Borrowing Powers of Electricity Authorities

Part of Orders of the Day — Electricity Bill – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 10th February 1972.

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Photo of Mr Alexander Eadie Mr Alexander Eadie , Midlothian 12:00 am, 10th February 1972

I have done even better. I sent it to the chairman of the board, and he said: I am very sorry. I cannot interfere with the editorial direction of the paper. This shows that we must have a discussion. It is time that we had not only a coal debate but an energy debate, because certain things are happening about which Parliament should know and should debate.

I will now deal with nuclear power, taking it in the reverse order from that which I intended. In talking about money we are talking about nuclear power. That is the reason for the Amendment. We are talking about the money which has to be spent on nuclear power. The boards' judgment has been wrong, because no single Magnox power station is producing electricity cheaper than an equivalent coal-fired station. The Daily Express said that it is not likely to do so. We have spent over £2,000 million on nuclear energy.

I have a vested interest. In consequence of this policy, thousands of miners were flung on the scrapheap. Good, economic pits were closed. The miners were not told that the pits were being closed to give them a more comfortable life. They were not told "We will bring you from underground to the surface because we want to give you a more congenial life and a pleasant environment". No. The miners were told that the pits had to close because coal was too expensive.

We then embarked on a massive nuclear power programme; but, as I said, not one Magnox power station is producing electricity cheaper than an equivalent coal-fired station. It is a monstrosity and an economic madness. Yet the S.S.E.B. and the C.E.G.B. have the impertinence to talk about coal being too dear, to continue to lobby, for example, in favour of oil and to refuse to stand up to criticism whether it be of their policy regarding oil or nuclear power.

I am talking about only the first generation. If anyone wants this to be a party political issue, I can tell the Minister—I hope that he does not mention it—what happened to the vast Magnox station programme, the first generation, after Suez in 1956, when the Government got the wind up about the Suez Canal and whether we should be able to import other sources of energy. But how much will the second generation of nuclear power plants, the A.G.R. type, cost. I doubt whether anyone can tell us. They are riddled with technical difficulties. But as a consequence of talking about this programme, we closed more pits with the same argument, that coal was too expensive.

None of the A.G.R.s will produce electricity any cheaper than a coal-fired power Station. That is why Chapman Pincher wrote in the Daily Express, I presume, about £2,000 million being spent on a nuclear power programme, about which we have no information. In the midst of a coal strike it was leaked from the Cabinet that the Cabinet began to see this looming ahead and it began to dawn on it at last that coal had a much more important place in the economy than was thought. Many people in the country are realising that today, because there will be power cuts.

We have been conned about coal. Time and again people have said that coal is out of date. Yet when we have a coal strike and the miners are abused from some sections of the public, from most of the general public they receive nothing but praise for their demands. When the miners are abused, people discover that they do not have coal in this country and that such mismanagement exists.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South for putting down the Amendment because it affords the opportunity for debate. I should like to quote chapter and verse on this matter. I have studied the position. The figures cannot be discredited. If the Minister had studied them, he would know that. Blunder after blunder has been made and the miners have had to pay for them, with their lives, their families and their jobs. We are appallingly ignorant about this matter but others in the world seem to realise the future rôle of coal in providing energy.

After the two disasters of nuclear power, the first and second generation stations, we are now considering a third generation station. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, Central that fuels are wasting assets. Nuclear power may have some future many years hence but if we are now talking about the third generation of a water system of nuclear power, who will pay for it? Shall we then say that we will close the pits? There will be no question of contraction in oil and gas. It is the pits, as usual, that will have to be closed if we are embarking on a third generation of nuclear power stations. There should be some accountability by the C.E.G.B. and the S.S.E.B. Their judgment has been bad. They are anti-coal. Their propaganda has been anti-coal. They are on record as making error after error about coal. We are entitled to say that.

As I said, in other parts of the world people are beginning to realise what is happening. I have some official documentation with me. I have had a busy day and have not been able to go into the detail that I wished. For example, it is said that world energy requirements cannot be met without coal and that everything points to coal gaining swiftly in importance for meeting future world energy requirements. That is the conclusion arrived at in a survey carried out by a Brussels financial journal. There is evidence that world reserves of coal are greater than those of oil and natural gas put together. Furthermore, coal has the advantage that its reserves are distributed more uniformly across the world and also tend to lie more in the regions of heavy energy consumption. These are the facts of the situation. This is what the electricity boards do not consider in their talk of so-called commercial judgment. Miners are out of a job because of this kind of talk.

Other industrial countries have not been so stupid about their natural resources. Energy consumption is growing. In the U.S.A., a bastion of modern industrial capitalism, coal still is regarded as important. The United States produced 600 million tons of coal equivalent in 1932 and 2,300 million tons in 1969. Other parts of the world realise that coal is vital, yet our boards say that they must have a choice and use their commercial judgment. We might disagree about the emphasis but we should be grateful for the opportunity to debate these things, the more so when some regions are going to freeze because of the stupidity of the handling of the present dispute.

I have read that, if oil is to maintain its current share in the world energy balance sheets, it will, according to a forecast by British Petroleum, have to supply 9,200 million tons a year towards the end of this century. This means that 160,000 million tons will have to be pumped over the next 30 years, whereas reserves known to exist today amount to only 73,000 million tons. The papers are full of propaganda. We are told that North Sea gas has made a great impact. We should be grateful for these indigenous reserves, but in terms of world consumption this is only a flea-bite. To talk of running down our other natural resource is nonsense.

Someone should ask the electricity boards to cut out their propaganda. I am no enemy of the boards—there are some fine people working in them—but I wish that they could consider the whole country and the balance of payment costs. It is very problematical whether we will be able to get the oil. There is a rapid escalation in price. In its £12 million deal just concluded, the B.S.C. will have to pay £3 per ton for oil. We do not know what agreement it is trying to negotiate at the moment.

There are strategic arguments for coal which do not apply to North Sea gas and oil. In a conflict, if we depended on those fuels we should be very vulnerable.

I have been glad of this opportunity to speak on behalf of the coal industry. I hope that, somewhere, someone will wake up to the fact that instead of contracting this industry we should be expanding it. The Government must wake up to the fact that they will shortly have a fuel crisis on their hands if they do not reach a fair settlement which will satisfy the miners in the struggle in which they are now engaged.