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House of Commons
Wednesday 24 October 2012
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. Excellent work and co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners has put those involved in terrorism under huge pressure. We continue to be vigilant in our efforts to counter the threat posed by those groupings, whose activities are condemned by the vast majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
Pat Glass: I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Security sources tell us that paramilitary involvement was evident in the public disorder around the disputed parades this summer. What is her assessment of loyalist paramilitary involvement in the riots seen in Belfast in July and August?
Mrs Villiers: I thank the hon. Lady for her question and for her congratulations. I pay tribute to my predecessor, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson), for all the work that he did for Northern Ireland. I also take this opportunity to reflect on the contribution that Sir Stuart Bell made to Northern Ireland as a Front-Bench spokesman. He was a great Member of this House and will be much missed.
In response to the hon. Lady’s question on public disorder, it was deeply regrettable that we saw scenes on our television screens a few weeks ago that many had started to associate with Northern Ireland’s past. The Police Service of Northern Ireland is determined to ensure that those scenes are dealt with, and we are doing everything that we can to support its efforts to crack down on paramilitaries and on rioting of the disgraceful sort that we saw in September.
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Mrs Villiers: I can give my hon. Friend the assurance that he wants. A huge amount of effort is being put in by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners. I also commend the contribution of the Garda Siochana in the efforts to counter terrorism. We are determined to defeat the threat of people who continue to have lethal intent and will do everything that we can to prevent them from achieving their aims.
The Secretary of State will know that the Home Secretary announced this morning that the threat level from dissident republicans on the mainland has been reduced from “substantial” to “moderate”. Does she share the concern of many people that such an announcement may be premature and somewhat counter-productive? Will she assure the House, given the recent experience of intelligence-level reports, that there will be no reduction in security and no complacency on the part of the security forces?
Mrs Villiers: I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. We will continue to be vigilant in the face of the continuing threat of Northern Ireland-related terrorism. He will appreciate that the change announced today relates to Great Britain, as he said. The threat level in Northern Ireland remains at “severe”. In both Great Britain and Northern Ireland, the Government are focused on defeating terrorism and we will use all the means at our disposal to do that.
Mr Dodds: I thank the Secretary of State. She referred to the situation in Northern Ireland and said that the threat level remains at “severe”. In the light of that, has she had discussions with the Chief Constable about the threat level from dissident republicans? Will she look positively on any request from the Chief Constable to extend the Treasury reserve funding of £200 million, which was announced in 2010, to help the PSNI deal with the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland?
Mrs Villiers: I had the opportunity to discuss those matters with the Chief Constable in some detail yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman is right to refer to the importance of the £200 million of additional funding, which is devoted to countering the terrorist threat in Northern Ireland. We will certainly have discussions with the Chief Constable and the Treasury on what might occur after the cessation of that £200 million of funding.
Lady Hermon (North Down) (Ind): I, too, welcome the right hon. Lady and her colleague to the Northern Ireland Office. I am quite sure that they will enjoy their posting to the mainland in Northern Ireland. Now on to my question—and it is a serious one.
Given that two very brave, young British soldiers were murdered by dissident republicans at Massereene barracks in March 2009 and that, since then, we have lost several of our soldiers in Afghanistan who grew up in Northern Ireland, will the right hon. Lady confirm exactly when her colleague, the Secretary of State for Defence, will visit Northern Ireland, not to tell the troops that they are to be made redundant, but to boost their morale, beginning with Palace barracks in my constituency of North Down?
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Mrs Villiers: I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question, and I will certainly pass on her request to the Secretary of State for Defence. I understand that a Minister of State at the Ministry of Defence is due to visit Northern Ireland fairly soon.
Vernon Coaker (Gedling) (Lab): May I begin by paying tribute to my colleague Sir Stuart Bell? He served as a Front-Bench Northern Ireland spokesman and retained a deep affection and concern for the place throughout his time in the House.
I wish the previous Secretary of State well in his new post and welcome the new Secretary of State to her place. I want to work with her constructively and in a bipartisan way, particularly on issues relating to security.
This morning, the Home Office reduced the threat to Great Britain from Northern Ireland-related terrorism, but the threat in Northern Ireland itself remains “severe”. Will the Secretary of State assure the House and the people of Northern Ireland that there will be no downgrading of the Government’s commitment to combat terrorism anywhere in the United Kingdom?
Mrs Villiers: Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The change to the threat level does not affect our commitment to bearing down hard on the small minority of people who still seek to use violence and terrorism as a means to achieve political ends.
Vernon Coaker: I thank the Secretary of State for her reply. Does she agree that we need to confront those who want to destroy peace at both the security and a community level, and that we should not take for granted the progress that has been made?
Young people in socially and economically deprived areas are vulnerable to exploitation by paramilitaries. With one in four out of work, what is the Secretary of State doing to tackle unemployment and ensure that Northern Ireland’s young people get the better future that they were promised and deserve?
Mrs Villiers: I welcome the bipartisan approach that the hon. Gentleman wishes to pursue. It is of course vital that we bear down on terrorism using a range of strategies. We have already discussed the £200 million of additional funding that the Government have devoted to countering the security threat and keeping people in Northern Ireland safe and secure. We are doing all we can to boost the economy with our programme to repair the public finances and reduce the deficit. We are reducing corporation tax across the United Kingdom to enhance the attractiveness of the UK as a destination for inward investment, and we are providing tax reliefs for the creative industries, including high-end television. We are determined that Northern Ireland will remain a great place in which to do business.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers):
My hon. Friend the Minister of State and I have met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister and a number of their colleagues, and we have renewed
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the Government’s commitment to supporting their efforts to promote economic development and help rebuild and rebalance the economy.
David Rutley: My right hon. Friend will be aware that the Financial Times recently described Belfast as the top destination globally for investing in financial services technology. Does she agree that when it comes to attracting and encouraging foreign direct investment, Northern Ireland has a great deal to offer potential investors?
Mrs Villiers: It has indeed, and I had the honour of discussing these matters in a meeting in the city only recently. Northern Ireland has seen some striking success stories, such as the investment by Citigroup and the New York Stock Exchange. I praise the role of the universities in Northern Ireland, which have engaged with business, particularly in the financial services technology sector. That is an incredibly important industry for the UK as a whole, and it is a matter of real credit to Northern Ireland that it has successfully obtained so many inward investment jobs in the financial sector.
I understand that in the negotiations on corporation tax, the point at issue is not one of principle but one of cost, with one side estimating the cost to the Northern Ireland block at £300 million and the other estimating it as being in the region of £420 million. What is the Secretary of State’s understanding of that? If the latter is the case, how does she intend to suggest that the gap be met in discussions with the Treasury, and what will her advice to the Prime Minister be?
Mrs Villiers: Real progress has been made on the issue. The working group on corporation tax concluded on Thursday, and we are now proceeding to write up our findings and will report them to the Prime Minister in due course. We have an idea of how devolved corporation tax might work in a way that would not impose unnecessary administrative burdens on business. The hon. Lady is right that there are still important practical issues to resolve and alternatives to consider, and we will continue to work on those matters.
When it comes to economic development, the Secretary of State will know that about 70% of employment in Northern Ireland is in the public sector. What will she do to grow the private sector? I hope she will work closely with bodies such as the Northern Ireland Federation of Small Businesses.
I am very happy to work with all business bodies in Northern Ireland, and they do a great job in representing Northern Ireland. Much has already been done to enhance the competitiveness of Northern Ireland—in particular with the boost for superfast broadband—and Belfast is due to become one of the UK’s first 10 super-connected cities. The United Kingdom Government took the decision to devolve long-haul air passenger duty to conserve vital transatlantic flights,
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and we are working hard to attract inward investment. It is important to use the UK’s network of embassies around the world to promote the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, as a great place in which to do business.
Mrs Villiers: I had the privilege of meeting Arlene Foster to discuss that matter last week. We decided that we would work together to make representations to Brussels on assisted-area status in Northern Ireland, and together we will make the case for Northern Ireland.
Fuel Laundering and Smuggling
3. Rosie Cooper (West Lancashire) (Lab): What progress she has made on implementing the recommendations of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee’s third report of session 2010-12 on Fuel Laundering and Smuggling in Northern Ireland, HC 1504. 
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): May I, too, pay tribute to Sir Stuart Bell? He served as shadow Northern Ireland Minister and served his country in many different roles. He will be a sad loss to us all.
Fuel fraud is primarily an excise offence and a matter for Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which works closely with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice and its counterparts, including the Northern Ireland Office. I welcome the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. It was very useful, and many of the issues and recommendations it contains will be taken forward. Fuel fraud is taken very seriously and remains a high priority.
Rosie Cooper: Following the memorandum of understanding signed by HMRC and Irish revenue commissioners, will the Minister say what progress has been made on putting in place a single tender procedure for the marker for rebated diesel, and will he assure the House that there will be no slippage on the agreed timetable?
Mike Penning: Work continues on that agreement, and there is no doubt that dealing with fuel fraud, as well as with tobacco smuggling, is a top priority for the Government in the Province. We know that money from things such as fuel smuggling gets into the wrong hands and jeopardises the peace that we are all looking for.
One recommendation in the report by the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee was that sentences for such crimes in Northern Ireland should be strengthened because they are far weaker than those in Great Britain. Will the Minister do all he can to help bring about those stronger sentences recommended by the Committee?
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earlier, money made from such crimes often goes to the wrong areas, and we are looking forward to ensuring that it does not.
A recent HMRC report on measuring tax gaps revealed that fuel smuggling over the past year has increased from involving 12% of all diesel sold in Northern Ireland to 25%—a staggering increase. Does the Minister agree that HMRC must be encouraged to find a measure that will allow it to mark properly fuel in Northern Ireland, so that it cannot be stripped of its mark and sold as counterfeit?
Mike Penning: This sort of technical work is being looked at carefully, and one element that will help enormously is the lorry road user charging legislation that the Government started to bring forward yesterday. That will create a more level playing field for all hauliers—those who are hit hardest by this problem—across the entire United Kingdom including, quite rightly, in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): The Government’s priority is to return the UK economy to sustainable, balanced growth. To achieve that we are tackling the deficit and creating the conditions for private sector investment and growth. Such investment and growth is critically needed to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy, and we shall work in close partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive to achieve it.
