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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

Unless we get further information before we come to the selling point, we are entitled to go around quoting Mr. Donald Miller as saying that the company cannot be prudently bought by a prudent investor I hope that that aspect will be properly represented in the Government's doubtless balanced advertising of the issue.

With the Secretary of State, I have watched with fascination the growth of the energy debate, especially the debate on nuclear power. I am used to Ministers lecturing us. The Minister of State, Scottish Office did so yesterday. We are used to board chairmen courteously instructing us about the "competitive cutting edge" and the absolute advantage for the consumer, the board and the commonweal of Scotland of the nuclear baseload. The message is that every commercial piece of logic would drive any sensible board down the nuclear road. But then I read what is in the Bill—the references to fossil fuel levies and the 20 per cent. statutory obligation on generating companies. Now we have Mr. Donald Miller pointing to the dangers and uncertainties with which industry must live when 60 per cent. of the units sold, as in Scotland, come from the nuclear baseload.

More interesting is Mr. Miller's view that, whether the industry can or cannot live with it, shareholders cannot be expected to do so and the taxpayer will have to take the strain. It is essential that the Secretary of State spell out exactly how much will be available and what it will cost, and that he come clean. He knows, as I do, that the public are nervous—they raise this matter repeatedly with hon. Members on both sides of the House—about the handover to the private sector of such a sensitive aspect as nuclear power. The scramble to reassure people with references to the nuclear installations inspectorate and the control which will be tightly imposed does nothing to eliminate the persistent and clamouring doubt that safety standards will possibly be squeezed in the long run and that we are moving a particularly inappropriate industry out of the public sector and putting it into the hands of the private sector.

The Government cannot walk away from the strategic decisions that must be taken and that dominate this important industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Dumfermline, West (Mr. Douglas) said that vital talks will take place over the next few days on the coal burn in Scotland and the contracts between the SSEB and British Coal. I use the word "vital"—a much misused term—advisedly because the future of the industry and the jobs of thousands of people could be at stake.

The Minister talks about opportunities and challenges in a sort of dismissive way, a pep talk for the young. There has been major investment in our coal industry and designated pits have been sunk, such as those in the area of Longannet, to serve the power stations. Security of supply is still a weighty consideration in this nation's energy planning—or it ought to be. The Peterhead station will take 50 per cent. of its energy in the form of sour gas from the Miller field. British Petroleum is talking about importing coal from Australia and other companies are talking about importing it from Lord knows where else.

In 1987, the South of Scotland electricity board responded to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission audit report by making it clear that it did not think that it was in the long-term interests of its consumers, or in the public interest, to start importing all its coal rather than taking it from the Scottish fields. The board was right then and it will be right now to rethink what we understand to be its present position.