Report (2nd Day)

Part of Energy Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 21st October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Worthington Baroness Worthington Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 4:30 pm, 21st October 2015

We can debate who benefits most from our low-carbon agenda—possibly it is the Chinese at this particular juncture. However, in the context of closing the RO early, it is some of the smaller schemes—the independent developers and the independent renewable companies—that are suffering the most, and it is the larger companies that seem to be getting the grace period amendments that they need. It is the smaller guys who are losing out. This is not about rewarding the richest or the most powerful lobbyists—that is not what we are seeking to do.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Young, pointed out, this is about fairness and a common-sense test of whether, when you read those words in a manifesto in May, you then think, “Ah yes, I know what that means; it means that in about the middle of June, I will see an announcement from the Government that closes a scheme in which I have invested hundreds of millions of pounds, which is already closing with no consultation”. I hesitate to say that that passes the common-sense test, as I do not think it does. Indeed, we know it does not, because we have had a large number of investors come to us to say that this is not the way that they should be dealt with.

Normally, a consultation exercise is undertaken and then the results of that consultation are published. In this case, because we have been racing since 18 June to get everything ready in order to close the scheme early, even though it is closing anyway, we have not had a proper public consultation or publication of the results of any consultation. Therefore we are flying blind and having to work with large numbers of people contacting us to express their concern and dismay at being handled in this way by the Government.

The specific issue raised under Amendment 78C is another important one. As I have said before, I do not think this House will discuss this, but it will certainly be discussed, with far greater passion potentially, when it moves to the other place. Amendment 78C would simply repatriate the closure of the RO to Scottish Ministers. The reason for this is that during the passage of the Energy Bill in 2013, the Government had to take a power to repatriate the renewables obligation back to Westminster. We were told at the time that this would be a technical amendment and that this had to be done simply to make the closure easier, tidier and more efficient. However, we now see that this was not the case: this was a cynical move that gave the Government the power to close a scheme for Scotland without due consultation with Scottish interests. It flies against the spirit of the Smith commission agreement, which is seeking to repatriate more powers to Scotland and allow Scottish people to determine what they want to see built to provide them with clean energy in the future.

That brings me on to the question of fairness and whether the Government’s amendments, and their proposals for grace periods, are fit for purpose. It should be noted that although the announcement was made on 18 June—and a very hard guillotine introduced at that point—and some details were provided about potential grace periods, it was not until 8 October that we were given the full detail of the proposals. That is not a long period for us to consider them, and they are incredibly complex—I am very grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, for his forensic and expert deconstruction of some of these issues. It is not appropriate for us to have to wait four months before we see the detail and, when we do see it, for it to be so substandard. This is a cause of great concern. It was of course quite a heated debate in Committee in the Moses Room the other week. That resulted in the withdrawal of the amendments, for which we were grateful. We hoped then that that would result in a bit of reflection and some clearer amendments coming forward.

I am grateful to the Minister for presenting the changes that were incorporated. By and large they were merely technical issues of clarification, but the biggest one, about planning and when you deem planning consent to have been given, remains unresolved. This is what is so strange about these grace periods. The anomaly here could not be more strange: because of the way the Government are interpreting this and putting it into legislation, if you are refused planning permission—if the local council signals that it is not content—and you then appeal and win that appeal, you will be able to get a subsidy. However, if you had consent from the local committee and it was clear that the community wished to see the development, but you were waiting for various formalities to be concluded which then came after the artificial 18 June deadline, you would not be eligible. That seems to fly in the face of the Government’s manifesto commitment—they are evidently keen on their manifesto commitments, as I am sure is right and proper—which is that they want local people to have the final say. There are clearly still weaknesses and great anomalies within the grace periods. The provisions already run to many pages, but we still need the department to go back to think again and come forward with something workable.

I do not want anything that I have said today to be interpreted as our desire to see endless subsidies for particular technologies continuing indefinitely. That is absolutely not the case. As I have said on previous occasions, the issue we should look at on which the Government have refused to give any clarity is what is happening with the new form of support, the contracts for difference, which replace the RO. That is the pertinent question, but whenever I have asked it, I am told that the Government will make a Statement in the autumn. It is not a good answer for an industry with 25 long years of history to be proud of to be told, “We will tell you your fate in our own good time at some point”—presumably, after the Bill has passed its crucial stages. It is not appropriate to be closing one scheme and not giving any clarity over what is to replace it.

My final concern is that the Government have left us little choice but to object to the provision. It demonstrates a Government who put ideology ahead of evidence. There is no place for ideology in energy policy. If the Government have set their mind against onshore wind, as they are demonstrating—that is evident from all that they have done—they are no better than those who take an ideological principle against fracking or nuclear. We should not be singling out technologies; we need every technology to play its part. Some technologies are better than others in certain circumstances, but there is no reason to decide that we should cease to support one over another, especially when it turns out to be cheaper than many of the alternatives, has a proven track record of delivery and is sustaining investment in our country.

I look forward to hearing from the Minister, but I doubt that he will be able to reassure me on those points, and it is for that reason that I reserve the right to press the amendment that follows.