Ian Lucas: I welcome the Secretary of State to her position. Will she reassure the people of Northern Ireland that none of the £40 million that the Government have admitted they wasted on the west coast main line franchise fiasco will come out of the budget of her new Department?
Mrs Villiers: I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are determined to rebalance the economy in Northern Ireland. I noticed that, under Labour, the Northern Ireland economy became more dependent on public spending. The west coast incident has no impact on Northern Ireland—I am happy to assure him of that.
Chris Ruane: I welcome the right hon. Lady to her new position as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and thank her for her contribution to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which she visited on Monday.
“Ed Balls and Vernon Coaker were correct this week in asserting that Northern Ireland requires strong growth initiatives now, not later. As well as government investment on infrastructure, Northern Ireland needs demand stimulating
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policies such a VAT reduction and tax breaks for local companies taking on more workers. These are the initiatives that are needed to create jobs”.
Mrs Villiers: When the shadow Chancellor finally got round to visiting Northern Ireland, all he came up with was more tax, more borrowing and more spending. The reality is that that is all Labour has to offer in its economic policy. All hon. Members know that we cannot borrow our way out of a debt crisis. The problems in Northern Ireland and across the UK are to a large extent caused by the significant deficit left to this country by the Labour party.
Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP): Last year, Facebook paid £280,000 on tax on UK earnings of £20.4 million, because most of the moneys were transferred and paid through its base in Dublin. Does the Secretary of State agree that Facebook would have paid a substantial amount to the Treasury if it had paid corporation tax in Northern Ireland, and, more importantly, that that would have boosted the Northern Ireland economy?
Mrs Villiers: It is important that all companies pay their fair share of tax. HMRC has devoted very significant resources to cracking down on tax evasion and artificial tax avoidance. The Government are devoting more effort and energy to that task than any previous Government, and we will continue to do so.
Mr James Gray (North Wiltshire) (Con): Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the great drawbacks in Northern Ireland, as elsewhere, on job-producing economic initiatives is the dead hand of the planning system? What steps will she take to seek to encourage the Northern Ireland Executive to hasten the planning system, particularly with regard to large-scale projects?
Mrs Villiers: I agree with my hon. Friend that reforming the planning system is vital to ensuring that a country is a good place in which to do business. He will appreciate that planning is a devolved matter for the Northern Ireland Executive. I very much welcome the Executive’s work on seeing whether the planning system can be reformed to make it more effective and efficient.
The Secretary of State seized on concerns about current banking and business in Northern Ireland, but is she focusing on the future business of banking in Northern Ireland and the implications that arise from UK legislation, such as financial services and banking reform measures, and the shake-up in the Irish banks and moves towards banking union, which has severe implications for our economy?
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Clearly, Northern Ireland was perhaps more impacted by the property crash and banking crash than many other parts of the UK because of its links with the Republic of Ireland economy. The hangover of negative equity is a serious problem, which is why it is essential that we work to ensure that Northern Ireland gets the
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most it can out of the recently announced funding for lending scheme to get much-needed business credit flowing back to business.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State on assuming her post. May I probe her on the link between security and her economic policies? It was no coincidence that Labour achieved the 2007 settlement with record jobs and record levels of growth. Now we have the very reverse, with young loyalists and republicans involved in all sorts of civil disturbances. There is a link.
Mrs Villiers: One reason we need to boost the Northern Ireland economy is that we must do all we can to choke off potential support for terrorism. It is also important that the UK Government, the community across Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive work on generating a genuinely shared future and on bringing down sectarian barriers. That, too, is an important part of our strategy to choke off support for terrorism.
Stephen Pound (Ealing North) (Lab): Belfast’s glorious maritime history is an essential component of economic growth. In welcoming the Minister of State to his position, may I thank him for the work he has undertaken to ensure that HMS Caroline will for ever nestle within the slightly chilly bosom of Belfast lough? When he draws up the guest list for the re-launch, will he not forget Chief Petty Officer Yeoman William Perkiss, the last instructor on HMS Caroline and now a Doorkeeper in this very House?
Mrs Villiers: I happily praise the efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister and, indeed, the shadow Minister, who I know has had a long-standing interest in HMS Caroline. I also thank the National Heritage Memorial Fund for providing £1 million to secure the future of HMS Caroline in Belfast. [Interruption.] I hope that that will be welcomed by Chief Petty Officer Yeoman William Perkiss, who is part of our House of Commons.
Air Passenger Duty
5. Dr Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast South) (SDLP): What assessment she has made of the effect of the level of air passenger duty for short-haul flights on the regional economy in Northern Ireland. 
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): The impact of air passenger duty on Northern Ireland was carefully considered last year, and, in recognition of Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor agreed to the Northern Ireland Executive’s request for the devolution of APD for all direct long-haul flights departing from Northern Ireland airports.
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Is the Minister aware that the business community in Northern Ireland is unanimous in its view that the high level of passenger duty is helping to strangle potential economic recovery? Will he tell us more about the unique circumstances that he mentioned?
Mike Penning: I just about heard what the hon. Gentleman said. I think he asked about future APD. Interestingly, when I looked into the matter, the Executive did not ask for short-haul powers. If they had, we would have considered it. If they want short-haul powers, therefore, we will consider the matter, although there would, of course, be a cost to their own Exchequer.
Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that the cut in APD in Northern Ireland will allow airlines to develop further long-haul services and significantly stimulate the Northern Ireland economy, and would that not be true across the whole of the UK?
Mike Penning: My hon. Friend draws me into territory that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor, who is sitting to my left, will probably ensure I do not dwell on. There was a sustainable argument for the exceptional circumstances in Northern Ireland. The Executive requested long-haul APD, and the Chancellor gave it to them. Should they request something more, we would consider it.
Mr Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): Does the Minister agree that the reduction in APD is a key driver in attracting inward investment? Will he agree to negotiate with the Department for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, should it propose that short-haul APD—in other words, at Belfast City and Londonderry airports, as well as for international flights—also be reduced?
Mike Penning: I will continue to work as closely as I can with all parts of Northern Ireland, particularly the Department of Finance and Personnel and businesses, but there would be a cost to the Minister for Finance and Personnel, which I know he is aware of, but as yet we have not had a request for short haul. If we do, we will look at it.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mike Penning): As yet, I have not had the opportunity to have introductory discussions with the Irish Government, although I have had discussions with the Irish ambassador in London. Although the sponsorship of the Smithwick tribunal is a matter for the Irish Government, I am aware of the recent intention to extend the deadline for the tribunal to complete its work.
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Mr Donaldson: It is absolutely crucial that the tribunal is extended because of the revelations in recent times. We need to get to the truth of the matter. These were the two most senior RUC officers to be murdered by the IRA and there is strong evidence of collusion on the part of Irish state forces, so we need to know precisely what happened.
Mike Penning: I think we would all agree that what we require is the truth. The Republic of Ireland Government have been asked for an extension, that is true, and we will give all the assistance we can. In recent weeks we have given more help in the form of the evidence we have discovered in the north and we will continue to do so.
8. Naomi Long (Belfast East) (Alliance): What further steps she plans to take following the initial round of talks with Northern Ireland party leaders aimed at finding consensus on dealing with the past and its legacy. 
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mrs Theresa Villiers): It is important to find a way to deal with the legacy of the past in an inclusive way that recognises the pain caused to victims and survivors while helping everyone in Northern Ireland move forward towards a genuinely shared future. A way forward can be delivered only if a wide range of people and political parties in Northern Ireland work together to build consensus.
Naomi Long: I, too, welcome the Secretary of State and her ministerial colleague to their new roles. Does she agree that finding an agreed and comprehensive way of addressing the legacy of the past is critical and should be a priority not only because of the current generation, who were impacted on directly by the troubles, but as a means of tackling the deep-seated sectarianism that still exists in Northern Ireland and prevents us from achieving our objectives financially, economically and socially?
Mrs Villiers: I agree that that is an important priority and pay tribute to the work of the hon. Lady and her party on this matter. It is important for us all to work together to see whether we can build consensus and foster mutual understanding of the past, reconciling the different perspectives of the past in the different traditions in Northern Ireland. As she says, our goals should be to bring people together and try to eliminate the sectarian divides that still exist.
The Prime Minister was asked—
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The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. The allegations and what seems to have happened are completely appalling, and they are shocking the entire country. The allegations leave many institutions, perhaps particularly the BBC, with serious questions to answer. Above all the question is, “How did he get away with this for so long?” The most important thing is that the police investigation is properly resourced and allowed to continue. I do not rule out further steps, but we now have independent investigations by the BBC and into the NHS, and today I can confirm that the Director of Public Prosecutions has confirmed that his principal legal adviser will again review the papers from the time when a case was put to the Crown Prosecution Service for prosecution. The Director of Public Prosecutions will specifically consider what more can be done to alert relevant authorities when there are concerns but a prosecution is not taken forward. The Government will do everything we can, and other institutions must do what they can, to ensure that we learn the lessons from this and that it can never happen again.
“we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 316.]
The Prime Minister: As I said last week, we are going to use the Energy Bill to ensure that customers get the lowest tariffs. That is what we want to do. There is a real problem here that is worth looking at: last year, there were more than 400 tariffs. That is completely baffling for customers and although encouraging people to switch can help make a difference, we need to go further and we need to use the law. I am in no doubt that we are on the side of people who work hard, pay their bills and want a better deal.
Edward Miliband: The only people who were baffled last week were all the Prime Minister’s Ministers, who did not know anything about his announcement. Last week, it was a gilt-edged guarantee from the Prime Minister. Of course, now we have read the small print it has totally unravelled—another dodgy offer from this Prime Minister. Why cannot he admit the truth just for once? He does not do the detail, he made up the policy and he got caught out.
The Prime Minister:
We are going to use the Energy Bill to ensure that people get the lowest tariff. The Deputy Prime Minister said exactly the same thing. The right hon. Gentleman wants to look at the detail; let me ask him about this detail—yes, we have his entire energy policy laid out for us. Perhaps he can tell us something. Now he says he wants to scrap Ofgem; in government, he kept Ofgem. Now he says he wants to pool energy supplies; in government Labour scrapped pooling energy
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supplies. Now he says he wants to refer the big six to the Competition Commission; then he said he would not do it because it would be wrong. I am all in favour of switching, but this is ridiculous.
