Motion A

Energy Bill [HL] - Commons Reason – in the House of Lords at 3:20 pm on 24 October 2023.

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Lord Callanan:

Moved by Lord Callanan

That this House do not insist on its Amendment 274B, to which the Commons have disagreed for their Reason 274C.

274C: Because the Government has already committed to consulting on barriers to the development of community energy schemes and the Commons do not consider it appropriate to set a timeframe for bringing forward any proposals for the removal of such barriers.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero)

My Lords, Amendment 274B was added to the Energy Bill during the previous consideration of Commons amendments. As the House will be aware, the amendment was debated in the other place last week and the Government Motion to disagree to the amendment was passed with a substantial majority.

I can confirm to the House that our position remains the same. The amendments would commit the Government to a consultation on the barriers preventing the development of community energy schemes. The amendment sets out with whom we would consult and commits the Government to bringing forward proposals to remove identified barriers to community energy within a brief six-month timescale.

I welcome the constructive engagement from across the House, in particular from the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott. I welcome her continued efforts throughout the passage of the Bill to ensure that the interests of the community energy sector are heard in this Chamber, but I reassure the noble Baroness that, on this issue, the Government have already made a clear commitment to the consultation.

As part of this commitment, we have outlined that we will engage in an open and collaborative way with the community energy sector, via the community energy contact group, to design the consultation. In fact, officials are already engaging on exactly that, and earlier this month held a very constructive discussion on the consultation with the group. Given our existing commitment to consult, and our ongoing engagement with the sector, we therefore believe that it is of no additional value to put the specifics in primary legislation.

In addition, there are further issues with the previous amendments that meant that we could not support their inclusion in the Bill. We clearly cannot commit to putting forward proposals to remove barriers that are preventing the development of community energy schemes before we know what barriers are raised in the consultation, or the implications of removing them. It would be remiss of us to agree to put that into primary legislation. Placing this obligation on the Government would be putting the cart before the horse.

However, I reassure the House yet again that the Government will carry out the consultation and continue to work closely with the sector to do so. I also reiterate the Government’s support in principle for community energy; we recognise the role that community groups play in our efforts to eliminate our contribution to climate change. I participated in a great visit to North Kensington Community Energy two weeks ago where I was able to see first-hand some of the important work that the sector does and to meet the contact group.

More widely, government support for the sector is demonstrated through existing support that we have already put in place, such as the £10 million community energy fund. I am pleased to tell the House that we aim to open applications to that fund as soon as we possibly can.

Photo of Baroness Boycott Baroness Boycott Crossbench

I thank the Minister very much for his sort of co-operation through the passage of the Bill. It is hugely important. It was introduced about 16 months ago, and I do not wish to delay it any further. But I speak with great regret that the Government find themselves unable to agree to my simple and incredibly uncontroversial amendment, which just seeks to clarify the Government’s commitment to consult on the barriers that community energy schemes face. I am very pleased that the Minister went to visit one that was working, but I assure him that a lot are not.

While I welcome the steps the Government have taken to re-establish the community energy fund—for instance, reporting to Parliament and consulting—it is important to put a timescale on these plans; 18 months is fair and reasonable. Without a timescale there is a risk that this will not happen. It has been demonstrated that this issue has widespread support across both Houses. When we have something that we agree on, we ought to just get on with it and do it. I fear that this small but significant issue will get drowned out in next year’s general election. I would appreciate reassurance from the Minister that this is a needless worry and that the Government are committed.

I would just like to get some clarity on a couple of points. What will be the basis of this annual report to Parliament? Is it simply to report on the progress of projects, or will it address the challenges that we face and the best route to sort them out? My amendment also sought to ensure that, should any consultation find that there are barriers—new barriers, for instance—the Government will commit to taking steps to address these. Being candid, we know that there are barriers, and I appreciate the argument that you should not legislate for the unknown, but I am simply trying to get an assurance that they would plan to lift barriers that we know are there—including ones that we do not know.

To return to the issue of the consultation, we have rehearsed what issues need to be resolved; thanks to the Bill committee in the other place, there are many views on record. I do not believe that much is likely to change in the next year. While I agree that we should follow due process here, it must not be used as a reason for delay. I urge the Minister to open this consultation ASAP, so that we can get this ball rolling.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, I rise very briefly and with great pleasure following the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, who has done such an enormous amount of work on this issue—I pay tribute to that.

