Clause 46

Energy Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 4:00 pm on 4 March 2008.

Alert me about debates like this

Power to disapply section 45

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister of State (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

The Secretary of State can make regulations so that the procedure set out in the clause does not apply to certain modifications. Regulations made under the clause could set a material financial threshold for operational and technical changes in terms of their impact on decommissioning and waste management cost estimates, so that any changes below that level—or, indeed, any cumulative changes over a certain period—would not need the Secretary of State’s approval.

The tiered approach is consistent with that of the Health and Safety Executive and its enforcement of safety standards under licence condition 22 of the nuclear site licence. This power is important because it allows the operator to concentrate on running the station without having to seek approval for modifications which, for example, do not impact significantly on the costs of waste and decommissioning.

To ensure that the clause does not have negative implications for health, safety or environmental matters, the Secretary of State is required to consult interested bodies prior to making the regulations. Regulations made under the clause will also set out how the operator is to inform the Secretary of State of such modifications. That will ensure that the Secretary of State is made aware of any changes to an approved programme, even  if he does not have to approve them. The Secretary of State has other powers in the Bill and the programme to obtain information about such changes.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I have just a brief question in response to the Minister’s comments. We are in the strange situation of deciding that although clause 45 has decent provisions and sets out how things should be done, clause 46 states that the Secretary of State does not have to do any of that if he does not want to.

When I first read that, I imagined that it was an emergency provision—something changes which means that it is important that the funded decommissioning plan is suddenly changed. I can understand why we would then disapply the careful safeguards set out in the previous clause, but the Secretary of State—I mean the Minister; I am getting ahead of myself—is saying the opposite, in that the proposal is de minimis and these are piddling, if I may use that word, little changes. He says that the Government do not want big paraphernalia because they are only changing small things, but that is not remotely apparent from reading clause 46.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham will try to catch your eye, Mrs. Humble, to raise slightly separate issues, but my worry is that the proposal is so vague and all-embracing that, essentially, we have agreed a set of procedures that seemed reasonable in clause 45, but we are now giving the Secretary of State carte blanch to rip them all up—albeit after consultation—on unspecified grounds which may be specified later. It seems so sweeping. Will the Minister reflect on whether the power is too broad and will rip up what we have just agreed to? The clause might say that it is to be used only in cases in which the regulatory burden of applying clause 45 is excessive and so on, but we do not even have any clues on that. I think that clause 46 is far too broadly drawn.

Photo of Brian Binley Brian Binley Conservative, Northampton South

May I say what a pleasure it is to see you in the Chair, Mrs. Humble?

I want to raise a question which I asked earlier on consultation. I am equally concerned about the rather broad terms of the clause and that changes might be made that would have an impact on the local population almost without it knowing about them. Will the Minister describe the changes that could occur and give us an inkling about their size? Does he think that there might be a need to consider consulting on the matter, in the way that he promised earlier?

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 4:15, 4 March 2008

May I say how nice it is to be serving under your chairmanship again, Mrs. Humble?

We discussed a number of amendments under clause 42 this morning, one of which we will later press to a vote. We will not press amendment No. 42, but it seems appropriate to refer to it in the context of this clause. It is about the right to consultation of the nuclear liabilities financing assurance board and whether that body will be consulted or informed when changes are  made. The Health and Safety Executive, the Environment Agency and others are listed and will be consulted by the Secretary of State. However, the very body that is supposed to deal with the financial arrangements of a funded decommissioning programme will apparently not be consulted because it is not specified.

How will the NLFAB carry out its functions if under subsection (3) modifications can be made by reference to the financial consequences of a decommissioning programme and yet there is no provision for the involvement of the very body that is supposed to exercise scrutiny over this matter? According to the White Paper, the NLFAB is supposed to provide advice to the Secretary of State on the regular reviews and ongoing scrutiny of funding arrangements. How will it do so if it will not even be informed when modifications to funded decommissioning programmes on the basis of financial consequences take place? Perhaps the Minister will clarify how that process will work in practice.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister of State (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

The hon. Member for Northavon was worried about the implications of a get-out clause. I am not sure if that was his phrase, but some might put it like that. I reassure him that we will lay out in regulations by negative procedure the circumstances in which the modification procedure under clause 45 will not apply. I will give him more reassurance on that matter later if I can. It will be debatable in the House, if appropriate, and we will look at the implications of it in regulations, taking into account his concerns.

The hon. Member for Northampton, South talked about the local community and the local authority in an earlier discussion. I think that that is more or less within the same family of questions. I said this morning that I would look at the matter and come back to the Committee. I do not think that either hon. Gentleman is saying that the local authority should have a role over the financial arrangements or the actuarial issues regarding the fund. They are concerned that there could be a change to the environment, for example because of a new building, or some traffic implications, and want to know whether the local authority should have a role. I am taking advice to see whether such things are covered under existing planning law, but I do not think that I will receive it today. If it is not covered, I will find out whether there needs to be further action and will come back to the hon. Gentlemen.

We discussed the nature of the board this morning and talked about what it is and what it is not. It will give regular advice to the Secretary of State. We do not feel that it needs the powers that the hon. Member for Cheltenham is prescribing because it will be there as part of government—with a small “g”—to advise us. I see no danger that we will not be able to benefit from its advice. I do not think that what he is proposing is necessary.

Photo of Martin Horwood Martin Horwood Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

According to the White Paper, the purpose of the nuclear liabilities financing assurance board is not simply to give advice but to provide scrutiny, specifically with respect to the financial arrangements. However, the clause is about changes to funded decommissioning programmes, with specific reference to their financial consequences, and yet there seems to be no mechanism or expressed intention to involve the scrutiny body that we are just about to set  up in changes to the funded decommissioning programmes as they happen. Surely that is an essential prerequisite. Indeed, it would be useful to know what kind of financial consequences the Government have in mind in subsection (3). I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure me that the body will be involved in these processes.

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister of State (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

The smaller—de minimis—changes will be set out in the annual report that the operator will have to submit as part of the programme. That is part of the transparency—or scrutiny—process. The Secretary of State has powers in the Bill to obtain more information if he is not satisfied with the changes that the operator has made. There will be transparency about these changes and the board will therefore be able to hear about them and give us advice on that if there is a concern.

Photo of Steve Webb Steve Webb Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

I wonder whether the Minister can help me. I sense that what is going on here is an example of his Department’s legislative approach, which is to say, the things that one might not have thought of are in the clause but he has excluded the blindingly obvious. Is that what is going on here?

Photo of Malcolm Wicks Malcolm Wicks Minister of State (Energy), Department for Business, Enterprise & Regulatory Reform

I would not put it quite like that. We are setting up the board to advise us. We are looking at the annual reports and if it wants to advise us on these things or if we want to take its advice, we will. I do not think that the whole chronology of every day in my Department and its interactions with a range of bodies needs to be in every Bill that we introduce. In terms of what size we mean by de minimis, we will be consulting on this level before making our regulations.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 46 ordered to stand part of the Bill.