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BryonyW4x3.jpgBryony Worthington on the short-termism that characterises the government’s energy policy

Today, the last day before Parliament rises for the summer, sees the Second Reading of the Energy Bill in the Lords.  A slender Bill (compared to the last one from DECC) intends two things: to give new powers to the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) to oversee economic activity in the North Sea, and remove support for on-shore wind. It’s an odd juxtaposition, given rapid changes in the global energy sector.

The discovery of off-shore oil and gas in the 1960’s, and its commercial exploitation which began in earnest in the 1970’s has served the UK economy well. It has raised large sums of tax revenue, sustained many thousands of jobs, and provided us with skills and expertise in high demand throughout the world. But activity in the North Sea looks set to change significantly.

Revenues from oil and gas production fell by 40% between 2012 and 2013, and as the oil price crashed by 60% between June 2014 and January 2015, the price of oil fell to around $48. UK tax revenues are expected to tumble again from £2.1bn last year to just £0.7bn in 2015-16. Future scenarios of rising receipts are predicated on a return to oil prices of between $70 and $100 per barrel. Although it is plausible that more capital investment will see production levels rise in the future, it is also possible that they might not – as global fossil fuel supply and demands remains uncertain. The OGA will have to navigate some difficult waters.

Rather than the incumbents, it is likely that new entrants will be the ones seeking to invest in the North Sea. This presents a challenge, since much of the infrastructure is owned and operated by companies already planning their exit. For example, for new entrants to make use of existing pipelines, new arrangements will need to be negotiated. Not least in relation to who will pick up maintenance costs and how decommissioning will be handled. Yet another key test for the OGA.

One other test will be managing the beginning of a potentially important new source of economic activity: the storing of waste CO2 in depleted reservoirs. The OGA will take over licensing from the government but the Energy Bill contains little in the way of additional guidance. A missed opportunity. The timing of decommissioning, if left to the private sector, may not line up with the needs of still to be commissioned Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects. There could be a crucial role here for the OGA in ensuring that a hierarchy of need is established that puts re-use for storage ahead of decommissioning.

The Bill could and should have represented an opportunity for the government to do far more to advance CCS, particularly for industrial sectors. There is as yet no policy support mechanism for CCS investments in the steel, cement and chemical production sectors – a serious gap that should be moved to the top of the government’s priority list. We need to work out how to fund the production of primary materials in ways that do not emit large volumes of greenhouse gases. Otherwise, we could see more shifting of industrial production overseas, as legally EU-wide binding caps on emissions tighten the risk. There are plenty of innovative ideas out there but Ministers have been slow to act to support them.

The closing of the Renewables Obligation a year early is the not only the most controversial aspect of the Bill, but an example of the worst kind of tawdry politicking. The move will achieve little, as most projects are likely to qualify for exemptions. But the knock on effect of a government using primary legislation to move the goal posts so soon after a comprehensive legal process was completed (under the last government) will seriously undermine investor confidence. No wonder the oft heard complaint has become, ‘If they can do this to on-shore wind, which technology will be next?’

Baroness Bryony Worthington is Shadow Energy and Climate Change Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @bryworthington

Published 22nd July 2015

Lacking energy

Bryony Worthington on the short-termism that characterises the government’s energy policy

MaggieJones2014.JPGMaggie Jones on our attempts to make the Childcare Bill more meaningful and workable

David Cameron’s flagship Childcare Bill completed its Committee stage in the Lords last week. A Bill which places a substantial and significant duty on the Secretary of State to deliver an additional 15 hours of free childcare to working parents, it contains a mere six clauses across four pages.

Following concerns raised at Second Reading by Peers on all sides about the lack of detail in the Bill, given the wide reaching powers of secondary legislation, two respected cross-party Committees released their own damning analysis.

The Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee (DPRRC) referred to it as a “skeleton” Bill and firmly disagreed with the ministerial statement that “too much detail on the face of the Bill risks obscuring the principal duties and powers from Parliamentary scrutiny”. Moreover, the government’s approach to delegation was described as ‘flawed’; and the use of the Bill as a vehicle to send a message to the public was deemed ‘inappropriate’.

The Constitution Committee echoed these concerns and suggested the Bill was an ‘egregious’ example of “a tendency by the Government to introduce vaguely worded legislation that leaves much to the discretion of ministers”. In a nutshell, there was simply not enough information for Peers to probe and scrutinise – the whole purpose of legislation being in Committee.

As a result of these findings, and a quasi-campaign on the Bill’s inadequacies run by The Independent on Sunday, we were able to mount considerable pressure and secure important concessions from Ministers. The Report stage will now be delayed to October. By then, the government has made various commitments: to release findings on the review of the cost of providing childcare, an update on the DWP taskforce examining the mechanisms of delivery, a response to the DPRRC, and a timeline so we can see the findings of each fits into the legislative timescale.

Despite all of this, a government response to the excellent Lords Select Committee Report on Affordable Childcare, which should have been considered before the legislation was drafted, will not be available for Report. Nor will any amendments in response to the DPRRC. A key consultation meanwhile, with parents, employers and childcare providers is yet to begin, with the results scheduled for next summer – long after the Bill has left the House.

There is also a sense of considerable frustration – both inside and outside of Parliament – that the essence of a good policy is being ruined in the rush to the statute books. Despite Ministers accepting our amendment to remove the establishment of a body corporate – a body that the Minister was unable to explain the functions and purpose of – several outstanding issues require further detail.

We still haven’t received an adequate answer on the necessity of provisions creating new criminal offences leading to imprisonment of up to two years. Ministers claim these regulations will prevent the unlawful disclosure of information. But we are not convinced of the scope of these powers and the safeguards for childcare providers and parents who may inadvertently fill in complex forms with errors.

We are also keen to see how the additional childcare entitlement will be delivered in a sector characterised with little capacity and in need of more qualified staff. Despite the entitlement being aimed at getting parents back into work, it is essential that the welfare of the child is held paramount in the delivery of this policy. 

So even when the Bill comes back to the floor of the Lords in October, a great deal of work will be needed to ensure it really will can quality childcare whilst making it easier for parents to go back to work.

Baroness Maggie Jones of Whitchurch is Shadow Education Minister in the House of Lords. She tweets @WhitchurchGirl

Published 16th July 2015

Detail? What detail?

Maggie Jones on our attempts to make the Childcare Bill more meaningful and workable

AngelaSmith.jpgAngela Smith on why it’s time to let 16 and 17 year olds play a full part in the democratic process

"Women do not have the experience to be able to vote”, said Lord Curzon back in 1912.

It is difficult to believe that statements like that were used to justify the denial of the right to vote to women. Over a century later, we find ourselves in the same position when replacing the word “women” with “16 and 17 year olds”. Today, at Report stage of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill, the House of Lords has an opportunity to make sure that we are on the right side of the argument, and on the right side of history.

Labour and Liberal Democrat Peers have come together on an amendment to lower the voting age for all local government elections to 16. A win today will of course complement the debates taking place elsewhere – in the Commons, in the media and in the country – on doing the same for the EU referendum that the government has promised by 2017.

Our Party is proud to support giving young people the right to vote, especially when considering the profound effects the results of elections and referenda may have on their futures. Currently, 16 and 17 year olds are able to enter work or training, give full consent to medical treatment, get married, join the armed forces, become a director of a company – the list goes on.

With all of this in mind, I find it incomprehensible that the Prime Minister is unwilling to change his position, even with the threat of losing both today’s vote and a similar one on the EU Referendum Bill once it reaches the Lords. Sending a signal out to young people that they don’t understand politics is not only patronising, but also abandons our responsibility to improve citizenship education in schools. 

The referendum in Scotland last year showed a clear surge in interest from young voters, who campaigned, debated and engaged in a significant and historic event, the ramifications of which continue to be felt. For anyone who says that young people don’t care, evidence from the Electoral Commission counters this profoundly. Over 100,000 16 to 17 year olds registered, with 75% voting on the day. And when asked whether they would vote in future referendums or elections, the result was an overwhelming yes.

Whether for local elections, national elections or referenda on matters of historic importance, their voices should be heard. Denying them a say in whether Britain remains part of the EU will hinder the results from truly reflecting the effects that a potential change could have, and neglect consideration of the impact a change could have on young people’s futures.   

Eddie Cochran sang of his problems in the 1958 hit Summertime Blues: “Well I called my congressman and he said ‘I'd like to help you son but you're too young to vote’". Today in the Lords, with a simple amendment to the local government aspects of the Representation of the People Act, we can start to change that. And in doing so, we can also begin to inspire a new generation to play their full part in the democratic process.

Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon

Published 15th July 2015

Inspire a generation

Angela Smith on why it’s time to let 16 and 17 year olds play a full part in the democratic process

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