I was the person who started these amendments on their way back in December 2022, after we started work on this Bill last July. A consultation is something but what we really need is action, so I have a simple question for the Minister. As he said, this consultation has already started this month; if the Government see or identify through that consultation some simple, easy-to-remove barriers, will they act on them immediately rather than waiting for the end of the formal process? Surely, if action can be taken then projects, such as the one in Kensington to which the Minister referred, can go forward.

Photo of Lord Teverson Lord Teverson Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, on her persistence in this area. One of the strong messages that came out between Committee and Report in this House was the slow progress, and lack of progress, on community schemes. I very much hope that this consultation will reverse that trend. It seems slightly ironic, though typical, that the objection from the Commons is on there being a timetable, whereas we all know that for anything to happen, you need a timetable to focus.

On these Benches we are now keen to get this Bill on the statute book and that it becomes an Act. It has been delayed a number of times, mainly from the government side, as it has progressed through both Houses. There are a lot of important parts of this Bill that need to happen. I very much hope that the future systems operator will be quickly nominated and can move into action, so that a number of the strategic bottlenecks that we have in our energy sector can be swept away and solved. Again, I thank the noble Baroness for her persistence in this area, and I hope that consultation will move to action very quickly.

Photo of Lord Lennie Lord Lennie Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Energy and Net Zero)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for her persistence on this. I agree with what she is trying to achieve. The Minister came dangerously close to Rumsfeld-speak when he effectively said that we cannot know the unknowables. All that we and the amendment were suggesting was that a report needs to come forward and then we can determine how we need to act, which seems entirely sensible.

I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Teverson: it is time that the Bill got on to the statute book. The Bill has been far too long in digestion. Let us hope we can now eat it all and enjoy its flavour.

Photo of Lord Callanan Lord Callanan Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Energy Security and Net Zero) 3:30, 24 October 2023

I thank all Members who have contributed to this extremely brief debate. To have a brief debate on the back of a Bill that now has 335 clauses, one of the longest Bills that we have passed in this House for many years, is quite ironic but probably appropriate.

On the issue in question, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, for her remarks. She spoke about the timing of the consultation. All I can tell her is that we will launch it as soon as we can; I am afraid I cannot put a specific date on it, but I hope it will not be too long away now. Officials need to continue their discussions with the community energy sector about the content of the consultation before we can launch it. I confirm absolutely that officials are working closely with the Community Energy Contact Group—I have met it myself —and we are keen to get on with this as quickly as possible.

Similarly, on the content of the consultation, until we finish those discussions we cannot commit to exactly what the consultation will include. That really would be putting the cart before the horse—unknown unknowns, as the noble Lord, Lord Lennie, referred to. On the commitment to publish an annual report on the community energy sector, which the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, spoke about, I confirm that, as with the consultation, we will work closely with the sector to design exactly what the report will look like.

The noble Baronesses, Lady Bennett and Lady Boycott, asked me to commit to removing barriers. Until we know what those barriers are, it is impossible for me to give a vague commitment. If removing a barrier is simple and straightforward then of course we would want to do it, but we are talking in generalities without knowing what the specific issues are. Let us have a bit of patience and wait for the outcome of the consultation. The House can be reassured that we are committed to the consultation and keen to see the community energy sector go forward, which is why we have provided the new £10 million fund to aid it to do just that. In the personal discussions I had with the sector, it was extremely keen and enthusiastic to get on with some of the great work that it does.

As this will be the final time that I will be on my feet for this gigantic piece of legislation, I thank the Members from all sides who have contributed during the passage of this, frankly, huge piece of legislation. At every industry forum that I have done for the last six months, I have been asked the obligatory question, “When will the Energy Bill get Royal Assent?”. Whether it be the CCUS sector, the hydrogen sector or the smart meter sector, as well as the community energy sector, every stakeholder group in this area is keen to get this legislation on the statute book. I know the House had some concerns but in general the legislation has support from all sides, and I think everybody accepts that it will do great and noble things for the energy sector.

As well as Members of the House, I thank all the officials who have now spent a number of years working on this. There were several hundred of them so I cannot mention them all by name, but I particularly pick out Jeremy Allen and Jessica Lee, who have led the team fantastically over the last months and years. I am sure they will be lost without their little baby, as the Energy Bill becomes the Energy Act. They have done some great work, including on the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Act and the Energy Prices Act. I hope noble Lords will join me in thanking them for all the good work they have done, in the finest traditions of the Civil Service, in helping us to navigate our way through these important pieces of legislation.

Motion A agreed.