Tim Yeo is right to challenge Osborne's anti-green agenda

The Lib Dems need to resist the Chancellor's short-term thinking.

Tim Yeo, Conservative MP and chair of the energy and climate change select committee, has issued a stinging rebuke to George Osborne’s Treasury for their meddling in the design of the government’s flagship energy bill. He has called for Ed Davey’s department to "escape the control of the Treasury" which "has never been signed up to the green agenda".

Yeo’s select committee publish their pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft energy bill today. The report highlights the battle that Davey and DECC are losing to Osborne and the Treasury. Three major concerns are highlighted.

First, the proposed "contracts for difference," which are meant to encourage investment in low-carbon energy production, are criticised as "unworkable". Writing in today’s Financial Times, Yeo outlines how the simple, long-term contracts underwritten by the Treasury which were proposed in DECC’s original consultation "rang alarm bells in the Treasury". As a result they were "struck out of the draft bill" and replaced with "an alternative contract system so complex and confusing it may not be legally enforceable".

The committee go on to set out related concerns around the contractual regime. These include concerns that:

  • The reforms may squeeze smaller independent companies out of the electricity market resulting in even greater levels of market concentration;
  • A cap on green levies imposed by the Treasury may result in higher costs for consumers; and
  • The proposed process for setting the guaranteed price that nuclear generators can expect to receive for creating electricity "lacks sufficient transparency"

Second, Yeo’s committee says that the government should "set a clear target to largely decarbonise the electricity sector by 2030, giving investors certainty about the direction of energy policy." This follows pressure from a number of NGOs and think tanks, including IPPR, which submitted evidence to the review. The government’s advisory body, the committee on climate change, had stated that "the carbon intensity of power will need to fall from around 500g/kWh today to 50g/kWh in 2030". But the draft energy bill reduced this ambition by stating only that ‘power sector emissions need to be largely decarbonised by the 2030s’ with carbon emissions intensity at 100gCO2/kWh.

In our submission we stated that:

“The bill should be explicitly tied to the carbon budgets by setting a target to r educe the carbon intensity of the grid to 50gCO2/kWh by 2030. This is the most important step the government can take to provide certainty to industry about the direction for the energy market.”

The select committee has adopted our suggestion and recommends that:

“The Government should set a 2030 carbon intensity target for the electricity sector in secondary legislation based on the recommendation of the Committee on Climate Change.”

In a leaked letter, Osborne has explicitly called for Davey to reject this recommendation on grounds that it would be "inefficient" and "inflexible" and, instead, support polluting, "unabated gas" up to 2030 and beyond. Davey must reject his advice and heed Greenpeace’s warning that "the 2030 goal is the most significant test of the Lib Dems energy and environment credentials. If they cave in now they will be judged to have failed."

Third, the select committee report says the draft bill is "fundamentally flawed by the lack of consideration given to demand-side measures, which are potentially the cheapest methods of decarbonising our electricity system." They estimate that current policy is only delivering around one-third of the potential reduction in energy demand that is needed by 2030. Among other ideas they call for "the draft Bill to provide the Secretary of State with powers to introduce a Feed In Tariff for energy efficiency, if this cannot be achieved through existing legislation."

Yeo’s outspoken attack on the Treasury, which refused to give evidence to the select committee, shows that concerns about Osborne’s role extend deep within the Conservative party. But the report also shows that, once again, the Lib Dems are losing out to the Tories in Whitehall. To step out of the shadow of his predecessor, Davey must go back to the drawing board and develop proposals which will keep energy bills down, improve competition and encourage essential investment, rather than deferring to the short-term thinking of Osborne.

Conservative MP Tim Yeo said the Treasury had "never been signed up to the green agenda". Photograph: Getty Images.

Will Straw is Associate Director at IPPR.

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Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle