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House of Commons

Monday 27 February 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[ Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


South Coast Oilfields

2. Mr. Atkinson : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what information he has on the extent of oil deposits in Poole bay and the Solent ; and what special measures he expects to be taken to protect this coast line when these fields are developed.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy (Mr. Peter Morrison) : There are no proven oil deposits in the Solent.

Results from recent drilling suggest that the Wytch farm oilfield extends offshore to the south-east of Poole harbour. Before approving any proposals for further development I shall continue to want to be satisfied that the right measures are taken to protect the environment, as they have been thus far.

Mr. Atkinson : I thank my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for the close interest that he has taken in this matter and I especially thank my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his visit to the area last Friday together with my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill). Does my right hon. Friend agree that Poole harbour is one of this country's most popular and attractive leisure and recreational areas

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on which tens of thousand of jobs in tourism depend?

Notwithstanding British Petroleum's expertise and excellent record on environmental protection, what plans does my right hon. Friend have to protect our beaches from any oil spillages that may take place?

Mr. Morrison : I agree with my hon. Friend that the area which he and my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Butterfill) represent is attractive and brings in a lot of money due to its tourist value. With regard to oil spillages, the normal considerations apply in terms of any approval given for exploration and development.

Mr. Barry Field : Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that there are some misgivings about solfire and aerial spraying to deal with oil spill problems? Will my right hon. Friend consider two excellent products manufactured in my constituency--the frogmat boom and the vikona skimmer-- which have proved to be considerably more effective in dealing with oil spills?

Mr. Morrison : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for drawing my attention to the excellent products manufactured in his constituency. I assure him that the best type of equipment would be used in what I hope is the unlikely event of any oil spillage.

Home Insulation

3. Mr. Patnick : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy how many low-income households have been insulated under programmes initiated by the Energy Efficiency Office ; and how many more are expected to be insulated in the current year.

Mr. Peter Morrison : Some 480,000 low-income homes had been insulated under the community insulation programme up to the end of March 1988. Around a further 125,000 homes will have been insulated by the end of the current financial year.

Mr. Patnick : I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. It is good to know that progress has been made.

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The Government should be congratulated on this programme on two counts as it both helps people on low income and assists in saving energy.

Mr. Morrison : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his congratulations. My hon. Friend will recall, not least because he represents the city where the headquarters of the former Manpower Services Commission were located, that the programme was introduced by the Government through the Manpower Services Commission. As a result, the people to whom my hon. Friend referred have been helped.

Mr. Robert Hughes : Is the Minister aware of the organisation in Aberdeen known as SCARF--"Save Costs and Reduce Fuel"--which has done an excellent job in assisting low-income families to insulate their houses? Is he further aware that that organisation is facing some difficulties in getting its funding renewed? Will he therefore speak to the Secretary of State for Scotland and do all that he can to ensure that SCARF is able to continue its excellent, first-class work?

Mr. Morrison : To be honest I am not totally aware of the particular organisation to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The hon. Gentleman will be aware, however, that when I had principal responsibility for the programme I was in contact with all the voluntary organisations involved. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment has recently changed the upper limit to £40, which I believe will improve the potential of the programme.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce : First, I endorse what the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Hughes) has said because SCARF also operates in my constituency and I believe that its work should continue. Does the Minister accept that self-congratulation is not in order when in reality the programme has been cut by the Government and the budget of the energy efficiency office has not just been cut but is to be further cut within the next two or three years? Does the Minister agree that if the Government are serious about energy efficiency it is time that they brought in a comprehensive programme to ensure that the targets that they claim to support can be met?

Mr. Morrison : The hon. Gentleman uses the word "target", and that is exactly what the Government have done for the whole range of efficiency measures. We have targeted them on the areas where they will be most productive and the people who are most in need.

Mr. Morgan : Does the Minister agree that if the Government are to make a reasonable contribution to reducing raw energy demand without affecting people's comfort he will need to do something rather more dramatic in consultation with his colleagues at the Department of Employment to see that the rules are sufficiently relaxed to facilitate the programmes in England and Wales covered by Neighbourhood Energy Action? The NEA is based in Newcastle but covers major cities where, up until Christmas, it was expected that in 1989 the number of people employed on draught proofing and neighbourhood insulation schemes for low-income households would fall to one eighth of the level in 1988.

Mr. Morrison : If the hon. Gentleman talked to Neighbourhood Energy Action he would find that it has

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welcomed the initiative taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, but principally by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment, to cover the very point raised by the hon. Gentleman. We must now see whether that initiative works through the system in the ways that both the hon. Gentleman and I would like to see.

