Energy Policy

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 16th March 1976.

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Photo of Mr Tom Normanton Mr Tom Normanton , Cheadle 12:00 am, 16th March 1976

The Fact that we are against the clock is conclusive evidence that there has and enthusiastic welcome for the debate.

First, I want to make the point that this debate is at last catching up with the log jam of the past in the sense that it takes place in advance of consideration by the Council of Ministers of the Documents before the House tonight.

Secondly, those Documents were tabled before the Energy Committee of the European Parliament as recently as yesterday, and four hon. Members from this House are about to take part in a deep and intensive study of their contents. I am sure that they will be greatly encouraged both by way of guidance and information from reading Hansard and that that study will be a major advance in the consideration of European legislation.

After three years in the European Parliament, I declare that I am even more convinced now than I have ever been of basically three fundamental truths.

The first is that there is no possibility whatever of any individual member country of the European Economic Community being able to go it alone, except to poverty and impotence, in all areas.

The second truth is that the problems which face Britain are in no way different in principle—only in degree—from the problems which face each member State of the Community and, indeed, all areas in the industrialised Western world, whether those problems be monetary, industrial, social, energy, or research. It follows that common problems require common solutions, and that is precisely what I see these Commission Documents telling us. If we failed to recognise this truth, we should be deceiving ourselves and we should be deceiving the electorate. The former is not unknown and may be forgiven, but the second is surely un-forgiveable.

The main point therefore is how we should implement these proposals, not whether we should do so. The Documents repeatedly use the term "guidelines". They are not directives, but are intended to guide us towards the object which must command support on both sides of the House—an increase in economic security and independence—for lack of which all member States are paying a high and continuing price.

We all noted the Minister of State's assurance that the Government's policy is to be constructive. I hope that that will continue to be his stance and that it will be seen to be so by his opposite numbers in the Council of Ministers. We want no repetition of the game of musical chairs at the high table recently which resulted in nothing constructive or positive but only in red faces. That is bad for diplomacy, bad for energy and bad for Britain.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) said, we must recognise that we are members of the Community. We have much to gain, but we have a responsibility to give as well as to take if we are to prosper as a nation. We cannot go it alone, except to the poorhouse.

The Minister of State regarded the targets set for the production of energy as ambitious. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is not the targets which are wrong but our determination to achieve them. We are falling short of them all the time. We can accept no excuses for that, from wherever they come, particularly at a time of low energy demand. My right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford highlighted the real targets in nuclear generating capacity which we should be striving to attain.

I agree in principle with the policy on minimum safeguard prices, but believe that in practice it may prove an academic exercise. I hope that it does, in the sense that it may be academic on a long walk to take one's umbrella. That is how I regard the minimum safeguard price—as an umbrella against an unexpected but possible eventuality. But what is not academic is the effect of low oil prices on coal, the source of our historic, basic, indigenous energy.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) tried to draw a parallel between the principle of the minimum safeguard price and the common agricultural policy. However critical we may be—many of us are critical—of the CAP, at least it produces a surplus. So far the energy policies of Europe and this country have succeeded only in producing a shortage.

I want to comment on a number of matters in connection with the JET project. Much of what I shall say has already been covered, but a number of points must be repeated. The Commission and the European Parliament have constantly demanded from the Community urgent action inside the Community on energy. It takes three forms. They want action to stimulate new sources, that is, additional sources of existing energy material such as oil, coal and nuclear energy. They have demanded action to stimulate research into even newer sources of energy. That is what the JET project is partly about. Above all, bearing in mind the importance attached to it even tonight and consistently mentioned in this House, they want action to stimulate research into new and cleaner sources of energy. That is precisely what we hope JET will eventually lead us to discover.

Although the Commission and the European Parliament propose the formulae, eventually it is the Council of Ministers or the Heads of Government who dispose. With deep reluctance I endorse everything that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford said when he expressed great disappointment at the rate and pace of progress of an energy policy for the Community.

All this time has passed while Europe's very existence as a society and as an industrial entity is and continues to remain at risk. The situation is rather analogous to that of the body politic of each State being kept alive through an umbilical cord connecting us to a remote and separate body or heart. If it is cut, as occurred during the oil crisis and as nearly occurred during the last war, life itself will collapse.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) wants a liberal view to be taken of an energy policy. I am prepared to support that so long as we recognise that that view must be realistic. We must believe in an expansion of world trade but defend and preserve the integrity of the base from which we take part in that trade. No individual country and certainly not the United Kingdom can ever go it alone again in relation to major developments in energy because of the unbelievable and unprecedented size of the investment required and the amount of research resources required if we are to make advances in high technology. Above all, major advances in research and investment demand a massive industrial capacity behind them. That is why this House recognises the need for the United Kingdom to be an active and positive member of the European Economic Community.

The JET project is only the first of a series of steps. Therefore, because of its size, cost and nature, it must be a cooperative or a Community venture. Therefore, the House must decide tonight whether fusion is a desirable goal in itself, that is, a goal for the twenty-first century. On the best scientific advice which seems to be available in large measure, we have to reach the answer "Yes, it is a desirable goal, and we must move in that direction."

The House also has to give a lead tonight on where the fusion research activities have to be established. We all know that the list of places is long. It is headed by Ispra. Here we come to the real crunch. If we in this House cannot agree and agreement cannot be found at the European Council, with my modest and humble knowledge of the political currents in Europe, I must record the view that there could very well be no progress on fusion research and development. If that were to be so, we should have to face the prospect of seeing the United States of America and the USSR, and possibly even Japan, leaving Britain like a helpless whale stranded high and dry on the beach of high nuclear technology.

On technical and scientific grounds Culham undoubtedly ranks high. That point is made in the Commission Document. But the decision, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) stressed very strongly, will be made by politicians, and Culham ranks very low in their minds. The reason for this is undoubtedly the experience of the Community concerning British involvement in Community actions and proposals. In that context I can only cite in evidence Dragon. Even with the Concorde there has been great anxiety and speculation about whether we would withdraw. The Channel Tunnel project is not to be ignored, but I would not rate that too highly. However, there is this scepticism among many politicians in the EEC. It must be faced and the problem has to be resolved.

Ispra is undoubtedly the favourite in the minds of the EEC, if for no better reason than that it is already a Community research establishment. It is in business. It was established under the Euratom Agreement. In various ways it has involved itself in nuclear energy research.