By Matthew Barrett
Follow Matthew on Twitter.
Following on from the last few days' rolling blogs, I have below a final list of the MPs (and Baroness Warsi) appointed as Ministers for each department. I have put new appointments in bold.
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Department for Communities and Local Government
By Jonathan Isaby
Yesterday at questions to Eric Pickles and his team of ministers from the Department of Communities and Local Government, a number of Tory MPs took the opportunity to highlight how their local Conservative-run councils are coping with the financial squeeze. Doubtless their local papers will be encouraged to cite the praise heaped upon them by the ministers.
Here's a sample:
Peter Bone (Wellingborough): Northamptonshire county council, East Northamptonshire district council and Wellingborough borough council have all frozen their council tax this year and they are all Conservative controlled. Is it not the case that Conservative councils cost you less and deliver more?
Eric Pickles: What a wonderful slogan. I wonder who first thought of it. [Interruption.] It is indeed mine and what it says has proved to be the case. There is a really strange thing about this whole process. If we match up councils authority by authority, we see that Liberal Democrat and Conservative authorities are protecting the front line, but under Labour authorities the front line is the first one to go, the voluntary sector is the first one to go and the most swingeing cuts are the first thing to happen. It is time that the right hon. Member for Don Valley [Caroline Flint] accepted some responsibility for that.
Greg Hands (Chelsea and Fulham): Will the Minister join me in congratulating Hammersmith and Fulham council, which, in four years of Conservative control, has reduced its staff by a third, from 4,087 to 2,787, with almost no redundancies? It has cut the communications staff by half and reduced the human resources headcount from 100 to 47, all at a time when its services are rated among the highest in the country.
Bob Neill: Hammersmith and Fulham is an exemplar of how councils with imagination and political courage can deal with the matter. My hon. Friend is right to point out that it has done so-without any significant redundancy-by deleting needless posts.
Alun Cairns (Vale of Glamorgan): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating and recognising the Vale of Glamorgan council, which is one of two authorities in Wales that have chosen to publish all invoices in excess of £500? The other authority is another Conservative-led council, Newport city council. What influence can my right hon. Friend bring to bear on the Welsh Local Government Minister to force Labour-run and independent-run authorities across Wales to follow their lead and do the same?
Eric Pickles: I am sure my hon. Friend has done more than enough to demonstrate to the people of Wales the desirability of transparency. It is gratifying that every local authority, with the exception of Labour-controlled Nottingham, now trusts the local population with that vital information.
Mel Stride (Central Devon): Conservative-controlled Devon county council has reduced chief executive pay and slimmed down middle and senior management, and it will reduce back-office expenditure by £14 million in 2011-12. Will my right hon. Friend join me in commending its efficiency savings? Does he agree that responsible councils should take such actions in order to protect front-line services?
Eric Pickles: I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating that council. He lays out a valuable lesson. One thing we are discovering in those authorities that are cutting libraries, Sure Start and all front-line services is that none of them has attempted any of the things that his local council has so excellently done.
Amber Rudd (Hastings and Rye): Will the Secretary of State join me in congratulating Conservative-run East Sussex county council, which, after a disappointing grant from the Department for Education, has stepped in with £12 million of capital that it had not planned to give to ensure that the St Leonards academy is rebuilt to provide better education in Hastings?
Eric Pickles: I am always glad to congratulate my hon. Friend's council and have no hesitation in doing so today.
Later, in reply to a complaint from Labour MP Mary Glindon about cuts to the voluntary sector in her local council, the minister Greg Clark delivered a roll call of Tory councils that are dealing with the situation without such cuts:
"I am grateful for the hon. Lady's question. I hope that she recognises that different councils are doing things in different ways. With a maximum cut of 8.8%, there is no reason for any council disproportionately to cut the voluntary sector. I hope that she will look at the examples of positive councils such as Reading, Thurrock, Lancaster, Ipswich, Watford, Stafford, Rugby, Redditch, Crawley and Wolverhampton - 10 councils that are either maintaining or increasing their support to the voluntary sector at this time. She should look at them, and go back to her constituency and talk to her councillors."
By Tim Montgomerie
Highlights from yesterday's Commons debate on the Localism Bill.
Rory Stewart summarised why localism works: "This is a strange time and place because all hon. Members believe in that decentralisation, whether we call it localism, hyper-localism or double hyper-localism, but we are obstructed by our anxieties about power, knowledge and legitimacy. Let us remember the basic instinct and work together. We should support the Bill because we know that communities know and care more, and that they can and ought to do more than distant officials in Penrith, Carlisle, London or Brussels."
Stewart Jackson on new powers for local governments to act more freely: "The big society is about empowering local people to make decisions at local level. It should be seen not as lots of disparate, discrete initiatives at local level, but within the context of the Bill's provisions. I see the general power of competence, for example, as a key unlocking a huge amount of progressive development by local authorities. The New Local Government Network specifically praised the general power of competence and said: "This represents both a significant philosophical shift towards local democracy and a practical transfer of power to the local level." That is something that Labour never did in its 13 years of power, although it promised to do so in its 1997 manifesto. The other important issue-unfortunately, one cannot look in detail at the 406 pages of the Bill and its 201 clauses and 24 schedules in five minutes-is whether it is permissive, as opposed to prescriptive, as an approach to local government? On any objective test it is an extremely permissive piece of legislation. The general power of competence will give local authorities autonomy by unlocking accelerated development zones, tax increment financing, asset-backed vehicles and real estate investment trusts."
Mr Jackson also highlighted the economic advantages of decentralisation: "An econometric study in Germany found that Government efficiency increased in direct proportion to decentralisation and could drive it up by up to 10%. That would release in this country the equivalent of £70 billion. The Spanish institute of fiscal studies found that fiscal decentralisation could boost growth in the economy by 0.5%. The Bill speaks to that concern. If Opposition Members ask me whether we are going far enough in fiscal autonomy and decentralisation, the answer is no, but the Bill is a bigger and better start than what went on before."
By Paul Goodman
Oral questions in the Commons is changing its tone and nature, at least as far as Communities and Local Government is concerned. The last section of each departmental oral question session is headed "Topical Questions" - a series of open questions to Ministers. It begins with a brief statement by the Secretary of State of his or her responsibilities. When I was in the Commons, Hazel Blears and John Denham gave anodyne and unexceptional summaries. Here is Eric Pickles's offering yesterday -
If he will make a statement on his departmental responsibilities.
"This week my Government will be co-operating with interfaith week, celebrating how faith communities are adding to the well-being of our society. We have published details of our plans to build 150,000 more affordable houses over the next four years. We have welcomed the decision of the Local Government Association's chief executive to take a cut of £200,000 a year, and we hope that more town hall chiefs will follow his example in these austere times. At the 2010 British curry awards, the Government paid tribute to the spice industry's £4 billion turnaround-a real bhuna for the British economy. From bin collections to small business tax relief, we will do our utmost to ensure that Britain's curry industry is second to naan."
The last line threw the questioner, no less an old hand than David Blunkett - proof, perhaps, that there's nothing the Chamber enjoys more than a bit of argy-bhaji. But before readers are driven insane by more excruciating puns, a serious point: no set of Departmenal oral questions better demonstrate how the Coalition is working and the culture is changing. Here's an exchange between Andrew Stunell, the Liberal Democrat Under-Secretary of State, and Esther McVey -
Esther McVey: Does the Minister agree that the Government need to do more to empower communities to improve their local areas and take over amenities, such as community centres and allotments? What steps will the Government take to ensure that those initiatives are taken up in the forthcoming localism Bill?
Andrew Stunell: First of all, I commend Wirral borough council for setting up its own fund for the transfer of community assets and for making the launch of those much more feasible. I hope that other local authorities will look at that example. The community right to buy will be a powerful option for neighbourhoods and community groups that want to take on assets, and that will be backed by money. The asset transfer unit and Communitybuilders, a project lasting through to 2014, will be there to provide support. I also want to make quite sure that the House understands that the big society bank will be there to assist as well.
- And here's another from Greg Clark, the Localism Minister, and Zac Goldsmith.
Zac Goldsmith: I welcome the Government's commitment to include local referendums in the localism Bill. Does my right hon. Friend agree that if the results of those referendums are not binding, their status will be only marginally higher than that of an ordinary petition, although they will be a lot more expensive? Will he bring in proper referendums that are legally binding?
Greg Clark: I know that my hon. Friend is a great champion of referendums, as he has organised one in his own constituency. The localism Bill contains binding referendums on subjects such as whether to introduce mayors, the neighbourhood plans that I mentioned earlier and excessive increases in council tax. It also contains provisions for advisory referendums that will test public opinion and can influence policies. Sometimes it is appropriate to nudge councils to do the right thing. This will be perhaps more of a shove than a nudge, and I think it will be difficult to ignore.
The prospect of local referendums, or of Ministers championing Councils who transfer community assets, would have been unthinkable during the last Parliament. A small snippet from Hansard. An illustration of changing times. And now I've gohst to go.
Update: Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Greg Clark has issued a press release on this story.
Rather like rock stars who take a private jet to play at an event condemning the evils of climate change, Whitehall departments sometimes fail to practice what they preach, as John Redwood has uncovered:
"To ask the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change how many UK Ministers and officials attended the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Poznan on 13 December 2008; and what method of transportation each used. 
Joan Ruddock: The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change conference in Poznan in December 2009, known as the 14th Conference of the Parties (or COP14) was attended by two Ministers and 45 officials. Delegates attended from different Departments across Whitehall to ensure the full range of issues could be addressed by UK experts. Of the total, 33 delegates attended from the Department of Energy and Climate Change
All emissions resulting from DECC's international commitments are offset. In April 2006 the UK developed a Government Carbon Offsetting Fund (GCOF) as part of the wider UK Sustainable Development Strategy to meet the commitment to offset emissions arising from official and ministerial air travel."
What with all the hot air that will have been expended at the conference, that's quite a contribution.
This country used to run half the globe with a handful of Classics graduates.
On another note, there can be little doubt after the last few months that John Redwood should serve in the next Conservative Cabinet.
Greg Clark commented:
"The Copenhagen talks later this year are clearly vitally important for getting an international agreement on tackling climate change. But it is astonishing that the Government would need to fly out 46 delegates to represent Britain, not least because of the carbon footprint.
The creation of a Department for Energy and Climate Change was meant to co-ordinate the Government's approach to this important issue. Clearly this is not yet working as a third of the delegates were from other Government departments."
Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change Greg Clark also responded to a ministerial statement on coal and carbon capture and storage yesterday.
Energy Secretary Ed Miliband announced that up to four new coal-fired power plants will be approved if they include technology to trap and store CO2 emissions underground. At first the technology would apply to just a quarter of the stations' output.
Herewith highlights from Mr Clark's speech:
"I thank the Secretary of State for early sight of his statement. I know from our exchanges that he is an avid student of my policy documents, and he knows how long the Conservatives have been trying to persuade him and his predecessors to give Britain a lead in carbon capture and storage. Sadly, that leadership has now passed to China, Germany and the USA. It is two years since the Government’s characteristic dithering led to the collapse of BP’s CCS project at Peterhead. That work is now being done in Abu Dhabi.
A year ago, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition set out the policies on CCS that Britain should adopt: to build a network of pipes and connections that would allow captured carbon dioxide to be transported from generating plants to areas of storage in the North sea; to equip at least three new coal plants with CCS technology, financed by Britain’s share of receipts from the EU emissions trading scheme; and to introduce an emissions performance standard that would limit emissions from any new plant to the equivalent of those from a modern gas-fuelled power station.
Our criteria remain those against which today’s announcement must be judged, but let us be clear why the statement was so urgently needed. After 12 years, Britain's energy policy is as much of a horror show as our public finances, and for the same reason: the Government did not fix the roof when the sun was shining. We have known for more than a decade that a third of our generating capacity is to be turned off during the current decade, and that there is no remotely adequate plan to replace it with a low-carbon alternative. We have known for many years that North sea oil and gas are in decline, but our gas storage capacity is grossly inadequate. During the cold snap last February, storage dropped to just four days’ worth. No other major European country generates less of its electricity from renewables, although we have some of the best wind, wave and tidal resources in Europe. If anyone thinks that the Government’s handling of the economy was an aberration, let them look at the mess of their energy policy. While we welcome the Secretary of State’s Damascene conversion to Conservative policy, it is from that appalling position that we now need to recover.
There were questions on Energy and Climate Change yesterday.
Henley MP John Howell (right) asked about fuel poverty:
"Given that the term “fuel poverty” does not seem to have been used once in yesterday’s Budget statement, can the Secretary of State confirm that Warm Front will be sufficient to address Age Concern’s assessment of the Budget that its failure to tackle fuel poverty will continue to leave more pensioners out in the cold?
Edward Miliband: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman—and, of course, the Conservative party cannot support any of the measures that we took on public spending, because as we know it is completely opposed to increasing public spending at this time. The measures that we took on housing, including specifically £100 million for energy efficiency in the social housing sector, will help precisely some of the most vulnerable people in our country. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change will announce in a written statement this morning an increase in the maximum Warm Front standard grant from £2,700 to £3,500. I think that will be widely welcomed, alongside other improvements in Warm Front, because it is helping some of the most vulnerable people in our society. I am very proud of the record of what we are doing to help some of the most vulnerable people in our country who are facing fuel poverty."
It is, of course, a lie to say that you can't freeze or even cut a department's overall expenditure whilst concurrently increasing spending on certain individual projects.
Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark went on the same issue:
"The Secretary of State knows that the coverage of the Warm Front scheme is limited, but does he accept that for most homes investing in energy efficiency saves money on fuel bills?
Edward Miliband: I do, which is why we unveiled plans in February for “pay as you save” insulation, whereby people will be able to spread the costs of energy efficiency measures over a number of years; it will not be linked to the person in the house but to the house itself, so that the costs can be spread over 20 years or so. Therefore, part of the savings from the energy bills will be able to be used to fund to kind of insulation that we need. We have very ambitious plans for 7 million houses to have whole-house refurbishment by 2020 and all houses to have it by 2030. Unlike the Conservative party’s plans, those are costed plans; they have been worked through and they will work.
Greg Clark: Yesterday, Greenpeace described the Secretary of State’s plans as strikingly lacking in ambition. If he accepts that savings can be made through investment in insulation, why, when households will face higher tax bills for years to come, is he resistant to our policy, which would give every home in the country an entitlement to £6,500-worth of immediate energy efficiency improvements, paid for from the savings that people make on their fuel bills? Why is he resisting that?
Edward Miliband: I will explain this to the hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change wrote him a letter—he may have replied, but I am not aware of his reply. His proposal is that £6,500 will be available to every household in the country. That would cost £170 billion up front. As far as I can see, he has no idea where that £170 billion will come from and how he will raise it. I hope that he comes forward with that. I look forward to his having interesting discussions with the shadow Chancellor about how £170 billion of funding will be provided. I think it is the largest uncosted commitment made by the Conservative party, but of course it is not the only uncosted commitment that the Conservatives have made, and it shows that they simply cannot be trusted with the nation’s finances."
Yesterday saw Wells MP David Heathcoat Amory introduced a debate in Westminster Hall, on the subject of nuclear energy. Herewith some extracts from his speech:
"Due to a combination of short-sightedness and wishful thinking, this country faces a looming energy gap between future demand and supply, because we have been decommissioning our nuclear power stations without replacing them. Many stations have already been decommissioned, and the rest will largely disappear in the next 10 years. Coal has also declined in importance: many coal-burning stations are increasingly obsolete and will fall victim to the tightening regulatory system, particularly the EU large combustion plant directive, which will take them out of service. So far, the difference has largely been made up by burning more gas. Incidentally, the so-called dash for gas was largely the reason why the Government were able to claim that they had complied with the Kyoto commitment on carbon dioxide stabilisation. That happened anyway, because gas produces less carbon dioxide per unit than does coal, and was nothing to do with what the Government had done elsewhere.
The massive switch to gas burn cannot continue for ever, and is becoming expensive. There were significant price rises last year, which have not been fully reversed, and which created a lot of grief both domestically and industrially. Also, gas reserves around our shores are declining—it is not just North sea oil that is running out—and we are having to import more and more gas. Indeed, we will soon be overwhelmingly dependent on imported gas from countries that, by and large, are unstable, unfriendly, or both. Many of those gas-exporting countries clearly use their energy exports as a foreign policy tool. Russia is a good example of that. Europe, as a whole, is very dependent on Russian gas, but those supplies are interruptable, and this country is at the end of the pipeline.
The Government are relying on another source of energy that is based largely on make-believe—a vast expansion in renewables. We are now committed to deriving 15 per cent. of all our energy requirements—not just electricity—from renewable sources by 2020, but we currently derive only about 2 per cent., and we are nowhere near getting to 15 per cent. within that time scale. That commitment is legally binding and will be in treaty law. We know that EU law is superior to national law, but I do not know who will go to prison when these commitments are not fulfilled—it will probably be another lot of Ministers in the future. Today’s Government are signing up to a specific, legally binding commitment that is not attainable.
The House of Commons had Energy and Climate Change questions yesterday. Shadow Secretary of State Greg Clark was very concerned about Britain's gas reserves:
"On 20 February this year—two weeks ago—Britain hit a new low, with just four days-worth of gas in storage in the reserve. Does the Minister consider that an acceptable margin for safety?
Mr. O'Brien: It is not about how many days worth of gas there are. The amount of gas in storage at a given point cannot meaningfully be assessed in terms of days. Stored gas is not used on its own to meet UK demand in any way. The North sea gas reserves put the UK in a position unlike that of other countries. Yes, we need gas storage, and we will need to increase the amount of storage as our imports increase, but we still have a substantial amount of gas coming from the North sea. That means that we do not need quite the amount of storage capacity that other countries do, although we will need to improve gas storage capacity in future as North sea gas depletes, and imports rise.
Greg Clark: That is a remarkably complacent answer, because every country in the world is content to denote their storage in days—apart from Britain, apparently. For the second time in only four winters, we almost ran out of gas, and almost did not have sufficient gas to meet demand. According to a written answer that the Minister gave me only this morning, only the depressed state of the economy, due to the recession, saved us from running out. Even the official regulator thinks that we do not have enough storage. In the Energy and Climate Change Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride) asked the regulator whether he thought that enough storage was being planned, and he said:
“I am not happy to talk about this...we were hoping”—
“and we have barely moved.”
Mr. O'Brien: That is a stunning statement the week after Centrica announced a £1.2 billion proposal to create the second-biggest gas storage facility at the old gas field in Baird in the North sea. We hope that that will come on stream from 2013. There are 17 other projects, too. That is one of the main areas for us, and the Government are setting out their priority of bringing gas storage on board. Let me be clear. The hon. Gentleman’s claims that we were suddenly about to run out of gas take no account of the fact that the Norwegian gas fields were pumping vast amounts of imports into the country. We were therefore able to manage successfully and capably the issues that arose as a result of the recent cold snap and the Russia-Ukraine dispute."
Other Conservative members asked interesting questions too.
Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband and his Shadow Greg Clark enjoyed another outing yesterday, for oral questions. However, it was with a junior minister, Mike O'Brien, that Dr Clark clashed most notably:
"Greg Clark (Tunbridge Wells) (Con): Why do gas and electricity cost more in Britain than on the continent?
Mr. O'Brien: All the way through the early part of this decade, we have had much lower gas prices than most of the continent, because the market was able to operate very effectively to ensure that prices fell. Europe operates using a different system. It operates long-term and often not very transparent deals, particularly in the business sector. Deals that can last for some years are signed, holding down some of those prices. When our market falls and we get the benefits, Europe does not. When the market starts to rise and our prices rise, it takes some time before Europe renegotiates some of its long-term contracts. We are pressing, with the EU Commission, to get more transparency into some of those deals and to get a more effective market operating in Europe. We want to ensure that we all get the benefit of a more successful and competitive market, because we all want to pay the lowest price that we reasonably can.
Greg Clark: Mr. Speaker, did you know that the Minister’s new Department has 900 policy advisers? Do you think that he might have done better with that, given that level of advice? One of the reasons why British customers suffer price spikes is that, due to the absence of a serious energy policy over the past 10 years, we have only 14 days worth of gas storage compared with 99 days worth in Germany and 122 days worth in France. A further reason is the structure of the market. Four weeks ago—not three, as the Minister said—the Secretary of State stood at that Dispatch Box and said that he had given the big six energy companies four weeks to take urgent action or else he would do so. A month later, there has been no change and no action—he has fallen at the first fence. Will the Minister act to stop prepayment meters being used to make the poor subsidise the well-off?
Mr. O'Brien: Well, the hon. Gentleman knows very well that Ofgem has undertaken a consultation and has said that the energy companies must respond by December. In case he has missed it—I know that he is not that well informed —[Interruption.] He starts running down the officials who advise us, but they cannot respond to him; if he wants to start having a go at people, we can all play games like that.
On prepayment meters, the energy companies have been given until December, and Ofgem has said that it wants a response and action. We have said that we are prepared to legislate if the energy companies do not respond on prepayment meters. It certainly is the case that we have ensured that our energy market is able to operate more effectively than those in Europe. In recent years, we have been able to keep our average energy prices lower, and we now need to ensure that we have greater transparency in the broader EU market."
Beginning with a short, broadbrush question and following up with a detailed supplementary is a good tactic. And Dr Clark is also to be commended for raising an issue other than climate change. Wherever we stand on the issue, we can hopefully agree that there is more to his brief than that one subject. Energy costs are hugely important to people at the best of times - in these times they have taken on a new urgency.
Greg Clark has made his debut at the Dispatch Box as Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. The Government announced yesterday that it wants an 80 per cent cut in greenhouse gases by 2050. The Conservatives support this new target.
Mr Clark began by offering a warm welcome to his opposite number, Ed Miliband. Then he turned up the heat:
"There has been a decade-long void in the Government’s policy on energy, in which successive Ministers have looked the other way rather than addressing the issue of our future energy needs. Does the Secretary of State accept that to the intrinsic difficulties of making choices on energy have been added the consequences of a decade of indecision?"
Mr Clark stressed the importance of developing new practices and technology rather than simply buying in permits from other countries, called on the Government to fund at least three carbon capture and storage demonstration projects, said that no plant should be licensed if its emissions are worse than those of a modern gas-powered station, endorsed smart metering and urged the Government to tackle fuel poverty.
Personal remark from Tom Greeves:
"I worked with Greg Clark at Conservative Central Office. He is unfailingly courteous and modest, but combines those qualities with a razor-sharp mind that doesn't tolerate intellectual flabbiness. I am pleased for him personally, and excited that he and his special adviser Peter Franklin have a chance to prove that nice guys can thrive in politics."
But do the Conservatives have the right policies on climate change? Please discuss!