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Incandescent Light Bulbs
Sheila Gilmore (Edinburgh East) (Lab): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby. This debate will not be a complaint about poor light quality, which some people have mentioned in the past, or about the ugliness of some of the light bulbs in question when they appear under a beautiful lampshade. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members are raising their eyes towards the ceiling as I speak. Finally, I do not seek to become part of a crusade by the Daily Express against the European Union, as happened when I tabled an early-day motion on this subject.
This debate is about a serious issue for people, perhaps relatively small in number, who could not sit in this Chamber, as I and other hon. Members are doing, underneath these lights. Those people could not stay in this Chamber to take part in this discussion, even if they were able to, because of the effect that these light bulbs would have on them.
My interest in this matter was stimulated by a constituent, Catherine Hessett, who contacted me shortly after my election in 2010. She is the co-ordinator of Spectrum Alliance, a group that campaigns on behalf of individuals who have suffered negative effects from low-energy lighting. Those people have suffered ever since the roll-out of low-energy lighting, and they need to use what are considered to be the old-fashioned, high-energy, incandescent bulbs in their homes. At the moment, they can do that because they are still able to source those bulbs, but that is coming under serious threat from the regulations that are set to remove incandescent light bulbs from the market by September this year.
Until my constituent contacted me I was unaware of such concerns, and I imagine that that is widely true elsewhere. After some investigation, however, I concluded that the views of the Spectrum Alliance needed to be raised in Parliament, and that the Government need to do something to prevent people such as my constituent from being forced to live in the dark for the rest of their lives.
I will go on to talk about the legislation, but first I will give a little more detail about the impact of this problem on certain individuals. The Spectrum Alliance has evidence to suggest that low-energy lightning—for example, compact fluorescent lamps such as those above us—aggravate a range of pre-existing medical conditions that include lupus, migraines, autism and ME.
The first example I will cite is that of a woman who suffers from lupus, a systemic auto-immune disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s cells and tissues. She develops a visible burning skin reaction, sore red eyes and a headache within minutes of exposure to fluorescent lights. In the past, doctors have suggested the use of bulbs that screen out ultraviolet light, but that makes no difference. Other lupus sufferers have reported similar experiences. It is important to stress, however, that although some individuals do not have recognised pre-existing conditions such as lupus, they nevertheless find that these bulbs impact on their health.
My second example is of a lady who has no pre-existing medical condition. She worked for an employer for several years, was happy in her job and had good prospects. However, when her employer moved into a
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newly-built office, she developed disabling headaches from the first day as a result of the low-energy lighting in the workplace. She had to take time of work because of the problem, and is likely to lose her job.
James Wharton (Stockton South) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Lady on securing this important debate. To add some context, I should say that a close relative of mine suffers, although not as seriously as the people in the cases mentioned by the hon. Lady, from migraines brought on by a pre-existing condition that is worsened by long-term exposure to this sort of bulb. Although there are extreme examples, there is also a whole spectrum of ways in which these bulbs can have a negative impact on the lives of our constituents.
Sheila Gilmore: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his helpful intervention. In the two examples that I mentioned, the reaction to exposure to the bulbs was extreme and rapid. Many people suffer in a lesser way, but it is nevertheless an issue for them and something that we could, and should, avoid. However committed we may be to our energy obligations—and we should be—it is important not to ignore the adverse effects on some of our population.
The scale of the problem is not insignificant. In answer to a written parliamentary question on 1 February 201l, the Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton) referred to figures that estimated that 250,000 people in the EU are at risk from increased levels of ultraviolet radiation or blue light generated by compact fluorescent lamps.
Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Lab): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing this debate. Does she agree that the Departments for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for Business, Innovation and Skills, and for Energy and Climate Change should work in a cross-departmental way to see what further research could be done in the European Union to look at the long-term effects of new technologies on people who have a pre-existing condition? We must start looking at what long-term changes might be needed, while also having regard to those who are suffering now, and we must see whether there is a way of obtaining a dispensation so that such people are not exposed to those causes of ill health, as appears to be the case at the moment.
Sheila Gilmore: As chair of the all-party lighting group, my hon. Friend has extensive knowledge of that subject and the issues that should be raised. Although long-term research is always helpful, we must also focus on the impact on individuals. As the Health Minister indicated, the figures she gave could equate to 30,000 or 40,000 people in the UK being affected by this problem. Those, however, are people who are known to have a pre-existing condition, and the Spectrum Alliance estimates that the true number of people affected in the UK—with, as has been said, varying levels of impact—could be as many as 2 million, many of whom are already suffering from conditions such as migraines or autism.
The science behind this issue may not yet be entirely resolved, and although the light bulbs in question have a clear impact on people, we must do some research into the matter. Low-energy lighting operates differently from incandescent bulbs in terms of levels of ultraviolet
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radiation, electric fields, flicker and peaks in light wavelength, especially with blue light. As yet, research has not been sufficiently in-depth to enable us to say which features of fluorescent bulbs have an effect on health, because they differ from incandescent bulbs in multiple ways. We do know, however, that people’s health is not affected in the same way when they use incandescent bulbs.
Let me be clear: I do not seek to discourage the use of low-energy light bulbs and lighting where that is useful and helpful. I acknowledge that climate change is one of the most significant challenges that we face as a country and I welcome the positive contribution that lighting can make in reducing our energy consumption. However, I do not believe that it would be right to implement the ban on incandescent light bulbs so dogmatically that people suffered. That is the crux of what I am saying.
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for securing the debate. I am sure that many hon. Members agree with the point that she is making. This is not about being against low-energy light bulbs as a generality, but about recognising that some individuals have a particular problem with that lighting. There is a danger in just dismissing their concerns, which need to be taken seriously. That is all we are asking for, and I hope that the Minister will respond positively at the end of the debate.
The key legislation in this area started with the ecodesign of energy-using products directive in 2005. That was updated and recast four years later by the ecodesign directive of 2009. Those directives set down rules on the environmental performance of products that used energy, such as light bulbs, and those that related to energy use, such as windows. They set the framework for further implementing measures, and the relevant Commission regulation of 2009 set out a timetable for the phasing out of the manufacture and import of incandescent bulbs. The position is that 100 W bulbs were banned in 2009, 75 W bulbs in 2010 and 60 W bulbs in 2011. The remaining 40 W and 25 W bulbs will be banned as of 1 September 2012. That regulation was not voted on by the European Parliament—it went through without debate—and it is directly applicable. That is why there is no transposing legislation at our level.
Concerns about health impacts have been acknowledged at EU level, although that has not yet been reflected in better policy. In 2008, the European Commission scientific committee on emerging and newly identified health risks—commonly referred to as SCENIHR—produced a report that concluded that although single-envelope CFLs could induce skin problems among some people, that might be alleviated by the use of double-envelope CFLs. However, Spectrum Alliance is clear that its members have tried those double-envelope bulbs and that, although they are an improvement for some people, they still induce similar symptoms in most of those affected.
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The concerns were acknowledged when the European Commission asked SCENIHR to produce an updated report in March 2012. That was published in draft form in July 2011 and in full in March this year. It, too, referred to the possible health impacts of low-energy lighting, but SCENIHR itself does not carry out first-hand research; it simply reports on research that has been carried out. It concluded that because of the considerable variability of the components for lighting technologies, no general advice could be given to individuals about how they could avoid those health impacts.
It is possible that some people will be able to find means of lighting other than incandescent bulbs. It has been suggested that they could try light-emitting diodes—LEDs—or the double-envelope CFLs, but again the Spectrum Alliance campaigners are clear that neither of those technologies has yet succeeded in overcoming the problems that people are suffering.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) chaired a meeting of the all-party lighting group last October. Present were representatives from Spectrum Alliance, the lighting industry and the relevant Departments: BIS, DEFRA and the Department of Health. We discussed a number of options. It was made clear that the Government would not wish to defy the regulation, that they did not simply not implement things that they did not agree with and that they could be fined under the infraction proceedings if they sought to do so.
We then discussed the possibility of an exemption for people with medical needs. There is a precedent: rough-service lamps are already exempt under the regulation. Rough-service lamps are incandescent bulbs that are used for industrial purposes where a low-energy alternative would not work properly. There is, therefore, a precedent for having an exemption for industry. We argue that an exemption should also be made for people with specific health needs.
Earlier this year, my hon. Friend and I met Lord Taylor of Holbeach, the Minister with responsibility for this area. On hearing the arguments, he expressed some concern that people might seek to take advantage of any exemption, but I would have thought that it was possible to configure a system to prevent, or at least to minimise, that risk. For example, incandescent bulbs could be dispensed by prescription at pharmacies.
The Minister also expressed the strong hope that emerging technologies would resolve the problem for us. That may be the case in the future. There may be—I sincerely hope that there is—a lighting technology around the corner that will resolve the problem. It would meet the low-energy requirements but without the health effects that I have described, but at the moment it does not exist. That is a serious practical problem.
Lord Taylor also indicated that he would be keen for further research to be carried out, and I certainly would not in any way say that there should not be further research. However, although I support further research, I want to suggest that both the Government and the European Commission are coming at this issue from the wrong direction. It makes sense to resolve any uncertainty about the safety of products before we force people to use them—rather than afterwards, when the alternatives have been withdrawn. In this case, consumers are being expected to prove that certain products are
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unsafe, rather than the Commission and the Government having ensured that they were safe in the first place.
I ask the Minister this central question: if nothing is done, what are my constituent and many more like her to do? Are the Government comfortable with forcing people to live in the dark for the foreseeable future? I am sure that the Minister finds that situation no more acceptable than I do. I understand that limited options are available, but I ask him to do whatever he can to allow people who suffer negative health impacts from low-energy bulbs to continue to purchase incandescent bulbs when the ban comes into full effect in September.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Richard Benyon): I congratulate the hon. Member for Edinburgh East (Sheila Gilmore) on securing the debate and on representing her constituents—indeed, all our constituents—who are suffering in the way that she describes. There can be an extensive discussion about the extent to which the problem exists, but I think that we all recognise that it is a problem and that she was right to bring it to the House today.
It is important to place on the record the context in which the current changes are being made. Then I shall talk about the health issues that the hon. Lady raised so forcefully. The Government recognise, as I think the hon. Lady does and as the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Joan Walley) certainly does in her role as Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, that climate change is one of the gravest challenges that we face and that urgent action is required to tackle it. Failure to transform how we produce and consume in the UK will expose the economy to many risks—from the damage wreaked by the effects of climate change to constraints on future growth from unsustainable depletion of our natural capital. The Government have set out clearly how they want to be the “greenest Government ever” and that that must be based on action, not words. Ensuring the sustainability of products is one way in which we can act now.
The amount of energy consumed by household electrical goods is staggering. Products targeted by the European eco-design and energy labelling directives account for an astonishing 50% of the European Union’s energy consumption. We need to promote the most efficient products to consumers, which in turn rewards the businesses developing and selling them. Energy labels are an effective way of doing that. The EU’s A to G energy labels enable consumers to choose efficient appliances. Labelling also enables manufacturers to compete against one another on the environmental performance of their products.
There are, none the less, occasions on which policies such as labelling and consumer awareness fail to produce the necessary switch to more sustainable products. In those cases, choice editing by removing the least efficient products from the market remains one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing energy consumption, while at the same time benefiting consumers and businesses by reducing their energy bills. As a member of the European single market, the UK cannot by itself introduce mandatory minimum energy performance standards for appliances because it would inhibit free trade. The EU eco-design for energy related products framework directive
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is a single market directive under article 95 of the EU treaty and provides the legal framework within which implementing measures set standards for the environmental performance of products or product groups. Those measures can take the form of regulations or voluntary initiatives.
To date, 12 regulations have been agreed under the eco-design directive and two voluntary initiatives are close to agreement. The regulations are expected to save the UK almost 7 million tonnes of CO2 a year by 2020. They are expected to generate just over £850 million a year in net benefits for British consumers and businesses through reduced energy bills. I recognise that the hon. Member for Edinburgh East is keen for me to move on to the health issues, but it is important to put these points on record. Lighting is a major contributor to global energy consumption. The International Energy Agency estimates that electricity consumption for lighting represents almost 19% of global electricity use and is responsible for approximately 8% of world greenhouse gas emissions.
The regulation of 2009 became directly applicable in all EU member states after agreement by the European Parliament and Council in spring of that year. It sets minimum standards for non-directional household lamps—in other words, bulbs that provide a spread of light, such as those under which we are sitting, as opposed to, say, spot lamps. Incandescent light bulbs waste 95% of their energy as heat. They are therefore too inefficient to meet the standards, so are being in effect phased out in the EU. Other countries phasing out or planning to phase out incandescent light bulbs include Australia, Brazil, China, Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States. The regulation is predicted to save 39 TWh across the EU annually by 2020. Within the UK, it will mean net savings each year of 0.65 MtCO2e and 0.3 TWh by 2020. The average annual net benefit to the UK between 2010 and 2020 is predicted to be £108 million.
