Orders of the Day — Electricity Surcharge (Scottish Islands)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:58 pm on 1st May 1980.

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Photo of Mr Jo Grimond Mr Jo Grimond , Orkney and Shetland 8:58 pm, 1st May 1980

I begin by emphasising what has already been pointed out by the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart) and the hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay). namely, that our constituents in the islands have been singled out for an increase in electricity charges of 37 per cent. this year. They are paying up to 28 per cent. extra, where others are paying 17 per cent. extra. That is far outside Government policy.

The Government are on record as saying that they want to help the islands, and I agree with the hon. Member for Argyll that in certain directions they have done so. I support the right hon. Member for Western Isles when he says that everybody who is concerned with the welfare of the islands has protested against the charge. This includes the consumer council, the consultative council, the Highlands and Islands Development Board and the Crofters Commission. If the imposition were not made, the impact on electricity bills in the rest of the area would be very small. However, if it is made, the increase in the islands will be devastating to individuals and to industry.

Why does the hydro board complain of more demand? Why does an increase in demand apparently put it into difficulty? I fail to understand how it has made the losses that it claims. If it has, the Government should look into the way that it is run. Most industries—for instance, oil—would rejoice at an increase in demand.

That brings me to the subject of oil. In many parts of the country, it is believed that oil is of enormous benefit to the islands. I have pointed out again and again in this House that that is not so. It is of benefit to Britain, to those working on the oil construction side and to the oil companies. To the crofter, fisherman and ordinary person in Shetland, it means higher prices, high rates and disruption of local industries.

We are deeply concerned that, when the oil construction period is over and eventually oil runs out, we shall be left with no fishing industry, crofting in a poor state and no industries to take up the slack. In four or five years, we shall face a serious problem of depopulation. I agree with everything that the right hon. Member for Western Isles says about the effects of the increase. His example is all too true. All these little industries will be put out of business if it goes on.

As has also been said, the hydro board chose to make electricity by diesel. I impress on the Government that in the days of the Orkney county council the convener went again and again to the public authorities and beseeched them to get in touch with the oil companies in order to make use of some of the flared-off gas. They would not do so, and nor would they allow anyone else to make electricity on the islands. They sat on their monopolies and insisted on diesel generation. As far as I know, they did not even make use of the huge resources afforded by the oil companies in Shetland. That is an abuse of a monopoly, which should not be tolerated.

The right hon. Gentleman drew attention to section 6 of the Electricity (Scotland) Act 1979. I draw the Minister's attention to section 4, which reads: In exercising and performing their functions the Boards "— that is the North and the South boards— shall, subject to and in accordance with any directions given by the Secretary of State under section 33—(a) promote the use of all economical methods of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity ". That is a duty laid upon them, but, apart from a very small experiment years ago, they have done absolutely nothing about it. They have carried out no experiments with wind or waves. They have not approached the oil companies to see whether they could come in on their generation or make use of the gas.

The section continues: (b) secure so far as practicable, the development, extension to rural areas and cheapening of supplies of electricity "— the Board's action contradicts that; it is hardly cheapening supplies of electricity— (c) avoid undue preference in the provision of such supplies ". When the South board was arguing in Orkney about uranium, it laid stress on the fact that it was its statutory duty not to discriminate between different parts of its area. That is exactly what the North board is doing, to the detriment of the poorer parts of its area. It is doing it in areas that particularly need heat. We have long winters and an extremely cold and damp climate. Local authorities and the welfare services generally have been putting up houses heated entirely by electricity. Many people in my constituency will either have to refuse to pay their bills or suffer from cold.

I do not believe that it is the business of the hydro board to rely on the local authorities or the social services to make good its own inaction. It is the board's fault, and the blame lies fairly and squarely on it. Therefore, like others who have spoken in this debate, I ask the Government to exercise their powers under the Act and revoke this charge. It is contrary to Government policy; it is contrary to the 1979 Act; and it is an extremely serious blow to the Islands. Far from it being possible to make good the effects of this out of oil revenues, it will add to the high rates and all sorts of other charges that the Islands will suffer as a result of increased oil prices. The surcharge is to be levied to save the population of the rest of that area from an increase of about 2p a head on their bills. The charge is indefensible, and I ask the Government to use their powers to negative it.