Edward Miliband: Let us talk about my record as Energy Secretary. I want to thank the Prime Minister for the Conservative party briefing document issued last Thursday—after the chaos at PMQs. It reveals something very interesting. While I was the Energy Secretary, the average dual fuel bill fell by £110; under him, it has risen by £200, so I will compare my record with his any day. [Interruption.] Look, the part-time Chancellor is giving advice again. I am actually coming on to one of his favourite subjects—the west coast main line.
“We’ve tested it very robustly”.
“The process is incredibly robust”.
The Prime Minister: First of all, the right hon. Gentleman says he wants to talk about his record as Energy Secretary, so I think we should spend a little bit of time on that. The fact is, under Labour, gas bills doubled and electricity bills were up more than 50%. When he became Energy Secretary, the companies were making a £25 loss per bill; when he left government, they were making £55 profit per bill. He did not stand up to the vested interests; he stuffed their pockets with cash. Right, we have dealt with that—oh, by the way, while we are on his energy record, he put in place in his low-carbon transition plan a policy that would have added £179 to every single person’s bill in the country. Perhaps when he gets up, he can apologise for that.
Edward Miliband: Even the Prime Minister is taking his habit of not answering questions to a new level. I asked him a question—[Interruption.] If he wants to swap places, I am very happy to do so. I asked him a question about the railways. [Interruption.] The Chancellor is shouting from a sedentary position, but it is not the ticket that needs upgrading; in my view, it is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The mishandling of this process has cost taxpayers up to £100 million, so which of the Prime Minister’s former Transport Ministers who oversaw the bidding is responsible for this multi-million pound fiasco?
The Prime Minister:
There is a proper independent investigation into what happened with the west coast main line. The Secretary of State for Transport has made a full statement to this House and has explained
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what will be done so that commuters continue to receive a good service and we get to the bottom of what went wrong. What is interesting—and what the country will notice—is that the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about the Chancellor because he cannot talk about the economy because he has got no plans to increase the private sector. He cannot talk about the deficit because he has got no plans to cut it. He cannot talk about welfare because he opposes our plans to cap it. He cannot talk about all the issues that matter to this country—and that is why he stands up and just tells a whole lot of rubbish jokes.
Edward Miliband: I think we can take it from that answer that no one is taking responsibility for what happened on the railways. Ministers did not know the detail, they did not do the work, and they got caught out—but who can blame them? They are just playing follow my leader, after all.
“We must provide the modern Conservative alternative. Clear. Competent. Inspiring.”
The Prime Minister: I will tell you what has happened under this Government in the last week. Inflation: down. Unemployment: down. Crime: down. Waiting lists: down. Borrowing: down. That is what is happening, but the right hon. Gentleman cannot talk about the real issues, because he is not up to the job.
Edward Miliband: It is good to see the crimson tide back. This is the reality: the Prime Minister is living in a parallel universe. It has been another disastrous week for his Government. Last week he defended the Chief Whip; now the Chief Whip has gone; he made up an energy policy; that has gone too; and he has lost millions of pounds on the railways. Is not the truth that there is no one else left to blame for the shambles of his Government? It goes right to the top.
The Prime Minister: It is only a bad week if you think it is bad that unemployment is coming down. We think it is good. It is only a bad week if you regret the fact that inflation is coming down. We think it is a good thing for our country. It is only a bad week if you do not think it is a good thing that a million more people are in work. That is what is happening in our country. Every bit of good news sends that team into a complete decline, but I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the good news will keep coming.
Q2.  Chris Kelly (Dudley South) (Con): Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the good news that there has been a 13% fall in recorded crime in the west midlands over the past 12 months, and congratulating West Midlands police and the Dudley local policing unit on their performance? Robbery is down by 31% and house burglaries are down by 29% in my area. Does not that fall in crime show that police reform is working?
The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend has made an important point. Not only has recorded crime fallen by 6%, but the crime survey showed that it had fallen by 6%. This is a time when we are making difficult decisions about police funding, but owing to the combination of
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that police reform—the changes that we are making—and a tougher approach to criminal justice, crime is falling and public satisfaction with the police is going up.
Q3.  Mr Gareth Thomas (Harrow West) (Lab/Co-op): Last year the Prime Minister told the House that there was no reason why front-line police officer numbers needed to fall, but my constituents in Harrow tell me that they are seeing fewer police on our streets. Is not the real truth that there are 6,800 fewer police officers since he came to power?
Q4.  Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Last week planning permission was granted for a large retail leisure park on derelict land at Skew Bridge, between my constituency and the Corby constituency. It will create 2,000 new jobs, and will provide a large branch of Marks and Spencer and a stunning nature reserve. Labour opposes that development. Will the Prime Minister tell the House whom the people of Corby should support—Christine Emmett and the Conservatives, who are campaigning for 2,000 new jobs, or Labour’s Corby luddites?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend has made the excellent point that it is this party and this Government who are getting behind economic development. As I have just said, every piece of good news is a disaster for Labour Members. They wake up every morning wanting more unemployment, but unemployment is coming down. They wake up wanting inflation to rise, but inflation is coming down. As we can see in Corby, it is the Conservatives who are getting behind growth and jobs in the future.
Mr Nigel Dodds (Belfast North) (DUP): During the last election, the Prime Minister made many pledges to the electorate. One of those pledges was that he would help to rebalance the Northern Ireland economy. Given that our economy lags behind the United Kingdom average and, indeed, behind the position in Scotland in terms of key economic indicators, when can we expect an announcement from the Prime Minister on the steps that he will take to help to rebalance our economy?
The Prime Minister: I do want to see the Northern Irish economy rebalance; it badly needs to, because the size of the state sector is so big and accounts for so much of Northern Ireland GDP. We are continuing to pursue the policy of looking at a lower corporation tax rate for Northern Ireland, because of the land border with the Republic. I do not believe that is the only thing we should look at. We also need to see how we can boost manufacturing and small businesses, increase the rate of business start-up and also do all the things we can to encourage inward investment into Northern Ireland, which I have been doing, including on the trips I have been making to other parts of the globe.
Q5.  Mr Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con):
On Monday I was delighted when the Prime Minister put his personal rocket boosters under payment by results for rehabilitation. Will he, as First Lord of the Treasury, ensure that the Treasury stands four-square behind the Ministry of Justice as it designs and delivers
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the first generation of payment-by-results programmes, which are radical, globally new and underwrite unquantifiable cash consequences of success for the next spending review period?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes a very important point. We should be bringing payment by results to all of the criminal justice system. Currently, we spend over £1 billion on probation. I want to see payment by results being the norm rather than the exception. To be fair to the Treasury, when it designed payment by results in the welfare system, it allowed the Department for Work and Pensions to spend the future receipts of lower benefit claims. I am sure the Treasury will be equally inventive and creative when it comes to making sure we get better value for money and better results in our criminal justice system.
Q6.  Gavin Shuker (Luton South) (Lab/Co-op): Last week from the Dispatch Box the Prime Minister said that services at Kettering hospital were safe. This week we have learned that the official review’s so-called best option is to get rid of many vital services in our hospital and to reduce the number of beds by 80%. Is it not the truth that you cannot trust the Tories on the NHS?
The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend makes an important point. The figures showed last week that there are more people in work than at any time in our history. There are more women in work than at any time in our history, and since the election the number of full-time jobs has increased faster than the number of part-time jobs. There is absolutely no complacency on the Government Benches, but we have got to do everything we can to continue the progress—getting people into work, getting the long-term unemployed into work and cracking down on youth unemployment as well.
Q8.  Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab): Can the Prime Minister explain the relationship between Virgin Care donations to the Tory party, the number of Virgin Care shareholders on clinical commissioning group boards and the number of NHS contracts that have been awarded to Virgin Care?
The Prime Minister: All donations to political parties are properly disclosed and properly announced, but the difference, I have to say, between the donations that the Conservative party gets from individuals and businesses, and the trade unions’ donations to the Labour party is that they effectively buy votes at the Labour party’s conference and policies in its manifesto, and they vote for the Labour leader as well. The trade unions pay the money, they get the votes. That is the scandal in funding parties.
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Q9.  Henry Smith (Crawley) (Con): Under the previous Labour Government the national health service lost hundreds of millions of pounds because the cost of treating foreign patients was not properly recovered. Can I get an assurance from my right hon. Friend that both the Department of Health and the Home Office will now work together to resolve this issue?
The Prime Minister: I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. This area—who should pay, how much and when—has become much too complicated, so I have asked that Ministers get together to simplify it. My hon. Friend the Minister for Immigration is going to be leading this process, and I hope we can come up with a simplified system in which the public will have real trust.
Q10.  Margaret Hodge (Barking) (Lab): Jimmy Carr avoided £3.3 million of tax last year, and the Prime Minister said that was morally wrong. Apple, Google, Facebook, eBay and Starbucks have between them avoided nearly £900 million of tax. Will the Prime Minister now take this opportunity to condemn their behaviour as morally wrong?
The Prime Minister: The right hon. Lady makes an important point. This is an international problem that all countries are struggling with: how to make sure that companies pay tax in an appropriate way. I am not happy with the current situation; Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs needs to look at it very carefully. We need to make sure that we are encouraging these businesses to invest in our country—as they are doing—but they should be paying fair taxes as well.
Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle) (Con): May I ask my right hon. Friend why, as he told me on Monday, he thinks that the single currency needs a banking union, as the crisis in the euro has been caused not by the absence of a banking union, but by the absence of a single fiscal policy? Yet, if a fiscal union were introduced, it would certainly be dominated by Germany, and that would lead to the death of democracy throughout most of Europe. So is not the least painful solution the abolition of the euro and the return to national currencies?