CFLs use 20% to 25% of the energy an incandescent light bulb uses. Halogen light bulbs offer anything between 20% to 45% energy savings on incandescent bulbs. The Government are working to encourage the development and use of ultra-efficient lighting, which could produce even greater savings. For example, DEFRA and the Technology Strategy Board ran a successful £1.2 million challenge to develop LED lighting to replace conventional incandescent lamps. The initiative successfully supported two small and medium-sized enterprises—Juice Technology and Zeta Controls—to prototype stage. That is an excellent example of how minimum standards are driving innovation and transforming the market.
Problems, such as slow warm-up times and poor quality light, were reported with some early CFLs. However, the industry has responded well to the challenge to produce new quality products. Regulation 244/2009 assisted by putting in place minimum standards for the performance of CFLs, which protects consumers from substandard products and the manufacturers of quality products from unfair competition. The hon. Lady mentioned flickering, which did cause problems in older light bulbs, and it was believed that that contributed to considerable difficulties for migraine sufferers, but it has been improved, although not to the satisfaction of
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all. I will come on to those issues now, but both the performance and the choice of CFLs has improved a great deal.
Although energy efficient lighting produces significant environmental and financial benefits, we need to ensure that lighting solutions remain available for people with light-sensitive health conditions. CFLs can generate higher levels of UV and blue light than incandescent lamps. Those levels are much lower than a typical summer’s day, but present a potentially greater risk to a number of people with light-sensitive skin disorders. The European Commission’s scientific committee on emerging and newly identified health risks—I, like the hon. Lady, will call it SCENIHR—estimates that up to 30,000 people in the UK are potentially at risk, but I accept that the figure is disputed and could be higher.
DEFRA and the Department of Health have been closely engaged with patients’ support groups and charities, the lighting industry and the Health Protection Agency. In fact, as the lead DEFRA Minister, Lord Taylor of Holbeach, whom the hon. Lady met, will shortly meet one such group—Spectrum, to which she referred—and I hope that the meeting will include the constituent she mentioned. The Department of Health and Health Protection Agency have fed evidence into SCENIHR’s opinion on the health effects of artificial lighting, published in 2008, and its updated opinion, published in March this year. SCENIHR concluded that the use of double-envelope CFLs, which look like a traditional light lamp, can mitigate the risk of aggravating the symptoms of light-sensitive individuals. The hon. Lady has reported that there is some scepticism on that, and we have more work to do.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that halogens might be an adequate alternative in some cases. Most LEDs for general lighting emit little or no UV radiation. They therefore potentially offer an even better alternative. Nevertheless, the updated opinion recommended further research on the relationship between artificial lighting and various health conditions.
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Richard Benyon: We are lobbying the Commission to bring the research forward before 2014. That is a key point that we want to get across. I will discuss the matter with my colleague, Lord Taylor, and he in turn will talk to Health Ministers to see if there is any wriggle room that will allow some form of exemption, such as the one that the hon. Lady described. I liked her suggestion about the possibility of using pharmacies. We are open-minded. What we do must be legal and recognise that there is a problem that we want to resolve.
The regulation includes a requirement for it to be reviewed before 2014, but we think that that should be done sooner. We will work with our European partners to ensure that the review takes full account of the best available scientific evidence on the health effects of artificial light. We are therefore pressing the Commission to ensure that the research is completed much earlier in order to feed into the review.
Joan Walley: I am listening hard to the Minister. Can he give my hon. Friend an indication of the time scale? Will he report back to her on the discussions that he intends to have with Lord Taylor about the health issues and what he referred to as the “wriggle room” within what is legal?
Richard Benyon: I will talk to Lord Taylor, as I agreed, subsequent to the debate. If the hon. Lady will allow me to say so, it will be for him to contact her and the hon. Member for Edinburgh East to see how we can take things forward. I recognise the genuine concerns that have been brought to the attention of the House through the early-day motion and today’s debate. I assure the hon. Member for Edinburgh East that the Government take these matters seriously and we will seek to resolve the concerns of her constituent and our constituents who are affected.
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David Morris (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Con): I am delighted to have secured this debate on fracking—or, to give it its proper title, hydraulic fracturing. I hope that by the end of the debate we shall have laid some myths to rest, and that the House will be satisfied that the opportunity that fracking presents is being explored in a responsible manner.
I would not describe myself as either pro-fracking or anti-fracking; I support the exploration of any new energy source as long as it is safe. We need a mix of different energy sources, so that we are never reliant on one in particular. I think that we all agree with that. I understand that the Minister who would usually respond to the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), is unable to be here and I thank his colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), for stepping in. Both my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden and his Parliamentary Private Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies), have done a huge amount to help explore the important technology in question, while dealing with the safeguarding of our constituents and calls for tighter regulation. The House owes them a debt of gratitude for their tireless work.
I suppose I should explain my interest in this subject. The Bowland basin is not in my constituency, but many of the people who would work in the industry are. Furthermore, Morecambe and Lunesdale is one of the biggest energy producers in the UK. Heysham 1 and 2 produce 4.5% of the national grid’s capability; Centrica’s liquefied natural gas support station brings gas in from across the world to the UK; a number of offshore drilling operations exist in Morecambe bay; and, most controversially, wind farms, if they cannot be built in the lakes, are threatened in our area.
Engineering and energy production are major exports for my constituency and the whole of north Lancashire, so we are positive about any opportunities, especially given that 5,600 jobs could be created nationally—and, potentially, 1,700 in the wider Morecambe and Lunesdale area. Obviously, when local people are trained to do that sort of work they will have opportunities to go abroad, as happened in Aberdeen after the North sea oilfield opened—something that became known as the Aberdeen effect.
Fracking is not a new technique; it has taken place in the UK for decades. What is new is that the established technology is being used to extract shale gas, which has revolutionised gas production in north America. In the past, the USA and Canada had a shortage of gas, but today their industry is booming. The rise in shale gas production is striking, going from 28 billion cubic metres in 2006 to 140 billion cubic metres in 2010. Gas reserves are now at their highest since 1971—an amazing thought, given the dire predictions for their supplies a few years ago. I think we would all like the UK to benefit from that kind of gas supply.
The industry is keen to point out that we are unsure how much shale gas we have in the UK, but one estimate by Cuadrilla suggests that the Bowland site alone could have 5.6 trillion cubic metres. Obviously, not all that gas can be extracted, but that estimate
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would make the field comparable in size to the second most productive field in America—the Barnett shale in Texas.
In 2010, the Department for Energy and Climate Change predicted that gas prices would rise by 21% by 2030. Suddenly, by taking into account more and more shale gas, they revised that estimate down to 11%, so shale gas may well halve the rise in gas bills over the next 20 years—a welcome thought to those struggling to pay energy bills.
