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Orders of the Day — Electricity Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:08 pm on 13th December 1988.

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Photo of Donald Dewar Donald Dewar , Glasgow Garscadden 5:08 pm, 13th December 1988

I promise you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that it is not my fault. I am doing my best.

I turn back to the much less interesting subject of the debt structure of the SSEB, which is about £2·7 billion. It is not often remembered that the debt of the north of Scotland board is just as heavy pro rata as that of the southern board, which is not surprising as it has pooled generation and distribution costs. Despite what the Minister said about no decisions having been taken, I hope that he will at least note that we expect to have some details of what is intended, at least in Committee. Clearly, the amount that will be written off will affect the price of the share offer and have an impact on people's ability to afford electricity. I hope that the Minister will be more forthcoming.

Last Friday, in The Scotsman under the byline of Mr. Keith Aitken, the industrial editor, there was an interesting report of a meeting in Torness held by Mr. Donald Miller, the chairman of the SSEB. The burden of Mr. Miller's remarks was that the company cannot be privatised unless the Government writes off a large part of the £2·2 billion debts it incurred in building them. He was referring to nuclear power stations. Clearly, the electricity board is as anxious as hon. Members. I hope that in Committee we shall hear more from the Minister.

I turn to the important matter of nuclear power. The Secretary of State has decided that there will be a nuclear company which will hold all the nuclear capacity of the south board and will be wholly owned by the south and the north companies in a 75:25 proportion—there has been some debate about the precise proportion. I understand that the minority position of the north board will be protected in the memorandum and articles of association and that there will be reserved functions—it sounds a little like the voting structure of the EEC. I gather that there will be reserved functions in terms of capital expenditure, pricing policy and so on, where the unanimity rule will apply. Apart from that, the company will run as a normal company. The Minister may want to say something about that point.

I should like the Minister to address his mind to the extraordinarily strong words uttered by Mr. Donald Miller, the SSEB's chairman, when dealing, not with the physical dangers but with the financial dangers of having an electricity board concerned with a substantial nuclear presence. Mr. Miller was blunt, strong and almost brutal on the subject. He said that there were a large number of uncertainties and unquantifiable possible costs which were dependent upon Government policy and the pricing policies of British Nuclear Fuels plc and which could create problems for any private company trying to operate. As the Secretary of State knows, Mr. Miller has good reason for fearing that problem. The SSEB's annual report for the last financial year shows a trading profit of about £13 million, which was promptly converted into a loss of £70 million because of the costs of transferring Chapelcross to Cumbria, the reprocessing costs—which the board had planned to postpone for decades but was told by the Government it could not—and the ever-escalating BNFL reprocessing charges.

Mr. Miller's message to the Secretary of State—it is important in view of its source —is that, unless he gets an undertaking that clause 88 will be fully implemented and the taxpayer will underwrite any of those bills as and when they come and unless he gets what he declares to be the "ultimate insurance", the company will be unsellable. Mr. Miller says that those assurances will have to be signed and sealed before one writes a prospectus—otherwise it will not be worth writing. That is a serious charge, coming as it does from the person who, presumably, will be the chairman-designate of the new private company. He says that his company will be unsellable unless he gets a great deal of information and a guarantee from the Government under clause 88.

Mr. Miller says that the Government must respond now and accept those liabilities on behalf of the taxpayer. If the Minister accepts that, there are serious repercussions for the taxpayer and the scheme's viability and acceptability. If he does not, we should in all honesty have —after all the glitz and the glamour and the wonders worked by the image-makers in the television advertising campaign to sell the company—a Government health warning saying, "Despite all this, the chairman of the company believes that his company is unsellable in the absence of guarantees that we are not prepared to give." If we doubt whether the honesty to give that guarantee and to face up to the problems will be forthcoming, we are entitled to say that there is a fundamental flaw in the scheme.

I ask the Secretary of State for Scotland to respond on this point. That is the bluntest possible warning from Mr. Miller and it is essential that the Goverment respond to it. [HON. MEMBERS: "Come on."]