The Prime Minister: What I would say to my right hon. Friend is that I believe that the insecurity in the eurozone is caused in part by both those issues: the lack of a fiscal union, but also the lack of a banking union. One of the problems in the eurozone at the moment is the different level of interest rates in Spain, Italy and Portugal, which is in part because of concerns about the link between weak banks and sovereign Governments. Only when we have a banking union will there be greater security about those weak banks. We have a single currency in the United Kingdom, and we also have a banking union in the United Kingdom; we would not treat banks differently because they are in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, rather than in England. I believe a working single currency will need a working banking union; I think that is logically consistent and sensible.
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Q11.  Mr Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): Last week we had a Government Chief Whip who was educated at Rugby public school, and this week we have one who was educated at Eton. I wonder whether the Prime Minister can give us an update on his campaign to spread privilege.
The Prime Minister: I would argue that Members across this House would recognise that the record of my right hon. Friend the Member for North West Hampshire (Sir George Young) stands for itself. [Interruption.]
Mr Rob Wilson (Reading East) (Con): After the BBC director-general’s appearance before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee yesterday, I hope the whole House will agree that it is essential that the two independent inquiries get to the truth. Full details of those inquiries are still sketchy, despite my having sent two letters to the BBC asking for full disclosure. Will the Prime Minister join me in calling for full details to be published today, so that both inquiries can have the full confidence of the public and Jimmy Savile’s victims can hear the truth?
The Prime Minister: First, may I commend my hon. Friend on the good, valuable and dedicated work he has done on this issue of making sure that all these institutions get to the truth? To be fair to the BBC, I believe that the two inquiries it has set up qualify as independent inquiries. The inquiry into the “Newsnight” programme is being carried out by the former head of Sky News, Nick Pollard, and the second—and more important, in many ways—review into the culture and practices of the BBC going back many years is being led by a former Appeal Court judge, Dame Janet Smith. As my hon. Friend says, it is very important that the BBC makes it clear that these inquiries can go where the evidence leads, have access to all the paperwork and be able to be truly independent and get to the truth on behalf of all the victims of Jimmy Savile.
Q12.  Robert Flello (Stoke-on-Trent South) (Lab): Caught out, the Prime Minister refused to answer a question last week, so will he now tell us why he will not publish the e-mails, texts and other correspondence between himself, Rebekah Brooks, News International and Andy Coulson, so that we can judge for ourselves? What is he frightened of: scandal, embarrassment—or is there something more damning that he is frightened of?
Q13.  David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): In March, my constituent Emma Hickman was informed that her fiancé, Private Daniel Wade of 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment, had died in Afghanistan. Three months later, she gave birth to Daniel’s baby, Lexie-Mai. The Army will not accept paternity without evidence; nor will it release the DNA without a court order. As a consequence, Lexie-Mai receives nothing. Will the Prime Minister help to expedite this case? Will he also require that the Army routinely holds DNA, as happens in other countries, such as the United States?
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The Prime Minister: On the latter part of my hon. Friend’s question, I will certainly look at that. I was as shocked as he was when I found out about this case. I will do everything I can to try to expedite—as he says—a conclusion to it. I am sure that the sincere condolences of everyone in this House go to Private Wade’s family. This is an absolutely dreadful situation and it cannot be allowed to continue. The Ministry of Defence is aware of it, and it raises some complicated legal issues, but the reaction from colleagues around the House when my hon. Friend said what he said shows that we have to move quickly and get this sorted.
Q14.  Michael Connarty (Linlithgow and East Falkirk) (Lab): Does the Prime Minister recall telling the House last year that the UK would lead the world in eradicating modern-day slavery? Could he explain to the House why his Whips organised, last Friday, to talk out my Bill that would eradicate that problem in the supply chains of British companies? Will he meet me and the people who support the Bill so that we can move this campaign forward?
The Prime Minister: This Government have an excellent record in combating modern-day slavery, not least because we continue to commit, through our international aid programme, to tackle those countries where it still, so regrettably, exists. I will look very carefully at the Bill that the hon. Gentleman mentions and perhaps write to him about the issue.
Simon Wright (Norwich South) (LD): A number of major employers in my constituency are calling for greater certainty for investors in one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, low-carbon energy. Will the Prime Minister respond to their calls—specifically for a 2030 carbon intensity target for the power sector?
The Prime Minister: I am looking very carefully at these issues, but I have to say that we have already taken the most important step, which is to set the renewables obligation certificates—the ROCs—out into the future, so that investors know that they can invest, for instance in offshore wind, knowing what the return is going to be. There will be more detail, of course, when we produce the Energy Bill later in this year.
“Will the Prime Minister give an undertaking that he will not succumb to the diktat from the European Court of Human Rights in relation to prisoners voting”.
His reply was:
“The short answer to that is yes.”—[Official Report, 23 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 1127.]
Will he confirm that that is still his position? I hope that it is. Will he tell us how he is going to get around breaking European law?
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want prisoners to have the vote, and they should not get the vote—I am very clear about that. If it helps to have another vote in Parliament on another resolution to make it absolutely clear and help put the legal position beyond doubt, I am happy to do that. But no one should be in any doubt: prisoners are not getting the vote under this Government.
Mr Henry Bellingham (North West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Prime Minister aware that last year there was a borough council-run referendum in my constituency about whether to locate an energy-from-waste incinerator on the edge of King’s Lynn? Is he aware that on a 61% turnout, 65,516 of my constituents and those of my hon. Friend the Member for South West Norfolk (Elizabeth Truss) voted no? That amounted to a staggering 92.7% voting no. Does the Prime Minister agree that it is essential for local democracy and for localism that my constituents and these people are listened to?
The Prime Minister: I think it is very important that the planning system listens to local people and that proper processes are followed. I am sure that my hon. Friend will work very hard in this case to make sure that that happens.
Mr Tom Watson (West Bromwich East) (Lab): The evidence file used to convict paedophile Peter Righton, if it still exists, contains clear intelligence of a widespread paedophile ring. One of its members boasts of his links to a senior aide of a former Prime Minister, who says he could smuggle indecent images of children from abroad. The leads were not followed up, but if the file still exists I want to ensure that the Metropolitan police secure the evidence, re-examine it and investigate clear intelligence suggesting a powerful paedophile network linked to Parliament and No. 10.
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman raises a very difficult and complex case, and I am not entirely sure which former Prime Minister he is referring to. What I would like to do is look carefully in Hansard at the allegations he has made and the case he has raised, and look carefully at what the Government can do to help give him the assurances he seeks.
The Prime Minister:
My hon. Friend is tempting me into commenting on what Lord Leveson might or might not recommend in his report, but having set up the inquiry on an all-party basis, it is important that we allow him to produce his report. What I would say is that I think one can obsess too much about how exactly such things are done, when what matters most of all is whether we have a regulatory system in which the public have confidence that, if mistakes are made, there are proper corrections; that if newspapers do the wrong
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thing, they can be fined; and that when things go wrong, there is proper investigation. That seems to me to be the most important question for us all: are we going to put in place a system in which we have confidence and the public will support, but in which we are seen to have a free, independent and very vigorous press?
The Prime Minister: What we are doing is putting in place, through the Work programme and the Youth Contract, the biggest ever scheme to help people to get back into work. We have seen success in recent weeks and months, with more people in work than at any time in our history and recent figures showing a decline in the claimant count, a decline in unemployment and a decline in youth unemployment. There is far more to do, but we are at least heading in the right direction.
Mike Crockart (Edinburgh West) (LD): Will the Prime Minister promise today, that unlike other leaders in other Parliaments in the UK, he will never spend £100,000 fighting the release of legal advice that he does not hold and never asked for?
The Prime Minister: The hon. Gentleman asks a baffling question about a truly baffling situation. We were told, I believe, by the First Minister in Scotland that he had legal advice on Scotland’s place in the European Union in the event of independence, but it turns out that he did not have any legal advice at all. What that shows is that when the spotlight is shone on the Scottish National party’s case for separation, it completely falls apart.
Meg Munn (Sheffield, Heeley) (Lab/Co-op): The Prime Minister has rightly expressed concern about child abuse in our institutions, but last year the Government reduced child protection measures in schools, and changes made to Ofsted will result in some schools never being inspected on their child protection procedures. Will the Prime Minister now meet me and cross-party MPs from the all-party child protection group to protect our children now and in the future?
The Prime Minister: I am very happy to arrange a meeting between the hon. Lady and the new Minister, who has huge experience in this area and who I know will be delighted to discuss it with her. What we have tried to do is simplify a set of rules and regulations that involved 9 million or 10 million more parents in this sort of thing and concentrate on where the focus is needed, but I am happy to arrange that meeting.
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Points of Order
Ian Lucas (Wrexham) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Before the Prime Minister leaves, on Monday he said that payment by results for probation was such a good idea that he was going to put rocket boosters under it. I am sorry that he is running away, because on Tuesday, Wales Probation wrote to me saying that the Ministry of Justice had—
Mr Speaker: Order. It is always a delight to hear the hon. Gentleman’s mellifluous tones, but on this occasion I will deny myself that pleasure, on the grounds that the hon. Gentleman is pursuing a matter of earnest interest to him and of considerable debate, no doubt, but there is no matter for the Chair here. If he strongly disagrees, he can come and have a cup of tea with me and I will talk to him about it. If I am wrong, I shall concede it, but I do not think I am.
Chris Williamson (Derby North) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your guidance on whether it is appropriate for the hon. Member for Crawley (Henry Smith) to book a meeting room on the parliamentary estate for a meeting with a company, Siemens, involved in bidding for a major rail procurement contract—
Mr Speaker: Order. If the hon. Gentleman has a complaint about the conduct of a Member, there are established methods by which to pursue such complaints, including reference to the commissioner. If he is not convinced of that, he can pursue it at a lower level, but it should not be pursued on the Floor of the House via the device of a point of order. I know his intentions are good, but so are mine in trying to advise him on how to proceed.
John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Some weeks ago the Prime Minister announced that there would be an inquiry into airport capacity in London and the south-east under Howard Davies, and that there would be recommendations from that inquiry in due course, most probably after the next general election. Last week, in reply to a question from the journalist Andrew Neil, the Minister with responsibility for aviation said that the recommendations of that inquiry would be accepted and implemented by the Government. That changes the status of that inquiry from an advisory body to one that will automatically implement policy. Have you received any notice that there will be a ministerial statement about the terms of reference of the inquiry, its status or its revised timetable?
Mr Speaker: The hon. Gentleman has made an important point, I accept. It is not, however, a matter for the Chair. If the hon. Gentleman is discontented by the change that he has noted, and he feels that he wishes to give further, fuller expression to his concerns, there are ways that will occur to him which might secure him the debating opportunities that I think he seeks.
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Unpaid Work Orders (Pilot Scheme)
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give effect to schedule 6 to the Courts Act 2003; to provide thereby for the imposition of unpaid work orders to pay financial penalties; and for connected purposes.
I have sat as a magistrate for six years, and I and my colleagues frequently wonder whether, when fines are levied by the court, they will be fully paid off. There are currently 1,680,000 outstanding fines, as of March 2012. They are worth a total of £593 million. Last year a full £106 million was left unpaid and £54 million was spent trying to collect fines. Of course, the courts will always try to secure a full, up-front payment in court, but owing to an inability or unwillingness to pay in full, this does not always happen.
Various legislation over the past few years has provided several additional ways in which fines can currently be paid off by defendants. For example, the value of the fine can be deducted from any benefits received by the defendant or from any earnings in the same way as PAYE, by the order of a court. But for a number of individuals these conventional options just do not work. This is not so much an issue of lost moneys, but more about how to deliver justice to society. Our constituents reasonably expect that justice will be done—that when the courts give out fines and financial penalties, they will be paid promptly by defendants.
Section 97 and schedule 6 of the Courts Act 2003 provide for the imposition of unpaid work orders, so that fines can be paid off at a designated hourly rate, either in full or in part, though of course court costs and compensation will still be paid to victims. A pilot scheme for unpaid work orders was run between September 2004 and March 2009 in a number of local justice areas across England and Wales, but was not brought in on a permanent basis at the end of that trial. The report on the scheme issued by the Ministry of Justice in September 2010 said that unpaid work orders had “wide support” and could be considered relatively successful, but it warned that the number of defendants that they could apply to would be small, and that there would be “major barriers” to overcome. It recommended that any implementation should be cautious and gradual.
The political agenda in 2009 and 2010 was very crowded, but the principle underlying the scheme still stands. I think it is time to look again at unpaid work orders as an additional means of compliance with sentences. The number and total of unpaid fines is so large, and the cost of enforcement so significant, that we should try a new means of ensuring that justice is served and fines really are paid, whether through straightforward monetary payment or, when it becomes clear that that is unlikely to happen, through unpaid work that benefits a local community.
The Bill would provide for another pilot scheme to take place, but with some differences from the first. One problem with the first pilot scheme was that the supervisory role was given solely to the probation service, a stretched organisation that has a heavy burden. The Bill would therefore allow local authorities and charities to share
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the supervisory role. Many charities would be willing to supervise an individual if that meant they could benefit from a number of hours of work that are of real benefit to a local community.
A second consideration is that the Ministry of Justice’s report suggested that the number of eligible individuals and their commitment levels could vary widely. Surely the emphasis should be on looking at who would be eligible to undertake unpaid work in lieu of a fine, rather than who would not be suitable. The pilot scheme would therefore also take place with an explicit view to the issuing of clear guidance and positive eligibility criteria that would allow unpaid work orders to become a regular option used by the courts to collect financial penalties, especially when magistrates have reason to believe that non-payment is very likely. In practice, that would mean that the time and money spent chasing fines by ordinary means could be turned into productive work in the local community, a principle that the courts already recognise as valuable through the existence of unpaid work as a sentence in itself.
There are some efficient existing options for fine collection if an individual is unable to pay up front, but magistrates frequently do not have the confidence in means assessments to make realistic predictions about a payment schedule. To my mind, there are two clear cases where unpaid work orders could be a preferable means of payment: first, where the deduction of a fine from benefits would risk serious implications for the well-being of the defendant or their household, or where a deduction from a benefits order request is refused because the benefit cannot statutorily be reduced; and secondly, the small number of cases where the defendants wish to accelerate the payment to preserve their income, especially if they are relying on benefits. That would be a compassionate measure to allow the poorest to pay back their community in kind, rather than by financial payment. It would also safeguard fine defaulters from imprisonment if they were genuinely unable to pay. The measure would align with the
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Government’s stated commitment in “Swift and Sure Justice” to have a greater focus on community-based, restorative justice.
There will inevitably be objections to these proposals, which I will now seek to deal with briefly. For those concerned about health and safety or how defendants will be supervised, these practical issues can be worked out and overcome in the pilot scheme, with ministerial direction given to draw up guidance and ensure practicality in the long term. The report on the pilot scheme expressed concerns about the level of commitment and the number of defendants that would be suitable for unpaid work orders. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that unpaid work will be a useful solution for individuals who are difficult to trace, but at a time when courts are willing to spend a large amount on enforcement and other costs, such as for translation in court, surely we should be looking for ways to ensure that justice is delivered. The Bill also requires that the pilot scheme would take place specifically with a view to issuing guidance on eligibility, which should give magistrates the confidence and clarity when issuing these orders that they might not have had before.
These proposals represent a practical, restorative and compassionate means of paying fines. The public—our constituents—expect justice to be done and that fines levied by the courts will be paid by the individuals concerned, either financially or in kind. In my view, £593 million of unpaid fines is too much, and the situation should not be allowed to continue. I commend this Bill to the House.
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Energy Market Reform
That this House notes that annual energy bills have risen by more than £200 since May 2010, with further price rises on the way; calls on the Government to help families and pensioners with their energy bills this winter by requiring energy companies to put all people aged over 75 on their cheapest tariff; and further calls for it to reform the energy market to break the dominance of the Big Six by requiring them to sell power into a pool, and allowing new businesses to enter the market, thereby increasing competition and driving down energy bills for all, and to replace Ofgem with a tough new energy regulator with the power to force energy companies to pass on price cuts when wholesale costs fall.
Since this Government came to power, energy bills have gone up by more than £200, and last week three of the big energy companies announced another round of price hikes, adding a further £100 to people’s energy bills this winter. People worried about how they will afford to keep the lights on, heat their homes or have a hot meal deserve a Government who understand their challenges and have the ideas to provide the change that Britain needs and the strength to see them through, but all we get from this Government is another shambles from an out-of-touch Prime Minister who seems to make it up as he goes along. From the disgraceful conduct of the former Chief Whip to the incompetence on the west coast main line that has cost taxpayers millions, this is a Government who promised change but instead are delivering chaos.
Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for giving way so early on in her remarks. Labour was in government for 13 years and, indeed, the Leader of the Opposition was Energy Secretary for almost two years. Does she agree that if her party truly thought that Ofgem was ineffective, it should perhaps have done something about it in those 13 years?
Caroline Flint: Of course, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition did make some changes to Ofgem, but we have given more consideration to this over the past two years and, as I will explain later, we now feel that we need to take a more radical look at it.
“What we cannot do, of course, is tell big energy companies what prices they should set.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 16 October 2012; Vol. 739, c. 1368.]
“we will be legislating so that energy companies have to give the lowest tariff to their customers”.—[Official Report, 17 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 316.]
By Wednesday evening, a spokesman for the Department had told the Financial Times that energy companies would not in fact be forced automatically to put all customers on cheaper tariffs. By Thursday morning, the
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Minister of State, the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr Hayes), was reduced to taking the ridiculous line that the Government did still want to use legislation to get people lower tariffs but could not explain how they were going to do it.
All the while, the Secretary of State, the man responsible for this country’s energy policy, had gone AWOL, leaving an empty chair on “Newsnight”, refusing to answer questions from the media, and sending his deputy to answer my urgent question. The Minister put in a valiant performance of which he should be proud; those of us who were there could say that it was parliamentary comedy gold. However, what did we actually learn from last week’s urgent question? We learned, in the words of the Minister, that
“DECC has a wonderful relationship with…the Treasury and No. 10”
“has improved since my arrival.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 493.]
Despite that wonderful relationship, we also learned that the Department of Energy and Climate Change is not told about announcements on energy policy until after they are made. We learned that one of the options being considered is a change to the law to require the energy companies to write to people to tell them what the cheapest deal is, even though the Government already announced that back in April and the Energy Act 2011 already gives the Secretary of State the power to force energy companies to provide information about the lowest tariff.
John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): What kind of relationship does my right hon. Friend think that DECC has with the Treasury? When the Treasury was asked to give evidence to the Energy and Climate Change Committee, it refused to do so. Not only did it not give evidence; it did not inform DECC of the information required.
Caroline Flint: It was a very bad decision by the Treasury to refuse to attend the Committee. We know how important energy policy is for DECC, but it is also a cross-cutting issue for Government. Decisions and influence from the Treasury, and also the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, for that matter, are essential to the perception of how our energy policy is being developed. That decision was a great shame, but I am afraid that it is just another example of a lack of joined-up government, which is to the detriment of such an important policy area.
We also learned that the Government have been working on the proposals for months and that we should expect them to feature prominently in the forthcoming Energy Bill, but there is no mention of them at all in the draft Bill, the White Paper, the technical updates or the impact assessments. Perhaps the only real thing that we learned last week was that when it comes to energy bills this Government are not just out of touch, but completely clueless.
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Such is the complete and utter confusion in Government, the Energy Bill has now attained near mythical status. Ministers talk as though it is the answer to every problem and the solution to every ill in Britain’s dysfunctional energy market. The Minister told the House last week that
“we will use the Energy Bill to get people lower tariffs.”—[Official Report, 18 October 2012; Vol. 551, c. 489.]
Why is it that the draft Bill, which has been in preparation for two years, contains nothing to reform the way in which energy is bought and sold, or to make the energy market more competitive; nothing to open up the market or open up the books of the energy giants so that we can work out the true cost of energy; nothing on demand reduction to help families and businesses cut their energy use; nothing to protect vulnerable customers or stop everyone else being ripped off; and, whatever the Prime Minister claims, nothing to simplify tariffs or make it easier for people to switch, or anything remotely close to what he promised last week? If the Government are as concerned about energy bills as they claim to be, why does their flagship Energy Bill do absolutely nothing to help people struggling to make ends meet?
