POST OFFICES MAY CLOSE WITHOUT SUPPORT

Government must support the institution through giving more public contracts, says Glasgow MP.

John Robertson MP will today call on the Government to make post offices a ‘one-stop-shop’ for government services and other facilities, such as a post bank. He will lead a debate in the Commons, highlighting that elderly and disabled people rely on the Post Office and will struggle to move towards online government services.

Ahead of the debate, Mr Robertson said: “Almost half of the over 65s go to the Post Office at least once a week and many people depend on being able to go there to pay their council tax or their road tax, pick up their pensions, or send post all over the world. Instead of supporting these people by giving the post office contracts, our Tory and SNP-led governments are risking the closure of post offices across the country, who rely on contracts for around a fifth of their business.”

“Royal Mail privatisation has not helped, as 40% of Post Office business is from mail. We need to be pushing the newly private company to take on the contract with the Post Office for decades to come – or look to re-nationalise this profitable business.”

Questioning DWP on Personal Independence Payments

I had the opportunity to ask the Minister in the Department for Work and Pensions about personal independence payments. Here is what I said:

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): How many claimants have received the personal independence payment since April 2013. [901894]

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Mike Penning): The Department intends to publish official statistics in the spring. In the meantime, we are looking to see whether we can publish interim information as soon as it becomes available.

John Robertson: I thank the Minister for that answer, which is good news for a lot of people. He will appreciate that a lot of people are suffering while Capita takes so long to get that information out; they have the anxiety of not knowing whether their appeals, or even their applications for assessment, have been agreed. What kind of monitoring of Capita is he doing, and does it have enough people to do the job?

Mike Penning: We are monitoring the work of both Capita and Atos, and we will have the figures as soon as we can. Under the previous Administration’s scheme, fewer than 6% of people claiming this or a similar benefit were ever assessed. It must be right and proper that there is not self-assessment; it is done by the experts.

GOVERNMENT CONTRACTS SHOULD BE TRANSPARENT

Labour MP demands that the public should be able to get information on large companies with Government contracts.

Outsourcing of public contracts is estimated to have passed £100 billion, but unlike Government departments, the companies taking on these projects are not subject to the Freedom of Information Act. Public bodies such as schools, hospitals and prisons have to provide details of how taxpayers’ money is spent, and one system for doing so is through an FOI.

Glasgow MP John Robertson called for the change to the law in the Commons today.

Mr Robertson said: “We have a right to know how each and every penny of public money is spent. But at the moment, companies are hiding behind the law and our public spending is becoming less democratic.”

“There is no excuse for fraud or malpractice paid for by the public purse and we need a system to make sure that cannot happen. This Government is only interested in helping business, and I think that is why they do not want to lift the lid on some of the dirty practices of these companies.”

November Newsletter 2013

Clarity over Shipyards

We received the announcement that we have been waiting for that BAE Systems will be closing Portsmouth shipyards, and 835 people in the Clyde shipyards will be losing their jobs progressively through to 2016.  While not unexpected, it is very sad for the hardworking people involved, as well as their families. But I have been assured that the company will be working with trade unions and will explore all potential opportunities, including retraining, redeployment and flexible working arrangement, as well as providing support for employees who wish to retire or seek external opportunities.

The positive thing to come out of the announcement, however, is that the future of the Clyde shipyards as a whole has been secured for at least the next decade.  They stated that following an assessment of capabilities, the Clyde was seen as the most effective build location for Type 26. Future QE Class work, which was initially planned for Portsmouth, will be relocated to the Clyde under BAE Systems’ proposals.

Of course, a question mark still hangs over this, as I am sure if Scotland sadly decides to vote for independence, then I cannot see how the UK and Scottish governments would decide on the future of these shipyards.  Since the Second World War, no UK government has ever commissioned the building of a warship in a foreign country, and I would find it very difficult to believe that they would choose to do so if Scotland became a foreign country.

I care deeply about keeping jobs in the constituency and, while disappointed that jobs will be lost over the next few years, I am pleased that the future of the Clyde has been secured.

Glasgow North West

Oppose the Bedroom Tax

The Labour Party has held a debate in the Commons recently on the Bedroom Tax. It is a deeply cruel and unfair measure which hits 660,000 vulnerable people, including 400,000 disabled people, through no fault of their own.  For the vast majority affected, there is nowhere smaller to move to, and this is a particular problem in Glasgow.

There is now also a real risk that this tax will end up costing more than it saves.  This is due to people being forced to move to the private sector which will end up costing more in Housing Benefit.  I have been speaking with housing associations in our constituency and they have stressed they see this being a major problem in the years to come.

Presentation of the old Yoker School clock

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I was delighted to be invited by Sandy Busby of Yoker Resource Centre, to make the formal presentation of the old Yoker School Clock, in the Yoker Community Campus, located in the old school.  The clock was discovered early this year in an unkempt and damaged state in the loft of the resource centre.

The clock hung in the Yoker primary school from its opening in 1875 till it closed in 1965 and then served the local community on to 1991 when the school closed in the then Yoker Neighbourhood Centre.

Mr Billy Mills, from Bearsden, offered to pay for the refurbishment of the clock, in memoriam of his late wife Nancy, who attended Yoker Primary School as a young girl.

Parliament

Questioning the Energy Companies

The Energy select committee, which I sit on, has had a lot of media attention in recent weeks as we have been questioning energy companies on why they are putting up prices yet again.  In the last month or so, all of the biggest energy companies have announced price rises of between 4 and 10%.  As many of you who read my newsletter often will know, I am always annoyed by the reasons they give for price rises. They say wholesale energy prices are going up and government policies take up a lot of the cost of a bill.  But the committee this week showed they are simply lying about this.  The Chief Executive of a smaller company, Ovo, said he hasn’t seen wholesale prices go up in about two years.

I also appeared on an episode of Dispatches called “Energy costs exposed”.   It showed that energy companies are not sure how much government policies, so called ‘green levies’, are adding to the bill, with different companies saying different things.  The programme also looked into some of the shady tax practices by the big companies and it suggests a lot of tax avoidance is going on.

I will keep pressuring the energy companies to come clean about their accounts.  But if you have problems paying your energy bill please speak to your supplier or call my office if you have a problem.   There are plenty of schemes which could help you with energy bills, and I do not want any of my constituents going cold this winter.

With Shadow Energy Secretary, Caroline Flint MP, pledging to freeze energy bills

 

THE BEDROOM TAX LEAVES VUNERABLE PEOPLE AT RISK AND NEEDS TO BE REPEALED SAYS JOHN ROBERTSON MP

John Robertson MP will vote today to abolish this unjust and unworkable bedroom tax being imposed by this Tory-led government, saying that the people affected by this tax simply can’t wait until 2015 for this to be repealed.

The Bedroom Tax hits over 400,000 disabled people nationwide, and around 80,000 people in Scotland. For the vast majority of those affected, there is nowhere smaller to move to, hitting vulnerable people with an average bill of £720 a year through no fault of their own. Instead of reducing the housing benefit bill, there is now a real risk the Bedroom Tax will cost more than it saves.

John Robertson MP said:

“The Bedroom Tax is leaving families up and down this country with nowhere to go and on the edge of spiralling debt. These people simply can’t wait until the next Labour government in 2015 for it to be repealed. They need it repealed now.

“That is why I am proud to say I will vote with our Shadow Work & Pensions Secretary, Rachel Reeves and other colleagues today to do just that.

“The Labour Party promised to repeal the tax in government, and because we know that in these tough financial times we can’t borrow more to pay for social security, we’ve set out a clear plan to pay for the repeals by cutting down on tax loop holes and avoidance.”

 

The next Labour Government will repeal the Bedroom Tax without extra borrowing.  To cover the £470m cost of repealing the Bedroom Tax, funds have been earmarked from:

  • reversing George Osborne’s recent tax cut for hedge funds announced in Budget 2013;
  • reversing George Osborne’s shares for rights scheme which has been rejected by businesses, has opened up a tax loophole and will lead to £1bn being lost to the Exchequer according to the Office for Budget Responsibility; and
  • tackling disguised employment in the construction industry.

 

John Robertson MP went on to say:

“The people of Glasgow can see what this Tory-led government’s policy is doing; and it’s doing it to the wrong group of people. At the same time as cutting taxes for the wealthiest, they are penalising disabled people and their loved ones that work so hard caring for them.

“The Labour Party’s policy to repeal this tax isn’t only fair but makes sense. The Tory-led government should follow our lead.”

 

UPDATE: I voted for the Labour motion on 12th November to abolish the Bedroom Tax: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm201314/cmhansrd/cm131112/debtext/131112-0004.htm

Update from Westminster – 17th October 2013

This week: ‘Innocent until proven guilty’; Energy debate; WW1 Centenary Project; and plain packaging of tobacco.

End zero-hours contracts

We need real action to end exploitative zero-hours contracts and rising insecurity in the workplace

Families in Glasgow North West and across the country are facing the greatest cost of living crisis in a generation. Prices are increasing, wages are falling and for many hard-working people there is rising insecurity in the workplace.

One of the worst examples of this is the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts. I’ve spoken to many people in Glasgow who are employed on zero-hours contracts and they’ve told me of the struggle they and their families face on a daily basis.

According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts – with a big increase since the Tory-led government took office –  and they are now used in one in five workplaces.

The Tory-led government has failed to act on zero-hours contracts. It emerged that a ‘review’ of the issue initiated by Business Secretary Vince Cable earlier this year consisted of three officials spending part of their time “speaking informally” with stakeholders.

Zero-hours contracts mean insecurity and stress for too many families in Glasgow North West. We can’t let this continue, which is why I voted on Wednesday for an end to their exploitative use and for action to stop rising insecurity at work.

The Tory-led government has failed to act. According to recent estimates there could be as many as 1 million workers employed on zero-hours contracts – with a spike since the Tory-led government took office –  and they are now used in one in five workplaces.

A Labour Government would ban employers from insisting zero-hours workers be available even when there is no guarantee of any work, stop zero-hours contracts that require workers to work exclusively for one business and end the misuse of zero-hours contracts where employees are in practice working regular hours over a sustained period.

Both employers and employees need flexibility but this shouldn’t mean people in Glasgow lacking job security and having to be flexible about whether or not they can afford the weekly shop. We’ve got to put a stop to it and that is what Labour is determined to do.

Hard-working people should feel confident and secure at work; ending the exploitative use of zero-hours contracts is an integral part of achieving this.

Report from Jonathan Gibson

Jonathan Gibson has been undertaking work experience in the office this week and he came along to the Energy and Climate Change select committee yesterday. Here is his report for us on what was said during the meeting.

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This morning I attended the Energy and Climate Change select committee on proposals for carbon reduction, through the Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) programme. John was sitting next to Ian Lavery and we heard the opinions of a number of energy experts and representatives of various CCS companies with which the government might potentially cooperate. The principal issues addressed in the committee largely involved funding for the project, potential barriers  to its implementation and the issue of how best to ensure that it will effectively reduce carbon emissions in the short and long term.

A number of queries were raised regarding how cost-effective these plans would be, the response from the panel being that the project they advocated is the most cost-effective option available, with major opportunities for cost reduction through economies of scale over time. They cited similar projects in Canada and Texas which had successfully reduced their costs by 30% and 25% respectively. Professor Stuart Hazeldine of the Scottish CCS stated that there was plenty of room for as many as 4 or 5 CCS programmes to operate alongside the other energy policies the government is currently running. A suggestion was also raised about how the UK economy might benefit from taking the first steps in this programme, as there might be opportunities to export his new technology overseas. Furthermore, the panel maintained, we should act sooner rather than later in any case, exploiting our local expertise in the North Sea, to encourage the rest of Europe to follow our example.

Another issue that the committee tried to address involved the barriers to achieving CCS and how they might be overcome. The experts on the panel argued that scientific and technological barriers were easily surmountable and far more important were policy barriers. They argued that thus far the government had not been sufficiently proactive or creative in taking proposals forward and in many cases had been more effective in killing off suggestions or leaving them to wither than it had in encouraging them to expand. Undeniably, trying to find a meeting point of policies of de-carbonisation and energy generation is not a simple task and the UK government is already world-leading in this area, but several of the experts maintained that more needs to be done and that CCS is the natural next step. In comparison to the case of policy in renewable and nuclear energy, the government’s strategy on carbon reduction is still quite uncertain. We need to avoid the situation that arose on wind farms in the ‘70s and ‘80s where plans were not sufficiently supported throughout their development; greater focus on funding and visibility is required to implement really ambitious reforms.

Finally, the committee discussed the issue of how government policies should best address the issue of carbon emissions. The panel maintained that simply regulating energy prices is not enough to maximise the scope and ambition of this programme and that we need to focus more on offering incentives to energy companies. Other countries such as the USA, Canada and Australia have already worked on this but in the EU little tangible change has yet been achieved. The advice of the panel was generally to try to make CCS more investible for companies to ensure greater cooperation in reducing carbon emissions. Christopher Pincher did call this assertion into question by referencing Shell’s statement that previous efforts within the EU to offer greater incentives had not been successful; The panel responded that the issues with these previous programmes (lack of a clear objective, insufficient integration etc) had been properly rectified in their CCS proposal.

