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Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to speak in the debate this evening. It is a pity that we do not have more time to spend on an issue of such great importance for the country.
The energy review published in February this year was a useful document identifying some of the key challenges facing Britain in the coming years. Identifying the problems is one thing; doing something about them is quite another. We have had reviews, reports and studies in the past, but we have never translated those into a meaningful and structured energy policy for Britain. In the pre-privatisation days, we relied predominantly on large coal-fired stations supported by a strategic nuclear component. I seem to recall that the three new coal-fired power stations that were due to be built by the Central Electricity Generating Board were cancelled directly after privatisation. We have not seen, and nor are we likely to see, the building of another coal-fired power station.
Likewise, nuclear generation enjoyed a turbulent ride through the privatisation process. First, it was to be included in National Power, but the City got cold feet and it was removed. The Magnox power stations were also removed and the rest of the nuclear power industry went to what has subsequently become British Energy. As in the case of coal, the end result is that we have not seen the building of another nuclear station and we are not likely to do so in the foreseeable future. The approach to renewables has perhaps been more consistent. The CEGB and the Scottish generators did not see them as a worthwhile and viable investment, and it is fair to say that the privatised companies have followed suit.
We saw under privatisation an incredible and ultimately unsustainable dash for gas that led to the early closure of many coal-fired power stations that could and should have produced energy for many years to come. That had the terrible effects on the UK coal industry that we have all seen. For the longer term, the dash for gas has had even more damaging effects. A country that rightly prided itself on being self-sufficient in energy production now faces dependency on imported gas in the not-too-distant future. We will be a net importer of gas by 2005. The energy review is not worried about the increased use of imported gas in terms of energy security, but I am not too sure about that. While supply might not be a major problem, we cannot guarantee price, and that must endanger security. The recent changes in gas prices have already had an effect on existing gas-fired stations and on the likelihood of further stations being built.
Where are we now? On the positive side, as many hon. Members have made clear, we have the cheapest electricity for 10 years. We have also made some progress on carbon emissions, although that is a by-product of the increased use of gas rather than part of any concerted plan of action. However, I do not think that we have addressed the major issues that we face today in terms of meeting our energy needs in the years to come and into the middle of the next century, while maintaining our presumably growing commitments on climate change.
The industry is currently geared almost purely by commercial decisions. While that remains the case, I cannot see how we will make a meaningful change in how we produce energy in this country. The energy review rightly calls for an increase of some 20 per cent. by 2020 in the contribution made by renewables. That is a very tall order and I think that it will be unobtainable if we are not prepared to grasp the challenge of greater intervention in the mix of fuel generation. The review rejects that possibility on the ground that it distorts the market, but surely that is the point. It goes on to say that the
Xrole of government should be to monitor the actions of the market participants and only intervene at the last resort."
If we are not prepared to intervene or exert influence, we will recognise what we have done only when it is too late. We will then have to intervene, as we will be at the last resort. If we leave things entirely to the whims of the market, the reality is that nothing will change, or if changes occur, they will be driven purely by price, rather than by any need for diversity or by environmental concerns.
Nuclear power currently accounts for 15 to 20 per cent. of our electricity generation, but that percentage will fall. By 2020, the majority of our nuclear power stations will have closed. We must either be prepared to accept that or to change it. We must face up to the current situation. While nuclear power is not and never has been the cheapest means of energy production, it makes a major contribution to reducing carbon emissions. We must consider nuclear power in a full light and not purely in price terms.