The hon. Member for Tayside, North made an interesting point, and I am sure that he reported it accurately. I am told—I concede that it is a caried story and that the Opposition are unlikely to be involved directly in these negotiations—that the narrow point is the commitment to a long-term contract and how much and where imported coal can be burnt. That leads to the vexed question of the existing contracts at Cockenzie and Longannet. It is important that the Minister clarifies the position.
I declare a constituency interest, because I understand that a United States boat, the General Estrella, came from Baltimore yesterday and entered Rothesay dock with 27,000 tonnes of imported coal on board. It is being unloaded and the coal is being carried on a reinstated spur of a railway line. It is important that at this stage we have some understanding of what is happening. If that coal is taken by rail to Longannet and burnt, I suspect that we may be in a difficult legal arid practical position in which the House would have a legitimate interest.
I am entitled to draw attention to the fact that the Scottish Office—I welcome this—clearly believes that it has an interest in this matter. Today, a headline in The Scotsman,under the byline of Keith Aitken—its industrial editor, who I know is a responsible journalist—says:
Rifkind may intervene in SSEB coal row.
The report rehearses the evident difficult state in which we find ourselves. It says:
Mr. Rifkind is understood to have asked for a meeting in the early part of this week with senior BC executives in London, and may go on to see the SSEB, although the SSEB is responsible to the Scottish Office and is in regular contact with Ministers and officials.
If it is still in regular contact, I should like to know what that contact has brought. I unreservedly welcome this sign of life and activity in the Scottish Office, but if there are to be meetings this week with British Coal in which the Secretary of State will be involved, it is important that we know about them so that the phenomenon represented by the General Estrella at Rothesay dock does not become a crisis of confidence for the future of the industry.
I have raised a number of questions about the future of the industry. I hope that I have related them to the important extension of borrowing powers that the clause gives the electricity boards. The debate is opportune because we are facing a sharp crisis in the energy industry in Scotland. I hope that the Minister will answer some of those questions.
I was not in the least impressed with the Minister's opening statement about the merits of privatisation—the wonderful advantages to industry, the consumer, the nation, the environment, anything else that he might be able to think of or anything that his advisers can put in a long list. It is a peculiarly unsuitable industry for privatisation, even if it is assumed that privatisation is a sound principle—which is what the Government clearly assume. A monopolies industry is being converted from a public utility to what looks dangerously like a private monopoly. The fact that there are two monopolies operating in tandem does not remove the essential dangers. We are left with a sick joke of competition by comparison, which has rightly been derided throughout debates in the House and which will continue to haunt the Secretary of State for some time.
There are major arguments about the security of supply, the mix of fuel and energy that we use and the proper and basic concern, which should be the mark of government, for the energy industry and the individuals and communities at risk. While this is a dry little Bill dealing with the arithmetic of the borrowing requirement, behind that limited facade it raises important questions. At a time of such crisis and conflict over the role and operation of the electricity boards, the Minister should come out of his shell and try to live down his reputation as the greyest and most persistent stonewaller, and give us some insight into what is happening.