yarmouth) (Con): My right hon. Friend will no doubt be aware of the concern of communities in Norfolk and Suffolk about the effects of coastal erosion. One of the ways of potentially addressing that is by establishing a community solidarity fund to pay for preventive measures. Will he confirm that the Government support that approach, and perhaps help us to arrange for an early debate on the issue?

Sir George Young: The Government are very much in favour of the community support that my hon. Friend has just mentioned to tackled coastal erosion. Local authorities already have the necessary powers to raise funds and carry out coastal erosion works, but if there are any barriers to the initiative to which my hon. Friend refers, the Government would be happy to discuss them with him.

Dame Anne Begg (Aberdeen South) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the unfairness facing the 500,000 women who were born between 6 October 1953 and 5 April 1955, who will now have to wait for more than one year in order to reach their state retirement age because of the acceleration of the raising of the state retirement age to 66, and particularly the group who were born between 6 May and 5 June 1954, who will have to wait up to two years before they reach state retirement age?

Sir George Young: I understand the strong views that the hon. Lady expresses on behalf of those who are caught in the gap to which she refers. There will be Department for Work and Pensions questions on Monday, but, subject to a decision of the Backbench Business Committee, we usually have a debate on international women's day. I do not want to pre-empt any decision by that Committee, but that would seem an appropriate subject to raise if such a debate took place.

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Harriett Baldwin (West Worcestershire) (Con): I draw your attention, Mr Speaker, to my entry in the Register of Members' Financial Interests as a board member of the Social Investment Business. May we have a debate in Government time on yesterday's fantastic news about £200 million of private sector money going into the big society bank? I am sure that all Members would welcome that and want to attend, particularly the Leader of the Opposition, who tried to get that going in 2007 when he was in the Cabinet Office?

Sir George Young: I agree that such a debate would be well supported. My hon. Friend underlines the point that we managed to secure that from the banks, which Opposition Members totally failed to do when in government. The £200 million-a huge sum-will be put to fantastic use by those who believe in the big society.

Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): Given that it is the low-paid and those on low incomes who are paying the highest price for the cuts, that the people who caused those cuts, the bankers, are now bankrolling the Tory party and that those bankers are now enjoying better and higher bonuses and tax cuts, may we have a debate on who is generating this Government's economic policies-the Government or the bankers?

Sir George Young: It is no use going on and on and blaming the bankers. If the hon. Gentleman looks at the position this country was in before the banking crisis, he will see that we were running a huge structural deficit. There is no conviction at all when Opposition Members go on trying to blame the banks, because it is they who are responsible for the difficult decisions we now must take. His party did absolutely nothing about bonuses; they obliged the banks that they supported to go on paying market rate bonuses, whereas we have secured a reduction.

Rehman Chishti (Gillingham and Rainham) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the performance of Southeastern trains, whose contract is due for extension, so that its performance figures can be fully and thoroughly scrutinised on the Floor of the House, because many of my constituents are receiving a poor service?

Sir George Young: I am sorry to hear that my hon. Friend's constituents are not getting the service to which they are entitled from Southeastern trains. There is a provision in the agreement for a two-year extension, subject to a continuation review where performance is assessed, and the performance data provided for assessment are subject to rigorous audit by performance analysts in the Department for Transport. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport expects to notify the operator of the outcome of this review in due course, and I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to his attention.

Ian Lavery (Wansbeck) (Lab): Will the Leader of the House allow time to discuss the alarming changes imposed on the terms and conditions of employees of the House and parliamentary staff, including the long service award for 30 years' service?

Sir George Young: As that relates to the employment of House of Commons staff, it might be a matter for the House of Commons Commission to discuss. I am
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sure that it would be happy to receive a letter from the hon. Gentleman if he wishes to pursue the case further.

Sajid Javid (Bromsgrove) (Con): May we have a debate to convey the concerns of the House about the plight of Said Musa, who is in prison in Afghanistan and facing execution for being a Christian? Given the urgency and sensitivity of the matter, will the Leader of the House raise it at the highest levels so that we can stop that heinous act?

Sir George Young: This is a terrible case of denying the right of freedom of religion. We will continue to remind the Afghan Government of their duty to abide by commitments on freedom of religion and belief and to respect freedom of worship, as enshrined in the Afghan constitution. I will draw my hon. Friend's remarks to the attention of the Foreign Secretary.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): Many hundreds of pensioners have written to me with concerns about their public sector pensions being increased in future by the consumer prices index, rather than the retail prices index. May we have an urgent debate on this important issue?

Sir George Young: The hon. Gentleman refers to a decision that we announced some time ago that affects all public sector pensions. We will have the Budget next month, and normally the Budget debate provides an opportunity to debate such issues.

Neil Carmichael (Stroud) (Con): May I ask the Lord Privy Seal for a debate on social care, and in particular on the introduction of personal budgets and their impact on the quality and range of providers?

Sir George Young: We attach great importance to social care, which is why an extra £1 billion has been found to invest in it. My view is that self-directed support and personal budgets enable a much better-tailored service to be provided to receivers of care. It is part of our agenda to drive that forward, move away from the set menu that all too many local authorities offer and have a much more diverse range of providers so that people can get better value for money.

Charlie Elphicke (Dover) (Con): May we have a debate on knife crime, which is a serious concern for my constituents in Dover and Deal? There were more than 100 serious knife crimes a day in 2008-09, and in 80% of cases the perpetrators escaped jail. With the Home Office having taken positive steps and the recent report by knife crime crusader Brook Kinsella, this would be a good time for the House to debate the matter.

Sir George Young: I welcome what my hon. Friend says. I cannot promise a debate, but he rightly draws attention to the initiative of Brook Kinsella. The Home Secretary has announced more than £80 million to tackle knife, gun and gang crime, responding to that report. Under Labour, there were more than 100 serious knife crimes a day, and we want to reduce that figure.

Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): May we have an urgent debate on the size of the national debt, and will the Leader of the House please ensure that it is wide enough to look at historical trends in its growth? Those trends will show that when the
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Leader of the Opposition was born, national debt stood at £612 per person in this country, whereas today it stands at a frightening £22,265 per person.

Sir George Young: Opposition Members say that they are concerned that the Government are selling out on the next generation. My hon. Friend reminds the House graphically of the debt that we are passing on to our children and grandchildren. One of the reasons we want to take early action on the deficit is to reduce the burden that we inflict on the next generation.

Mr Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): In order better to facilitate the future business of the House, would my right hon. Friend consider sorting out the wonky queuing system in the voting Lobbies? Those of us among the 245 Members who have to struggle through the G-to-M group have a far tougher time than those going through in his own group, in which there are only 192 Members. I suggest that the answer to the problem is to promote all hon. Members whose surnames begin with "Mc" to his queue, which would still be the smallest, as Divisions would be far less likely to be delayed.

Sir George Young: I want to speak up for the minority whose names begin with letters between S and Z. Having a name beginning with Y has been a serious disadvantage in every election I have fought, and a small compensation for that is going through the voting Lobby slightly faster than my hon. Friend. It is an advantage that I am reluctant to forgo.

Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): I, too, feel that with a passion.

Recently, the Public Accounts Committee highlighted that over the past nine years approximately £1 billion of waste was incurred by the Highways Agency on upgrading the M25. At a time of public sector constraint in budgets, and when we need greater infrastructure investment, may we have a debate on the auditing of that important agency?

Sir George Young: There will be opportunities to debate PAC reports. We welcome the report to which my hon. Friend refers, which was published on 8 February, on the mishandled M25 project. We are determined to get value for money for taxpayers and want to learn the lessons of the report and act on its recommendations.

Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan) (Con): Will the Leader of the House agree to a debate on financial regulation so that we can examine the failures of the system set up by the shadow Chancellor and move to a system in which banks can be competitive and yet pay their way?

Sir George Young: There will be legislation on financial regulation, as we hope to put right the regime that we inherited, which manifestly failed. When that Bill comes forward, in either substantive or draft form, my hon. Friend will have an opportunity to develop his arguments.

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Points of Order

12.19 pm

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (The Cotswolds) (Con): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. As Chairman of the Committee of Selection, I listened with great care to the remarks that my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) made during business questions regarding the non-selection of-or the wishes in respect of selecting-my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) to the relevant health Bill Committee. I shall report those remarks to the Committee of Selection when it next meets next Wednesday. I am sure the Committee will wish to investigate the incident fully and, possibly, take action following that investigation.

Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, whose point of order has been helpful to the House.

Thomas Docherty (Dunfermline and West Fife) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Last Thursday during business questions I inadvertently misled you and the House about a part of some correspondence that I had received from Her Majesty's Treasury. I have spoken about the matter to the Leader of the House, who has been very gracious, but I wanted the opportunity to set the record straight and to inform you, Mr Speaker, of my deep regret at having misinformed the House. I should be grateful for any advice on further action you feel it necessary for me to take.

Mr Speaker: I am extremely grateful for the gracious apology that the hon. Gentleman proffers, but I can think of no further action that is required on his part. I think the House will appreciate what he says.

Ian Murray (Edinburgh South) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. During the business questions that have just elapsed, I was deeply concerned to hear the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) make unsubstantiated claims about an incident that allegedly took place in the Chamber. Will you, Mr Speaker, give us some guidance on whether his comments were in order, and on whether you or the media run this Chamber?

Mr Speaker: What I would say to the hon. Gentleman is twofold: first, there was nothing disorderly in what the hon. Member for Leeds North West (Greg Mulholland) said, because if there had been I would have prevented him from saying it or observed that it was disorderly, and it was not; secondly, of course I am in charge in the Chamber. I am aware of the matters to which the hon. Member for Edinburgh South (Ian Murray) refers and have myself made some public comment on the issue in question. It has also been the subject of private discussions, but I should want to leave it at that. I think that that is the wish of a number of people who have contributed to the exchanges on the subject, and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I hope that is helpful.

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Backbench Business

[20th Allotted Day]

Voting by Prisoners

[Relevant document: The Fifth Report from the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Voting by convicted prisoners: summary of evidence, HC 776.]

Mr Speaker: I must inform the House that I have selected neither of the two amendments on the Order Paper.

12.21 pm

Mr David Davis (Haltemprice and Howden) (Con): I beg to move,

The motion stands in the names of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw), my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr Raab), my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Stephen Phillips), my hon. Friends the Members for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) and, of course, myself.

I thank the Backbench Business Committee for giving us the opportunity today to have this debate. There have been many important debates in this slot, but I lay claim to this one being unique, because it gives this House-not the Government-the right to assert its own right to make a decision on something of very great democratic importance, and to return that decision to itself.

The motion before the House about prisoner votes splits cleanly into two parts. First, is the requirement to give prisoners the vote sensible, just, right and proper? Secondly, who should decide? Should it be the European Court of Human Rights, or this House on behalf of the British people?

Let me start with the substantive question: should prisoners be given the vote? I yield to no one in my commitment to the defence of the ancient freedoms and rights of this country, and I hope the House accepts that, but there is an important point about not confusing the rights that are properly held by everybody who is a British citizen or who lives in our country with those much more circumscribed rights that are given to prisoners. Prisoners of course have rights-the right to be treated decently, not to be ill treated, to be fed, and to be kept warm, given shelter and clothing-but those rights do not extend to the same rights of a free British citizen.

When someone commits a crime that is sufficiently serious to put them in prison, they sacrifice many important rights: not only their liberty, of course, but their freedom of association, which is also guaranteed under the UN charter of human rights and the European convention on human rights, and their right to vote. The concept is simple and straightforward: "If you break the law, you cannot make the law."

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The European Court of Human Rights argues that that is a blanket rule-that is its rather pejorative term. But, actually, that is untrue, and the Court is ill informed in saying so, because three categories of prisoner are excluded from losing the right: remand prisoners, contempt of court prisoners and fine defaulters. None of those loses the vote, and for different reasons. The remand prisoner does not because they have not been convicted or sentenced, so it is inappropriate for them to lose it until they are sentenced. That is a logical exception. The other two do not lose it because their crimes are below the threshold of seriousness that we judge means that they lose the civic right to vote.

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex) (Con): I congratulate my right hon. Friend on obtaining the debate and on seizing upon the issue. I served on the Centre for Social Justice task force on prisons, chaired by our former friend Jonathan Aitken, and we discovered absolutely no demand from prisoners for that so-called right. Indeed, it was never an issue in the British prison system until the lawyers got hold of it through the European convention on human rights, and to that extent it is completely irrelevant to the real issues that face our prison system and the prisoners in it.

Mr Davis: I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. Indeed, if there were an argument that giving prisoners the vote would cut recidivism, cut re-offending rates and help the public in that way, I would consider the matter, but giving prisoners the vote would not stop one crime in this country, and that is after all the point of the justice system in the first place.

Let me return to the main text. Other prisoners do lose the vote, but we must understand that for someone to be sent to prison in this country in this day and age requires a very serious crime or series of crimes. There are convicted burglars and convicted violent criminals, who have never been to prison, walking the streets today, so there is a very serious threshold.

Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): Recently, in Northern Ireland, a young woman was given a custodial sentence for a first offence of stealing a pair of jeans worth £10. The case is being appealed, but it suggests that not every custodial sentence is given because of a very serious offence or string of serious offences.

Mr Davis: There is an old argument that hard cases make bad law, and it may well be-it sounds very likely-that that young lady's custodial sentence will not be upheld. The general point, however, is very clear: it takes a pretty serious crime to get someone sent to prison. As a result, that person has broken their contract with society to such a serious extent that they have lost all these rights: their liberty, their freedom of association and their right to vote.

The law is not unjust. Every citizen knows that the same level of crime that costs them their liberty costs them their vote. What the Court calls a blanket rule, I call uniform justice.

Dr Andrew Murrison (South West Wiltshire) (Con): Does my right hon. Friend think it reasonable for the European Court of Human Rights to insist on a right for individuals if those individuals have not bothered either to register to vote or, indeed, to vote when they have not been in custody?

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