My contribution to Tuesday’s debate on the Energy and climate change levy:
John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): The two questions that the Committee needs to ask when considering this Government proposal are these. Will it will help or hinder the Government in their central task of making sure we have enough power in this country for our future needs? And will it help or hinder what I hope is also the Government’s task, which is to provide value for money and sensibly priced energy, so that we can tackle fuel poverty and have a plentiful supply of reasonably priced energy to fuel the industrial recovery and the general economic recovery that the Government wish to see? My hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty (Nigel Adams) and for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) made important contributions, but I would like to see whether there is any scope to bring them a bit closer to the Government’s position.
Alison McGovern (Wirral South) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman has set out the two objectives that he thinks the Government should have. Is he suggesting that tackling climate change should not be the Government’s objective?
John Redwood: I have made very clear the priorities for myself and my electors. In the situation in which the country finds itself, guaranteeing keeping the lights on and having the power for industry and commerce is a fundamental objective that I take very seriously. I also take seriously the need to ease what Labour used to call “the cost-of-living crisis” to ensure that people have more money to spend for a better lifestyle, so affordable energy is crucial. Those are the priorities I set out for these policies. I think they can be achieved while ensuring that we reduce pollution, which I am very much in favour of. I wish to have sensible environmental policies, but my priorities are security of supply and powering better-paid jobs and more activity, which requires lower energy prices.
Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green): rose—
John Redwood: I willingly give way to the hon. Lady, who always wants to price people out of energy.
Caroline Lucas: I think I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. He, like me, would like to see affordable energy, but given that nuclear power is one of the most unaffordable energies and that we are going to lock ourselves into extremely high prices for nuclear into times to come, will he be consistent in his position? If he does not want unaffordable energy, will he also oppose nuclear energy fees?
John Redwood: I have not seen all the figures on what the contract prices might entail, but I entirely agree that I want affordable energy. The advantage of nuclear energy is that it is reliable energy, and the problem with too much wind energy in the system is that it is very unreliable energy. It is therefore very expensive energy because a full range of back-up power is necessary for when the wind is not blowing. That means investing at twice the cost—investing in the wind energy and then in the back-up energy. With nuclear, only one investment needs to be made. The hon. Lady is quite right that it is crucial to get value for money if it is decided to lock into a nuclear contract.
Caroline Flint (Don Valley) (Lab): The right hon. Gentleman may be aware that the interim report of the Competition and Markets Authority pointed out in June that customers on the standard variable tariffs are providing the big six energy companies with an extra £1 billion a year on account of over-charging? If he is concerned about the cost of energy, as I am, does he not agree that it is disgraceful that since that report we have heard nothing from the Government about how they are going to tackle this over-charging of some of the most vulnerable customers paying their electricity and gas bills today?
John Redwood: I have no more time than the right hon. Lady for over-charging vulnerable customers. I, too, look forward to an informed and sensible response to the report she mentioned. I do not think, however, that it is very relevant to the levy and the tax change that we are debating here today. The issue before us is whether this change to the levy will make it more difficult to keep the lights on and more difficult to deliver cheaper energy. I do not think it does, but the Government need to respond to the other crucial issues posed by my hon. Friends the Members for Selby and Ainsty and for Brigg and Goole.
Given that the margins are now extremely tight—in view of the huge reduction in traditional capacity that we have experienced, some people are pessimistic about the next two or three winters—can the Government do more, and do it cheaply and sensibly, at the same time as making the levy change? That should ensure that the great power stations we still have available can be either kept in the system and running to provide more power—preferably base load power, but it may have to be variable power, given how the thing is now run—or at least be kept available on standby. We may have to pay a price for that as part of that guarantee of supply. The three power stations we have heard about from colleagues this evening are part of the possible answer. We need to know that there is a future for traditional stations and that they can be priced into the system while we are in this period of transition, trying to work out what a modern electricity generation system will look like in five or 10 years’ time.
Nigel Adams (Selby and Ainsty) (Con): Will not this change in the levy, which is being made so quickly and with so little much notice—28 days—make things extremely difficult for generators such as Drax, and will not the likelihood of capacity that is safe for us all be greatly reduced over the next couple of years?
John Redwood: My hon. Friend has made a powerful case in defence of Drax. I hope that discussions are taking place between the Government and Drax about how Drax can continue to make a contribution and the Government’s intention—which I will be supporting this evening—can be preserved. I think it entirely possible to change the levy while also coming up with a solution for Drax.
Many people wondered about the advantage of switching from coal to wood, and about whether that was what quite what we wanted to do as part of a so-called decarbonisation strategy. Perhaps there is a better answer, but I return to my original proposition: I want an answer that will keep the lights on and provide the best possible value for money, and I think that there needs to be more discussion between the Energy Department and the big power stations to meet those two aims.
What I liked about the Minister’s opening remarks was his constant stress on the importance of value for money. That must be what drives Government policy. We want the productivity improvements that are now coming through. It is remarkable how, when Labour Members complain about something, that nearly always transforms it for the better. They complained about the cost-of-living crisis, and energy prices collapsed. Then they complained about the lack of productivity growth, and productivity started to take off. We are very grateful to them for those wrong calls, which seem to provide the stimulus that we need in order to create a better world; but if we are to drive productivity forward, providing more and cheaper power is crucial, because many modern processes, particularly in industry, are very energy-intensive.
The danger of some of the policies that have been followed by the European Union and by the last Labour Government is that we price ourselves out of energy-intensive industries—not in a way that spares the planet the carbon dioxide that those processes generate, but in a way that simply drives the businesses to another part of the world. No one should be happy about that. Those who believe that the fundamental priority is cutting carbon dioxide must take a global view; they cannot take a parochial, single-country view. Again, those whose main concern, like mine, is the prosperity and wellbeing of the British people cannot be happy if the decarbonisation policy has worked in one country, but has produced an equal or bigger amount of carbon dioxide somewhere else because the jobs and the industry have simply been transferred. That makes no sense whatsoever.
My hon. Friend the Minister will have my support—and, I am sure, that of many Conservative Members—if this proposal is tested shortly in the Lobbies, but we see it as only one part of a much bigger picture. We believe that if it is to work in removing the anomaly between different types of power and allowing some power from overseas to benefit, we must ensure that other elements of the policy mix are able to deal with the fundamental issues of supply, availability and value for money in the power system.
What the Government must do—and what they are beginning to do in a way that is shocking some Opposition Members—is revisit the huge cat’s cradle of subsidies, environmental tax, environmental tax breaks and rules which are extremely complicated, and which may, indeed, be having perverse consequences. They may be driving carbon dioxide-generating business out of this country while not cutting the global totals; they may be jeopardising our security of supply; they may be making it more difficult to deliver what we wish to do for, in particular, lower-income consumers who find current energy prices very challenging; and they are obviously in danger of undermining important, big, traditional investments in this country that could serve us better for longer if they were not driven out of business by environmental controls emanating from previous Governments and, particularly, from the European Union.
I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to justify the support of our party for this one element by reminding us that it must be part of a bigger picture, and that that bigger picture must be driven by a more rational policy that can deliver both the security of supply and the cheaper energy that the United Kingdom needs.