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate on an important issue. I am a supporter of the economic and environmental benefits of shale gas. Does my hon. Friend agree that the data show that it has cut carbon emissions in a way that wind, solar and biomass have singularly failed to do?
David Morris: Yes, I agree, and we should be striving towards a lower-carbon economy. Shale gas would contribute to that. It is better for the environment than other energy sources—that has already been acknowledged—and it now helps to meet Government targets for low emissions, as my hon. Friend has just said. Research by Policy Exchange states that if China were to switch from coal to shale gas that would cut its emissions by five times the UK’s total carbon output, so there is a big prize. If we get things right and sort out the concerns, we can have a good and healthy market in the UK.
At the end of the process, we will need to know that we made the best use of our technology and natural resources, but in an environment that protects the public, so I want to ask the Minister to clarify some points. What steps are being taken to ensure that waste water does not contaminate the environment? How will we prevent fugitive emissions? What steps are being taken to reduce seismic activity? What rights will landowners and local communities have to benefit from mineral rights? Overall, what steps are the Government taking to ensure that our regulatory environment is fit for purpose?
Eric Ollerenshaw (Lancaster and Fleetwood) (Con): I congratulate my hon. Friend, and neighbour, on securing the debate. On the issues he listed, does he agree that what is not understood by the powers that be is that the water source for residents in my area—particularly in Bleasdale—is their own bore holes? Residents are extremely worried about a process that involves the water table, which fracking seems to hit. My hon. Friend talked about mineral rights; again, it is not understood that in most parts of my constituency the mineral rights do not belong to the landowners, but to the Duchy of Lancaster, even if the land is sold on. There is little direct benefit to the farmers who own the land on which the fracking will potentially take place.
David Morris: I thank my hon. Friend, whose constituency is next to mine, for the work that he has done locally on the issue. There are issues to be addressed in the contexts that he mentioned. Like him, I am worried about contamination of water supply in the area. I want to touch later on the possibilities of mineral rights for landowners.
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Guy Opperman: I am sure that my hon. Friend is coming on to this point. I endorse the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). Just as mineral rights and the benefits from wind power are felt not by the wider community but by an individual farmer or energy company, so it is with fracking. I suggest that if mineral rights were to benefit the whole community, rather than an isolated individual, fracking would be a great deal more popular and bring much more benefit to the community.
We have all seen things go wrong in certain parts of America, but we must also bear in mind that last year the Americans drilled 45,000 wells, with very few problems. They are also operating much older wells that exist in a less strict regulatory environment than here in the UK. That must be understood. I hope that we can benefit from their success and, most importantly, learn from their mistakes.
Today we stand at the beginning of a revolution in UK gas production. We have a community with the expertise. Lancaster university, the nuclear power industry and small and medium-sized enterprises are already geared up to exploit that resource and we look forward to falling energy bills as a result. I hope that the Minister can clarify my concerns. Most of all, will he assure me that DECC is doing everything it can to push this project forward in a safe and responsible way? That is the road to a safe, profitable and cheap supply of energy for the 21st century.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Gregory Barker): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris) on securing the debate and giving the issue such rigorous, thoughtful and well researched attention, as it deserves.
The role of unconventional gas and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is indeed topical. I have just come back from the United States, and no one there who takes the slightest interest in the energy or climate change agenda can fail to be moved by the huge impact that it is having on the economics and politics of energy—the huge potential benefits to the US economy, the challenges presented to other parts of the energy sector, and the questions raised about the long-term climate change implications of the new fossil fuel.
Guy Opperman: I am grateful to the Minister for giving way and I apologise for interrupting his speech just as he was gaining momentum. He talks eloquently about the way in which America is transforming its energy provision and dramatically reducing its energy bills. In his State of the Union address in January 2012, President Obama said that any company drilling on Government land would have to disclose the chemical used for fracking so that
“America will develop this resource without putting the health and safety of our citizens at risk.”
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There are not only huge opportunities here for us, but some big challenges. We need to be rigorous and thoughtful in addressing this issue, not least because of the significant impact that the exploration and development of shale gas is having on the US, and stands to have in the UK, Europe and Asia.
The resource has, as I have said, revolutionised the energy market and allowed the US significantly to increase its indigenous production and benefit from lower gas prices, which have not proportionately flowed through into lower electricity prices to consumers. None the less, there are benefits feeding right through to the manufacturing base, which obviously raises the question of what impact shale gas would have on the UK and its energy supplies. I hope to shed some light on that pertinent matter during this debate.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale will be aware, the Government are considering the implications of the seismic tremors that occurred last year in the Blackpool area, adjacent to his constituency. The Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering are currently conducting a study of the potential risks of shale gas extraction. For the UK, therefore, the subject is very much in the public eye, and the debate here is timely.
Let me be clear about the Government’s position. This weekend, press stories suggested that there has been a sudden reversal in the Government’s position on shale gas, but I am afraid that that is not the case. The Government’s position has remained cautious but balanced throughout. If there is a change, it is only in media perceptions.
There has been some rather breathless speculation that shale gas in the UK could be the “game changer” that it genuinely is in the US. What has happened in the US has been dramatic. Shale gas production has grown from a very small base in the 1990s to supply about a fifth of US demand today, and it is set to increase still further. However, there have been problems, such as the reported pollution of drinking water, and there are concerns about the fracking process on which shale gas production depends.
Our position on UK unconventional hydrocarbon resources is a balanced one, and matches that which we take towards conventional oil and gas exploration and development. We support the tapping of these resources where it is technically and economically viable. As imperative as it is that we meet our climate change targets, it is also a matter of common sense that we continue as an economy and nation to be dependent on fossil fuels for many years to come. Wherever there is an opportunity to harvest or extract those fossil fuels in the UK or in our territorial waters, of course we should do so, provided that it can be carried out with full regard to the protection of the environment.
May I raise another problem on top of the two that I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris)? The north part of Lancashire, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mark Menzies),
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faces shale gas exploration, and across the river Wyre from Fylde, there is a proposal to excavate salt mines to store imported liquefied gas. We also have a proposal for new wind farms to be sited off the Isle of Man, and the National Grid is proposing to bring in the power down the river Wyre—between fracking on one side and the storage of gas on the other. At the top end of my constituency, near the seat of my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale, there is a proposal for another nuclear power station. Added to that, National Grid wants to bring power from existing wind farms off Cumbria through even bigger pylons that will be sited in the middle of my constituency, adjacent to the M6 motorway. Although people in Lancashire recognise the nation’s need, they wonder who will secure a balance in relation to what they will get out of it. Will Lancashire be left covered with pylons, transmission towers, and wind farms on the hills and out at sea? After the extraction underground of everything in the region, will Lancashire even exist in 25 years?
