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Orders of the Day — Electricity Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:51 pm on 13th December 1988.

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Photo of Alan Beith Alan Beith Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 7:51 pm, 13th December 1988

If the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. Bruce) believes passionately in the economic case of nuclear power, why does he not let it take its chance in the free market, which the Government are not prepared to do? The Bill is designed to ensure that the disciplines of the free market never apply to nuclear power.

I shall return to that later, but I wish to register a small matter, which is important in my constituency and which is still not clarified—the question whether the south of Scotland company will be allowed to be a retail electricity company in England. If it is not, that will represent a change in the arrangements under which a large part of my constituency is supplied by the South of Scotland electricity board. It would be useful to know whether we are to continue to be provided with electricity by the SSEB, and if so, whether or not it can expand beyond the areas it currently supplies in England.

I shall concentrate on three reasons why my right hon. and hon. Friends are right to oppose the Bill. First, it gives no priority to energy conservation. Why is there no obligation on the face of the Bill to make energy conservation, and the efficient use of energy, a priority? Why is it not recognised as part of the non-fossil fuel quota? Why are the energy efficiency improvements which could be achieved in other ways not recognised as part of the non-fossil fule quota? If the object of the non-fossil fuel quota is to make the country less dependent on fossil fuels, any measure which makes it less dependent should count towards that quota. Increases in energy efficiency must come into that category, and that should be put right.

The notion of the non-fossil fuel quota is misleading, as it is couched only in terms of nuclear power, particularly in the financial provisions which back it up. There is no mention of dual firing, or any other means by which dependency on any one fuel could be reduced. No priority is given to energy conservation.

Secondly, nuclear power has a protected status. The consumer is taxed so that he shall have nuclear power. The taxpayer is taxed so that nuclear power shall be provided. Companies are placed under an obligation to buy it. It is the most blatant piece of market distortion since the direction of industry in the second world war. It is such a blatant distortion of the free market that it would qualify the Secretary of State to be Energy Secretary in Albania —the country so often used by Conservative Members to describe the attitude of the Labour party. The Secretary of State deserves that categorisation for his incredible departure from the principles that he is supposed to espouse.

The Secretary of State intervened in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) to suggest that one of the advantages of the Bill was that in future there would be a more open debate on nuclear power. Tonight, there has been some focus on the figures for nuclear power and some justified criticism of the CEGB for its grotesque nuclear power figures in the past. We have heard some rather surprising praise of the SSEB from the Labour Front Bench for its record on nuclear power, of which I am extremely critical. It has grossly over-invested in nuclear power recently. How can there be a more open debate on nuclear power if it is no longer possible at a public inquiry on nuclear power stations, such as the one planned at Druridge bay in my constituency, to argue that there is no proven need for the power that that station will generate?

The answer to that challenge will be that Parliament has decided that, whether or not it is needed, we are obliged to have it. That rigs future public inquiries into nuclear power stations. Unless the Minister can demonstrate that there will be a different approach, the argument will be adduced that it is not a question of need, Parliament has decided and the law says that we have to have it whether or not it is needed. It will cease to be possible to argue at a public inquiry that the environmental damage caused by building a nuclear power station is not justified by any overwhelming need for the power that it would generate.

In the context of the Druridge bay power station which the CEGB wishes to build in my constituency, how can the Department of Energy issue fact sheet 11 at the time of the publication of the Bill, which lists a Druridge bay power station as one of those to be allocated to the National Power Company? There is no Druridge bay power station; nobody has applied for planning permission for that power station, no planning permission has been granted and no licence has been issued for it. It is simply a malevolent gleam in the eye of the chairman of the CEGB. Even he recognises that it is well down the track of his own plans, given the overriding need for more power in the south rather than in the north of England.

Will the Minister explain how that power station is listed as an assett to be transferred to National Power when it does not exist? His ministerial colleagues may refuse planning permission for it. Is the Minister prejudicing a later decision on the planning permission for that station by listing it in a fact sheet as if it were a foregone conclusion? My constituents have the feeling that it is all cut and dried and that Ministers have given some behind-the-scenes promise that the CEGB and National Power will be able to build at Druridge bay and that the planning arrangements will be a foregone conclusion. That must not be so. We shall fight it, and we are entitled to know why it was listed in that way.

One consequence of the protected status of nuclear power is that those who object to the building of particular nuclear power stations will have their arguments ruled out by the Bill.

My third reason for being so strongly opposed to the Bill is that it lacks any acceptance of vital social obligations. The Bill allows the vicious penalty of standing charges on pensioners to continue. The SSEB goes one further: it imposes six standing charges a year on its customer. They are quarterly for most of England, but six a year in Scotland. They are very much resented, and the Bill does nothing to remove them.

The Bill does nothing to help those who are not on mains electricity. Many of my constituents and many people in other rural areas do not have mains electricity. The Government are not continuing the present Hydro Board obligation to help people in rural areas, and they are certainly doing nothing like that to help consumers in other parts of the country. It is simply not good enough for the industry to pass out of public ownership with no provision for the remaining people who do not have the benefit of mains electricity.

I and my right hon. and hon. Friends are no enthusiasts for the present structure of the electricity industry. Ministers have quite rightly quoted my hon. Friend the Member for Gordon, who suggested that it would be possible to consider ways of privatising the generation of electricity so as to ensure there was some real competition. But that requires continued public maintenance of the national grid, which is conspicuously lacking in the Bill. It would require much more real competition than the Government are introducing. The Government are putting the electricity industry in turmoil without any hope of increasing competition, without any hope of promoting conservation, without any hope of maintaining the social obligations of the industry and with the express purpose of subsidising, feather-bedding and protecting nuclear power.

I agree with the comments by the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen) about the electricity industry. The point of difference between us is that I do not share his apparent belief that the Government have any intentions of putting the Bill right and turning it into the kind of legislation that could reasonably attract wider support. The Bill will throw the electricity industry into turmoil without achieving the objectives which I have set out, and it deserves to be opposed.