Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:40 pm on 26th June 2017.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Truscott Lord Truscott Non-affiliated 8:40 pm, 26th June 2017

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes. I agree with much of what she said, particularly on HS2. I also commend both noble Lords who made excellent maiden speeches today.

In speaking on energy today, I declare a non-pecuniary interest as vice-chair of the All-Party Group on Shale Gas Regulation and Planning and as a former UK Energy Minister.

Comparing the recent Tory manifesto to the gracious Speech, I am somewhat perplexed by Her Majesty’s Government’s invisible energy strategy. If this is what strong and stable government looks like, I can only be grateful that your Lordships’ House avoided a coalition of chaos. For example, media reports before the gracious Speech said that the Government had abandoned their commitment to UK shale gas development. I hope that the Minister—who is not in his place at the moment—can reassure or otherwise the House, at least until the next U-turn.

The Conservative manifesto stated that legislation would be introduced to permit non-fracking drilling as a permitted development; major shale planning decisions would be the responsibility of the national planning regime; there would be a new shale environmental regulator; and there would be changes to the proposed shale wealth fund. Now these are all apparently out of the window. Are Her Majesty’s Government still committed to shale in England, have they been won over by Labour’s argument that fracking should be banned, as it is in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, or do they simply believe they cannot get the legislation through Parliament?

The Queen’s Speech mentions nuclear safeguards and proposals to secure critical national infrastructure. Can the Minister enlighten noble Lords about how this will be achieved post-Brexit? Again, the Government seem vague about attempts to protect the UK’s critical infrastructure. Just last September, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy stated that the Government would reform the legal framework for future foreign investment in our critical infrastructure, including nuclear energy. The Tory manifesto said:

“We will ensure that foreign ownership of companies controlling important infrastructure does not undermine British security or essential services”.

The Minister briefly referred to this, but when will we receive the details? Concerns about Chinese involvement in Hinkley and Bradwell on security grounds have been widespread, but in the Queen’s Speech of this there was not a whisper.

Incidentally, as previously mentioned, a recent National Audit Office report said that the Government’s plans for a new £18 billion power plant at Hinkley Point were “risky and expensive”. As the UK’s ageing nuclear and coal plants need replacing or substitution by around 2030, the UK’s reliance on imports has returned to levels not seen since the mid to late 1970s, before production from the North Sea took off. My fear is that the Government do not really have an energy policy and certainly do not have a grip on the issues. A commitment in the gracious Speech to electric cars is welcome, but it is not a substitute for a low-carbon energy strategy. Perhaps it is time for a new energy White Paper. There has not been one for a while.

As mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Naseby, Britain’s largest storage site for natural gas, owned by Centrica, is to close permanently, leaving the country more dependent on imports and price volatility. The situation is so precarious that a committee of your Lordships’ House advocated varying the pace of carbon emissions up to 2050 to keep the lights on.

While the gracious Speech commits the UK to tackling climate change and the Paris agreement, few independent experts believe the country can hit its emission targets. The noble Baroness, Lady Featherstone, commented on this point earlier. The Committee on Climate Change stated that current policies are likely to deliver at best around half the required UK emissions reduction from 2015 to 2030. A new emissions reduction plan has yet to be published. Can the Minister tell the House when its publication is likely?

I do not think the Government are treating cybersecurity with the seriousness it deserves. Where was the reference to this in the Queen’s Speech? We have already witnessed recent attacks on the NHS and Parliament in this country alone, with attacks also against the US, Ukraine and Iran, among others. The Stuxnet worm was used effectively against Iran’s nuclear power stations. Researchers are now warning the Industroyer virus could bring down power networks in their entirety or lead to our power grid being controlled by either criminals or a foreign nation state. The Cambridge Centre for Risk Studies estimates a cyberattack on the UK’s regional electricity distribution network would cost between £12 billion and £86 billion.

The powers and ability of the National Cyber Security Centre to deal with an attack of this nature are frankly insufficient. It does not have a statutory role and cannot enforce its recommendations. The National Cyber Security Strategy is muddled and unclear, particularly regarding the private sector, which owns most of the UK’s critical national infrastructure. The clock is ticking, but the Government appear paralysed.