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House of Commons
Thursday 26 January 2012
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—
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Ministers and officials meet regularly with a range of stakeholders from the solar photovoltaic industry. Details of meetings between Department of Energy and Climate Change Ministers and external organisations are published quarterly on the DECC website. The recent consultation on feed-in tariffs for solar PV closed on 23 December 2011. More than 2,300 responses were received and are being analysed prior to the publication of a full Government response to the consultation in the coming weeks.
Mrs Glindon: The Secretary of State spent more than £66,000 of public money on legal fees, but he is refusing to accept the Appeal Court decision that his plan to cut feed-in tariff subsidy is unlawful. As well as jeopardising the future of the industry by fighting the Court ruling, how much more public money does he intend to waste?
Chris Huhne: I entirely reject the idea that there is no future for the industry. The reality is that we would be able to support at least twice as many installations at the new tariff rate as we could under the old one.
The hon. Lady asks about the costs of the legal cases. I merely point out to her that we are spending a few thousand pounds in order to save consumers £1.5 billion, which is what the cost would have been had we left the case to run. The reality is that the previous Labour
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Government introduced a scheme that was fundamentally flawed. As with other issues, this Government are putting Labour’s mess right.
Cathy Jamieson: Is not the truth of the matter that this episode has led to a frenzy of additional applications? There has been a 1,100% increase in the number of people trying to get systems installed in their homes in a short period of time. Businesses in my constituency tell me that that has caused chaos in the supply chain. Those systems also had to be installed at a time of extremely poor weather in Scotland. What does the Minister say in response to those points?
Chris Huhne: The hon. Lady conveniently omits to mention that the design flaw in the scheme introduced by the Leader of the Opposition ensured that there was absolutely no way of automatically reducing the tariffs in line with what was going on in the real world, despite the fact that other countries—Germany, for example—had introduced such schemes. All we had to do was find out what was happening in Germany and model our scheme on theirs. Did the Labour Government bother to learn those lessons? No. The result is that we have to clean up the mess.
Fiona O’Donnell: It is becoming uncomfortable watching the Secretary of State trying to defend the indefensible. On 31 October, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), told the House that the Government wanted to spread solar power as widely as possible. If that is true, why do the Government’s plans exclude almost nine out of 10 households and anyone living in social housing from having solar power?
Chris Huhne: I entirely disagree with the hon. Lady’s analysis of what was proposed in the consultation paper. Apart from anything else, she completely ignores the possibility of improvement in the energy efficiency of homes. Ensuring energy efficiency is one thing that we are keen to do.
I simply remind Labour Members that the Leader of the Opposition introduced a scheme at a cost of £7.9 billion. That went directly to consumers, and there was no way whatever of controlling those costs. He so doubted the dynamism of the private sector that he predicted no commercial take-up of solar power in the first three years of the scheme, even while solar costs were tumbling, and he ignored the best practice of the German FITs scheme and failed to include a system of automatic degression. All this Government are doing is clearing up the mess that Labour left behind.
Mr Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): One unfortunate knock-on effect of the solar dispute is a delay in the review of FITs for small-scale hydro. Many planned schemes on Argyll and Bute cannot go ahead until that uncertainty is resolved, which is causing severe problems for businesses and community groups. Will my right hon. Friend please do all he can to end that uncertainty as soon as possible so that those vital small-scale hydro schemes can go ahead?
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has also raised this issue in correspondence. He is a doughty champion for the interests of those of his constituents who want to go ahead with micro-hydro
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and other schemes. I can reassure him that the Government will not let problems with the solar feed-in tariff get in the way. We want micro-hydro and other schemes to take off and will introduce proposals as soon as possible. I hope to be able to do so in February.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): The Minister may be aware that there are hundreds of Harlow residents in social housing who were promised solar power panels, but the new rate is too low for the scheme to be viable. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether he would consider a more generous community rate for the feed-in tariff, even if it was for only a few months?
Chris Huhne: The absolute key to what is happening with solar panels is the collapse in the cost. The idea that something might not be attractive commercially today does not mean that it will not be so in pretty short order. What has been happening over the past 18 months is an enormous increase in the production capacity of China. Essentially, what has happened is that the Henry Ford of solar panels—who happens to be Chinese these days—has introduced the Model T, and we are getting an enormous reduction in costs as a result of economies of scale.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): When the cuts to solar were announced, the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) claimed that they would create jobs. Paragraph 73 of the impact assessment, signed off by the Minister on 2 November 2011, says that
“there could be around 1,000 to 10,000 gross additional jobs in this sector in the three years to 2014/15”.
Can the Secretary of State confirm today that those 1,000 to 10,000 jobs are not additional jobs, but the total number that the industry will support, which, for a sector that currently employs nearly 30,000 people, means tens of thousands of job losses?
Chris Huhne: What is absolutely crucial for the sector is that there should be a sustainable pathway for growth in the future. What the right hon. Lady has completely failed to address is the fact that if we continued to over-subsidise at the previous rate, we would have fewer than half the installations that we can afford to subsidise today with the new rate. It was not an accident that the British Photovoltaic Association intervened on our side in the courts, precisely as a result of that calculation.
Caroline Flint: Seven times I have asked the Minister of State what these cuts will mean for jobs; seven times he has tried to hide the fact that his cuts will put thousands of people out of work. According to his figures, released on Friday,
“in the 2012/13 to 2014/15 period…the total number of gross full-time equivalent jobs will be 1,000 to 10,000.”
That is not additional jobs; that is the total number. Nothing can hide the sheer incompetence of the Government’s handling of this. Is it not about time that the Government stopped thinking about saving face, creating more uncertainty and wasting even more money on more legal challenges, and sat down to work out how we are going to put the industry on a sustainable footing?
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Chris Huhne: I realise that the right hon. Lady supported a different candidate for the leadership of her party from the winning candidate; nevertheless, given her repeated attempts effectively to undermine the former decisions of the Leader of the Opposition, as well as her failure to recognise their consequences, I would merely remind her, as she now likes to lecture us about the impact assessment, what the impact assessment showed in February 2010. It is important that she should go back—as she wants to look at this—because that impact assessment showed that the cost of the scheme introduced by the now Leader of the Opposition had a net present value of £8.6 billion, while the benefits had a net present value of £400 million. If she thinks that is the sort of policy making of which she is prepared to be proud, good luck to her.
Mr Speaker: Order. May I just say to the Secretary of State that that answer—about which he felt strongly—was too long? There must not be a repetition of that, and if there is, I will cut it off. That is the end of it.
Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): The Secretary of State is right to say that the design of the scheme he inherited from Labour was flawed. However, by continuing with that scheme for 18 months, coupled with apparently poor legal advice, the implementation of FITs that he has presided over has been somewhat chaotically managed for consumers and businesses alike. I am concerned that a letter from the Minister of State says that if there is no action, proposals may have to be brought forward to close the FITs scheme. What reassurance can the Secretary of State give that FITs will be put on a sustainable footing for the rest of this Parliament?
Chris Huhne: I entirely reject the idea that we did not act to deal with this issue as soon as we were advised. The problem with the design of the scheme was that it was unable to cope with the dramatic fall in the cost of solar panels. That dramatic fall, the reason for which I have already described, became apparent over the past year, and we acted as quickly as we could to deal with the situation. What is unforgivable is the fact that the present Leader of the Opposition failed to foresee, by looking at best practice internationally, how the scheme should have been designed in the first place.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): The coalition is taking action to help consumers to reduce their bills. The Department of Energy and Climate Change has launched the “check, switch, insulate to save” campaign, which was showcased in big energy week. That measure, together with the new warm home discount, the winter fuel and cold weather payments, the carbon emissions reduction target and community energy saving programmes, the Warm Front scheme and signposts on bills to the cheapest tariff information, will help hard-pressed consumers. However, the green deal will be the game-changer that the country really needs.
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Mr Bain: Does the Minister grasp the seriousness of the situation facing families across the country? The average fuel bill is now £1,345 a year—an increase of 48% in the last five years. When are the Government going to act to pare back the system of tariffs—the number of which has risen by 70 in the past year under this Government—which discriminates against those who use the least energy?
Gregory Barker: I am afraid that it was actually under the last Labour Government, when the present Leader of the Opposition was Secretary of State, that the number of tariffs went up to 400, an increase of 75%. We are now getting to grips with that, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to blame someone for the proliferation of tariffs, he should blame the total inaction of the then Secretary of State.
Joseph Johnson (Orpington) (Con): Does the Minister realise that he could help businesses, as well as households, to reduce their energy bills, by introducing mandatory motion-sensitive lighting systems? That would reduce the carbon intensity of our built environment and promote the ability of many people to enjoy starry, starry nights.
Gregory Barker: That is just the kind of technology that will be brought into the reach of millions of homes by the green deal, and it is just the kind of innovation that we want to spur. We would also look at how we might drive that by making amendments to consequential improvements. I am very interested in my hon. Friend’s ideas.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): It is understood that there has been a significant underspend, of up to £30 million, in the Warm Front scheme, because DECC has made the eligibility criteria too strict and has not promoted the scheme. That means that up to 20% of the scheme’s funding could go unclaimed. Is it correct that there will be an underspend at the end of the financial year, and if so, what is the reason for it?
Gregory Barker: The hon. Lady is right; we are slightly behind. The unseasonably warm weather that we have had this winter, compared with the cold weather last year, has meant that the number of applications has been lower. However, I am in touch with the leaders of our big metropolitan authorities, and I have spoken to the big six energy companies, Citizens Advice and others this week in order to drive forward the roll-out of Warm Front to ensure that we do not have the underspend that she has highlighted.
Miss Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) (Con): The green deal has just been described as the “game-changer”, but the concern being expressed by those living in Thirsk, Malton and Filey is that it will push up their household energy bills. Will the Minister follow up the suggestion put to the Prime Minister yesterday by looking favourably on schemes such as biomass, rather than unreliable wind farms, in the green energy mix?
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which is an energy efficiency roll-out that will reduce the amount of electricity and heating required in homes, but I will certainly be happy to look at her ideas.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): According to an answer that I received to a question just the other day, the underspend is actually £32 million, so it has gone up. We all know that soaring energy bills are contributing to the cost-of-living crisis afflicting millions of families. Millions of pensioners over the age of 75, who are the most susceptible to the cold weather and the least able to access the advantages of online energy deals, pay more for their electricity and gas than they need to. Surely it is only fair that energy companies should guarantee that elderly customers over the age of 75 should be placed on the cheapest tariff for their gas and electricity. Will the Government ensure that the energy companies have access to the data that they will need in order to achieve that?
Gregory Barker: As I said earlier, the number of tariffs proliferated by 75% in the last three years of the Labour Government, when they had the opportunity to do something about this. We actually want everyone to be on cheaper tariffs, but there is lots to do, because of the appalling inheritance from the last Government. We want everyone to get a good deal, not just the over-75s, and we are taking action to make that happen.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): The EU must submit a target for the second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol at the UN conference of parties at the end of the year in Qatar. There is a debate in the EU about whether to increase its 2020 emission reduction target from 20% to 30% from 1990 levels. The UK is a leading advocate of a 30% target.
Caroline Dinenage: The Secretary of State has publicly and consistently expressed his desire to see the EU 2020 emissions reduction target increase to 30%, but what concrete action will he take to realise that ambition?
Gregory Barker: We are very active on this agenda. The Secretary of State and I firmly believe that the EU should submit a 30% target in the Kyoto protocol. We are working closely with ministerial colleagues from key member states to build support for a 30% target, directly engaging the more sceptical. At the Environment Council in March, the Secretary of State will argue strongly for approval of the EU low-carbon road map, which sets out milestones for reducing emissions through to 2050.
Strait of Hormuz
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The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): We have made assessments of the impacts of short-term disruptions to shipping through the strait for both oil and gas. There is no reason to believe that such closure would create a physical shortage of oil or gas in the UK. Price impacts would depend on the exact nature of the disruption. The UK has access to a wide variety of oil and gas sources and routes, including production from the UK continental shelf, imports from Norway, storage, and oil and liquefied natural gas from global markets.
Christopher Pincher: Given that 20% of the world’s traded oil, and 35% of the seagoing trade, passes through the strait every day, presenting a significant terrorist risk, will my right hon. Friend encourage the diversification of supply, including overland pipelines, such as project Nabucco, the Abu Dhabi pipeline and the Iraq pipeline across Saudi Arabia, despite its being called IPSA?
Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend is right to highlight the overland capacity. Unfortunately, the IPSA pipeline, as he may know, is not currently functioning—I do not know whether that is anything to do with its namesake. Diversification is a crucial part of our strategy, and the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), and I have been working hard on getting closer relationships with some of our key suppliers, including the Norwegians.
Harriett Baldwin: My constituents already suffer from high fuel and heating oil prices, so will the Secretary of State reassure them that EU sanctions on Iranian oil will not cause further price pressures in that market?
Chris Huhne: I would love to assure the hon. Lady that we are able to have greater control over the politics of the middle east than has been the case so far, but the reality is that that part of the world is extremely sensitive geopolitically. As she may know, HMS Argyll is supporting the USS Abraham Lincoln in the carrier group, and we are sending out clear signals that we want the issue dealt with in the most rapid way.
Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): Coupled with the potential problem of oil import is the problem of a lack of oil refinery capacity in this country, made worse by the Petroplus decision to close refineries in the south-east. What assessment have the Government made of refinery capacity, and what are they doing to increase that capacity?
Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman misunderstands the situation in the refinery market. With regard to Petroplus, the problem with Coryton has been the over-capacity in the refining market, which has led to shaved margins. We are working to resolve that as quickly as possible.
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and on the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen) about refining activity, and although it is good news that the tankers have resumed distribution from the refinery this morning, will he update the House on whether oil is now being delivered to the refinery for refining activity?
Chris Huhne: There is indeed a cargo ready to be delivered this morning, and there have been contingency back-ups. I know that BP has been working closely with us on this matter and I very much hope that normal activity will resume.
Tom Greatrex: I thank the Secretary of State for that response, which will, I am sure, bring comfort to many people. As well as the 850 jobs, including those of contractors at the refinery, that are at risk, he will know that the background is that this situation is less to do with the refinery’s operation and more to do with the financial structure of the Switzerland-based former owners. Given the significant role played by UK-based refineries in providing energy resilience, is he concerned that the ownership of such a significant number of UK-based refineries is now overseas?
Chris Huhne: We have traditionally benefited enormously in this country, both under the previous Government and under this Government, from our open-door policy on foreign investment. Indeed, we own a substantial amount of investment in other countries. The swiftness with which the arrangements have been put in place suggests that there is no case for reviewing that policy at this stage.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): The introduction of smart meters will unlock huge benefits for the people of this country. There is a solid evidence base to support the roll-out, and it is important that we start to realise the benefits sooner rather than later. The coalition Government have published detailed plans showing how we will deliver smart meters; the last thing we need is more delay.
Gordon Henderson: I welcome that answer, but will my hon. Friend do something to ensure that the programme costs are reported and properly controlled in the interests of those who will pay the bills—that is, the consumer?
Charles Hendry: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. That is one of the most important mechanisms we have in any part of Government policy to bring benefits to consumers. The total cost of the programme is estimated to be about £11 billion and the benefits are estimated to be about £18 billion, so there will be £7 billion of benefits, and that we is why we want to see it happening as soon as we can.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): Suppliers of mobile phones include warnings with new devices about the potential danger of electromagnetic radiation. Does the Minister think that suppliers of smart meters should do the same?
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Charles Hendry: We believe that people will benefit from having smart meters, but we will not make them obligatory. If people are concerned about the electromagnetic issues, they will not be required to have one. We have been willing to give assurances to hon. Members on that account.
Andrew George (St Ives) (LD): There is little incentive for supply companies to inform their domestic customers better on their rate of energy use, so although I appreciate what the Minister has said so far, what can the Government do to ensure that that process of better awareness and better information is speeded up?
Charles Hendry: A very important part of this programme is education. Smart meters will work only if the consumer understands how to use them effectively to get the best value for money out of them. We are drawing a very clear distinction between education and sales practice because we do not want the installation of smart meters to be an opportunity for unscrupulous sales practices.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): The Government have established the energy efficiency deployment office to develop an overarching energy efficiency strategy. We will launch the green deal later this year, which will radically improve take-up of energy efficiency measures. We want every home to have a smart meter by 2019 so consumers have much greater control over their energy use.
Mr Watts: Is the Secretary of State proud of the fact that this is the first Government since 1970 who have not had a programme to help poor families with their fuel costs? Is it not the case now that many poor families will get less help, and that there is virtually no targeting of those resources that are available to the poorest families?
Chris Huhne: The hon. Gentleman has clearly been hibernating over the past few months if he believes that we are not helping poor families. First, the warm home discount scheme, which is a statutory scheme for reducing costs, will disburse two thirds more money than was disbursed under the voluntary scheme operated by the Labour Government. Secondly, the affordable warmth obligation in the energy company obligation subsidy will take over from Warm Front. Thirdly, we have asked Professor John Hills to conduct a thorough review of fuel poverty, which will lead to some interesting and important recommendations.
Does the Secretary of State accept that the ECO’s affordable warmth element, which comes to £325 million, is substantially less than the Warm Front commitment of £370 million and the CERT
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commitment of £600 million? Does he accept that that is a substantial reduction in affordable warmth for those on lower incomes? Even now, will he review the split in costs in relation to affordable warmth and those who can pay, or look for other methods of dealing with the issue?
Chris Huhne: It is important that the hon. Gentleman compares like with like. He should remember that what is available under the ECO subsidy helps holistically to improve the energy efficiency of the whole home and is not like the Warm Front, which was largely a boiler replacement scheme. That proposal is out for consultation and we are listening to responses.
Stephen Mosley (City of Chester) (Con): The green deal skills alliance has highlighted the importance of having the right skilled professionals in place to deliver the green deal to households. How will my right hon. Friend ensure that we have the right number of skilled energy efficiency assessors, installers and training providers to make sure that when the green deal comes in this year we can deliver it?
Chris Huhne: My hon. Friend is absolutely right that such skills will be essential for the green deal—indeed, for the whole low-carbon economy. That is precisely why we have been working closely with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which takes the lead on skills. We have a national skills academy for environmental technologies, which is developing standards, delivering training and upskilling tradesmen and technicians. We also have funding for the renewables training network that is run by Renewable UK, and a talent bank for the gas, power, waste management and water industries, which is led by the Energy and Utility Skills sector skills council.
Luciana Berger (Liverpool, Wavertree) (Lab/Co-op): I understand that the Government have not yet even designed the training programme for many of the people who will have to deliver the green deal. Ministers have been claiming for months that the green deal will mean the creation of thousands of jobs, but the Department’s figures show that the number of energy efficiency installations will plummet in the first year of the scheme, with cavity wall insulations set to fall by 67% and loft insulations by a staggering 90%. That will cripple the sector and, according to Europe Economics, could lead to the loss of 3,000 jobs. Will the Secretary of State protect those jobs by adopting Labour’s proposals to include hard-to-treat cavity walls and lofts in the ECO?
Chris Huhne: I think the hon. Lady misunderstands a couple of issues. First, the green deal is a very different scheme precisely because it is designed to support a complete retrofit. We are talking not just about cavity wall insulation or loft insulation but about many other measures as well. The second point is that she is quoting the first impact assessment. It has always been the case that the take-up of the green deal will depend on the triggers and incentives that have been introduced for take-up, which have increased substantially since the figures she quoted.
