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Although I welcome the fact that Liberal Democrat Members have taken the opportunity to initiate this debate, Government and Conservative Members alike can only deplore the lack of seriousness with which they have addressed it. We are dealing not with a single crisis in the nuclear industry but with the entire energy policy for the United Kingdom, not just now but for the next 50 years. Energy policy supremely transcends the time scale in terms of which each of us is naturally inclined to think—the time scale that takes us up to the next election. I thought that Dr. Cable had a great opportunity, living in the nether world of non-office, to say that the Liberal Democrats would take a stand, make their policy clear and overcome their natural tendency to try to exploit the Government's immediate crisis.
I wanted to speak in the debate this evening—I am grateful for being chosen, Madam Deputy Speaker—because I suppose that I bear some responsibility for the change from the pool arrangements for pricing energy to the present new electricity trading arrangements or NETA. Under the old pool arrangements, nuclear energy, including French nuclear—we did not even know whether it was French nuclear; it could have been any energy from France—was guaranteed baseload under any circumstances. All the gas that came in was on baseload as well. All such energy was guaranteed, not at the competitive market price, as was often erroneously thought, but at the intervention price—the price at which the marginal producer, coal, quoted for the production that the others on baseload could not meet. The effect was a very high price, which was rightly paid not to the marginal producer during the short period when marginal total production was required but to everyone—to all those guaranteed baseload. The system was not only anti-competitive but clearly anti-coal. On that basis, in the Treasury, it unfortunately—or perhaps in some ways fortunately, as I welcomed the challenge—fell to me to say that that was no argument for closing down coal-fired energy production or for closing down our pits. It was simply a rigged market that worked in one direction.
I was not there when the new arrangements were entered into. Clearly, since then there has been a switch in the whole bias away from the anti-competitive anti-coal situation to an anti-competitive anti-nuclear situation. The entire drop that was required in the cost of energy has been borne by the generators and not by the retail operators, as yet. Those generators—in particular, nuclear—that have not been able to control their retail outlet and offset the 40 per cent. reduction in the price paid for the generation of electricity have come badly unstuck—none more so than British Energy.
British Energy has behaved very responsibly—unlike Railtrack, if I may say so. It explained its problems to the Government and said that it wanted to be responsible, but that there was no way that it could meet off its own bat a 40 per cent. reduction in a matter of a year or two in the price paid to it for a production cost that it had until then been guaranteed under the old pool arrangements. It took the problem to the Government, saying that it was at least in part of their making. This Government and I personally must accept that element of responsibility for it, even though we were not responsible for setting up the arrangements that preceded that.
That is why my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry and Energy has done a very good job tonight in a brilliant response to a good Opposition-day debate that was marred by the vacuity that the Liberal Democrat party brought to it. My hon. Friend has not tried to evade responsibility for the #600 million plus—it may well turn out to be more—that that policy is going to cost us. Nor, as yet, has he pre-empted the options that are open to him to deal with it.
We can always attribute blame, but rather than looking back we must look forward to find out how we can deal with this problem. I shall devote a few remarks to that subject. First, hon. Members on both sides of the House—even the Liberals with their fantastical imaginations—must accept that the three dominant criteria that must be met in British energy policy are security of supply, diversity and an environmentally acceptable means of delivery. The idea that is implicit—I hate to say this, but at one point one can almost see the drafting hand of the Treasury in it—in the performance and innovation unit report is that those three criteria can be reconciled in a market-oriented policy, but that is just not realistic.
Energy affects the whole country and is vital to our existence—as we have said, the development of a supply can easily extend over 50 years—and it cannot be left to the vagaries of an oil price that might double or treble from one year to the next, or a gas price that could do the same. What company could possibly price its products against that background? What private sector company is going to invest against the background of those criteria, not knowing from one day or one year to the next whether it may face a 100 per cent. change in its gross and net margins? It is for those reasons that, like it or not, the Government have to be involved in energy policy.
The Government will always be involved; they can try to avoid the problem and say, XThese are hideous things and we want to leave them to the market". They could try to do what the Tories did, which was to dismember the sector and liberalise it; but at the end of the day, as we have all seen, all those problems come back to the Government. I certainly saw that when I was faced, in 1997–98, with the imminent collapse of the coal industry, just as the present Minister faces the imminent collapse of our private sector nuclear industry. We must face the problems.
Instead of facing the problems, the Liberal party gave us a trivial contribution, although I hate to say it, from the normally distinguished hon. Member for Twickenham. If we are to face the problems, we have to reconcile those three key criteria. If we are to have diversity, we must accept that gas will become more predominant; it is the cheapest and, to some extent, the cleanest fuel. We need nuclear energy. Where else will the 20 per cent. come from? There must be a continuing role for coal for as long as the supply lasts, for as long as there are reserves and mines are sunk and miners are willing to work them. There must be an increasing role for renewables. I am sure that the whole House will agree about that.