Gregory Barker: But apart from that—[Laughter.] No, my hon. Friend makes a serious point and I understand his concerns. No one could suggest that Lancashire is not taking more than its fair share of the burden of the energy economy. However, there are many opportunities to be gained. Each of the points that he raises bears serious consideration. Let me assure him that my Department not only looks at these things individually, on their own merits and in their own right, but takes into account the wider picture that is created by these individual interventions.
Guy Opperman: I welcome the point about the wider picture. In Northumberland, which is no less deserving than Lancashire, there are applications for two open-cast mines. Given that those open-cast mines will exist for years and will produce barely eight to 10 days’ worth of coal for particular power stations, and that fracking has the potential to produce about 150 billion cubic metres of gas, one has to add up the relative benefits. The people of Northumberland, and of the wider country, want an energy strategy that takes into account these points. On that issue, I endorse entirely what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw).
Gregory Barker: My hon. Friend’s eloquent intervention is on the record, and I certainly take on board his points. I now want to crack on because I want to reply in some detail to the serious points that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale raised in his opening speech.
Sir Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton) (Lab): I very much welcome the cautious way in which the Minister is explaining this issue to the Chamber. It is important that we balance the apparent short-term gain against the serious danger of long-term detriment, which will be impossible to reverse once the process is under way.
There are good reasons to think that, whatever the resource may be, shale gas will not develop as dramatically here as it has in the US. Britain is a much more densely populated country, and shale
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gas is still in its very early days here. Just one well in the UK has been drilled and fracked, so the production prospects are simply unknown at this stage. Whatever they may be, the Government will continue to seek full economic recovery of UK hydrocarbon resources—both conventional and unconventional—when that can be done safely and with environmental integrity.
Joan Walley: I am very grateful to the Minister for giving way; I know that time is of the essence. Regarding the environmental integrity that he has just mentioned, can he tell us what cross-cutting work he is doing, first with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in respect of the concerns about the possibility of groundwater contamination, and secondly with the Department of Health in respect of the health concerns about the potential risk of air pollution?
Gregory Barker: I will come to the points about groundwater pollution later in my remarks—if I am able to get to them. In respect of the work with the Department of Health and DEFRA, I fear that I will have to write to the hon. Lady to let her know about that work in more detail.
I turn now to the role of gas and carbon capture and storage in UK energy supply, because changes in the UK energy sector during the next 10 to 20 years will create new sources of gas demand. We will need gas to retain sufficient electricity generation capacity margins in the face of coal-nuclear closures, to manage intermittency from increased use of renewables, and to continue to meet the majority of our heating needs. Equally, we are taking steps to address the possible use of fossil fuels in the low-carbon energy economy of the future.
In the long term, there will be a fundamental shift in the role of gas in electricity supply. By 2050, a major role for gas as a base load source of electricity will only be realistic with large numbers of gas CCS plants. One of our key policy objectives is to enable cost-competitive deployment of CCS by the early 2020s. Last week, we announced the names of the companies who have indicated their interest in the new UK CCS competition, which is a flagship policy for this Government. I am very encouraged by the high level of interest that those companies have demonstrated. It shows that we are on track with CCS, a key technology that is enabling us to make use of fossil fuels while protecting, enhancing and driving forward our climate change objectives.
I now turn to shale gas specifically. It has been said that it is still very early days for shale gas in the UK. However, I am told that the pattern of development of a new shale gas basin in the US has shown roughly three phases: first, initial discovery and the use of appraisal wells to prove the presence of the gas and the size of the resource; secondly, an experimental phase in which the explorers work out the best techniques to obtain production from the particular type of shale; and thirdly, the production phase, in which an efficient pattern of production wells can be drilled to extract the gas on a commercial basis.
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Clearly we are right at the beginning of this whole process; only a handful of wells have been drilled and their production potential has yet to be quantified. However, it is encouraging that Cuadrilla believes that there are good quantities of shale gas in the rocks underlying its licence area in Lancashire. Nevertheless, it is still too early to say whether those resources can be extracted economically and safely.
The answer to the question, “What contribution might shale gas make to UK energy supplies?” is even more uncertain. I will not speculate on that issue today. However, if shale gas can be safely and economically exploited here, the Government would obviously welcome any positive contribution it would make to energy supplies, jobs and the economy.
I will now address the specific questions put by my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale. First, what steps are being taken to ensure that waste water does not contaminate the environment? That question was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood (Eric Ollerenshaw). Secondly, how do we prevent fugitive emissions, which is a big problem in the US? Thirdly, what steps are being taken to reduce any seismic activity? Fourthly, there is the overall question of what steps the Government are taking to ensure that our regulatory environment is indeed fit for purpose?
In response to the first question, which was about water waste, I must say that my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale made a very important point, which was echoed by my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Fleetwood. It is essential that any waste water or flow-back fluids that come from fracking operations are handled carefully and treated properly. Disposal of waste water falls within the regulatory responsibilities of the Environment Agency, which has a range of regulatory powers to ensure that such operations are carried out without causing harm to the environment. The agency will consider all proposed operations and will only permit them if it is satisfied that the intended disposal route will not harm the environment. The waste water could either go to a waste treatment plant that is already permitted, or specific disposal arrangements would need to be agreed with the agency. With regard to Cuadrilla’s current operation, the return fluids are currently being retained on-site by the company and stored in double-skinned tanks. A permit for correct disposal of them is required, and Cuadrilla is in discussions with the Environment Agency.
Secondly, how do we prevent fugitive emissions? That is a very important issue; indeed, I was also asked about the control of fugitive emissions. Most aspects of shale gas operations—for example, the construction of the well, the well-head equipment and any pipeline—use exactly the same technology as conventional gas production. Provided that that technology is competently constructed, there is no reason to think that unintended emissions from shale gas will be different from conventional gas emissions or will pose new problems. At present, methane emissions from gas production are estimated to comprise less than 1% of our total greenhouse gas emissions, so fugitive emissions from current gas production activities are not a major contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.
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At the exploration stage, however, it is normally necessary to dispose of any produced gas by venting or flaring, as there will not be any export facilities in place. Nevertheless, my Department imposes controls to ensure that venting—the release of methane—is minimised, so far as it is technically possible, and to ensure that any gas that is released is flared, which reduces the greenhouse warming potential of the gas by a factor of at least 20.