Over the past two years, we have had countless White Papers, consultations, updates and even a draft Bill, but not once have we seen anything that recognises the need for urgent reform, that challenges the prices and practices of the big companies, or that lives up to its name and genuinely reforms the energy market. The House will forgive me if I am a little sceptical of this Government’s sudden conversion to the cause of reforming this market, to make it more competitive, more transparent and fairer for consumers. I am afraid that, on the evidence so far, this is a Government who back business as usual in an energy market that is not working.
Mr Marcus Jones: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way. A back to the future-type approach to energy pooling has already been proven to have failed. Will she explain why her party is now pursuing energy pooling so vigorously when the Blair Government with whom she served were opposed to the policy on the basis of the cost to the consumer?
Caroline Flint: We went into the last general election with a manifesto commitment to introduce a pool. That put our cards on the table. According to the Government’s own statistics, 1.7 million people were brought out of poverty during our time in government.
Mark Tami (Alyn and Deeside) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while it is all very well for the Government to have a mythical lowest-tariff policy, until they have a coherent energy policy that ensures security of supply, prices will continue to go up and uncertainty will remain?
Caroline Flint: Security of supply is key, and the Energy Bill has to address that with regard to where we source our energy from and for how much. That is part of the Energy Bill, but what is so disappointing is that none of the matters that the Prime Minister gave such prominence to last week has featured in any of the discussions about the draft Bill.
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People are worried about how they are going to pay their bills this winter and are sick and tired of this ridiculous soap opera in Government. This time last year the Government promised action at their infamous energy summit. What was the result? It was a campaign telling people to click, switch and insulate to save. It is fair to say that, one year on, the time has come to review that. When it comes to clicking and switching, the Government’s campaign has been an abject failure. Information that I have obtained through parliamentary questions reveals that the number of people switching energy supplier has fallen to the lowest level on record. In the quarter before the energy summit, nearly 1.2 million people switched electricity supplier and nearly 1 million more switched gas supplier, but in the quarter after the energy summit, fewer than 750,000 people switched electricity supplier and only half a million switched gas supplier.
How have the Government got on in the other area that they are keen to promote: insulating to save? Labour’s Warm Front grants helped more than 2 million households, which means that, on average, more than 200,000 people were helped each and every year. Last year, however, according to more information obtained through parliamentary questions, just 43,585 households received help from the Warm Front scheme. That is down 80% compared with our last year in government. To add insult to injury, nearly 30,000 applications for help were turned down by the Government, even though the Warm Front budget underspent by more than £50 million.
Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend not feel that this is a bit like groundhog day? When prices went up a year ago, the Secretary of State had meetings with energy companies and there was a lot of sound and fury promising action, but nothing happened, because this Government do not care about the pound in the pocket of constituents in my constituency and elsewhere, and are fiddling while the energy companies keep putting their prices up.
Caroline Flint: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. She was the shadow Secretary of State before me and I pay credit to her and to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Luciana Berger), who was part of her team. Ever since the general election, the shadow DECC team has been pointing out concerns about rising prices. This is not new and each year there is some stunt telling us that things will get better, but I am afraid that they are not getting better at all.
When this House last debated energy efficiency in May, I used information that I had once again obtained through parliamentary questions to warn that the energy companies were on course to miss their targets. The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), complacently told the House that
“we fully expect them to deliver their obligations and we will make sure that they do.”—[Official Report, 16 May 2012; Vol. 545, c. 554.]
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Now, with the schemes due to end in less than 10 weeks, Ofgem is warning that the companies will not meet their targets, and families across the country will miss out and be left facing a cold winter with poorly insulated homes. Why have the Government failed to get a grip on this situation? Why have they failed to tackle the energy companies’ lack of activity and joined-up activity with local people to deliver? We have 10 weeks left and it looks like we are not going to meet the targets that the Minister said we would in May.
We should not worry, however, because we are told that everything will be okay as a result of the green deal. The Government originally said that this scheme would reach 14 million households by 2020, so why is it that when the scheme was launched earlier this month there were just two registered providers? Why would anyone want to take up the green deal when they will end up paying more in interest rates and charges than for the actual energy efficiency measures? Support on energy company obligations for the fuel poor and low-income households will be cut by half next year, and the end of the Warm Front scheme means that this will be the first Administration since the 1970s not to have a Government-funded energy efficiency programme.
Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): The hon. Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery) and I inherited in excess of 20% fuel poverty in the north-east when we were elected in Northumberland in May 2010—but I will leave aside the past. Does the right hon. Lady not accept that these plans for, to use her own words, more competitiveness, more transparency and a fairer way forward are, at the very least, a step in the right direction?
Caroline Flint: We are going to make three propositions today that we think will help boost the market and make it more competitive, and I look forward to receiving support from the Government’s Front-Bench representatives. I know that the hon. Gentleman has raised on many occasions the issues faced by his constituents who are off-grid. Part of our proposals for a new energy watchdog is to bring those who are off-grid back under the arrangements that everybody else benefits from by being under one regulator. That is one of the ways in which we would reform Ofgem.
We want to help people do the right thing. We believe that, even in opposition, we can help people make their homes more efficient and find the cheapest deal, which is why we have launched our own collective switching campaign, “Switch Together”. When it comes to it, that is the big difference between us and the Government. They think that the public are to blame, because when they tell people to shop around, what they are actually saying is, “It’s down to you. You’re on your own.” We do not think that the public are to blame for rocketing energy prices. The problem is the way in which our energy market works.
Let us look, therefore, at the dominance of the big six energy companies, which between them supply about 99% of the homes in Britain. By itself, that does not necessarily mean that competition in the market is ineffective. However, the fact that no new entrant has achieved anything like the scale of operations that would challenge the big six shows that there are barriers to newcomers trying to break in.
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Secondly, let us look at the market shares of the big six energy companies in their former monopoly areas, which TheIndependent on Sunday exposed using information that I obtained through parliamentary questions. Privatisation was meant to lead to greater competition and a better deal for consumers, but in every part of the country, the company that used to run the regional electricity board still has a stranglehold over the market.
Thirdly, energy companies like to tell us that electricity and gas prices in the UK are among the lowest in Europe. However, when tax is taken out of the equation, which is an instrument of Government policy, not an indication of market efficiency, electricity and gas prices in the UK are among the highest in Europe, not the lowest. Tax on energy is lower than that on most goods only because Labour defeated the last Tory Government’s plans to increase the VAT on domestic fuel in 1994.
Fourthly—this is perhaps the most damning point of all—whenever the energy companies announce their latest round of price hikes, they tell us that they are only passing on their costs. However, if pricing is competitive and the market is functioning properly, falls in the wholesale cost should be passed on as quickly as increases. So why is it that when prices rise, bills go up like a rocket, but when prices come down, they fall like a feather, if at all? The only reason for that is that the market is not functioning in a proper, competitive way.
Of course the energy companies dispute that, but in 2011, Ofgem found evidence that energy suppliers were slower in passing on reductions in wholesale energy costs than in passing on increases. Its report stated:
“We have found some evidence that customer energy bills respond more rapidly to rising supplier costs compared with falling costs.”
That is what Consumer Focus thinks too. It found a gap between the price at which energy companies buy electricity and gas, and what they sell them to the public for. Its research shows that even though the wholesale prices for both electricity and gas have fallen since 2008, retail prices for both are significantly higher today than four years ago.
David Mowat (Warrington South) (Con): I was particularly interested in the point that the shadow Secretary of State made about the relative prices here and in Europe. I have in front of me information from the EU website which shows that we have the 26th lowest gas prices in Europe. I take her point that that is to do with tax, but our gas is 60% cheaper than gas in France or Germany. If our companies are operating a cartel, it would seem that they are not very good at it.
Caroline Flint: I am just presenting the facts as they have been presented to me. The energy companies and parliamentary colleagues often say that our prices are among the cheapest in Europe, but the truth is that when tax is taken off, we are not among the cheapest in Europe. In fact, in some areas, our prices are considerably higher.
Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab):
GoWarm, a community interest company, and Stockton-on-Tees borough council have developed an innovative and effective programme to insulate externally hundreds of homes, which gives people in the poorest households in my
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constituency a better deal from their energy bills. That could be done for even more homes if it was not for the fact that BT would charge them an absolute fortune to refix bolts to the sides of their properties. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is another large utility that needs to be brought to book?
Caroline Flint: That is another bit of casework to look into. The obstructions to energy plans are numerous. At our party conference, we launched the “Power Book”, which is a collection of ideas and articles on ways to decentralise energy through energy generation and energy efficiency. It looks at ways in which community groups can be supported, rather than hindered, in doing the right thing. In many ways, that could be far more cost-effective.
Simon Hughes (Bermondsey and Old Southwark) (LD): When I did the right hon. Lady’s job at the end of the last Parliament and shadowed the current leader of the Labour party, who was then the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, I tried to get Labour and Ofgem to reduce the number of tariffs from a ridiculous number to a small number. That was not done. Secondly, I tried to get them to legislate to persuade Ofgem that there should be an obligation to reduce the price to the consumer when the wholesale price went down, and not to leave it for six, nine or twelve months. None of those things was delivered. I welcome the conversion, but does the right hon. Lady not recognise that it has come several years later than it could have done?
Caroline Flint: On the basis of the right hon. Gentleman’s contribution, I look forward to our being in the same Lobby for the vote. Our proposals would tackle some of the issues that gradual reform has not tackled. The energy market has changed a lot since it has been privatised. Efforts were made to enable Ofgem to be stronger, but on the evidence of the past few years, it has not been. That is why we believe that our proposals, which are now on the stocks, are the best ones to take us towards a market that is more competitive and more use to consumers.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): The right hon. Lady has said quite a few times that the energy market has changed. Will she confirm that in 1998 there were 14 of the original 15 incumbent energy suppliers, but that by the time Labour had finished, that had gone down to six? That is a consolidation in the energy market, does she not agree?
That is exactly why this needs to be tackled. [Laughter.] No, this is being grown-up. I will repeat what I said earlier. I hope that the Secretary of State heard me. I do not know what commitments the Liberal Democrats made in their manifesto, but the manifesto that was written by the current leader of the Labour party before the last election said that we needed to reform the energy market more radically.
