We need your support to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can continue to hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Orders of the Day — Electricity Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:57 pm on 13th December 1988.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Peter Hardy Mr Peter Hardy , Wentworth 6:57 pm, 13th December 1988

I shall try not to speak for the whole time that is allocated, although I should have very much liked to comment on the speech made by the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside (Mr. Colvin). I am very pleased that, unlike most of his colleagues, he has realised that the electricity industry has been responsible for significant achievements, and it was good to see some of his hon. Friends wince when he expressed that view. It is not a view that would have been expressed by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. King) who, in an aside, summed up the approach of Conservative Members when he talked about getting £20 billion in the kitty to fight the next election. That is what the Bill is about.

The Secretary of State, who is rather more polished and urbane, would not say that, but he deliberately, or negligently, misled the House yesterday when he said that the Bill would be achieving something enormously important in breaking new ground and giving the suppliers the duty to supply electricity. He suggested that that goes further than any responsibility placed on the public sector. He told us about that part, but he did not tell the House—and perhaps the Minister of State can explain—that the absolute promise that the Secretary of State gave to the House yesterday about the duty to supply seems to be remarkably hedged about in clauses 15 and 16.

If any supplier does not wish to fulfil the terms of clause 3, to which the Secretary of State was referring, clauses 15 and 16 seem to give it every possible opportunity to evade that mythical responsibility. The Secretary of State may not have read the Bill. I hope that he has an enjoyable Christmas, although he may not like the idea of what is to come. He will still be Secretary of State in January and February during the Committee Stage, and he and his Ministers will have to do much more homework than appeared to have been done yesterday.

That was not the only point on which the Secretary of State was somewhat misleading. He implied that he was negotiating with the trade unions and that they were quite happy to talk to him about the distribution of shares. As far as I know, the trade unions have had no contact with him at all. They are probably quite interested in the allocation of shares, but they see it as peripheral compared to the future of an industry that is so important to their members and the country.

It is fashionable for Conservative Members to criticise the industry. We should remember that many of them represent rural constituencies and they should understand that two enormously important developments assisted rural Britain in the 1940s and subsequently. One was the Agriculture Act 1947 which brought rural areas a share in urban prosperity—a Labour Government achievement— and the other was the nationalisation of the electricity industry, which brought light and power to areas of Britain that would not otherwise have been able to afford them. If the decision were left to the private sector now, I doubt whether it would find some of the areas represented by Conservative Members particularly attractive as markets.

In addition to the future of the rural areas, I am concerned about conservation. The Bill is woefully inadequate in its provision for conservation and the environment. The Government have merely lifted the appropriate part of an Act of 1957, but the fact that throughout their period in office they have ignored its requirements does not give us much hope that the provision will prove satisfactory. The fact that the Nature Conservancy Council has not been consulted and that there is no structure for consultation with public agencies seems to me a woeful omission. The conservation lobby fears that the priority afforded to environment issues will be grossly inadequate.

One begins to wonder about Conservative Members' intelligence in that regard. The other day I did a study of what would happen in Britain if we did not take environmental problems seriously enough, and if the sea level rose. I found grounds for satisfaction. The Government are utterly unconcerned about the environment. They are utterly unworried and remarkably negligent when it comes to support for fluidised bed combustion and so on. They are ignoring anything beyond the next balance sheet and the next election, and history will hold them responsible for the rise in the sea level.

Unfortunately, 90 per cent. of our low-lying areas are represented by Conservative Members. When the sea level rises as a result of Conservative negligence, it will be interesting to see what those attached to private affluence and to the eradication of the public sector will do. Perhaps they will come squealing for public sector support, and when they do, some of us may point out that the Conservative Government whom they support are responsible. That Government may well be quite prepared to obliterate the research capacity to which the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside referred. I hope that Conservative Members will be consistent enough to say to their constituents, "Build your own sea walls, walk about in your own wellington boots and pay your own electricity bills."

There is another question that the Minister must answer. The Secretary of State forced quite unnecessarily high electricity price increases last year, on the ground that the CEGB needed to invest £1 billion. But the CEGB was about to do that; it was already budgeted for. I ask the Minister to tell the House, therefore, whether the CEGB will be investing an additional £1,000 million in the current financial year—the money that the Secretary of State compelled it to raise. If the CEGB is not to spend that sum, the House and the country will require an explanation.

I should declare an interest; I am involved with NACODS, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shotfirers, and with the National and Local Government Officers Association. Some months ago, I asked a question in the House about potential redundancies. Only in two ways can a profit be made: first by reducing labour costs and second by reducing input costs. I feared that many jobs would go, as Mr. Alex Henney suggested. The Secretary of State gave me an absolute assurance, not only that there would be no redundancies but that additional jobs would follow privatisation. Can the Minister confirm that pledge? If the Government have retreated from it, he should let us know now. It will be no consolation for the workers in the industry to be given a few crumbs of shares if they then find that the pressure of ruthless privatisation makes them join the ranks of the unemployed.

The Secretary of State referred yesterday to imported coal. He clearly has no understanding of the international coal trade, which could not have sustained a sudden switch from domestic to imported coal. He referred to low-sulphur coal. How can the Government talk about low-sulphur coal or high-sulphur coal when we have shown in recent months that they do not even know which country the coal is coming from? That is a serious point. The miners in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, East (Mr. Patchett) have their coal washed at the Manvers site in my constituency. In the last three months we have produced coal at 81p a gigajoule on average and last week they were producing it at 68p a gigajoule.

In destroying that achievement, the Government would not merely bring embarrassment and long-term danger to the electricity industry and to the consumer; they would destroy an important part of the potential for British -industrial growth. The damage that they have already inflicted upon high energy users such as United Engineering Steel in my constituency by an unnecessary increase in prices this year shows that a balance of payments deficit of enormous and hitherto unimaginable dimension is of no consequence to them. Those of us who take a longer view would suggest that the achievements that the hon. Member for Romsey and Waterside has just begun to recognise are about to be sacrificed by a bunch of people whose motivation, like that of the hon. Member for Northfield, is pure greed.