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The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): All property types, including those belonging to charities and social enterprises, will be eligible for the green deal which begins later this year. Charities and social enterprises will be eligible for up-front support to cover improvements, which will be paid back gradually through savings on energy bills. We are also running a £10 million fund to support communities, including charities and social enterprises, in understanding their current energy use and the opportunities to reduce demand, as well as in developing renewable energy schemes locally.
Mr Sheerman: Charities and not-for-profit groups up and down the country have enormous in-house expertise on this matter and are ready and willing to do more work with businesses and local authorities on the green deal. Good firms such as Morrisons do a great deal in partnership work. Could the Secretary of State do more to encourage more partnerships between local authorities, the private sector and charities such as Urban Mines, which I chair?
Chris Huhne: I am very happy to join the hon. Gentleman in encouraging the third sector in this regard. However, I point out that we recently announced 82 community winners in the first tranche of DECC’s £10 million local energy assessment fund, which share in £4.2 million to undertake feasibility studies for proposed community energy and energy efficiency schemes. The winning communities in the remaining, second tranche are due to be announced in early February.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): The debt assignment protocol helps prepayment meter customers with a debt of £200 or less to switch, providing the new supplier agrees to take on the debt. Ofgem monitors the protocol’s effectiveness by recording the number of customers blocked from switching as a result of having a debt.
John Robertson: I am sure the Minister will understand my question when I mention that because of debt 200,000 customers are trapped on tariffs that they cannot get out of. If the level was extended to £350, a lot of those people would be able to get their debt down. What is he doing to try to deal with that and will he persuade Ofgem to set the figure at £350?
The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and I shall ask Ofgem to look at the issue in detail. Many people are on prepayment meters because they were already in debt and it was a way of trying to manage their repayments to get them back on a firm
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footing. Clearly, we want people in all circumstances to be able to benefit from lower tariffs and it is important that they should be set at the right level in that part of the protocol.
Mr Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Whether or not they are trying to switch, many people on prepayment meters are clearly fuel-poor. What action is the Department taking to monitor self-disconnection among that group?
Charles Hendry: We understand that about 20% of those who are fuel-poor are on prepayment meters, and we will clearly look at any reasons why anybody is disconnected. If they are required to be disconnected by the supplier, the evidence has to be reported to us and those figures have fallen very sharply in recent years, but if people are self-disconnecting we need to understand the reasons behind that.
British Antarctic Survey
15. Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): What assessment he has made of British Antarctic Survey research on the effects of historic industrialisation on global carbon dioxide levels. 
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Ice core measurements by the British Antarctic Survey reveal that over the last 800,000 years, global carbon dioxide levels varied between 180 and 300 parts per million. Those peer-reviewed results provide crucial data on past natural levels for climate science research. Observations show that global atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are currently increasing at about two parts per million per year, and are now at 391 parts per million, as a result of emissions from industrial and other human sources.
Oliver Colvile: May I thank the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker) for going to Bristol recently to launch the marine energy strategy? How does my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State perceive it working in delivering fewer CO2 emissions and helping with the energy strategy?
Chris Huhne: Marine energy parks are an important part of developing a tremendously good natural resource for us in this country. We may not have quite as much sunshine as in southern Spain or Arizona, but we have an awful lot of wind, an awful lot of waves and an awful lot of tidal resource. Within the ministerial team, my hon. Friend the Minister of State has been leading the charge on marine energy parks precisely to make sure that we do not let those enormous opportunities slip through our fingers.
I can certainly point to one conclusion of the research that I think is absolutely crucial: measurements of current carbon dioxide levels show that they have increased by nearly 40% since pre-industrial times, and carbon isotope information shows that this has largely been caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
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Drilling down into ice cores is a fascinating way of finding out what was happening in prehistory, and it thoroughly underlines the importance in the science of our addressing those issues. One thing that as politicians we cannot do is negotiate with scientific conclusions as robustly supported as these.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Greater competition requires more companies taking part in the market, and increased transparency for consumers. Ofgem will shortly announce proposals to improve wholesale market liquidity and it is important that the regulator takes decisive steps. We have also taken action to cut red tape for small suppliers and Ofgem has published radical proposals to help suppliers to simplify their tariffs and billing information, helping consumers switch supplier and thereby boosting competition.
Nicky Morgan: I thank the Minister very much indeed for his reply. The people who should benefit from a competitive energy market are the companies’ customers—our constituents. Is he aware of the practice by some energy companies of repeatedly putting up direct debit payment demands? The customer then has to call the company to negotiate them down, but the next time a bill arrives the direct debit has gone up yet again. What does he think of that behaviour by our energy companies?
Charles Hendry: One of the most important aspects of a functioning energy market is transparency; people need to be clear about why their prices are changing and the factors that contribute towards that. The requirement for greater transparency and more information on bills is therefore a fundamental part of the reforms that we see coming through.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Does the Minister recognise that the insistence on the energy performance certificate at level 3 in order to qualify for the new solar PV fix will be anticompetitive in its practice? The industry has said that it may contribute to reducing employment in solar PV down to 8% of the current levels of employment, and yet it is not related to gas, which is used most for warming Britain’s homes.
Charles Hendry: I hope the hon. Gentleman would agree that it is important that if people are receiving a subsidy for electricity which is generated, they should have generally well insulated homes and they should not be wasting it—[Interruption.] But for many people it does help. That was a proposal that was put forward in the consultation process. We have had many responses to that. We are currently considering those with a view to making a final decision.
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The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have regular meetings with ministerial counterparts in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on a variety of topics, including renewable energy issues.
Mr Cunningham: What discussions has the Minister had with the Business Secretary regarding the 45,000 jobs that could be lost in the construction industry over the next three years and the impact that will have on green energy delivery?
Gregory Barker: I regularly discuss renewable energy with colleagues, but we remain very optimistic about the future for British renewables. We inherited a terrible position from Labour, third from bottom of the EU table, but I am glad to say that as of December 2011 there was 11 GW of installed renewable electricity, 15.5 GW in construction and 10.5 GW in planning; and in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency this month we have seen £12 million invested in Geothermal International, alongside £2.5 billion of announced investments since April 2011. That is a very encouraging picture.
John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): A major area of growth for the renewable energy industry will be marine energy, particularly, of course, the Pentland firth. I congratulate the Minister on the renewable energy park that he has put in the south-west and I thank him for the conversations we have had on turning the Pentland firth into a renewable energy park. Can he tell me what progress we are making?
Gregory Barker: I was delighted that this week we were able to launch the UK’s first marine energy park, and under the coalition marine energy in the UK is finally getting the drive forward that it has needed for years. The hon. Gentleman played a key role in developing marine energy potential in Scotland, and I should like to invite him to host a board meeting of the marine energy programme board in Caithness in the summer, where I hope we shall have some good news on the creation of the second marine energy park in the UK, in Scotland.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): The coalition has big ambitions for community energy. Last week, we announced 82 community winners in the first tranche of DECC’s £10 million competition to help mobilise community energy groups. I will be announcing funding for at least another 100 winning schemes early next month. This new fund is just one element of our strategy to drive local and community energy action.
We need consistency in Government policy. City of York council has spent time and money developing a solar energy scheme for council houses, and yet it has been blown out of the water by the Minister’s announcement of 31 October. In order to
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ensure continuity of policy, do the Government agree that those councils whose schemes to develop solar energy for council houses were being developed before the announcement should continue to get the feed-in tariff at the previous rate?
Mr Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman should observe the correct forms of address, and he should not refer—[Interruption.] Order. He should not refer to another Member by name in that way. He should briefly finish his answer and resume his seat.
Gregory Barker: The feed-in tariffs were devised by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband), and unfortunately did not anticipate a single scheme of the type to which the hon. Member for York Central (Hugh Bayley) refers. Under our reformed and restructured feed-in tariff schemes, in the future we very much hope that those schemes will be able to be supported, unlike the shambles of the scheme that we inherited from Labour.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Ministers and DECC officials have regular discussions with National Grid about the operation of the electricity network, and this has included the issue of transmission constraints, including our consultation on the transmission constraint licence condition. Reducing or increasing output of generators of all types is a normal part of National Grid’s role in balancing the network at all times. Wind is not treated any differently from any other technology in this respect.
Mark Pawsey: My constituents in Rugby, who face applications for wind farms, will be concerned about reports that turbines are switched off in times of high wind speeds because the current infrastructure is unable to handle the amount of electricity generated. When that happens, National Grid pays operators compensation—
Charles Hendry: About £250 million was paid last year in constraint payments, of which only 10%— £24 million—was paid to the wind sector. The Government are reviewing the transmission constraint licence condition and trying to ensure upgrades are made in many parts of the country, so that the power generated can get where it is needed.
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Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): Given the importance we attach to National Grid maintaining balance in the system, will the Minister tell us what discussions he has had with National Grid on how it contracts with short-term operating reserve aggregators? There is concern that National Grid is paying for so-called phantom megawatts and the cost is being passed on to consumers. Does the Minister agree that we need an independent auditor?
Charles Hendry: In all these matters, National Grid is regulated by the official regulator, Ofgem. The STOR arrangements play an important role in the process, ensuring that when there is a significant and sudden change in requirement, generation capacity to meet that demand is available. Of course that important function of our grid system must be operated in a transparent way.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Chris Huhne): Since my Department’s last Question Time, I have attended the UN climate change conference, where the UK delegation as a whole played a key role in securing the Durban platform, a road map to a global legal agreement. DECC has published the carbon plan, which sets out how we will meet our first four carbon budgets; we have consulted on incentives for solar energy as part of our review of the feed-in tariff scheme; and our clean energy plans took an important step forward with the opening of the UK’s first carbon capture and storage plant in November last year.