However, there is one aspect of shale gas production that is different from conventional gas production: with shale gas production, the rock is, of course, fracked by injecting water under pressure. Much of that water flows back and is collected at the surface. That flow-back water will then contain methane, which could add significantly to emissions if it was simply allowed to escape. Having said that, there is technology available—described as green completions—that can capture that methane. If the well is purely for exploration, the gas can be flared; as I have said, that reduces its greenhouse warming potential. In production, the gas will be exported and sold. As we have no proposals for production as yet, it is too soon to say precisely how that aspect of production operations will be controlled, but my Department will continue to control flaring and venting, and the Environment Agency is also considering how its powers might apply if there is production.
What we can safely say at this stage is that both my Department and the Environment Agency will expect all shale gas projects to demonstrate best practice, including green completions, and they will apply suitable controls to the operations in question, with exploration or production to ensure effective control of emissions.
Thirdly, what steps are being taken to reduce any seismic activity? If any future shale gas operations are allowed to commence, it is vital that they do not result in further seismic activity at the level that was experienced near Blackpool last year. That is why detailed analysis has been undertaken to determine the linkage between the seismic activity and the fracking, and to consider the best way to mitigate the risk that such events will occur again.
An expert study was commissioned by my Department, which found a link between the fracking and the seismic tremors near Blackpool, and it recommends a number of measures to mitigate the risks in any future operations. They include micro-seismic monitoring on the site and a traffic light system that would shut down operations if early signals suggest that seismic events are being generated. However, the Government have not yet decided whether to allow fracking to recommence. We will not be finalising a view on that issue until we have considered all the additional comments that have come in as part of the consultation process, which finishes this week.
Finally, what overall steps are the Government taking to ensure that our regulatory environment is fit for purpose? Although we do not have a robust regulatory regime for the onshore industry—[ Laughter. ] Sorry, we do have a robust regulatory regime for the onshore industry. I apologise; my contact lenses are a bit blurry. However, it is important that we consider how that regime sits for any longer-term development of shale gas. Consequently, we are proactive in relation to the regulatory position.
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ensure that there are no material gaps and to ensure that all material concerns are addressed. We consider that the regime and the co-ordination of the work of the regulators are adequate, at least for the current exploratory phase of shale gas activity. However, with a view to ensuring the continued adequacy of the regime if shale gas proves to be commercial and moves into the development phase, the Environment Agency is currently undertaking a detailed environmental assessment of shale gas extraction, so that it has all the information it needs to ensure that regulation is appropriate to protect the environment. Other regulators, including my Department, will contribute to that review. Furthermore, the Royal Academy of Engineering, along with the Royal Society, is currently conducting a review of the risks posed by shale gas extraction. That review is expected to report in the summer.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry), or I will be delighted to meet my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale to address any further concerns he has that have not been addressed in this debate.
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Art Asia (Southampton)
Mr John Denham (Southampton, Itchen) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate and I thank the Minister for his offer yesterday of a meeting. The problems that I will raise have been going on for more than two years and it is time to put them on the public record, but I hope that the Minister will still be prepared to meet after we have had the debate.
There are serious questions about how Arts Council England, with Southampton city council, has treated the important arts charity, Art Asia. Art Asia was offered a capital grant to develop new facilities, but today it faces the loss of the grant through a murky and underhand process to which it has had no proper chance to respond.
Over the past 30 years, Art Asia has become one of the country’s more significant south Asian arts organisations. Under its director, Vinod Desai, it began with two simple aims. The first was to enable young people, usually the children of first-generation migrants, to learn, perform and appreciate the music and dance of their parents’ and grandparents’ home culture; and the second was to bring high-quality live performances to those older generations.
Art Asia has how moved well beyond achieving those initial aims, and has brought Asian culture to a wider audience, notably through the highly successful Southampton Mela, which attracts tens of thousands of people from all communities each July. The charity has also influenced mainstream arts programming. For example, because Art Asia has been able to establish that there are audiences for Asian culture, the Turner Sims concert hall and the Nuffield theatre now include it in their own mainstream programmes. World-class musicians have been brought to many parts of the UK, including to Southampton and other parts of Hampshire, so Art Asia is a significant organisation regionally and nationally, as well as in Southampton itself.
In 2000, Arts Council England established a £20 million capital programme for black, ethnic minority and Chinese arts organisations, which recognised that such groups had not received their fair share in previous funding rounds. Given Art Asia’s strength, it is not surprising that it applied for and, in 2001, received, a promise of funding of just short of £750,000 from the programme. Clearly, Art Asia would not have received the award unless there was confidence in its leadership, management and financial conduct, and in the quality of its programming.
There are, of course, limits to what can be achieved with £750,000. At the time, Southampton city council was developing, with Arts Council England, plans for a city arts complex. Everyone sensibly recognised that more could be achieved if Art Asia joined as a full partner in the arts complex, and there were also the potential advantages of VAT-liability reduction in a joint, but city-led, project. In 2003, Art Asia agreed to pool its award as part of the funding for the larger project, a deal that would guarantee the organisation its own dedicated facilities and give it a clear, formal role in the management of the centre.
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on a formal legal agreement it relied on written assurances. The paper that went to the Arts Council England management committee to approve the joint project stated that
“the public benefits from Art Asia’s element of the project are that it will place south Asian arts in the mainstream of Southampton’s cultural life; through high-quality facilities enable Art Asia to attract first-class national and international artists to Southampton; provide a wider range of audiences with performance and participatory work of the highest standards; through larger premises enable Art Asia to offer greater accessibility to participants in its classes; provide audiences with high-quality auditoria of an appropriate size; and offer an increased range of education services”.
“the £724,000 awarded to Art Asia in July 2005 in recognition of Art Asia’s decision to be part of Southampton’s New Art Complex”.
“Art Asia’s involvement in Southampton City Council’s capital development is strategically important to us. We will continue to support your organisation as it prepares for the opening of the new building and an increased regional presence”.
The planning of the major arts centre project went ahead, moving slowly as such things often do, but in early 2010 things began to change. First, in the run-up to the 2010 election, Arts Council England began to raise doubts about the whole arts complex project. A report by Arts Council England officers recommended the withdrawal of the project, citing among other things concerns about the artistic leadership of the arts partners, which included not only Art Asia but the Nuffield theatre and the John Hansard gallery. It was the first time that such concerns had been raised, and they were less than specific.
I intervened with the then Secretary of State to secure a further review of the project. That happened, but it became clear that Arts Council England wanted to exclude Art Asia from its central role in the project. By April 2010, Arts Council England was negotiating with only the city council and excluding the other partner organisations. In June 2010 the city council submitted a new proposal, which replaced Art Asia and the Nuffield theatre with an unspecified “Performing Arts Organisation”, and Arts Council England agreed a grant on that basis in July 2010.
The grant, which had been awarded because of Art Asia’s work as an ethnic minority arts organisation, was absorbed into the Southampton arts complex funding, and Art Asia itself was excluded. In effect, Arts Council England and the city council took the money and made off with it, without taking any measures to secure the public benefit that had been identified by Arts Council England’s management in 2005.
With Art Asia, I have spent two years trying to establish how and why that happened. At no stage has either Arts Council England or the city council given any reasonable justification, reason or excuse to Art Asia. At no point has any organisation raised any clear
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concerns about Art Asia’s work, management or programming to which it could respond, nor has any reason been given for totally ignoring the whole basis of the original award, which was to support black and minority ethnic arts programming.
“It was made very clear to us by officers at the Arts Council that some significant changes were required if it were to have any chance of succeeding in securing the funding provisionally allocated to the project”.
“fundamental concerns about the performing arts offer, including the two organisations identified to provide this: Art Asia and the Nuffield”.
In the end, it has taken freedom of information requests to shed more light on what happened. An internal memo from a senior Southampton council officer, Mike Harris, dated 18 May 2010, records a meeting he had with Arts Council England. In saying that Arts Council England was rethinking its “total investment” in Southampton, the note reports
“grave doubts about Art Asia’s artistic quality and sustainability”,
“a potential need to free the project from the Nuffield and, possibly Art Asia.”
“Arts Council is nervous that some of the arts partners may lobby against the application”—
“as there is no longer a guaranteed place for at least two of them (Nuffield and Art Asia). This would be unfortunate as it would look to the ACE Investment SubCommittee as though Southampton was divided in their desire for the arts complex”.
My reason for referring to those internal memos is that it is crystal clear that the Arts Council was active and instrumental in bringing about a situation in which Art Asia would be excluded from the project and lose its grant funding. However, it must be remembered that none of the criticisms uttered behind closed doors and used to force the city council to exclude Art Asia from the project were ever shared with Art Asia—nor was any evidence produced to support them, nor was Art Asia ever given a chance to respond or address them. Nothing in previous public assessments of Art Asia’s work substantiates the criticisms made in private.
“unwieldy and unviable business case”,
“Southampton city council and Art Asia requested that their capital grants be brought together in one single funding agreement that named Southampton city council the client. At this stage, Southampton city council and Art Asia are still in discussion about Art Asia’s role and space in the project”.
Given what I discovered through a freedom of information request, that response is disingenuous in the extreme and does not reflect well on the Arts Council. It is clear that decisions were being taken behind the scenes of which Art Asia was not aware and
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to which it could not respond. Significantly, none of the material that I have seen through my FOI request seems to have considered the moral and perhaps legal responsibility to respect the original reasons why the grant was made in the first place. There is no record of any attempt to secure the future of south Asian arts in the city of Southampton and the wider region.
Dr Alan Whitehead (Southampton, Test) (Lab): I fully support my right hon. Friend’s comments about the huge respect in which Art Asia is held throughout Southampton and the whole of south Hampshire. It undertakes extensive artistic endeavours and brings ethnic minority art and cultural activities to the region.
As I understand it, Southampton city council gave a written assurance of the position of Art Asia’s grants, and informal assurances on the usability of its grants should the arts centre project not go ahead. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the record certainly appears to suggest throughout that Art Asia had a grant that was absorbed into the larger arts centre proceedings for technical and operational reasons, and that—morally, at least—Art Asia’s grant should remain protected if Art Asia wishes to use it for purposes other than the arts centre, if it is not to be a part of the arts centre in future?
Mr Denham: My hon. Friend makes a good point. Nothing in the early discussions, when Art Asia and the city council sensibly came together to pool their resources, suggested that Art Asia was putting its grant award at risk, but that is what now seems to have happened.
The Minister is responsible for voluntary organisations—as I have been in the past, as my hon. Friend has been and as you may well have been, Mr Crausby. Anyone who has funded voluntary organisations knows that there are times when frank discussions must be had, and when it must be made clear that changes will be needed in an organisation’s work for funding to continue. But that never happened in this case.
I have appreciated hugely the contribution that Art Asia has made to the life, culture and vibrancy of Southampton and the surrounding region. I am not an expert on south Asian arts; if there were criticisms of Art Asia, it should have been given the chance to respond to them. That would have been a proper process and natural justice, but it simply has not happened. As my hon. Friend said, that leaves Art Asia in a difficult position. It has been excluded from the leading role in the arts complex project that was originally proposed, it is being denied the right to remove its original grant funding from the arts complex project to develop its own facilities and, as I understand it, should the arts complex project not go ahead for any reason, Art Asia’s money will be withdrawn along with any other Arts Council funding.
I am sure that the Minister will agree that that is an unsatisfactory position. I have four points to put to him. First, I hope that he will acknowledge—if not today, then after he has had a chance to consider what I have said—that the issue has not been handled well, and that the Arts Council has not operated with the transparency and openness that a public body distributing taxpayers’ money should have shown.
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Chinese capital programme, which was to ensure that minority arts organisations get a fair share of public funding. That means ensuring that in one way or another, the original intention of giving the grant to Art Asia is fulfilled, whatever happens in future. Thirdly, will the Minister use his best endeavours to find a way forward that works for all parties, including Art Asia?
Finally—I hesitate to raise this point—I hope that the Minister will give his commitment to ensuring as far as possible that Art Asia is fairly treated in future. I have tried to be as accurate and factual as I can in what I have said, but such organisations are heavily dependent on grant funding. Like many arts organisations, Art Asia has suffered a significant cut in revenue funding, about 60%, although the funding for the Mela is to continue.
At the moment, members of Art Asia are torn between their feeling about the unfairness with which they have been treated and their fear that by raising questions, they will suffer further cuts. One reason why this debate refers to events that happened two years ago is, frankly, that everybody wanted to complete the Arts Council funding round before the issues were raised in a public forum.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I am grateful for the opportunity to speak under your chairmanship, Mr Crausby, and to respond to this important debate secured by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr Denham) on an issue important to his constituency that might have wider implications.
As a colleague in the House, I know only too well how rare an opportunity it is to secure a Westminster Hall debate. I am looking at two colleagues with distinguished careers. The fact that they have taken the time to come to the Chamber to raise the issue speaks volumes about how important it is. To put it in a slightly more vernacular way, I do not think that either the right hon. Gentleman or the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) would use any weapon in his locker on an issue that was frivolous or unimportant. It goes without saying that it should be taken extremely seriously.
It is also nice, as I have some time, to be able to take a brief moment to praise Southampton as a city of the arts and an important cultural city, being the home of the great film maker Ken Russell, the great hymn-writer Isaac Watts and, of course, the songwriter sans pareil, Mr Craig David. I congratulate both Members on their contribution to Southampton’s return to the premier league. I look forward to seeing Southampton play at the home of the European champions next season, perhaps accompanied by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Despite my mildly humorous opening, the serious point is that the Arts Council has made a commitment to the arts in Southampton. That is why we are here today. We would not be here if the Arts Council had not made serious capital commitments to the city. As has been indicated by the right hon. Gentleman, that capital
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commitment is now focused exclusively on Southampton’s new arts centre. He went into a great deal of necessary detail about the issue, but to rehearse some of the chronology, the decision was made in June 2005 to grant Southampton’s new arts centre—known, I gather, by its acronym SNAC—some £5 million and give a £750,000 grant to Art Asia. At the time, neither organisation wanted to accept the money and put it in its bank account. There were a number of complicated reasons for that—all related to getting the project off the ground—including changes of developers, difficulty in meeting funding conditions, issues of leadership and artistic vision, and a concern that capital costs were increasing.
It was later agreed by the Arts Council’s management committee that a revised funding agreement of £5.724 million would be awarded to Southampton city council for SNAC, which named Art Asia and other arts organisations in its bid, and that included Art Asia’s award, which by that time was £724,000, not £750,000, because it had already received a capital sum of £26,000. However, things became slightly more complicated and an extraordinary review of the entire project took place under the auspices of the Arts Council between January 2009 and March 2011. I am told that since March 2010, the Arts Council’s south-east office has worked closely with Southampton city council to develop the governance and artistic vision for SNAC. As the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned, the office has also worked with the university of Southampton, because it is responsible for the John Hansard gallery, which is based on its campus. The aim of the review was to ensure a shared understanding of the strategic direction and any other issues before going ahead with the project.
I am pleased to note that a great deal of progress has been made. There has been a change to the operating model and design, and about two years ago, in July 2010, ACE provided another £1.5 million of capital to support SNAC. That means that the total capital investment for the project is about £7.2 million. The current position, as I understand it, is that Southampton city council has reviewed the design of the new arts complex as well as the governance and operating model. I also understand that the Arts Council regularly meets Southampton city council to discuss the project as part of the monitoring of the award of capital. Discussions are taking place on the external context in which the new development is taking place—that is, its place in the local, regional and national arts ecology—as well as on the design of the centre. The Arts Council’s clear goal is to give Southampton a high-quality arts offer and to galvanise its position as a cultural hub in the south-east. That is why Southampton city council has become a national portfolio organisation. It will receive almost £350,000 over the next three years to recruit an arts champion to lead on artistic vision and to work with SNAC.
That is the current position, but I have listened to what the right hon. Gentleman has said and will set out briefly what I am able to do. We fund the arts at arm’s length through the Arts Council, which is what every Government have done since the Arts Council was established. That is the absolutely appropriate way to fund the arts. Since we are debating controversial issues relating to the Arts Council, I should put on record the fact that, certainly during my time as a Minister, overall
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it has done an excellent job. In Alan Davey, it has a fantastic chief executive who has tackled a difficult financial position, as well as the review of the organisations that the Arts Council funds, with a deft hand. It is testament to his leadership that the Arts Council is now a widely respected institution.
I should also note that the problems that the right hon. Gentleman has brought to our attention began some time before Alan Davey was in post. Indeed, the Arts Council has had to cope with a recent inquiry into the funding of The Public in West Bromwich—given that one of the Members of Parliament there is the hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson), it is not a place to make too many errors—and there were some criticisms, but I would not hold that against the current chief executive, who, to a certain extent, has inherited one or two problems that arose before his time.
I agree completely with both the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Southampton, Test that if there were problems with Art Asia as an organisation, it should have had the chance to respond. Although Art Asia’s funding has been reduced—as has the funding of many arts organisations—it continues to receive regular funding and to be a national portfolio organisation. Alan Davey and his colleagues at the Arts Council handled the process well, and one of the reasons why the process was held in high regard and earned a great deal of respect is that it was rigorous and based on artistic merit. Art Asia would not have survived and would not have continued to receive funding unless it was a well-run and important arts organisation. The fact not only that local MPs have been prepared to back it and give their time to raise the issue in Parliament, but that Art Asia has continued to receive funding from the Arts Council, speaks volumes—without my knowing a huge amount about Art Asia as an organisation—about its status as an important organisation that deserves support.
Turning to the four issues raised by the right hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen at the end of his contribution, first, I would hesitate to go on record at this early stage and agree with him that the issue has not been handled well. It might be worth while to undertake some form of independent review of the process in the future, to decide whether that is the case. Of course, as the right hon. Gentleman acknowledged, that relates to events that have already taken place and what we are concerned with is the here and now.
Secondly, the right hon. Gentleman invited me, almost as an issue of national policy, to commit myself to the aims of the BME and Chinese capital programme. I would not hesitate to agree with him that it is important that the Arts Council focuses on support for BME organisations. That is not an issue of political correctness. It is a straightforward matter of fact that many such organisations are not well represented and, to be frank, many of them do not necessarily have the insider knowledge—if I can put it that way—of how to apply to the Arts Council or of what opportunities it presents. I would always encourage the Arts Council to reach out to such organisations to encourage them to apply and be part of its funding programmes.
Thirdly, and perhaps most pragmatically, the right hon. Gentleman invited me to use my best endeavours to find a way forward. I will certainly agree to do that. I have written to him to suggest a meeting. I like nothing
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better than a good round table. I invite him and his colleagues from Southampton, Southampton city council, the Arts Council and Art Asia to sit around a table to discuss the issues and see whether we can find a way forward. Such comments tend to give my officials a dose of the heebie-jeebies, but given that they are also trying to deliver a £9.2 billion Olympic games, this should be a walk in the park for them. I promise that I will not cross the line by interfering in the Arts Council’s decision and that I will act exclusively as a neutral operator to bring the two sides together to discuss openly and frankly, but behind closed doors, a possible way forward.
That leads me to the right hon. Gentleman’s final point, namely whether Art Asia will continue to be fairly treated and avoid any comeback as a result of raising this issue in such a prominent fashion. I wholeheartedly agree with him that it is absolutely right and proper that any organisation that feels that it has
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been unfairly treated or that has concerns about something should be able to talk to its local MP, and that that local MP should be able to raise that issue in a way that he or she thinks appropriate. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that I am completely confident, given how closely I have worked with the Arts Council over the past two years and the excellent men and women who work there, that there will be no comeback on Art Asia for raising the issue. I very much hope that all that will have been achieved is that we can progress at a more rapid pace than has been achieved in the past. I will certainly, along with the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues, put my shoulder to the wheel to try to establish a way forward.