Scotland Bill - Report (2nd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 29th February 2016.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 6:01 pm, 29th February 2016

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendment 47 and others in this group which are in the name of my noble friend Lord Stephen and myself. Amendment 47 would in effect devolve legislative competence for consents for electricity generating stations and overhead lines to the Scottish Parliament. The position at the moment is that the Scottish Government have executive power to grant development consent for generating stations of 50 megawatts capacity or more and overhead lines of 20 kilovolts nominal voltage or greater. However, the Scottish Parliament does not have legislative power to reform the law in relation to such development consents. This is the only type of development that the Scottish Parliament does not have legislative power to regulate.

As I have indicated, such consents are governed by Sections 36 and 37 of the Electricity Act. This legislation, which goes back to 1989, is outdated. In fact, it is sufficiently outdated that, in the mean time, in England and Wales, it has been changed so that applications for development consent are dealt with under the Planning Act 2008, a much more suitable system. In Scotland, it has been described as effectively a legislative orphan. The Scottish Parliament has no power to reform it, and when the United Kingdom Parliament reformed it in respect of England and Wales, the opportunity was not taken to reform it in Scotland. Moreover, it is my understanding that the draft Wales Bill is devolving power to the Welsh Parliament, as it will be known, to legislate on consents for almost all energy development there. The aim of this amendment is therefore to devolve to the Scottish Parliament legislative power to reform the system of development consenting for energy infrastructure. The generation, transmission and distribution of supply of electricity is presently reserved although, as I said, the actual power to grant consents has been devolved.

This issue has some practical consequences in the context of the Energy Bill, which is currently in the other place. I was advised last week that a development in the south of Scotland, which I think is of about 65 megawatts, is therefore subject to the present regime under Section 36. However, if the same development had been just several miles further south in Northumbria, it would have been the responsibility of the local authority. If the local authority had refused it in England and Ministers had called it in, the grace period that the Government proposed for onshore wind farm consents would have kicked in. However, that does not cover the situation in Scotland given that it is already subject to ministerial fiat there, so there is a mismatch in practical terms. I apologise that this gap was drawn to my attention after Committee but I have certainly made the noble Lord, Lord Dunlop, aware of these concerns. He has had some notice and I hope that he may be able to give an encouraging reply.

The other amendments, to some extent, go over the ground that we covered in Committee. I appreciate that the Minister has met me since then and we have discussed these amendments. The Government argue that there is already adequate statutory provision for consultation, and the Minister asked why the industry was not satisfied and agreed to meet the industry to find out. My understanding is that, in the event, negotiations on the fiscal framework took over. That is perfectly understandable—there is no criticism there. However, his officials did meet the industry.

The current position is in spite of the fact that a commitment followed a request in the Smith commission for further consultation. Indeed, in the initial response to the Smith commission, the Government’s Command Paper stated:

“The UK Government will work with the Scottish Parliament and Scottish Government to devise a proportionate and workable method of consulting the Scottish Parliament on the strategic priorities set out in the Energy Strategy and Policy statement”.

However, the Government’s position now is that this is not necessary and that there is already a statutory regime there under the Energy Act 2013.

The fact that the industry remains unsatisfied is of some concern. Notwithstanding new Section 90C(4), which states,

“a ‘renewable electricity incentive scheme’ means any scheme, whether statutory or otherwise”,

people in the renewables industry have formed the impression that any consultation with Scottish Ministers is likely to be triggered only by legislative changes. It would therefore be helpful if, in responding to this debate, the Minister could indicate the overarching legal basis for the contract for difference regime being set out in primary legislation, while the main detail as to how it will operate is contained in statutory instruments and any changes to these statutory instruments would trigger the consultation in terms of this Bill and the Energy Act.

The experience of the accelerated closure of the renewables obligation for onshore wind, which went ahead with, I think, minimal consultation with Scottish Ministers, has given rise to the concerns within the industry. It would be useful if the Minister could indicate whether the position with regard to any order to remove specific technologies from the contract for different regime is something about which Scottish Ministers would be consulted. There is no obligation on the Secretary of State to consult on the budget notice issued in advance of each allocation round. However, there is a need to consult Scottish Ministers on other aspects of the contract for difference mechanisms, for example on setting the new administrative strike prices, and it would be helpful if the Minister could perhaps give some clarity on how he sees that operating in the future.

Officials seem content that the issue addressed by Amendment 55 is dealt with adequately under existing provisions, but the view is that the improved consultation mechanism would have been better if a Scottish member could have been appointed to the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority. Again, this is a matter that the Smith commission flagged up. The Bill does a similar thing for Ofcom, and perhaps the Minister could indicate how he intends to improve the consultation and whether there is any further mechanism through the GEMA board which would meet the industry’s concerns.

Finally, one of the amendments gives Ministers the power to bring forward a scheme which effectively would devolve contracts for difference to Scottish Ministers. I stress it is a scheme which UK Ministers could devolve, so the concerns that this could lead to a bigger levy on consumers across the United Kingdom would not necessarily come through. The specific point here is that there is concern in the industry that, under the next tranche or round of contracts for difference, onshore wind may not be included under the technologies, notwithstanding that onshore wind has been at £82.50 per megawatt hour for 15 years, index linked, while offshore wind has been at £114.40 per megawatt hour for 15 years and nuclear is index linked for 35 years at £92.50. There is a very strong argument that Scotland has a considerable abundance of resource in onshore wind and that it could be developed there. This is not in the Smith commission, but had it been known that the Government were going to change the rules on the renewables obligation for onshore wind when the commission was sitting, it may well have made such a recommendation, because it would have been entirely consistent.

I simply remind the Minister that in the Scotland analysis paper for energy, the then Government said:

“The UK Government is now introducing the Contracts for Difference scheme, which will provide long term support for all forms of low-carbon electricity generation. These contracts provide industry with the long-term framework to make further large scale energy investments at least cost to the consumer”.

I stress the words “all forms”, which includes onshore wind. I am sure the Minister would like to take the opportunity to say that the present Administration will stand by the commitment that the previous coalition Government presented to the Scottish people in the run-up to the referendum. I hope the Minister will be able to give us some reassurances when he comes to reply.