Bill Esterson: The right hon. Gentleman neglected to mention the defeat in the High Court. My constituents Mark Davenport and Brian Malone lost money setting up solar power companies. Will the Government compensate people who lost money as a direct result of the Secretary of State’s illegal actions?
Chris Huhne: Evidence of the very sharp take-up when we announced that we were getting to grips with the problems of the scheme shows that those involved in the industry had plenty of forewarning. As in any other sector, businesses take risks: sometimes the rewards are high and sometimes they are not.
T2.  Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): No new nuclear power stations have been built in this country for more than 20 years. How confident is the Secretary of State that Britain will possess all the relevant skills and supply chains necessary to create a thriving nuclear industry in this country?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of skills to the nuclear industry’s revival, especially as so many who work in that industry are nearing retirement. That is why the Minister of State responsible for energy, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), has been working so hard with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
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to make sure, through the nuclear skills academy and other measures, that the skills are there so that we can deliver on time—and we will.
T4.  Kate Green (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab): The St John’s Sunshine project in Old Trafford in my constituency planned to use feed-in tariffs to fund big society community projects, but Gavin Wood told me yesterday that those involved now feel that proceeding with the project would be a gamble. What assurances can the Government offer that Ministers will make good on their promises to community projects and offer them the certainty they urgently need?
Chris Huhne: As I have made clear in the House before, I wish we had been able under the law to provide separate support to the community schemes that have come forward, but we were not able to do that under the legislation passed by the previous Government. We will consult on that. I merely point out, as I did to the hon. Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon), that the continued fall in the cost of solar panels will make more and more schemes viable.
T3.  Laura Sandys (South Thanet) (Con): The green deal is very dependent on consumer uptake and consumer trust in the energy companies. What sort of expertise has the Department in understanding consumer behaviour and how will we be able to deliver this programme through consumer behaviour change?
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): My hon. Friend has considerable experience and understanding of consumer behaviour, and she will be pleased to know that we have a specific consumer behavioural insight team in DECC, but the greatest value comes from liaising with retail companies with real track records, such as Kingfisher, B&Q, John Lewis, Sainsbury’s and Tesco. Ultimately, it is the private sector that will guide our thinking and be responsible for the success of the green deal.
T6.  Albert Owen (Ynys Môn) (Lab): The Secretary of State seemed to misunderstand my question on oil refinery capacity earlier. Oil and petroleum trade bodies tell me that there is a shortage of oil refinery capacity in this country, and that crude oil is exported to India and brought back in. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that, and how is he responding to that serious question?
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): It is a very serious question and I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pursuing it further. Some of the crude produced in this country is not suitable for use here because of the diesel demand and therefore it is exported, and the diesel fuel tends to have to be imported, which results in an imbalance. Through the downstream oil infrastructure forum we are looking at the industry’s strategy to put in place a long-term programme to assess how we can support and build up that industry, and the role of international investors is critical to that process.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con):
Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby (Mark Pawsey), what estimate has the Secretary of State made of the number of wind turbines that
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stopped working at some point during the year, and how many of those stopped working due to too little wind and how many of them stopped working because of too much wind?
Chris Huhne: I will happily come back to my hon. Friend on wind turbines, but just because someone falls off a ladder does not mean that the House jumps to abolish ladders. In a similar sense, the operation of wind turbines, particularly those that are onshore, which are most economic, provides an increasingly important contribution to our energy needs, which is home-grown and not likely to be buffeted by events in the middle east.
T7.  Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab): Four thousand five hundred employees of Carillion, headquartered in my constituency, went into Christmas on notice of redundancy due to the arbitrary and clearly illegal changes to the solar feed-in tariffs. We all agree that tariffs need to be reviewed, but will the Minister not help to end the terrible uncertainty in which Carillion employees are living by accepting the High Court decision and taking the time to review the policy properly?
Chris Huhne: I have already referred to the substantial costs and the fact that the industry would face a substantial reduction in the number of potential installations were we to accept those costs. I merely point out as well that going forwards we have attempted to provide that certainty, precisely because we laid the order, making sure that the new rate will be available from the beginning of March.
T8.  Andrew Rosindell (Romford) (Con): Has the Minister made an assessment of the energy sources that may or may not be available in some of the British overseas territories, particularly the Falkland Islands?
Chris Huhne: The matter of oil exploration around the Falkland Islands is a lead responsibility of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Exploration is under way. Some of the initial exploration undertaken in territorial waters was disappointing, but that may change in future.
Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Having been a Minister myself in the Department of Energy and Climate Change, I cannot believe that officials did not warn the Secretary of State and Ministers of the folly of setting a cut-off date before the end of the consultation period. Will he not now apologise to those whose plans have been ruined and whose jobs have been lost, and acknowledge that a review was provided for in the Labour Government’s legislation?
Chris Huhne: The right hon. Lady sadly does not draw attention to the fact that there was no system of automatic degression under that scheme. However, she will be interested to hear that the general point that we should learn all the lessons required to be learned from this episode is not lost on the ministerial team, and I have ensured that we are doing precisely that. I do not think that it will come to conclusions that will be entirely to the right hon. Lady’s liking.
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Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that swift action to deal with metal theft is vital to protect our energy infrastructure, and will he therefore join me as a member of the all-party group on combating metal theft in welcoming today’s statement from the Home Office?
Chris Huhne: I certainly welcome today’s statement from the Home Office and think that the right hon. Lady the Home Secretary is putting forward some excellent ideas on how to deal with this problem. Metal theft affects all networks, including electricity networks, and because it affects networks it has a much broader cost than many other crimes.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab): The Government’s incompetence and arrogance over the feed-in tariff fiasco has been staggering. The industry and the public need certainty, so will the Secretary of State now try to answer the question my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) asked him earlier, abandon his costly and doomed legal case and sit down with the industry to agree a sustainable solution?
Chris Huhne: As I have already pointed out, a substantial part of the industry intervened in the court case on our side. This is the best way forward for the sustainable growth of the industry. We have also laid the order that will provide absolute certainty on the tariff rate we are providing from 3 March, so I think that the right hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically churlish.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): On Tuesday the Institution of Engineering and Technology is due to publish its long-awaited report on the undergrounding of electricity transmission lines. Given that 1,000 new pylons would have a significant effect on the natural environment and the landscape, what steps has the Secretary of State taken to ensure that the study considers the wider economic benefits of undergrounding to tourism, particularly in my part of Somerset, and the lifetime maintenance costs of undergrounding compared with using mile upon mile of pylons?
Charles Hendry: It is a very important study. As part of the process of understanding whether the grid should be under or above ground, we need to start with an assessment of the real costs of undergrounding and overgrounding. This authoritative study is the most dedicated of its kind ever carried out and makes an important contribution to the debate. It will not answer all the questions, but it is an important element.
Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): The Minister will be aware that the cost of smart meters will be borne by us in our electricity bills, but the benefits will not automatically accrue to the consumer. How will he ensure that the most vulnerable, poor and elderly consumers benefit from the installation of smart meters and are protected from disconnection?
The hon. Lady makes an extremely important point. One of the keys to the success of smart meter roll-out is the education programme that will go with it to ensure that householders know how to use them to their greatest benefit. We are talking to consumer groups to ensure that that is done in the most
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effective way and looking at how we can involve parish councils, local charities and other organisations trusted by consumers to ensure that they get the greatest benefit as quickly as possible.
George Eustice (Camborne and Redruth) (Con): The Minister mentioned the creation of the south-west marine energy park, which is a tremendous boost to projects such as Wave Hub in my constituency. Does he agree that projects being assessed for capital grants to develop wave power should be given preference if they are located within the marine energy park?
Gregory Barker: The reason we have created marine energy parks is to bring together resources in a co-ordinated and strategic fashion, which has not happened in the past. My hon. Friend’s point is extremely well made and very valid. I expect a significant part of the Department’s research budget—£20 million—to be set aside for wave and tidal technology and to flow to his part of the world.
Julie Hilling (Bolton West) (Lab): The energy companies tell us that very few customers are disconnected, but we know that many customers are so-called self-disconnected because they cannot afford to put credit on their pre-payment meters, especially if they are already paying off previous arrears through the meter. Will the Minister as a matter of urgency ask the energy companies how many people are self-disconnected?
Charles Hendry: As I said earlier, it is important that we understand why people are disconnected. If there is not enough clarity about why people are self-disconnecting, we will ask for more details on why that is happening.
Neil Parish (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Mid Devon district council, which is based in Tiverton, was planning just before the tariff rate was cut to have 1,800 social homes with solar panels. Will Ministers be prepared to meet officials from the council to discuss a way forward?
Gregory Barker: I would be delighted to meet my hon. Friend to discuss the matter. Obviously we want to build a consensus on the way forward. I will publish plans for the reform of the feed-in tariff so that we can put it on a much sounder footing and learn from the mistakes of the system we inherited.
Chris Huhne: We disagree, respectfully, with the Court of Appeal’s judgment, and that is precisely why we intend to go to the Supreme Court. Clearly, given that we disagree, the issue of liability at this stage does not arise.
Gordon Henderson (Sittingbourne and Sheppey) (Con): Half an hour ago the Thamesteel works in my constituency went into administration, with the potential loss of 400 jobs. Obviously I hope that the administrators will find somebody to take over the plant as soon as possible, but any successor will face similar problems with the high cost of energy as do so many other companies in the energy-intensive industry. What can my right hon. Friend do to help such companies?
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that the Department is no longer fit for purpose. Is he really telling the House that he is going to drag the Government’s reputation further into the mire and waste further large amounts of taxpayers’ money in order to pursue what is really a wasted cause?