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That is why we have said that we need to have a pool into which all the energy would be put to open up the market. We were very clear about that.
When Ofgem, as the independent authority, took away some of the price caps, it was meant to be on the basis that the market was mature and competitive enough to be able to deliver the consumer choice and competition that were needed. That did not happen and the number of companies reduced. As I said earlier, when we look at the situation regionally, rather than just nationally, we see that it is not only about the big six—in some areas, there is just the big one.
As I said, it was our manifesto commitment radically to reform the market and we have been saying every single day since that we need to do more. Unfortunately, the Government have not been open to that discussion. I hope that that will change when we debate the Energy Bill in a few weeks’ time. We have propositions in today’s motion that, having listened to the comments today, I hope will get support from a number of quarters, and not only from our own Back Benchers.
Mr Davey: The right hon. Lady is right to say that there has not been enough competition in the generating side of the market. I will speak at length about competition in both the retail and wholesale markets. The real issue between us is whether we should get extra competition in the generating side of the market through pooling, as she proposes, or by addressing the lack of liquidity in forward markets, which we believe to be the real problem. Does she want to compare and contrast her approach with ours?
Caroline Flint: There are a number of measures that we should be taking to tackle liquidity. Pooling is just one of them. No doubt there will be more detail on this matter and amendments when we have the Energy Bill before us. The issue is that there has so far been nothing in the draft Bill that has opened up that debate. After the Prime Minister’s intervention last week, it seems that we will now have a debate that he did not realise would be forthcoming.
I will make some progress, because we only have a half day on this issue and colleagues from across the House want to speak. We had a shambles last week. We can only imagine that civil servants in the Department of Energy and Climate Change are now busily rewriting the Energy Bill. If they are, we would like to put forward three clear proposals that could help people now and reform the energy market for the long term.
First, there is a proposal on which we think there could be action for this winter if there were unity, but on which we might need to legislate somewhere down the road. It is about targeting help where it is needed most this winter, not next year once the Energy Bill is passed, and not when Ofgem finishes the consultation on its retail market review in 2013. We all know that something like 75% to 80% of people are not on the cheapest tariff. Ministers say that it is possible for households to save up to £200 on an annual dual fuel bill by shopping around for the lowest online rate, but
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elderly customers, who are most vulnerable to the cold weather and most at risk of fuel poverty, are among the least likely to be able to access the cheapest online deals or switch supplier.
In January, we proposed putting all over-75s on the cheapest gas and electricity tariff, which would save as many as 4 million pensioners, including 8,000 in the Secretary of State’s constituency, as much as £200 a year. The Government rejected our proposals, but given what the Prime Minister said last week, their position now appears to have changed somewhat. If it genuinely has, can we come together today and send this clear message to the energy companies: “If you don’t put the over-75s on the cheapest tariff, we will legislate to make you”? That is our first proposal—getting help to those who need it most.
We also want everyone to benefit from a more competitive and responsible energy market, which means wholesale reform to how energy is bought and sold, so here is our second proposal. At the moment, no one really knows what the true cost of energy is. The way the market is structured means that the big energy companies are allowed to generate power, buy it from themselves and sell it on to the public. We believe that has to end. The time has come to open up the energy giants’ books, stop the backroom deals and end the secret contracts. If the energy companies were forced to sell the power that they generate into an open and transparent pool, anyone could bid to retail energy. That would encourage new entrants, increase competition and ease the upward pressure on prices.
Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend recall that when the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change discussed vertical integration, one energy company chief executive was asked why a company such as EDF, which generates most of its electricity from nuclear power, should benefit from the high price of gas, which sets the market rate for the sale of the wholesale supply into the retail market. The answer, of course, was that Ofgem would not allow cross-subsidising from one side of that barrier to the other. Is that not why the tough new regulatory powers that we have called for are exactly what the Secretary of State should introduce?
Caroline Flint: I absolutely agree, and I commend the Select Committee for its fantastic work over the past year. Since I have been in my post, it has been most useful to my discussions and thoughts about how policy should develop.
Thirdly—this takes me on to Ofgem’s role—I am afraid that too often in the past, Ofgem has ducked the opportunity to get tough with the energy giants. I believe that we therefore need to create a tough new regulator that people can trust. I can tell the House that we seriously considered whether it would be better to reform Ofgem or start again from scratch. In the end, I do not believe that just giving Ofgem new powers is the answer, because it is not using the powers that it already has. It has failed to enforce its own rules, and time after time it has let the energy companies get away with ripping off hard-pressed families and pensioners.
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a functioning competitive market. It is now clear that that was a mistake. Almost every indicator, such as consumer engagement and market share pricing, gives us cause for concern. The answer is not to go back to nationalisation but to reform the energy market to make it more open, transparent and competitive. Until that happens, we must ensure that the regulator has the power and authority that it needs to protect consumers.
That was why, at the Labour party conference, I announced that the next Labour Government would abolish Ofgem and create a tough new regulator with a statutory duty to monitor the relationship between the prices that energy companies pay for their energy and the bills that the public pay. It would have the power to force companies to pass on price cuts when wholesale costs fall. It would be a new watchdog with new powers, new responsibilities—including for small businesses and off-grid customers—a new focus and new leadership.
The Government promised change, but nothing is changing. Energy bills are up by more than £200 on their watch and fewer people than ever are engaging with the energy market, which is untransparent, uncompetitive and unfair. People need real help now and a more responsible energy market for the future, which is simpler, works in the public interest and protects the most vulnerable. Real action, not warm words—that is Labour’s promise, as shown in today’s motion, which I really do commend to Members of all parties.
The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Mr Edward Davey): There is, I hope, at least one thing that unites the House today: we all want to help people struggling with high gas and electricity bills. When times are tough, as they are now, and when salaries are not going up yet prices of many essential things are, the last thing that people need is higher energy bills. We have heard the same worry in debates on the cost of petrol and diesel, for very similar reasons. When the price of oil and gas on world markets goes up, that pressure can feed through, and not just in the UK. The challenge to many Governments around the world is how to react to that and how they can insulate their people and their economy from fossil fuel price hikes. I therefore welcome the debate, which enables the House to test out the Government’s policies and the Opposition’s ideas.
I will set out the Government’s policies on how we believe we can best help people and businesses facing higher bills. Our position is based on a combination of ever-tougher competition and ever-more ambitious efforts to save energy. I wish to spend some time talking about that competition today.
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Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore) (Lab): I thank the Secretary of State for giving way so early in his contribution. We face the start of a cold snap at the end of this week, and it seems that we are getting into the cold spell of the year. Will he consider, if not legislating immediately, at least calling in the big six and the other energy providers to encourage them, instruct them and demand that they provide the lowest-cost tariff to the over-75s? We know that the older someone is, the more vulnerable they will be to cold snaps this winter, not just next winter.
Mr Davey: The hon. Gentleman may or may not be aware that two or three months into my time as Secretary of State, I secured a voluntary agreement with the big six. I negotiated it and the Deputy Prime Minister announced it in April. The agreement was clear, and the big six are delivering on the promise that they made to us, namely that they will inform people of the lowest tariff available to them. That was part of a range of policies that we have agreed with them. For example, there is the warm home discount, which is often forgotten in this debate. We legislated for that discount to ensure that £130 will go straight off the bills of the poorest pensioners and the poorest people in our society next year. That will get money to the people who really need it and help them with their energy bills.
Caroline Flint: The Secretary of State may not be aware of this, but I understand that research by Which?indicated that there was some confusion about whether energy companies were informing customers of the cheapest deal when they wrote to them.
The point about the over-75s is that a lot of them are not online. If they ring up their energy company and say, “I would like to go on to that online deal”, the company will say that they cannot do it in that way. We say that not being online should not be a barrier to that group of people getting access to the cheapest deal.
Mr Davey: I could not agree more. We want to ensure that all people can access the best deal, whether or not they are online. That is why we have made the voluntary agreement and why we will take powers in the forthcoming Energy Bill to ensure that the energy companies have to inform people of the best deal. As I will set out in my speech, we want to enable the poorest people in our society to get the help they need, whether about switching, competition or energy insulation.
Mr Frank Field (Birkenhead) (Lab): Every poorer person will be pleased with the subsidy that other consumers are paying for, but probably 75% of them are paying way beyond what they need to pay. It is great for people to have a subsidy, but that subsidy may, and probably will, be wiped out by the price that those companies charge. There is a redistribution—quite rightly—from those of us who are better off to those who are less well off, but the money goes not towards extra fuel for our poorest constituents, but into the coffers of the companies. Surely there needs to be a combination with the current subsidy. I would go slightly further than my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Opposition Front Bench and ask why the scheme should not be extended to the 4 million people who are eligible for cold weather payments, which we know is the most vulnerable group.
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Mr Davey: One thing I agreed during my negotiations with the big six earlier this year, ahead of this winter, was that those who receive a reduction in their bill through the warm home discount should also receive the most attention from energy suppliers to help them get the best available tariff. Those people were the priority then and they are the priority now.
What I find slightly odd about Labour’s position, is that they seem to be worried only about the over-75s. What about everyone else facing high energy bills? What about families who are struggling with those bills? The Government’s policies will address everybody.
The Government’s policies combine competition and energy saving, and are designed to drive a wedge between rising world energy prices and the actual energy bills that people in Britain end up paying—decoupling bills from prices. If tougher competition in the UK energy market can take the sting out of rising global prices, and if we can help people to use less energy, we can cushion families and firms.
In many ways, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) said similar things. She talked about competition and markets, and it was music to my ears. Where we differ, however, is in the detail, and in particular on how to generate the extra competition that she spoke eloquently about.
When we consider competition in energy markets we must first separate the retail side from the wholesale side—or, in English, competition between firms that sell us energy and firms that generate it. There are, of course, many firms that are on both sides of that equation, just as there are policies to help on both sides.
