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Bishop of Manchester urges changes to Energy Bill to retain green levies

21 October 2022


Just Stop Oil protesters outside Downing Street earlier this month. The protest was one of a series of demonstrations in favour of an end to the use of fossil fuels and a switch to renewables

Just Stop Oil protesters outside Downing Street earlier this month. The protest was one of a series of demonstrations in favour of an end to the use o...

THE Government must tackle not only the current energy crisis, but double down on strategies to reduce and eliminate the nation’s need for imported fuel — “a need that puts us at the mercy of international markets”, the Bishop of Manchester, Dr David Walker, told the House of Lords on Wednesday.

The Energy Prices Bill, which had its second reading on Wednesday, makes provision for controlling energy prices, and is intended “to encourage the efficient use and supply of energy; and for other purposes connected to the energy crisis”.

The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Lord Callanan, said that the targeted intervention meant that consumers would pay a fair price for their electricity and “no one will be left behind”.

Lord Lennie wanted to know what had happened to the much broader Energy Bill with its emphasis on new technologies, which had been “shelved somewhere, waiting for someone to make a decision about its future”. He described the Government as “in a deep mess entirely of their own making”. Lord Foster of Bath complained that the Bill was also meant to be about the efficient use of energy, which was “hardly mentioned”.

Bishop Walker broadly welcomed the Bill, in the light of predictions that, without swift and comprehensive action, millions of people would have been pushed into fuel poverty by January. He also commended the clarity set out on the energy price guarantee and the Energy Bill relief scheme.

But he called on the Government to take seriously the calls to amend details of the Bill, and queried whether the energy-price guarantee should include a temporary suspension of green levies.

He described the challenges facing businesses, schools, hospitals, churches, and many others as huge. “Many of my churches are now working on plans to join the Warm Welcome initiative. They will extend their opening hours through the winter to offer a place for local people to cut their fuel costs by spending less time at home. Warm churches — many with free WiFi, and even free hot drinks — have a key role to play,” he said.

He warned, however: “Extended opening will lead to even heavier fuel bills. Last week, we announced £15 million from the Church Commissioners’ funds to help keep our churches warm this winter, but that will go only part of the way. We need further clarity from the Government on how the non-domestic scheme will work in practice. . .

“When we legislate in haste, without the usual opportunities for consultation and debate — as I accept we now must — one golden rule should be that we legislate for the minimum necessary, and with the minimum scope for ministers to build on that legislation without full public and parliamentary scrutiny. The Bill, in its present form, fails that vital test.”

The Bishop also expressed his concern that the Bill granted the Secretary of State powers to end the tariff cap when he chose, as well as broad powers to amend the energy price guarantee and energy bill relief scheme. “It is concerning that, while the Government intends these measures to be temporary, the Bill assumes they will last for a minimum of five years — longer than, however, many Home Secretaries and Chancellors from recent times put together.”

Lord Callanan said that low-carbon electricity generation from renewables and nuclear would be the key to securing more low-cost home-grown energy. “We have the highest proportion of offshore wind energy in Europe, by far. We have the second highest proportion in the world, and we have extremely ambitious plans to continue investing and producing more of it, precisely because the scheme has proven so successful, and is delivering much cheaper power. It is our flagship scheme, and it has worked a treat.”

Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, a former leader of the Green Party, affirmed that the debate was taking place because, without this Bill, households, businesses, and institutions would otherwise face unpayable bills. She acknowledged one direct causal factor to be the actions of President Putin.

But this was “a wicked problem”, she suggested. The country was in this situation “because a decade of inaction and wrong action by successive governments have left us with a fossil-fuel-dependent energy system, dreadfully poor-quality housing stock, and the great privatisation of homes under the right-to-buy.

“We are where we are. We have a tottering government with zero democratic legitimacy and public trust, and no consistency in policy or personnel, and they’re offering us this Bill today. . . The Bill could create a major bias against renewables and in favour of oil and gas. . . We could end up in a ridiculous situation where energy producers get a huge tax reduction if they invest to pollute the planet but clean energy does not.”

She also emphasised that, given the current political turmoil, “we have no idea who we could be giving these powers to. That instability is one more reason to say that we simply cannot allow these sweeping, massive powers — which could be deployed capriciously and chaotically, as so much economic decision-making has been in recent weeks — on something as crucial as the energy that would prevent people freezing this winter, and ensuring that they can be fed and survive.”

The Bill now proceeds to the committee stage.

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