Brexit: Energy Security (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:49 pm on 6th June 2018.

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Photo of Lord Rooker Lord Rooker Labour 7:49 pm, 6th June 2018

My Lords, I draw attention to my interest, declared at the end of the report, as a director of the Ludlow Hydro Co-operative, which operates an Archimedes screw—a community-owned hydro-electricity project—on the River Teme at Ludlow. We are in our second year, and it is going quite well.

I want to deal with three issues, each of which was touched on briefly by the chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, in a bit more detail. The first is Ireland. A new interconnector between north and south is planned for 2021. Currently, 88% of the electricity on the island of Ireland is imported from Great Britain, and 40% of the gas on the island of Ireland is imported from Great Britain. In Northern Ireland, 100% of the gas is imported from Great Britain, and that gas is crucial to the generation of electricity in Northern Ireland. There has been an integrated market, in some ways as a result of the Good Friday agreement, in operation for several years now. I can remember visiting one power station in Northern Ireland, when I had the privilege of being there for a year as a direct rule Minister, which has closed down. The fact of the matter is that the system is planned to work, but there is still more work to be done. However, my view is that I do not think that Dublin or Belfast should trust London. The situation is so fragile that I know there are long-term plans for an interconnector from the island of Ireland—from the Republic—directly to Europe, to the northern coast of France. That would be a very expensive operation, but it would be a lot cheaper than the lights going out and your industry closing down. So there is some serious planning required, I think, as to what should be done.

We have raised these issues in the report about the security of supply and the sensitivity regarding what is, in effect, a border down the Irish Sea as far as electricity is concerned. DUP politicians just lie through their teeth every day, because there are borders down the Irish Sea on a whole host of issues, which are already there, and electricity is just one of them—and they do not represent the people of Northern Ireland anyway, because the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain. The fact of the matter is that these issues were raised in our report, but the government response to the report, on the three issues that I want to raise, is pathetic. We are sleep-walking into major problems. In response to our recommendations 25 to 28, the Government just quoted the Prime Minister’s speech of 2 March:

“This includes protecting the single electricity market across Ireland”.

However, she is in no position to promise that at all. Therefore, there are some serious issues of planning to be done.

What is really a bit concerning—and I know that we will be told, “Oh, there is no confirmation; it is only a rumour”—is the story in the Times this morning:

“After economic collapse, food shortages and even Armageddon one might have thought that Brexit was running out of dire consequence. But under one contingency, Britain’s exit from the EU results in blackouts. Plans to use tens of thousands of electricity generators to keep Northern Ireland’s lights on are included in proposals for the most disruptive form of Brexit, according to a Whitehall source”.

The story goes on to refer to the single energy market, but it also identifies,

“the possibility that power providers in the Republic could withhold energy in the absence of a legal document”,

and legal structures. I know that we will be told, as we have heard from the Government today in relation to other things, that Governments have to prepare for all kinds of contingencies, and quite clearly that is true. Where the generators will come from, I do not know, but it is quite clear that they will be needed as a contingency if things go wrong.

Now, I do not expect the Minister to confirm that story or otherwise, but it would be nice if he could show—I do not say this to him personally—a modicum of interest in the fact that people in Northern Ireland, and in the Republic for that matter, are in a completely vulnerable situation regarding the rest of Europe, being reliant, as they are, on Great Britain for massive amounts of energy supplies. And let us leave to one side where we will get it from, given the interconnectors across to Europe. My view is: “Don’t trust London. Make plans for the future”.

The second issue raised by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, on which I want to consider in a bit more detail—it was raised also by the noble Lord, Lord Selkirk—is labour in the energy sector. The report states in paragraph 41:

“The highest concentration of non-British nationals as a percentage of the total employed workforce is within Nuclear New Build”— which is pretty important for us anyway. It continues:

“Angela Hepworth, Corporate Policy and Regulation Director at EDF, provided some concrete detail: ‘At the peak of the construction of Hinkley Point, we are going to need 1,400 steel fixers. At the moment, the total population of certified steel fixers in the UK is 2,700 so we would need more than half of the total steel-fixing population in the UK in order to meet the peak requirement for Hinkley Point’”.

A lot of these people are not UK citizens. As the report mentions in paragraph 45, Angela Hepworth,

“was concerned that steel fixing, a key skill for the construction of Hinkley Point, ‘does not meet the criteria for skilled employment under the UK’s points-based system’”.

We are heading for deep trouble, and the Government’s response—on page 5 of their letter—is to say:

“The Government continues to support new nuclear. We recognize it is essential that access to workforce for projects, such as Hinkley Point C, are not adversely affected by the UK’s withdrawal … The Government has commissioned the Migration Advisory Committee … to gather evidence on patterns of EU migration and the role of migration in the wider economy”.

Forget the wider economy; what are you going to do about the steel fixers? We cannot just drum up steel fixers. It is a very professional occupation. It does not fit the Home Office criteria for being super-super-qualified in the technical sense, but one plant—on which we are due to rely for 6% of our future energy requirements— will take more than half of the qualified steel fixers in this country, and we get a pathetic response in the Government’s letter responding to the report that shows not the slightest inclination that they have taken on board the seriousness of the situation.

The third point that I want to raise relates to Switzerland, which was also touched on by the chairman. I will not go over Norway—we have dealt with Norway—but in Switzerland the issue is slightly different. Switzerland has 40 electricity interconnectors with Europe; given its geographical situation, it would be surprising if there were not. However, when the Swiss energy ambassador spoke to us, as the report states in paragraph 198, he,

“explained that although the Swiss tried to amend the drafting of the CACM”— that is, the capacity allocation and congestion management regulation, which is pretty serious as far as central Europe is concerned—

“‘all that was simply unsuccessful. The EU wants to have an internal electricity market as one coherent thing, and either you are in it and abide by the rules or you are not in it.’ For an exception to be made, ‘you have to have a very strong case that you as a country bring something to the internal electricity market that is indispensable to the functioning of the energy market’”.

I would argue that Britain, having helped create the internal energy market in Europe, is not bringing something indispensable to the current EU arrangement. That is history—the market is set up and functioning— and we have nothing to offer. Indeed, as we said in paragraph 205, the ambassador,

“struck a note of caution: ‘I am not aware of the UK having anything that I would call a unique selling point; that is, something that you would bring to the Internal Energy Market, both electricity and gas, which in the countervailing scenario of you not bringing it to the market would put the Internal Energy Market in some sort of jeopardy’”.

In other words, they do not need us. In Switzerland’s case, as was hinted at by the chairman, the Swiss are members of various committees and structures—they have to be, because they have all these interconnectors—but sometimes they are not allowed in the room when the committee meets. That is the way that the Swiss are treated. Because they are not actually a member of the internal electricity market, they are kept out of the room, and yet they have this massive arrangement, geographically, of interconnection of electricity with Europe.

And what did we get from the Government in their response? In terms of words used, we got less of a response, on page 23 of the Government’s letter, than the actual recommendations in our report to which it was responding. It is contemptible that lazy Ministers—and it is Ministers, not civil servants—should give us a response that is shorter than the recommendation. They simply refer to,

“the value provided by UK expertise in the development of the IEM, and the starting position of alignment with EU rules”.

That is our selling point. The Swiss ambassador has already ruled that out; it is in the report. So why do we get this rubbish in the government response? It is completely and utterly inadequate, and it is all on the record. The chickens will come home to roost one day. True, they will not be roasted if we have no power, but this Government show not an iota of recognition of the seriousness of the situation as far as energy is concerned.

We visited the national grid; we also visited the fusion plant at Oxford. It is quite right: there was no debate in the referendum about Euratom—I doubt that the Prime Minister had ever heard of the term before it turned up in one of her briefing papers, showing not the slightest interest, given the shallow arrangements that she has for running the Government. I do not expect the Minister to respond to any of my points. I wanted to put them on the record just for audit purposes later on, when the blame game will really start.