Chris Huhne: Let me reiterate the point that, if we were merely to accept the number of installations after our reference date and before 3 March, we would add £1.5 billion to the total cost of the scheme. That is what Opposition Members are asking us to do. If we were to go further, the cost would be even greater. If the hon. Gentleman thinks that that is a price worth paying, he is entirely consistent with what else Opposition Members say on economic policy, but it is not something that will be entertained by Government Members.
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Business of the House
Tuesday 7 February—Opposition day (un-allotted day) (half-day). There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced, followed by business to be nominated by the Backbench Business Committee.
Earlier this week, all colleagues should have received an e-mail on behalf of the House service, inviting them to participate in the 2012 survey of services. As well as providing an opportunity for Members and their staff to provide feedback on the services we currently use, it will also help the House service and the House of Commons Commission to identity priorities for the next few years, when budgets will be tighter. I encourage colleagues to find a few minutes to take part.
Ms Eagle: I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response and for finally announcing three whole days of actual Government business—for, I think, the first time since October. The Leader of the House wanders about saying that Parliament is not a legislative factory, but if he were running a factory he would have had us all sent home on half pay ages ago.
I raised last week the extraordinary situation of the Business Secretary lining up a speech to a think-tank in order to announce his proposals on executive pay. The Leader of the House promised to remind the Business Secretary of his obligations under the ministerial code. I fear he would not make a very good factory foreman, because it took an urgent question to force the Business Secretary to come to the House first. Did the right hon. Gentleman forget to remind the Business Secretary, or are Government relations so poor that his Liberal Democrat colleague just ignored him?
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Another Minister who is reluctant to come to the House is the Chancellor. Despite two weeks of terrible economic news, he has made no appearance at the Dispatch Box. This week’s GDP figures showed that the economy is shrinking, not growing; 2.7 million people are out of work; and family budgets are under extraordinary pressure. This time last year, the Government’s excuse for the shrinking economy was the snow. We have now had the mildest winter for 350 years, and the economy is still contracting; it was too cold last year, and it is too warm this year—the country is tired of excuses from a Government who refuse to take responsibility for their own disastrous economic mismanagement.
Given that the Chancellor was not present for Treasury questions, will the Leader of the House be a bit more of an assertive factory foreman and insist that he come to the Chamber? If the Chancellor does ever condescend to reappear at the Dispatch Box, we could ask him about the bonus scheme for the chief executive of the Royal Bank of Scotland. I fear that the Leader of the House will be unsuccessful in coaxing the Chancellor out of hiding, so perhaps he will now explain why RBS, a state-owned bank bailed out by the taxpayer, wants to give its chief executive a £1 million bonus this year. The board of RBS is thinking of paying its chief executive in one day more than someone on average earnings would make in a lifetime. We have heard the synthetic outrage from those on the Government Benches, but the question is, what are they going to do about it?
Government incompetence plumbed new depths this week when the local government Minister ended up in the Aye Lobby supporting an amendment that he had rejected moments earlier at the Dispatch Box. Will the Leader of the House confirm that the Minister, on realising that he was locked in the wrong Lobby, bravely took refuge in the toilet while a Conservative Minister barked orders at him through the doorway? The Government’s legislative agenda has been bogged down for months—[Laughter.] It says something about the incompetence of the Government that it took the Serjeant at Arms to flush the Minister out—[Laughter.] The local government Minister has inadvertently revealed the Liberal Democrats’ new political strategy—if in trouble, run for the toilet.
Last night, the Government suffered a crushing defeat in the House of Lords. Their proposal to charge lone parents for using the Child Support Agency is simply “unjust”; I am quoting a Conservative peer. I agree with a former Conservative Lord Chancellor, a former Conservative party chairman and a former Liberal Democrat Chief Whip—why on earth will not the Government? The party of Lloyd George is reduced to this: voting to take away support from young people with cancer, the disabled and lone parents. I quite understand why Liberal Democrat Ministers have taken to hiding in the toilet.
It is more than a year since the Health and Social Care Bill was first introduced. It started at 353 pages; by Second Reading, it had grown to 405 pages; and now, almost 2,000 Government amendments later, it weighs in at a colossal 445 pages. In the Leader of the House’s legislative factory, MPs are sat around twiddling their thumbs, but the Clerks are run off their feet redrafting the Government’s disastrous Bills.
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The growing length of the Health and Social Care Bill has not won over critics—the royal colleges, doctors, nurses, patient groups and the voluntary sector all now oppose the Bill. Even the Select Committee on Health, chaired by a former Conservative Health Secretary, has questioned what the Government are doing. The Health Secretary is about the only person in the country who still believes in the Bill. Is it not time that the Government listened and dropped this disastrous measure?
Sir George Young: On the programme before the House, we believe in a balanced diet, including proposed legislation. For the hon. Lady to describe as “twiddling our thumbs” Opposition days, Back-Bench business days and serious debates, such as the one I have announced on Somalia, does a genuine discourtesy to the House.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was at ECOFIN on Tuesday, which is why he was not at Treasury questions. I am sure that if the hon. Lady reflects on her days at the Treasury, she will understand that from time to time the Chancellor has to represent this country overseas and therefore cannot appear in the House.
I am surprised that the hon. Lady raised the subject of bonuses, as the contract that entitles Mr Hester to a bonus was put in place by the Labour Government. We have done something that they failed to do: we have limited cash bonuses to £2,000 at RBS and Lloyds, and we will do the same this year. We have also said that the bonus pool at RBS and Lloyds will be lower and more transparent this year than last year—something else that the Labour Government failed to do. So far as this year is concerned, no decision on bonuses has been taken.
I have looked at Hansard , and the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), voted the right way. I understand that after so doing, as an act of generosity, he went to refill one of the carafes on the Table so that his fellow Minister would be refreshed during the remaining stages of the debate, when he was entrapped in the opposite Division Lobby. I understand that there were fraternal greetings. We are all grateful that my hon. Friend emerged from the Lobby unharmed.
On the Child Support Agency, I understand that the provision to make charges was introduced by the Labour Government. We all know from our constituency work that the CSA is in need of reform. All too often, it lets down those it seeks to help. Part of the purpose of that reform is to encourage more settlements outside the CSA. The proposal to which the hon. Lady referred is part of that process.
On the Health and Social Care Bill, many of the amendments to which the hon. Lady referred were called for by the Opposition, so I hope she will welcome them. In due course, this House will deal with Commons consideration of Lords amendments.
Order. A large number of right hon. and hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. Ordinarily, I seek to accommodate everybody, but I give notice that that will almost certainly not be possible today, because
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I have to protect the Back-Bench business. There is an important topical debate on the European Council and an important debate on defence, both of which are heavily subscribed. To get in the maximum number of colleagues on business questions, I am looking for short questions and the usual short answers from the Leader of the House.
Sir Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend say how many communications he has received from my constituents on the Daylight Saving Bill? Would he care to reply to them through me by saying whether there is any prospect of his providing more time for this subject, if not next week, at some point in the future?
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. A good number of e-mails have found their way into my inbox. Of course I understand the strong feelings that have been expressed by our constituents about what happened last Friday. I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris), who did heroic work in bringing the Bill forward and enabling the House to consider it last Friday in a form of which the Government approved. The Government supported the Bill as it passed through. I have considered my right hon. Friend’s suggestion of providing more Government time. I do not think that that would do the trick, because it would not be this Bill that would get more time, were more time to be provided. There is also the question of whether the Bill would have time to get through another place. My view is that at the beginning of the next Session, somebody should pick up the baton from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point and try another private Member’s Bill. I remind the House that in previous Parliaments this has always been a subject for private Members’ Bills. I think that that is the right way to make progress.
Natascha Engel (North East Derbyshire) (Lab): Last week the Procedure Committee published its excellent report on e-petitions. Together with the Backbench Business Committee and the Hansard Society, we will hold a seminar on the future of e-petitions on 6 March. Will the Government therefore indicate when they will produce a response to the report so that we can have a debate in the Chamber in which the whole House can express an opinion on the future of e-petitions?
On the subject of time, the Backbench Business Committee is overwhelmed with demands for debates on issues such as metal theft, daylight saving and UK Trade & Investment—very important subjects that we do not have the time to allocate for debate. Perhaps the Government can help the Backbench Business Committee and the House to bring forward some of those topics for debate by allocating more time to the Committee while we are waiting for business to come from the other House.
Sir George Young:
I am grateful to the hon. Lady. The important subjects she mentions, which hon. Members want to debate, are referred to as “thumb twiddling” by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Ms Eagle). I welcome the report from the Procedure Committee. I am broadly sympathetic to its proposals, which build on the success of e-petitions. I note what she said about the time of her
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seminar, which I greatly welcome. The Government will seek to respond to the e-petition debate shortly after that seminar.
Standing Orders provide that a minimum of 35 days should be provided in each Session, and so far we have provided 49. However, I recognise the demand to which she refers, and we will seek to respond to her bid for more time between now and the end of the Session.
Mr Greg Knight (East Yorkshire) (Con): May we have a debate on bad budgeting and the wasting of public money? Has my right hon. Friend seen reports today that the cost of the London Olympics is likely to balloon from £2.3 billion to more than £12 billion—a huge sum that will bring no benefit at all to many parts of the country, including East Yorkshire? When that flaming torch goes round the country, will not the fuel that it is burning be pounds sterling?
Sir George Young: I am surprised by how my right hon. Friend greets the London Olympics. I think he will find that benefits are spread broadly throughout the country, not least from much of the work that is now taking place. My understanding is that the Olympics will be held within budget and that the work is on time. No events are being held in North West Hampshire, but my constituents broadly welcome the London Olympics as something that they are proud this country is holding, and they are glad that the flame is going through North West Hampshire. I wonder whether my right hon. Friend accurately reflects all the views of his constituents.
Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): May we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Health on why he dismissed the Health Committee’s report as “Westminster nonsense” and “out of date”? He is now telephoning all the royal colleges to tell them to withdraw their opposition to the Bill. Will the Leader of the House use his good offices to get the Secretary of State out of his bunker and into the Chamber?
Sir George Young: The Government will respond in due course to the Health Committee report that was published on Monday, and the House will debate the remaining stages of the Health and Social Care Bill when it completes its passage in another place. I think that my right hon. Friend was perfectly entitled to defend the Government’s view on the radio and elsewhere on Monday, and of course he will continue to be held accountable in the House at Question Time and in Opposition day debates, which were also described as “thumb twiddling” by the hon. Member for Wallasey.
Sir Bob Russell (Colchester) (LD): May we have a debate on the charitable not-for-profit sector to deal with what has been described to me as the “Tescofication” of the sector, which is contrary to the big society and localism? For example, Ormiston children and families trust, which operates across the east of England, is about to lose seven of its Sure Start centres in my constituency because Barnardo’s has come in and hoovered it up.
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Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who is anxious to build on the Sure Start initiatives and extend the help that they offer to many people.
Heidi Alexander (Lewisham East) (Lab): Last Friday, a handful of hon. Members waffled on for the best part of five years—[ Laughter ] It felt like it! I mean five hours—to kill the Daylight Saving Bill. In how many other workplaces does the Leader of the House think it would be acceptable for individuals purposely to waste time, and what is he going to do to change the practice here?
Sir George Young: I understand the sense of frustration that the hon. Lady expresses, which is shared by many of my constituents. She will know that the Procedure Committee is conducting an inquiry into the calendar, included within which is a section on private Members’ Bills. As I said before, I have examined the matter, and in my view there is no practical way for that Bill to complete its passage through both Houses in the remainder of the Session, even if the Government were to provide time. The best way for it to be taken forward, as I suggested earlier, is for someone to build on the heroic work of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point.
Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con): One of the first decisions that Mayor Boris Johnson took was to ban the consumption of alcohol on public transport. That has meant that thousands of passengers have been able to enjoy their journeys to and from home. Now, the old pretender threatens to remove the ban if he is re-elected. May we have a debate on the consumption of alcohol on public transport?
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for bringing to the attention of the House and the wider public some of the issues that will confront Londoners later this year, when they will have to make a choice between the current Mayor of London and the old pretender, as he put it. One of the many reasons for continuing to vote for Boris is exactly the initiative that he mentions.
Graeme Morrice (Livingston) (Lab): Has the Leader of the House been given notice that the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury intends to make a statement, either written or oral, about the closure of 15 offices of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which was announced yesterday?
Sir George Young: I am not aware of any announcement, and I believe that there is no written ministerial statement today from my hon. Friend the Exchequer Secretary. I will make some inquiries about the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises.
Jeremy Lefroy (Stafford) (Con): May we have a debate on postal prices? Many of my constituents are alarmed by the proposed rises in second and first-class stamps. One of them, Mr Burton, put it very well when he expressed his concern that he would lose the pleasure of the written word.
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and Skills, who have responsibility for it. He will know that there are efforts to extend competition in postal services, in order potentially to bring down some of the costs of posting mail.
Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): I do not think the Leader of the House knows his own power. It would be perfectly possible for the Government to take on the Daylight Saving Bill and ask the House of Lords to agree to carry-over to allow it to go into the next Session, then we would be able to have it on the statute book in the next few months. Rather than succumbing to the witterings of a few Members last Friday, why does he not back the wholehearted support for the Bill of nearly everybody else in the House and ensure that it comes to pass?
Sir George Young: I notice that the hon. Gentleman, when he was Deputy Leader of the House, took no steps whatever to change the procedure for private Members’ Bills. It has not changed at all; nor is he right in what he says about carry-over in the other place.
Mr Robert Buckland (South Swindon) (Con): Can time be found for a debate on planning applications for mobile telephone masts? The transparency of those applications is causing real concern to many residents in my constituency, and we would welcome a debate at the earliest opportunity.
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend’s point, and many of us are aware of concern in our constituencies about communication masts, although my impression is that there is much more sharing than there used to be. There was consultation last year on a national planning policy framework, which included a section on communication masts. That consultation has ended, and the Government will announce their conclusions shortly. I cannot promise a debate, but there may be an opportunity for further discussion when that process is complete.
Mr Dave Watts (St Helens North) (Lab): In answer to a question about cuts affecting disabled children asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs McGuire), the Prime Minister said that she was “wrong”. We now know that she was in fact correct. Will the Prime Minister come to the House to make an apology and correct his inaccurate statement?
Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend was quite right in what he said yesterday. I have made some inquiries, and under the introduction of universal credit there will be transitional protection to ensure that there is no cash loss for those whose circumstances otherwise remain the same when they migrate from their existing benefit. The Prime Minister was absolutely right in what he said.
Damian Hinds (East Hampshire) (Con): With jobs and growth right near the top of the agenda, Tuesday’s Westminster Hall debate on self-employment was massively oversubscribed by Government Members. Sadly, the entire parliamentary Labour party was unavoidably detained elsewhere. May we have another debate in Government time to allow the Labour party to join the debate on jobs and growth?
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Sir George Young: I am sorry that there was an apparent lack of interest in self-employment among Opposition Members. I am sure that their constituents are as interested as ours in the opportunities available for self-employment, particularly under the new enterprise allowance scheme, which I hope will give many people an opportunity to commence their own business and in due course begin to employ other people.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): What are the Government going to do about the Scotland Bill? It is back in the Lords today, like a sad, eccentric old aunt that nobody wants to visit. After the momentous events in Scotland of the past couple of weeks, as we move towards independence, are not the Government starting to think about pulling the plug on the sad old dear?
Sir George Young: Absolutely not. The Scotland Bill will implement commitments that I believe all three parties made. The reason progress is not being made at the moment is that one of the options in the consultation document, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, was to amend the Bill. We need the consultation process to end before we decide whether it needs to be amended as was suggested in that document.
Karen Bradley (Staffordshire Moorlands) (Con): Tomorrow morning I will have my monthly slot on Moorlands Radio, which is on 103.7, in case you, Mr Speaker, should ever be in Staffordshire Moorlands. It is a great community local radio station, and like many up and down the country it provides access to information for local organisations, charities, events and good causes. However, it faces many challenges, so will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on community local radio stations and what we can do to support them?
Sir George Young: I am sure that we would all like to take part in that debate, particularly if it were recorded by our own community radio stations. The Government are a keen supporter of community radio and allocate some £450,000 to the community radio fund. I commend my hon. Friend’s work to get more resources for Moorlands Radio. All such radio stations are a means for MPs to communicate with our constituents, listen to their concerns and reflect them in the House.
Mr Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield) (Lab/Co-op): Will the Leader of the House shed some daylight, if not sunlight, on what the universities Minister is getting up to? We had a White Paper on higher education, but now it has seeped out of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills that there will be no higher education Bill. What is going on? There is a rumour that there is some bold initiative on higher education that is so secret that someone would have to be shot if they heard it.
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green status? In 2004, “Keep Yeadon Banks Green” applied for village green status for Yeadon Banks. Several attempts by Leeds Group plc to block it have been overturned, including in the High Court, but now, in 2012, we are having to take the matter to the Supreme Court, which is outrageous. May we have a debate on simplifying the process so that areas get the protection they need?
Sir George Young: I understand that part of the matter is covered in the Localism Act 2011, but many hon. Members have the same problem as my hon. Friend. I will draw it to the attention of Ministers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, but I am sure that many people would welcome any efforts that he might make to have it debated either in this Chamber or in Westminster Hall.
Mrs Madeleine Moon (Bridgend) (Lab): N-ergy is a social enterprise working across more than 40 prisons in England and the five Welsh prisons, offering vocational and employability programmes to offenders and ex-offenders. However, like many successful SMEs working in specialist areas, it is unable to bid for public procurement contracts because its turnover is not seen as being high enough. May we have a debate on developing a separate public procurement process for SMEs, so that some of their innovative and new ideas can be brought into Government contracting?
Sir George Young: I commend the work that many voluntary organisations do to help those who are in prison get the skills that they need to cope when they leave. There will be an opportunity to raise that specific issue with my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, who has responsibility for procurement, on 8 February, but in the meantime I will raise with him the option that she mentions of having a separate category so that organisations such as the one to which the hon. Lady refers might be able to bid for public contracts.
Mark Lancaster (Milton Keynes North) (Con): May we have a debate on apprenticeships? I am sure that the Leader of the House will join me in congratulating the sponsors of the new Milton Keynes apprenticeship academy, which opens today and specialises in IT and accountancy. With such a rise in apprenticeships, does he agree that it is vital that they should be led by demand from businesses?
Sir George Young: I welcome what is happening in my hon. Friend’s constituency, and the issue of apprenticeships was touched on in the Opposition day debate that we had on Monday. He will applaud the work that the Government are doing to increase the number of apprenticeships very substantially, and I agree entirely that that should happen in response to the needs of businesses. Apprentices should get the skills that they need to apply for the jobs in our constituencies.
Mr Ben Bradshaw (Exeter) (Lab):
I hope the Leader of the House sensed the House’s disappointment in his reply to the right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir Alan Haselhurst) on the Daylight Saving Bill. Given
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the overwhelming support for the Bill, the outrageous wrecking tactics last Friday and the fact that this House is not exactly inundated with Government business, why does the Leader of the House not introduce a Government Bill in the next two weeks?
Sir George Young: I believe that, like the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), the right hon. Gentleman also had responsibilities as Deputy Leader of the House in a previous Parliament, and he took no steps whatever on reform.
Sir George Young: In response to that heckling, I have already answered the question. I have looked at the matter. There is no way that a Bill could complete its passage through both Houses in the time available. My advice remains that a successful Member in the ballot in the next Session should pick up the baton currently held by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Rebecca Harris).
Mr Speaker: Order. I remind the House that there is heavy pressure—extensive pressure—on time, and I would appeal to colleagues who might have dreamed up lengthy questions to shorten them to single sentence questions. If they do so, they will be helping other colleagues to get in.
John Glen (Salisbury) (Con): Will the Leader of the House urgently make time for a debate on judicial reform in the Republic of the Maldives? Although the judiciary is constitutionally independent, sitting judges are underqualified, often corrupt and hostile to the democratically elected regime.
Sir George Young: The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), is seized of this problem and is in touch with the Maldives President to see whether we can resolve the impasse. The high commission in Colombo is also engaged. We want to help the Maldives to make progress towards democratic reform in the direction that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) outlines.
Paul Blomfield (Sheffield Central) (Lab): May I press the case for a statement from the Business Secretary on higher education policy, to end the uncertainty that has been created by the Government’s chaotic way of developing their policy, which is causing enormous damage to our universities?
Sir George Young: I reject the hon. Gentleman’s accusation of confusion. There will be an opportunity to cross-question my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills the next time his Department answers questions. Our proposals for education reform that have gone through the House have been broadly welcomed.
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with £150 million so that tolls could be cut, for which all had argued. Sadly, a Labour council in the region has rejected that offer, meaning that our tolls could stay at £3 for vehicles. May we have statement from the Transport Secretary on that subject?
Sir George Young: I understand my hon. Friend’s concern. I will, of course, raise the issue with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to see whether she can take any action to resolve this dilemma.
Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): The House will be aware that the climate change risk assessment was published this week, because it was briefed heavily two days ago to the newspapers. Hon. Members will have seen it in their papers this morning, but as yet no executive summary is available in the Vote Office. Will the Leader of the House have a word with the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and ask her to pull her finger out?
Sir George Young: I may make a request, but it will not be so indelicately put as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I will convey his concerns to my right hon. Friend and see whether she can respond constructively.
Mark Menzies (Fylde) (Con): Dementia is one of the cruellest diseases of our age. Will my right hon. Friend make time available to discuss not only dementia but the support we provide to those who care for sufferers?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend raises an important subject. Some 600,000 people care for those who suffer from dementia. The Government have sought to help by putting £400 million into the NHS to provide the resources for breaks for those people. We outlined our strategy in a document published last year. I would welcome a debate; my hon. Friend might like to approach the Backbench Business Committee.
Mr Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): May we have a debate on the extraordinary refusal of Mr Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, to reveal details to some 17,000 victims of newspapers that were blagging and finding out personal details using Mr Steve Whittamore? It is extraordinary that the Information Commissioner—of all people—is denying the British people their right to know. The details are with the police and the newspapers, but not with the victims themselves. This is not Stasi time for the Information Commissioner.
Sir George Young: The right hon. Gentleman will know that there is a process of appeal against the Information Commissioner’s decisions, which is open to those who object to them in the way that he has outlined. I am not sure that it would be appropriate for the Government to get involved.
James Morris (Halesowen and Rowley Regis) (Con): The people of Halesowen and Rowley Regis are rightly anxious to see action against the something-for-nothing society at all levels. May we have a debate in Government time to explore why the previous Government did not get undertakings on executive pay from banks that took taxpayers’ money, and a debate on what this Government are doing to curb bankers’ bonuses?
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Sir George Young: I would welcome such a debate. My hon. Friend will know that we have introduced a bank levy that raises £2.6 billion a year, and reduced bonus payouts, which are now some 40% lower than under the previous Government, who, as he says, took no action whatever in that important area.
Dame Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): Following the farce of last Friday, will the Leader of the House agree that it is important for the Speaker to be given powers to limit the length of speeches by Back Benchers in debates on private Members’ Bills?
Gavin Barwell (Croydon Central) (Con): May we have a debate on what the Chancellor has done to tackle tax avoidance and on what else could be done, so that hard-pressed taxpayers in Croydon and elsewhere can be confident that they are not paying a penny more for people who are allowed to get away without paying their fair share?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend raises an important issue. We are introducing measures that will raise around £4 billion over the current Parliament by clamping down on tax avoidance. Some 2,250 HM Revenue and Customs staff are moving into a new anti-evasion and avoidance unity. We took action in the previous Budget to close loopholes.
Kevin Brennan (Cardiff West) (Lab): Why have the Government failed to provide support or time for the Metal Theft (Prevention) Bill, which was due to be discussed last Friday? It is supported by hon. Members on both sides of the House in every party, and there is a crisis out there in the country. It could have got through in time. What is the reason for the Government’s lack of support? Is it petty party politics?
Sir George Young: I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has had time to look at the written ministerial statement by the Home Office today, but it outlines the action the Government are taking on scrap metal dealers. I know he was on television earlier this morning, which may have detained him from looking at that.
Martin Vickers (Cleethorpes) (Con): My constituents are dismayed to find that, following the resignation of one of their MEPs, they will have no say in who her successor will be. Their cynicism in the political process increased when they found that her successor will be her husband. Will the Leader of the House find time for a debate on the process of replacing our MEPs?
Sir George Young: The process that my hon. Friend outlines—whatever feelings it may engender—is set out in statute and enshrined in legislation. I would be misleading him if I said I had any plans to amend it.
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raises critical questions about whether the UK is a safe place to invest at all. The CBI has said that it
“creates a mood of uncertainty that puts off investors”.
Sir George Young: I cannot promise an early debate, and the hon. Lady will know—I suspect that she was in her place—that that was dealt with at some length an hour ago in Department of Energy and Climate Change questions.
Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): The average weekly earnings for jobs in my constituency are £450—£23,400 per year less than the regional and national average. My area has therefore benefited disproportionately from the increases in personal tax allowances. Please may we have a debate on the work the Government are undertaking further to reconnect work and reward?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend makes a good point. He will have an opportunity next Wednesday when we debate amendments to the Welfare Reform Bill to develop his arguments at greater length. The steps we are taking are designed precisely to do what my hon. Friend has suggested—to make work pay and remove some of the perverse disincentives from the system that we inherited.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): May we have a debate in Government time on the sustainability of the London Olympic games following the resignation this morning of Ms Meredith Alexander as the sustainability commissioner? She said that she resigned in protest against the commission being used to justify the sponsorship deal between the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games and Dow Chemical. She has made particular allegations about irregularities, saying that 12 out of 13 commissioners knew nothing about a report that was claimed to be produced by the commission.
Sir George Young: My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport was asked about this earlier by the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, and gave the Government’s response. As the hon. Gentleman knows, Dow did not own Union Carbide at the time of the tragedy and I do not think there are good reasons, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said, for taking the action that was taken.
Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): Would my right hon. Friend agree to a debate about the provision of Government services to the deaf and hard of hearing? On Monday I had the first surgery with a deaf British sign language user in my constituency using Deaf Action’s SignVideo system over the internet. We must be assured that all services, whether in education, health or justice, are equally accessible.
Sir George Young:
I am sure that every Member of the House would agree with the proposition, which my hon. Friend has just put forward, that services should be more accessible to those who are deaf or hard of
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hearing. I will raise the issue with my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, who has responsibility for disabilities, and then let my hon. Friend know what steps we have already taken in this area and what further steps are planned.
Bill Esterson (Sefton Central) (Lab): The Leader of the House will be familiar with the saying “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”. The public want a Bill on daylight saving, as do Members across this House. Will he think again? Will he find the will and find a way?
Sir George Young: I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern. Indeed, I myself sponsored such a private Member’s Bill with my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo)—I think it was in the Parliament before last—and I had exactly the same problem that the hon. Gentleman has just referred to: his party’s Government did nothing whatever. I have outlined a way forward. The Government have agreed a Bill in the terms produced by my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point, and I think that is the best way forward.
Robert Halfon (Harlow) (Con): May we have a debate on lower taxes for lower earners, given that poor motorists will be hit twice as hard as richer motorists if petrol and diesel duties rise? Can my right hon. Friend urge the Chancellor to cut petrol and diesel tax in the next Budget?
Sir George Young: I will relay to my right hon. Friend the Chancellor the bid that my hon. Friend has just made. I commend what he did with the e-petition on the issue last year, which resulted in the postponement of an increase that was due earlier this month.
Jonathan Ashworth (Leicester South) (Lab): I thank the Leader of the House for scheduling a debate on the Somalia conference—a debate that I called for last week. May I ask him for an urgent statement on the businesses affected by the riots and disturbances last August? Leicester businesses have learnt that they are not eligible for any money from the policy authority, and we learnt from the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice yesterday that they are not eligible for any of the other compensation schemes either. Leicester businesses are hugely disappointed about that, if not furious, as am I.
Sir George Young: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, not least for the plug for business questions on his blog earlier this week. I am also grateful for what he said about the Somalia conference. Compensation is available for those who suffered loss in the riots, either from the police authority or from local government. I will chase up the issues that he has referred to and see whether we can make progress to help his retailers.
Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): Can we have a debate on employment tribunals? A large number of businesses in my constituency are concerned about the number of vexatious complaints that are taken to employment tribunals, which they find very expensive to defend against, particularly in these times. I know that the Government want to help with this, and a debate in the House might help them in that regard.
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Sir George Young: My hon. Friend will know that we have proposed some changes to the employment tribunal regime, one of which would oblige those who are taking cases to an employment tribunal to make a contribution towards the costs. I hope that those and other initiatives that we announced last year will go some way to meeting my hon. Friend’s aspirations.
Mr Robin Walker (Worcester) (Con): Can the Leader of the House advise how the scores of hon. Members who spoke out in the Back-Bench debates on BBC local radio can put on record their support for the recommendations made by Lord Patten yesterday that many of the planned cuts be reversed and that afternoon programming be protected?
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend; that sounds an appropriate subject for a Backbench Business Committee debate. I welcome what Lord Patten said yesterday when he indicated that some of the proposed closures of local radio stations were being rethought. I am sure that we would all support that initiative and want to encourage whatever support is necessary to maintain local radio in our constituencies.
Christopher Pincher (Tamworth) (Con): Can we have a debate on the right to buy, giving us an opportunity to discuss how we can help all those strivers out there and the Opposition the opportunity to turn up, which they did not do in the self-employment debate?
Sir George Young: I would welcome another debate on self-employment. We hope that the new enterprise allowance will help up to 40,000 unemployed people start up businesses by 2013. We all have a role to play in bringing home to our constituents the opportunities available for self-employment, which have been promoted by some of our initiatives.
Priti Patel (Witham) (Con): My constituent Mr Philip Wright has been persecuted by HMRC for more than 12 years over a test case involving construction workers and their contracted terms of employment. In light of the huge cost of this case for the taxpayer, can we have a debate on HMRC, and in particular, when it will stop harassing my constituent and bring the case to an end?
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Sir George Young: Sitting next to me on the Front Bench is the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, who has noted the protest that my hon. Friend has made and has now undertaken to raise it with his colleague—
Graham Evans (Weaver Vale) (Con): Given the recent unemployment figures, can we have a further debate on High Speed 2 and how it will directly create tens of thousands of jobs in the midlands and the north, solve the capacity challenge of the west coast main line and help equip our economy to compete in the 21st century?
Sir George Young: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for HS2. I think I am right in saying that we have recently had at least one debate on HS2. Whether there is appetite for another one in the immediate future I am not sure, but I am grateful to him for his support for the project.
Tessa Munt (Wells) (LD): The main difference between the rich and the poor is, of course, that the rich have money to save and the poor have to spend nearly every penny they have. Will the Leader of the House please give time for a debate in the run-up to the next Budget on the obvious merits of raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 before 2015, lifting more people out of income tax altogether?
Sir George Young: My hon. Friend will know that section 29 of the coalition agreement sets out a commitment to raise the threshold to £10,000 during this Parliament, and the Deputy Prime Minister is making a statement today. This will be taken on board by the Chancellor as he prepares his Budget statement.
Mr Speaker: I am extremely grateful to the Leader of the House and to colleagues for their brevity, which meant that 44 Back Benchers were able to take part in 35 minutes of exclusively Back-Bench time. That shows what we can do when we try.
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Point of Order
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Have you received a request from the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport to come to the House to clarify previous statements made to this House? Those statements made reference to the supposed report for the London Olympics by the Commission for a Sustainable London as the justification for the appointment of Dow Chemical as a sponsor, when the resignation of Ms Meredith Alexander this morning has in fact proved that no such report was prepared by the commission at all. Indeed, 12 out of the 13 members of the commission knew nothing about it until the letter from Shaun McCarthy to my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell).
Mr Speaker: I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but the short answer to his question is no. I have received no such communication, but the concern that he has registered will have been heard by the Leader of the House and others on the Treasury Bench.
Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Secretary Vince Cable, Danny Alexander, Mr Mark Hoban, Mr David Gauke, Miss Chloe Smith and Mr Edward Davey, presented a Bill to amend the Bank of England Act 1998, the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and the Banking Act 2009; to make other provision about financial services and markets; to make provision about the exercise of certain statutory functions relating to building societies, friendly societies and other mutual societies; to amend section 785 of the Companies Act 2006; to make provision enabling the Director of Savings to provide services to other public bodies; and for connected purposes.
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That this House has considered the matter of the European Council.
I would like to take this opportunity briefly to mention to this self-selecting group of Members in the Chamber who are taking an interest in EU Council debates that the Backbench Business Committee now has such debates within its remit. In future, therefore, when Members want to have such a debate before the EU Council meets, they should come to the Backbench Business Committee. I will leave it at that.
Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and its Chairman for arranging this debate. I am sorry that the Government did not take note of the unanimous view of the European Scrutiny Committee that such a debate should be held in Government time. However, we now have this opportunity to air our views before the Prime Minister goes to the summit. He is to be congratulated on his use of the veto, which I am bound to say I was glad about because I had suggested its use in my pamphlet “It’s the EU, Stupid”, and in other discussions.
The proposal for fiscal union vitally affects our national interests and our democracy; it is not just about the single market and the City, essential though those matters are. As I said to the Foreign Secretary the other day, once we have crossed the Rubicon we cannot cross it again, and it is imperative that there should be no backsliding at the summit on 30 January. I totally repudiate the attitude of the Deputy Prime Minister that the non-EU treaty of the 26 should eventually be folded into the EU treaties. The Liberal Democrats are an obstruction to our vital national interests. A house divided against itself will fall, and the situation will be worse still if it is built on sand. There are now two Europes, both built on sand, and the situation is not only precarious but dangerous.
What is the root cause of the European crisis? It is not merely a eurozone crisis; it is a crisis of the European Union as a whole. Europe is being destroyed on the altar of ideology. The existing treaties, which cover 70% of our legislation here in the UK, have failed and are the root cause of the crisis in Europe.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD):
In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s attack on the role of the Liberal Democrats in all this, would he accept that the Deputy Prime Minister’s hosting of the recent summit of European Liberal leaders—including two Prime Ministers, six
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Deputy Prime Ministers and five European Commissioners —to try to bring together a bilateral plan to support jobs, growth and prosperity across Europe was a positive step?
Mr Cash: We are all in favour of growth, but unfortunately the European treaties themselves work against that aim because of the degree of overregulation, and many other matters that I shall come to in a moment.
The lack of growth is contaminating the UK economy. Elsewhere in Europe it is creating civil disorder, with youth unemployment of up to 45% in Greece and Spain, and 30% in Italy. The present European Union is completely undemocratic, and the existing treaties should be sent to a convention so that all the member states could have the opportunity to face one another and decide what kind of Europe they want. In the past, when referendums have been held in France, Holland, Ireland and Denmark, the no vote has been overturned by bribing and threatening the electorate. That kind of behaviour, combined with economic and political crisis, creates a fertile breeding ground for the far right, as I predicted as far back as 1990.
There is no growth in Europe, except in Germany. We cannot grow from a stagnant Europe, and the coalition cannot achieve its main objective of reducing the deficit and achieving growth so long as this paralysis continues. The remedy of the Eurocrats—and, indeed, the leaders of European Government and the Liberal Democrat leadership in this country—is a fatal obstruction to our present and future economic success.
The approach adopted by the Prime Minister today at Davos reflects the view that I expressed in my pamphlet “It’s the EU, Stupid” and the growth paper that has been circulated to all Members of Parliament and the Lords and others, as well as in my remarks to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, which is that we need to refocus our trade towards the rest of the world and not rely on the fact that we have 40% to 50% of our trade with the EU to provide the mainspring of our economic future.
Kelvin Hopkins (Luton North) (Lab): Emphasis is constantly placed on our trade with the European Union, but it is not always pointed out that we have a massive trade deficit with the EU. Given the austerity measures here and over there—but particularly over there—that is only going to get worse.
Cuts in public expenditure cannot solve the problem on their own. We need enterprise for small and medium-sized businesses and drastic cuts in overregulation. We need enterprise, not strangulation. Indeed, we must insist on our ability to enter into trade relationships on our own terms, in our own national interests, and not be confined to a single trade policy dictated by the European Commission.
“We have to become used to the European Commission becoming more and more like a government.”
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She urges more and more Europe, but that Europe would be both undemocratic and increasingly dominated by Germany itself, as I have repeatedly stated for 20 years, and as The Economist concedes in this week’s edition. It states, following France’s downgrading, that
“the balance of power has long been shifting from the French President to the German Chancellor”,
“Berlin is alone in the cockpit”.
That is not healthy for Germany or the UK, and certainly not for Europe. It now seems certain that President Sarkozy is on the way out, and Italy and Greece have technocratic Prime Ministers. Democracy is dwindling and diminishing. The Franco-German partnership is now a hollow reminder of German strength and French weakness. This is all the more reason why the UK must insist on leading Europe out of this crisis with Euro-realist policies and an insistence on government by consent. Sadly, Germany believes in government by rule, and is now even proposing the European Commission as the anchor of European government.
There has been much agitated activity in seeking to resolve the Greek bankruptcy, but there has been no result. A few days ago I came across a five-page article written in 1998 setting out exactly why Greece should not be allowed into the European Union, which was of course ignored. Every member state is responsible for this failure of judgment and must bear the consequences. It is a pity that those such as George Soros who are now wringing their hands in Davos did not listen to the Euro-realist arguments instead of condemning and mocking them.
On the draft agreement, we must bear in mind that the issues now being presented to the British electorate and the European Union are more political than legal. There are still fundamental legal problems in the latest draft of the agreement between the 26. There must be no misunderstanding: this deal is flawed in seeking to incorporate the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, which are institutions of the EU, into a non-EU treaty.
Furthermore, what is the basis in the treaty on the functioning of the European Union for the proposed powers, including infringement powers, to be conferred on the European Commission under article 8 of the agreement? Prima facie, that is unlawful, given the prohibition on infringement proceedings under article 126(10) of the treaty. There are serious doubts about the use of article 273 in relation to issues of jurisdiction. There is also the issue of enhanced co-operation under article 10, which bypasses the treaty requirement that enhanced co-operation should be used only as a last resort; the agreement proposes its use “whenever appropriate and necessary”. This could cause serious damage to British national interests in relation to the internal market.