In conclusion, the committee heard many compelling arguments in favour of the CCS scheme as a way to achieve greater cooperation between government and energy companies and ultimately to meet our long-terms targets to limit carbon emissions. Although questions still remain about how exactly the programme would operate, I certainly believe that the government should take a more proactive course in supporting ambitious plans to address this very important issue.

Jonathan Gibson

High School of Glasgow

Energy policy and preparing for winter

Here is an article I wrote just before my Westminster Hall debate on 9th October on ‘Energy policy and preparing for winter’. It first appeared on Central Lobby on the PoliticsHome website and can be seen here.

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It can be difficult, on an unseasonably warm day in October, to think about the challenge that lies ahead over the coming months for millions of people across the country: having to choose between heating and eating in winter.

Every year, Government needs to think about how it will prepare for this and how we can prevent the thousands of people who die from the cold each year. But I believe this year, and in the years to come, we have a greater challenge. Energy bills have risen by £300 under this Government alone, we have multiple warnings of ‘Blackout Britain’ and the energy market appears to be becoming less and less predictable. We need short term and long term action.

Earlier this year, Ofgem warned of blackouts and we see even this week that National Grid is giving a bleak outlook for this winter. In these periods we must make sure we can keep the lights on, and that we are not paying more than we can afford to do so. We import gas from countries that could become particularly volatile and I know my constituents cannot afford to pay for bad energy planning by this Government.

Energy bills are soaring and even if we can secure the supply, this Government cannot guarantee it will be affordable. I think we will have to wait for a Labour Government in 2015 before we see the short term price freeze that is needed to sort the market out.

But this Government could at least commit to helping to improve the support system for vulnerable people. I was shocked to find out that nobody in my constituency received a cold weather payment this year or last. In a period when we saw record low temperatures of up to -8C, this is extremely worrying and we need to look urgently at how these payments are triggered.

We also need to get the information out there that support is available. There are so many different pots of money, but people either do not know they exist or struggle to apply for them. Perhaps instead of spending the advertising budget on a marketing company that was fined £45,000 for nuisance calls, DECC Ministers could look at providing more accessible advice for the most vulnerable in society.

There is simply not enough joined up thinking in terms of protecting vulnerable people from blackouts or soaring energy costs. We really need a Poverty Champion to bring all these measures together – to give me confidence they are being looked after. Confidence that I can pass onto thousands of my constituents who are elderly, disabled, have young children or who are alone, and who are worrying about how they will heat their home this winter.

Energy policy and preparing for winter

This week I led a debate in Westminster Hall. I was very disappointed with the response by the Minister as I had given him a copy of the speech beforehand so I could get some proper answers to how the Government is trying to prevent the 7,800 deaths that occur each year because people cannot afford to heat their homes. This debate was not about political point scoring, but I think the lack of care that the Minister put into his response shows how little this Government cares about ordinary people, who are struggling to pay their bills.

The full text from the debate can be read here:

John Robertson (Glasgow North West) (Lab): Mr Caton, it is a pleasure to see you in the Chair during this important, but short, debate.

Every year the Government need to think about how they will prepare for winter and the challenges that lie ahead, including how we can prevent thousands of people from dying from cold each winter. However, we have a greater challenge this year and in the years to come. Energy bills have risen by more than £300 under this Government; Ofgem is warning of blackouts; and the energy market appears to be becoming less and less predictable. We need short-term and long-term action and I want to be confident that the Government are taking that action. I want to be confident about that, so I can pass it on to thousands of my constituents who are elderly, disabled, have young children or who are alone and are worrying about how they will heat their homes this winter. I may get silly answers, as one official told my office staff yesterday, but I am sure the Minister has more sense than that and will give these issues proper consideration.

First, I want to speak about the worrying headlines about blackout Britain. Before anybody tries to intervene—unfortunately, there are no hon. Members here to do that—I am talking about actual blackouts due to lack of energy, not energy companies scaremongering about what they might do if a Labour Government froze energy prices. Ofgem announced in the summer that we are facing a crisis, with our safety margin of spare capacity for electricity about to shrink from a healthy margin of around 15%, to less than 4% within three years. This winter, the estimated de-rated capacity margin is 6.3% and, only this week, National Grid announced that it was keeping a “close watching brief” on supplies. I do not want to be alarmist, because we will probably be all right, but if the chief executive of Ofgem felt it necessary to warn of a “near crisis”, I think we need to take that seriously. Do the Government take it seriously? I know that provisions have been included in the Energy Bill for this, and we support the principle of a capacity mechanism, even if we have not been given many details. As an aside, I would like to know when we can expect details on this. Hopefully, we will have them before 2018.

Crucially, the first capacity market auction for 2014 is for delivery of capacity from 2018-19. What provisions are in place for this winter and those leading up to 2018? Will we be reliant upon the small diesel generators available under the short-term operating reserve in these years? What assessment has the Minister done of the necessity to use those during this period? In such cases, we could become further reliant on gas, particularly liquefied natural gas. Demand for that is increasing from countries such as China, so I have concerns about the price we will have to pay for this commodity. External shocks might dramatically increase the price of gas, just as Fukushima increased Japan’s demand for gas and therefore increased prices across the world. Gas storage in the UK is equivalent to 14 days’ worth of supply, compared with between 59 and 87 days’ worth in Italy, Germany and France.

DECC acknowledges that the UK has returned to levels of import dependency not seen since the 1970s. We must consider the countries from which we are importing gas—Qatar and Russia are key suppliers. According to Peter Hughes, a former vice-president of BP, importing from such countries means we are more vulnerable to short-term price increases, and we are therefore vulnerable to political volatility. I recognise that the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change recently published a statement saying that he will press ahead with interventions already in hand, but I do not think we will see the immediate effects here.

I also hope that DECC officials are planning how to use any excess gas. Were we to buy too much gas and have a warmer winter, will energy prices be lowered? I would have thought so, as energy companies blame higher profits on the cold winter, but knowing what I know, I think we will have to work hard to ensure that we see the financial effects of a warm winter. Is Ofgem capable of forcing companies to do that?

In a recent BBC survey, 25% of people said that they are living in an unacceptably cold home. That is unbelievable in the 21st century. The Government have committed to ensuring that half of all households have at least one insulation measure by 2022, but the Minister will be only too aware that we are nowhere near meeting that target. In the middle of last month only 12 households—not 12,000, nor 1,200 but 12—had some sort of measure installed under the green deal, with 372 households waiting. What assessment have the Government made of that? Why is uptake so low?

The green deal is not a good deal for the public; it offers high interest rates of some 8%, which I have been told can be undercut by other sources of finance. The only incentive is the cashback payments, which will soon dry up. Predatory door-to-door and nuisance call selling tactics are also not encouraging concerned people to take up the deal. Perhaps the Minister needs to give some sleeping pills to his colleague the right hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), who said that he would not be sleeping unless 10,000 had signed up to the green deal by the end of the year—he must have had a lot of sleepless nights.

That is based on those households that can even apply for insulation. I have a good number of tenement blocks in my constituency that are home to some of the people who we really need to be helping in the winter months: the elderly and the poor. The green deal is not a bad deal for them; it is an impossible deal. Glasgow city council has been trying to upgrade some of its stock through retrofit schemes, but there are so many types of building that are unfit for insulation measures and are leaking heat at an alarming rate. What are the Government’s plans for them? For those people who are waiting on the green deal to bear fruit, January 2014 is not good enough. People need warm houses at the start of the winter, not at the end.

Many people do not turn on their heating because of the cost. In fact, almost seven in 10 households did not do so at some point last winter. The revised figures in the Hills report show that 7,800 people die in winter because they cannot afford to heat their home properly. Of course, rising energy bills are not helping. Energy barons are simply profiteering from their customers, with profits going up each year from what are already eye-watering figures. The big six doubled their profit margins in the last year alone. The Government have totally failed to act on this, claiming that the market is competitive, which it simply is not.

Guy Opperman (Hexham) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate. Does he accept that fuel bills may be rising, but there are things that individual constituents can do? In my area of Northumberland, for example, 13 groups have formed oil-buying clubs, which have seen reductions of between 10% and 20% in heating oil prices for thousands of people across the region.

John Robertson: There are a lot of people doing a lot of good things, and they know how to manipulate the market. They can take up contracts, use the internet and work things out, but I am talking about people who cannot do those things. I am talking about the poorest in society, who do not get the help they need. Unfortunately, my constituency is one of the poorest in the country. There are many such constituencies in my area and in other areas, and I am talking about those people, not the others.

Guy Opperman: I totally accept that we should be looking after those people who are least able to look after themselves. There are areas of tremendous social deprivation in the north-east, but those groups, supported by local churches, credit unions, parish councils and community action groups, are the ones being helped in such circumstances.

John Robertson: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says to a certain extent, but they cannot do enough. The Government have to take a lead. Perhaps he will agree with my final points, because I am a great believer in giving solutions as well as criticism.

As I have said, many people do not turn on the heating because of the cost. The Government’s report shows that 7,800 people die because of the winter cold. The energy barons are profiteering as far as I am concerned. The big six doubled their profit margins last year alone, and the Government have totally failed to act, claiming that the market is competitive, which it simply is not. I am pleased to say that in 2015, if Labour is elected, as I am sure we will be, energy bills will be frozen.

The energy companies are scaremongering, saying that they will turn the lights off and that investment will stop. They could manipulate a black-out, so a real hard-nosed regulator is needed now, just in case. A family in my constituency will save £112 a year under Labour’s idea, but that is not enough on its own. Energy prices have been rising far too much for far too long, but it would be a start. The fact that Co-operative Energy backs the move shows that bills do not need to rise. All the companies could give contracts lasting for two years. Saying there would be a black-out due to the price freeze is absolutely spurious. There is no way they can justify saying that.

Despite having 98% of the market, the big six provide only 47% of investment. So where exactly is the money from successive price rises going? The Government, as the previous Conservative Government did with BT, need to support new companies in the sector and ensure that at least 25% of provision is in the hands of companies other than the big six. That was a Conservative policy in the 1980s. I spoke against it back then, but I can see the need for it now, particularly for the energy companies.

The big question today is: what are the Government going to do this winter and next? Will my constituents be left helpless for another year, watching their bills go up by an expected 10% this year and probably twice again before the general election? We want people to have a better life, and this Tory-led Government want big business to make the difference. That is not happening in the energy sector. The Government are unwilling to sort out energy prices. We will have to wait until 2015 for a Labour Government to do that, but perhaps the Minister could consider cold weather payments. I was shocked to find that nobody in my constituency received a cold weather payment last year or the year before. The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb) has acknowledged that that might be due to unclaimed pension credit, although saying that is different from acting on it. More can be done to get pensioners on to that benefit. What is actually being done?

The key reason is that the conditions on these payments are much too strict. The £25 is automatically allocated if the weather has been, or is forecast to be, an average of 0° C over a seven-day period. That is extremely cold and for an extremely long time. Last winter was bitter. In the weeks leading up to other parts of the country being given the payment in March this year, there was a seven-day period in my constituency when the average temperature was 1.57° C. During that time, the thermometer recorded much lower temperatures—minus 3° C, minus 4° C and even minus 8° C one day. I am talking about record low temperatures, but no payment was made.

It is estimated that there are about 8,000 extra deaths for every 1° C drop in the average temperature. We need to have a good look at how the system works. How many people have to die before anything is done? Perhaps we could look at raising the temperature threshold or, as the Institution of Gas Engineers and Managers suggests, basing it on heating degree days. In my constituency, winters are long. The weather was particularly cold in April last year, but cold weather payments go up only to 31 March. Why? Will the Minister do an impact assessment on the effects of those cut-off points?

What is the Minister actually doing to save lives? The Government’s Hills report told us of the thousands of people dying due to fuel poverty. How long will it be until Ministers take notice? How many lives will be lost? These payments are important because, as a recent study showed, poorer households reduce their food expenditure by 7.2% in cold weather shocks. I commend the Prime Minister for making the £25 payment permanent, but I believe it should be higher. The website energyhelpline.com estimates that, on cold days, families could be spending as much as £20 a day on energy. With energy bills rising, that is certain to increase. We have been told the payment will be set at £25 for the whole Parliament. Clearly, that is not enough.

My last point assumes that people will turn on their heating in cold weather. Elderly people, in particular, worry about turning on their heating, because of the cost. However, the winter fuel payment not only provides the financial support pensioners need to turn the heating on, but gives them confidence that they can afford to keep it on for as long as they need to.

Guy Opperman: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

John Robertson: I will carry on, if that is all right with the hon. Gentleman. I want to give the Minister a lot of time to answer a lot of questions.

I am proud that the Labour Government brought these payments in and consistently looked to increase them. I am pleased the coalition Government honoured our 2010 Budget for that winter, making one-off £100 or £50 payments to various people, but that was not continued. Those payments were crucial to helping pensioners afford to keep warm. Expenditure on them is likely to decrease from £2.2 billion to £2 billion by 2017-18. I am confident we could ensure that those who receive the payments get enough to cover the prices we are likely to see in the years ahead.

How are the Government publicising these and other support measures? I fear the emphasis in terms of spending may be misplaced. Considering that the firm used to advertise the green deal was fined £45,000 for nuisance calls, the advertising budget could surely be spent better. Perhaps it could be spent on advertising offline to reach all vulnerable people and to highlight the different support measures available: winter fuel payments, cold weather payments, the warm home discount, Warm Front, Nest, the energy assistance package and the priority services register—the list goes on. I worry that those who really need help do not know what options are available to them, whether they are eligible or how to apply for them.

I realise that some of those support measures fall outside the Minister’s Department, but that is part of the problem. Do Departments actually talk to each other? Do the Government talk to the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government, the Northern Ireland Assembly or even Glasgow city council, which looks after my area, because some of these measures are their responsibility? Perhaps there is not enough joined-up work. We need real leadership, but I fear we will not get it from this incompetent Department.

We have seen this new Energy Minister saying different things from the Department, such as on Ofgem’s warning about power cuts. Our Energy Secretary also does not get on with his staff, making huge severance payments as a result. We really need someone to take the lead on this issue—a Government poverty champion. They could bring together the different issues from all Departments that go towards tackling poverty, and they could make sure those issues got the attention they deserve. If the Minister is unable to find anybody in the Government, let me put myself forward for the job, because I am sure I could do better than some of his colleagues.

I hope this winter is not a cold one, but we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. I am here today to make sure our energy supply is secure over this winter and the next. I am here to make sure my constituents and others have all the access they can get to financial help. Sadly, we cannot rely on the energy companies helping their vulnerable customers, who are struggling more and more with the cost of living. We also cannot rely on this incompetent Government to stand up to these bullies. I look forward to the Minister’s answers.

11.16 am

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I must congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing this important debate on energy policy and preparing for the winter.

We all recognise that we need to be reassured, and that we need our constituents to be reassured, as the chilly winter months approach. It is obviously difficult to predict what kind of winter this will be, but I assure the hon. Gentleman and others attending that the Government are confident in our energy capacity, that policies are in place to protect the most vulnerable and that we are promoting long-term energy-efficiency solutions for the winters to come. I think the hon. Gentleman said that prices had risen by £300 under this Government, but I remind him that they have risen more slowly in the first three years of this Government than they did in the last five years of the previous Labour Government.

Let me turn to the hon. Gentleman’s first point, on margin and capacity. He will have studied the assessments made by the National Grid and Ofgem. Those assessments say that the margin would tighten if nothing were done, but things are, of course, being done. Things are being done in the short term better to balance the system. Ofgem is consulting on a number of measures to ensure that there is better balance on the demand and the supply side. As the hon. Gentleman himself said, the Government plan to run the first capacity market—the reserve supply. We are ready to run the auction next year, so that supply can be available in 2018. He asked when further details of the capacity market would be made available; that will be in the next few weeks, before the legislation leaves the House of Lords.

On the outlook, the National Grid assessment is that the demand for energy this winter will be broadly similar to last year’s. We are not immune to the impacts of prolonged severe weather. A combination of a diverse range of import capacity and a mixture of storage types has performed well over the past few years, and we expect it to do so again this year. We expect electricity demand this winter to remain flat at current levels, and we have significant spare gas capacity, as the Holford and Aldbrough storage sites increase their delivery networks. Last winter, gas demand was around 290 million cubic metres a day. Our gas supply infrastructure can deliver more than twice that amount with high levels of secure flow from Norway and the continent.

John Robertson: It is good to hear what the Minister says, but the fact is that all we have heard of late is people saying that we will have black-outs. Are those companies playing politics because they do not like the Government’s policy? I agree with what the Minister has said, so why are we suddenly in black-out territory?

Michael Fallon: We are hearing about black-outs because of the totally irresponsible pledge of the Labour party to freeze prices artificially. The pledge, if it is credible, would have the immediate effect of discouraging precisely the investment in energy infrastructure that the hon. Gentleman and I want. That is why we read about black-outs, but it is a matter for his party to clarify. It needs to reassure us on how there could be a freeze without bringing to a halt the investment that there has been so far.

John Robertson rose—

Guy Opperman rose—

Michael Fallon: I think I had better make some progress, because the hon. Member for Glasgow North West raised several points that he wants answered.

I will deal first with the green deal, the energy efficiency programme. I will not comment on the sleeping patterns of the Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexhill and Battle (Gregory Barker), although I note what he said. We encourage people to think not just about keeping warm this winter, but about winter-proofing their homes for the future through a range of policies—not simply the green deal, but also the energy companies obligation.

The green deal is the Government’s most ambitious energy efficiency programme, and is designed to deliver improvements to homes and businesses throughout the country on an unprecedented scale and over a much longer time frame than a particular Parliament or public spending period. It is an ambitious 20 to 30-year programme. So far, there are more than 100 green deal providers and more than 2,000 individuals authorised to carry out assessments. Some 70,000 assessments have been done. The hon. Member for Glasgow North West asked specifically whether the interest rate was too high. Only 8% of households that have decided not to install green deal measures have said that it was because the finance package was unattractive.

Guy Opperman: Does the Minister agree that the energy policy is being affected by green deal funding and the domestic renewable heat incentive programme, which, certainly in Northumberland, has had tremendous take-up? Businesses such as the Centre for Green Energy in my constituency are expanding because of that policy.

Michael Fallon: I am glad to hear the good news from Hexham, because it is important to understand that those programmes are now up and running, and helping homes and businesses.

Alongside the green deal, there is the energy companies obligation, which has the twin objectives of reducing carbon emissions and tackling fuel poverty. Nearly 200,000 measures under the ECO have already been installed, with more than 60% delivered in low-income households in England, Scotland, and Wales. Alongside the green deal, the ECO carbon saving obligation supports the installation of measures for hard-to-treat situations—cavity or solid walls, and so on—which would otherwise be difficult to finance, but which are long-term energy efficient solutions. That is worth some £700 million a year.

The affordable warmth obligation—another part of the ECO—which provides targeted assistance to low-income, vulnerable people in private tenure households, through investment incentives to landlords, is worth about £350 million a year. That has already resulted in about 40,000 boilers being installed. In July we were already delivering 70% more heating measures through the affordable warmth obligation than were being delivered under the average rate of delivery for Warm Front, its predecessor policy. Finally, the carbon-saving community obligation, worth about £190 million a year, is supporting low-income communities, with at least 15% of funding

delivering energy efficiency, particularly in rural areas. As of the end of July, we had already delivered more than 60,000 energy efficiency measures.

In addition, energy suppliers are supporting low-income and vulnerable households through our warm home discount scheme, which is worth £1.1 billion up to 2015 and is expected to support about 2 million households a year up to 2016. It is composed of four elements. The first is a core group, whose members automatically receive a £135 discount on their bills. Consumers who are either under 75 and not receiving the savings credit part of pension credit, or over 75 on the qualifying date and in receipt of a pension credit, are eligible. The discount rises to £140 in 2014-15. For older consumers who have less access to technology, that automatic payment is a big advantage. We expect this year’s automatic payments to be made by Christmas. Indeed, hundreds of thousands of payments will be made this month, giving people confidence that they can afford to turn their heating up when the cold weather sets in. The broader group also targets low-income and vulnerable consumers, but provides energy suppliers with the opportunity to set the eligibility criteria, which must be approved by Ofgem. The third element is a legacy spend group for suppliers to continue to provide support for customers who had previously been on discounted tariffs and rebates.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West raised the matter of winter fuel and cold weather payments. We are committed to supporting pensioners through the winter months, and we continue to provide winter fuel payments; £300 will be offered automatically this winter to Britons aged 80 and over, and £200 will be offered to households with a resident above the current state pension age for a woman. Last winter, more than 12.5 million pensioners received winter fuel payments, which delivered £2.15 billion in support. If the average temperature for a region is recorded or forecast to be 0° C or below for more than a week, pensioners and those receiving income-related benefits will receive a cold weather payment of £25 for each period. Payments are made on recorded and forecast temperatures, ensuring that those on prepayment meters are proactively supported. Last winter, 5.8 million cold weather payments were made, delivering more than £140 million in support.

Beyond basic financial concerns, cold weather is a major public health challenge. Any extra death because of cold weather is to be regretted. We believe that local authorities are best placed to address local public health issues, and £5.4 billion in funding has been made available from 2013 to 2015 in England. Public Health England will publish the third annual cold weather plan in the coming weeks, and will work in collaboration with other Departments, as the hon. Gentleman suggested. It will set out several levels of response, which will encourage year-round planning.

I have not had time to answer all the hon. Gentleman’s detailed questions. I hope that he will allow me to respond to those in writing. However, I assure him that the Government are committed to keeping the lights on. There is an investment programme, encouraging investment in new sources of home-grown energy, and a framework in place to ensure that those in the most need are protected during the colder months.

11.28 am

Sitting suspended.