Let me start with the suppliers, the retailers, the people to whom we pay our bills. We can drive competition in that area in two ways: by making the existing bigger players compete harder to keep their customers, and by enabling more firms to enter the market and grow—something on which the right hon. for Don Valley is rightly keen. Switching has, of course, been the principal way to do both those things, which is what happened by letting customers choose their supplier and forcing energy firms to offer better deals to hold on to customers. As the right hon. Lady rightly said, however, that system has not been working well, and switching has not helped the vast majority of people. In fact, it seems that switching rates have been falling just as prices have been rising. That bizarre finding seems to be the result of the virtual end of door-to-door selling which, as many of us know from our constituencies, was fraught with problems. Switching rates appear to have fallen in recent years, and those who continue to switch tend to be the internet savvy and often the more well-heeled, leaving the less well-heeled and less internet savvy out in the cold when it comes to getting the best deals. In essence, it is a very unsatisfactory situation.
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The policy question is about whether we can promote competition through switching in other ways, or whether switching is simply not the way to go. I am delighted because it seems from the right hon. Lady’s speech that the Opposition have not given up on switching, and in fact they seem to be copying some of the policies that I first articulated. Since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I take that as a vote of confidence. For Members who may have missed that neat trick from the Labour Front Benches let me explain. The right hon. Lady talked about her commitment to collective switching, and she mentioned Labour’s “Switch Together” scheme. The Government support collective switching because we talked about it first. The right hon. Lady knows that the Labour party could have pushed that idea when in government, but it did not, and it was this coalition Government who got it.
When I was the Minister responsible for consumer affairs in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, I pushed the general notion of rekindling the spirit of co-operatives into different retail markets, and, in league with Co-operatives UK, I set up a competition to stimulate new ways for communities to buy things together. From that work, energy co-operatives emerged as among the most promising. That is because gas and electricity are pretty similar commodities, wherever and however people buy them, and because people are increasingly worried about their bills. However—this is crucial—many people find it too difficult to switch by themselves, and I have been addressing that problem. I have talked to a range of people about the barriers to collective switching, and I have got people—including Ofgem, the large energy companies or firms, and organisations capable of managing a collective switch—round the table where we have made real progress.
Regulatory barriers are coming down. Last week, we announced a nationwide competition, in which the winners, whether councils, community groups or others, will get seedcorn cash to help them get going. That national competition—not a Labour party competition—is called Cheaper Energy Together and should provide a boost to awareness and learning that could transform switching in the UK, not least because winning bids must show how they would involve the fuel poor in their schemes. If we are to see a revolution in switching, with collective switching, I will insist that the most vulnerable are part of that.
It must be slightly embarrassing for Labour Members to know that when they were in government, they did not use the collective principle to help people. It must be embarrassing because, although the current Government are using the collective principle to tackle fuel poverty, the Labour party did not. I am, however, genuinely delighted that the Opposition have overcome their embarrassment, and taken up our idea.
Caroline Flint: The Labour party was the first political party in British history to organise a collective switch, and we are proud of that. I am not sure what the Liberal Democrats might do—it might be switch apart rather than switch together.
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Switching is important, but in truth, even if people are on the cheapest deal, it does not mean they are getting value for money and a fair price. That is why we must reform the way the energy market works, and tackle the dominance by certain companies that both generate and retail energy, and do not let others get a look in.
Mr Davey: I will come to that point, but I remind the right hon. Lady of what I said earlier. Under her party’s watch, the number of companies went down from 14 to six, so we will not listen to her too much.
Let me finish my point about switching and say why it is so important. Collective switching got going in Belgium just a few years ago, and we have now seen live, successful switches in the UK. The Consumers Association, Which?, led the way with its big switch earlier this year. It helped around 37,000 people to switch and get an average saving of £223. We have also seen smaller collective switches. Last month, South Lakeland district council was the first local authority to run a switch. Nearly 1,700 residents signed up, and early indications suggest savings that range between £60 and more than £200.
Yesterday, Oldham borough council launched its collective switch, which I attended. I did not see the right hon. Lady; perhaps she was there at a different time. That collective switch is called “Power to the people”—Citizen Smith would be proud. A wide variety of schemes are coming forward. I am already aware of eight, perhaps the most ambitious of which is Cornwall Together, in which the council, the NHS, the trade union Unison, the third sector, and St Austell brewery have come together to organise a collective switch.
Collective switching is not a silver bullet or panacea, but people are seeing how it can be part of the answer and reform the way switching works. Switching does not just force existing firms to compete more vigorously to keep customers, it enables smaller suppliers to grow their customer base faster. We know that customer inertia can be a barrier to competition, preventing new companies from getting market share, and collective switching reduces that barrier for small companies. Co-operative Energy won the big switch organised by Which?, and doubled its customer base overnight. Collective switching has the potential to be part of the way that we reshape the market.
Mr Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I welcome the Secretary of State’s comments on community involvement and the role of local councils. Many years ago, I wrote to all six energy companies to seek their support. Some were aggressive in their replies, not least Scottish Power. Only one—Scottish and Southern—wished to participate in such a scheme. What is the Secretary of State’s experience of energy companies’ reactions to the important role he mentioned?
Mr Davey: I am disappointed that the companies did not respond more positively when the right hon. Gentleman wrote to them. I do not know whether he wrote to them under the Labour Government. The voluntary agreement that we managed to secure after two months in office included a commitment from the energy companies to take part in collective switching proposals. A number of the big six took part in the Which? big switch, so we have moved them and we are changing things.
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A key barrier to collective switching and ordinary switching is individual bill payers getting their details to the third party organising the switch, the switching website or the new supplier. In principle, that should not be too difficult, but the evidence we have found is that it is. We have therefore started to tackle the problem. In the voluntary agreement I negotiated, the companies agreed to put quick response codes on their bills. “What,” hon. Members may ask, “is a QR code?” It is a bit like a bar code, but smarter. The QR code should make it much easier for people to provide the energy bill details needed for switching, reducing the effort people must make. I can announce to the House that we will be consulting on that and a number of other measures when we introduce our consultation on consumer bills.
The Government have gone further to reduce the hassle of switching. In another consumer project I worked on at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills—it was called midata—we looked at other ways in which an energy company could provide the customer with the customer’s data, for example, in easy-to-use or easy-to-pass-on electronic formats. BIS is now consulting on making the midata ideas a statutory requirement. Coupled with the work of Ofgem on simpler bills, that could be a huge catalyst for helping many more people to switch.
Caroline Flint: An Energy Bill is imminent. We have had pre-legislative scrutiny, white papers and impact assessment. Has it only just occurred to Department of Energy and Climate Change Ministers, including the Secretary of State, who took over at the beginning of this year, that they should consult in the run-up to a Bill that will be before the House in the next few weeks? Labour did a lot in government: 1.7 million fewer people were in fuel poverty when it left government.
Mr Davey: Unlike the right hon. Lady, this Government respect an independent regulator. Ofgem has been conducting its retail market review. It would have been completely inappropriate for the Government to publish a consultation before the independent regulator completed its work. She ought to know that. We have been waiting for the report and got it just last week. As a result of receiving that work, we will take forward our consultation, which will enable us to introduce new legislation in the Energy Bill.
Simon Hughes: My right hon. Friend is right to say that it would have been nonsense not to wait for the review to finish before considering what to do, but given that it is also absolute nonsense to propose abolishing a regulator, only to create a new regulator to do a similar sort of job—namely, regulating the energy industry—will he take the much more sensible option of being open to suggestions from wherever they might come as to ways in which we might toughen the role of the current regulator to make it much more responsive to the needs of our constituents?
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Lady did not welcome it. That might be something to do with her policy of abolishing Ofgem, which I should like briefly to turn to as my right hon. Friend has raised the matter. We want to understand why the right hon. Lady believes that abolishing one regulator and replacing it with another will make any difference whatever. That is a recipe for delay and chaos and for letting the energy companies get away with it while the Opposition mess around moving the deckchairs on the Titanic.
The right hon. Lady said that the previous Government looked at whether reforming the regulator would be better than creating a new one. She gave no good reason why we could not reform Ofgem, which is what this Government will do. It is interesting that she wants to spend time rebranding public bodies. I do not know whether she believes that is a good use of taxpayers’ money, but, interestingly, her proposal is rather disloyal to the Leader of the Opposition. I am sure she is aware that he legislated on Ofgem when he was Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. Just two and a half years ago, he told the House that the purpose of his Energy Act 2010 was
“precisely to strengthen Ofgem's powers in a number of respects and to make it a more proactive regulator”—[Official Report, 7 January 2010; Vol. 503, c. 254.]
Caroline Flint: The truth is that despite the powers extended to Ofgem, it is just not delivering. Four years ago, it found that some customers were charged different prices for using the same amount of energy, but energy companies are still using predatory pricing tactics. In 2008, Ofgem launched reforms aimed at supporting consumers, but according to its own evaluation in 2011, the reforms failed. In August 2011, Ofgem commissioned BDO to undertake a forensic investigation of how to improve transparency in the market, but by May 2012, Ofgem had quietly dropped six of the eight BDO recommendations and varied the remaining two. It is not delivering; it is not doing its job.
Mr Davey: I am extremely disappointed that that is the position the right hon. Lady has arrived at. The retail market review last week proposed to reduce and limit the number of tariffs from the massive number that exist at the moment to just four core tariffs. As my right hon. Friend reminded us, he asked the Labour Government to do that just a few years ago, but they did not. Ofgem has acted where the Labour Government did not. It will help to tackle the complexity of multiple tariffs, which have not helped transparency or competition. I am delighted that its plans allow collective switch tariffs to emerge in addition to the core tariffs. I am surprised that she wants to abolish a body that, under this Government, is taking the action that the previous Government failed to take.
Gloria De Piero (Ashfield) (Lab): I have a very simple question for the right hon. Gentleman. Will the Government require energy companies to put all over-75s on the cheapest tariff, which is important in the run-up to Christmas?
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that she is focusing simply on over-75s. We are acting on over-75s and on all poorer pensioners, because the warm home discount will get £130 off their bills this year. We are taking action.
I have spent some time on competition in the retail energy markets, but the right hon. Lady spoke a lot about competition in the generating markets, to which I should like to turn. She made a great deal of wanting to reintroduce a pool to the UK and said it was in the Labour party’s manifesto. She did not really explain why, having abolished the pool in the UK in 2001, Labour wanted to re-introduce it. The Labour Energy and Competitiveness in Europe Minister at the time of pool abolition—she is now the noble Baroness Liddell—told the House: