Control of Fuel and Electricity

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 11:13 pm on 13th November 2000.

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Photo of Mrs Helen Liddell Mrs Helen Liddell Minister of State (Science, Energy and Industry), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister of State (Energy and Competitiveness in Europe) 11:13 pm, 13th November 2000

The greater responsibility at the time was to ensure that the country was no longer disrupted. Indeed, that view has been broadly shared among many hon. Members. I deplore the way in which the hon. Gentleman is trying to engage in a post mortem of a situation in September. He asked why the order is before the House this evening. It is because the order runs out on 19 November and it is important to ensure that the Government can take action if necessary.

The hon. Gentleman asked why there was not an earlier debate. I suspect that he has not been paying attention. There was a debate on the fuel crisis during the first week following the summer recess—the week beginning 23 October. The Home Secretary made a statement on 2 November. In another place, there was an oral question on the matter on 5 October, and a debate on the order on 7 November. There have been many opportunities to debate the fuel crisis. Tonight, we are about trying to ensure that we have the measures in place to protect essential services and the prosperity of the nation should there be future disruption in the event of action taken at filling stations or elsewhere.

The Energy Act 1976 provides the Government with temporary and exceptional powers to regulate or prohibit the production, supply, acquisition or use of fuel and electricity, either where there is imminent and actual threat of emergency in the UK affecting fuel or electricity supplies, or to meet international obligations. The hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) referred to that. We must meet certain international obligations. I bow to the hon. Gentleman's knowledge of the oil industry. Some of his points on changes in the way in which the oil industry does its business were very important. The introduction of the just-in-time system, not just in the oil industry but in manufacturing, was very much underlined by the situation that we faced in September.

While I am on health and safety issues, I should point out that, following Piper Alpha, any one employee in the oil industry who has an anxiety about safety may, without reference to a superior, cause a stoppage or conclude the process in which he or she is involved. That is understandable in the wake of Piper Alpha.

I know from discussions with tanker drivers—I visited the refineries—that many were very much aware of what they were driving. In effect, as the hon. Member for Twickenham explained, they were driving a highly explosive device—a mobile bomb. Because of the 180 cases of intimidation, details of which are available in the Library, drivers were anxious about what might happen to them. There were instances of bricks, plumb lines and so on being thrown from bridges, and of tankers being forced on to the hard shoulder. That is very frightening not just for the tanker driver but for society in general. The worry about what might happen was considerable. The issue of health and safety must predominate in the oil industry, and I, as the Minister with responsibility for Energy, would not want it to be otherwise.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton asked about the use of Ministry of Defence drivers. Such drivers have been trained, but in the hope that it will not be necessary to use them. I should point out, however, that, in directing those controlling the tankers to co-operate with the police or the military in securing supplies, we are not taking powers directly to requisition tankers. That is an important point, which must be borne in mind.

The Emergency Powers Act 1920 provides wide powers to make regulations which could be used to control goods or instruct members of the public or companies where the community's essentials of life or transport system are threatened by disruption of the supply and distribution of goods, including fuels. In such circumstances, the Act could be used to requisition tankers or create exclusion zones around specific sites. However, I am sure that the House, like me, hopes that the likelihood of that is extremely remote.

The hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton tried to make political capital out of the previous orders that were laid. The speed, scale and effect of the disruption last time took everyone by surprise, and measures had to be implemented quickly. I accept that there was a degree of confusion, and we have reviewed the arrangements so that we are better prepared for any repetition of the disruption. The changes in the regulations reflect consultation with business, local authorities and the police. Rather than criticise, Conservative Members should congratulate local authorities, the police and business throughout the country on the hard work that they put in to ensure that fuel supplies were maintained as far as possible and normality returned as quickly as possible.

The orders demonstrate flexibility in a fast-moving situation. We are trying to ensure that we have in place orders that allow us to act flexibly and to take into account the nature of future disruption, which I hope will not occur.