CEGB (Emissions)

5. Mrs. Gorman : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what will be the cost for the Central Electricity Generating Board to comply with the European Community directives on emissions of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer) : The CEGB has estimated that the cost of meeting its obligations under the EC directive on the reductions of sulphur and nitrogen oxide emissions from large combustion plant will be about £2 billion at 1988 prices. There is at present no EC directive governing emissions of carbon dioxide.

Mrs. Gorman : I thank my hon. Friend for his reply. Is he aware of the excellent report in the Spectator recently orating that human casualties from direct and indirect coal pollution in the United Kingdom are probably about 1,700 per year and that in terms of its devastating environmental effect coal power is much more harmful and expensive than nuclear power?

Mr. Spicer : There is no known way of making electricity which does not have a considerable environmental impact. My hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to some of the environmentally harmful and in some cases disastrous impacts of coal production. For that reason, we are engaged in a massive cleaning up of coal-fired production to reduce sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions.

Mr. Robert Hughes : The hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) told us last week that a dose of germs was good for for us. Why has she changed her mind about sulphur emissions?

Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) is right on this issue as she is on so many others--especially in terms of the last part of her question, to which I did not address myself. It is true, of course, that nuclear power contributes considerably towards a cleaner environment.

Dr. Michael Clark : Whatever the cost in money terms, is my hon. Friend aware of the cost in terms of despoiling the countryside by taking limestone to use as the active ingredient in the FGD process? Is that not, therefore, another instance of nuclear energy being cleaner, safer and environmentally more attractive?

Mr. Spicer : About 2 per cent. of limestone production will be used for the entire retrofit programme. My hon. Friend is right to say that there are great benefits to be had from nuclear power. That is one of the reasons why we are determined to include it in the range of options for the production of electricity.

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Redundant Mineworkers

6. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy, further to his answer of 30 January, Official Report, column 5, if he will now indicate what measures he will take to resolve the problems for redundant mineworkers created by the restart programme ; and if the will make a statement.

Mr. Michael Spicer : We intend to make an announcement about this problem shortly.

Mr. Skinner : At the last Energy Question Time we had the same sort of reply from the Secretary of State for Energy. I hope that the Minister will be more helpful and that the harassment of redundant miners will cease as soon as possible. When my hon. Friends recently met Ministers such as the Secretary of State for Energy, they were given answers such as, "I would love to do it but I cannot find a way." It is time that a way was found, that it was communicated to the Department of Employment and that miners were treated like mine managers who were made redundant and who finished up with £100, 000-plus in golden handshakes. When we try to find out the facts the Department of Energy and Hobart house will not tell us. Let us have everybody treated in the same way.

Mr. Spicer : One or two legal and administrative complications remain outstanding. My right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Energy and for Employment are agreed that these must be resolved urgently.

Mr. Andy Stewart : My hon. Friend knows that Sherwood has more miners than any other constituency, and that more than 5,000 miners in Sherwood took advantage of the generous redundancy scheme. Those people have been treated fairly and courteously, and have had no complaints, but will my hon. Friend ensure that they are exempt from certain provisions of the Social Security Bill, and will he agree on that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment? Will my hon. Friend also ensure that it is recognised that they are officially retired, and that they are removed from the unemployment register?

Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out that this was one of the most generous redundancy schemes ever known. Many other industries would have welcomed a similar scheme. My hon. Friend will have to wait for the final decision and the announcement that we shall make as to what will be done in the future.

Mr. Eadie : The Under-Secretary of State must be aware that when the miners' parliamentary group met the Secretary of State for Energy and the Minister of State, Department of Employment, they specifically said, and the group accepted, that they wish to resolve the problem. I do not know how long it will take to do that, but as they have said that they wish to resolve the problem, will the Minister consider issuing an edict to the Department of Employment and others saying that they should stop harassing ex-miners?

Mr. Spicer : We are certainly considering whether some administrative arrangements can be made along the lines suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Rost : Does my hon. Friend accept that many miners who were made redundant would have been able to

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obtain jobs if my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had not reneged on his promise to free the private sector and to allow private sector investment to compete with British Coal, which would have resulted in many more jobs being available?

Mr. Spicer : My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy announced in the autumn that it is our intention, after the next general election, to privatise the coal industry. We think that that is the best way to handle the future of the industry.

Mr. Barron : Restart interviews are not for everybody but for a group of people made redundant between 1983 and 1986 and aged between 50 and 60. The Minister says that this problem will be resolved. The Minister of State, Department of Employment, had this brought to his attention in July of last year but we are still waiting for a decision to be taken and for the harassment of this small group of ex-miners to stop, allowing them to go on with what they were led to believe was a retirement from the coal industry. Is the Under-Secretary of State aware that this was even stated in written evidence given to the Secretary of State for Employment?

Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman will know that it was always made clear that the terms of the redundancy agreement, rather than being as the hon. Gentleman has suggested, included availability for work. Now the question whether any special consideration should be given to them arises. There has never been any doubt about the availability for work conditions being applied

Mr. Barron indicated dissent .

Mr. Spicer : The hon. Gentleman may shake his head, but the question now is whether we should make special exemptions on top of that.

Electricity Privatisation

7. Mr. McAvoy : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received regarding the protection of low-income consumers' rights in the light of privatisation of the electricity industry.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) : I have received some representations on the need for measures to protect the low- income consumer of electricity.

Mr. McAvoy : Would not a more extensive energy-saving programme be more helpful to low-income households, as it would ensure that less heat is wasted?

Mr. Parkinson : As the hon. Gentleman may have heard us say, we have put a considerable push behind the community insulation programme. We have a technical difficulty because of the change in the training scheme, but we want to see the scheme renewed and taken up again as soon as possible.

Mr. Baldry : Does my right hon. Friend agree that the best protection for the low-income consumer will be competition? Should not the Opposition be reminded at every possible opportunity that under this Government, even taking into account the April increases, electricity prices will have fallen in real terms by 8.1 per cent., whereas under the Labour Government they increased by

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the equivalent of two percentage points every six weeks? The Opposition should never be allowed to forget that or to get away with it.

Mr. Parkinson : My hon. Friend is right. In considering the Electricity Bill in Committee, we find it difficult to reconcile the Labour party's posture as the friend of the consumer with its record when in Government. The Labour Government presided over record price increases week after week.

Mr. Madden : Surely it is high time that the electricity, gas and water industries had a common policy to avoid disconnections, especially those involving low-income families and pensioners, so that those vulnerable groups and others are not left without heat, light or water for months or, in some instances, years on end, as has happened?

Mr. Parkinson : As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is a common code for electricity and gas. The code has been modified and has been shown to work. Disconnections of gas supply fell by 21 per cent. last year. [Interruption.] Questions about water supply disconnections should be addressed to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment.

Mr. Michael Morris : Is not one of the great benefits of privatisation the fact that it clarifies, not least in administrative form, the rights of consumers, which is to the benefit of all consumers, including those on low incomes?

Mr. Parkinson : Yes, Sir. Several new rights are given to consumers under the Electricity Bill. As I announced to the Committee, the changes proposed for gas by the director general of Ofgas will be extended to the electricity supply industry. That will put the low-income user of both sources of power in the best position ever.

Mrs. Clwyd : Is the Secretary of State aware that in my constituency 60 per cent. of households have incomes of £4,000 per year, or less and that it is an area of especially high unemployment? Does he appreciate that paying energy supply bills is a special problem for those who are unemployed? Will he consider the particular problems of the town of Mountain Ash, where gas and electricity supply disconnections have increased fourfold in the past nine years? Will he consider also the implications of the present policy for low-income consumers?

Mr. Parkinson : Under this Government, help to pay heating bills is a consumer's right. That was not the position under the Labour Government. Under this Government, there has been an increase from £90 million to more than £417 million in the support given through the heating allowance, which is now built into income support. The voluntary code and the introduction of prepayment meters has had a dramatic effect on disconnections throughout the rest of the country. I shall be meeting representatives of the South Wales Electricity Board tomorrow evening and I shall bring the matter to their attention.

Mr. Blair : As fuel costs to the electricity industry have fallen by more than 7 per cent. in real terms in the past two years, will the Secretary of State strike a blow against inflation and help the consumer by cancelling the 6 per cent. proposed price increase in April?

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Mr. Parkinson : In arriving at the proposed price increase, the industry has taken into account the reduction in its coal bill. The proposed increase might otherwise have been higher. Whatever the increase is, it will be below the rate of inflation. Once again, it will be this Government who are keeping price increases below the rate of inflation. It was the Labour Government who increased them ahead of the rate of inflation.

British Gas (Debt and Disconnections)

8. Mr. John Greenway : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received on the current policy of British Gas on debt and disconnections.

Mr. Parkinson : The Director General of Gas Supply recently announced agreement with British Gas on new methods of debt collection with a view to reducing the number of disconnections.

Mr. Greenway : I thank my right hon. Friend for that welcome news. A reduction of 21 per cent. in disconnections in 1988 is significant and demonstrates that the structures that were put in place are working. I am sure that the new procedures which my right hon. Friend has just announced will help to get the number of disconnections down even lower. However, is it not the case that British Gas in the private sector is showing a flexibility and compassion which it could not show in the public sector? Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the same arrangements about disconnections will apply to electricity and that no one should be cut off simply because they have difficulty paying a bill immediately?

Mr. Parkinson : I think that in this case the electricity industry can claim to have set the pace for the gas industry. The electricity industry has substantially improved the position, principally as a result of the introduction of pre-payment meters. Their introduction in the gas industry will produce a similar and welcome improvement.

Mr. O'Brien : Will the Secretary of State examine the reason why cut -offs are so frequent among lower-paid people who use gas? In my constituency there are elderly people who use gas only for a gas poker. Yet their accounts show that two units plus standing charge works out at more than £3 per unit. Such crippling and cruel incidents are happening. Will the Secretary of State consider the crippling effect of standing charges on low-income families who use a minimum amount of gas?

Mr. Parkinson : This matter has been examined by both Labour and Conservative Governments, who concluded that the standing charge is the fairest way to recover the fixed overheads accompanying the supply of electricity and gas. They concluded that the people who would suffer from the abolition of standing charges would be those on low incomes, whose bills would rise.

Mr. Hannam : Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a direct link between the very helpful downward trend in disconnections and the fact that gas prices have dropped by 9 per cent. since gas privatisation? Is that not an indicator for the future of the electricity supply industry, in which there will also be downward pressure on prices?

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Mr. Parkinson : My hon. Friend is right. The Opposition predicted all sorts of huge escalations in gas prices as a result of privatisation, but in fact gas prices have fallen since privatisation.

Nuclear Industry

9. Mr. Ward : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy how many jobs are supported directly or indirectly by the nuclear industry in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Parkinson : I understand that the total number of jobs directly dependent on the United Kingdom nuclear industry is estimated at about 120,000. The number of jobs indirectly dependent on the nuclear industry is estimated at around 60,000.

Mr. Ward : Does not my right hon. Friend's reply show what a significant contribution nuclear power makes to the United Kingdom economy? Does it not also show how important it is in providing jobs, particularly in the north-west?

Mr. Parkinson : Yes, my hon. Friend is right. The nuclear industry is a very important source of well-paid jobs. It also makes a substantial contribution to the improvement of the environment.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Why have the Government been so callous in their approach to the fast breeder reactor programme, which is supported by many of the Secretary of State's colleagues, if the nuclear industry is so important? Why have the French now decided to proceed with the full-scale development of such a programme? What do they see in the fast breeder reactor programme that the Secretary of State fails to see? Are they just brighter?

Mr. Parkinson : I explained to the House that, first of all, we have not been callous about the fast breeder reactor. We are giving Dounreay five years more for the operation of the reactor and approximately nine years more for the reprocessing plant. Dounreay will continue to be a very substantial contributor to the Caithness and Sutherland economy for years to come.

There is a very simple reason why the fast reactor programme has been brought to an end. No one wants to build one. There is no customer in the United Kingdom, nor is there likely to be for the next 30 or 40 years. That is why we have taken a realistic view about the prospects for that technology.

Sir Trevor Skeet : Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that not only jobs are at stake, but technology? The United Kingdom's pressurised water reactor programme is far too small, and the amount of nuclear- generated electricity is small by comparison with France, Sweden and a number of other major states.

Mr. Parkinson : That is true, but we believe that we have at present just about the right level of electricity coming from nuclear power. We have a diversity of supply--with coal, oil, gas and nuclear power--that gives us the security that is a vital part of the industry.

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British Nuclear Fuels plc

10. Miss Widdecombe : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what was the value of the overseas earnings of British Nuclear Fuels plc for the last year for which figures are available.

Mr. Michael Spicer : British Nuclear Fuels' overseas earnings in the financial year 1987-88 were £134 million. Reprocessing contracts have been signed totalling £2.77 billion.

Miss Widdecombe : Does my hon. Friend agree that that is not only excellent news for the industry but makes a substantial contribution to our balance of payments?

Mr. Spicer : Yes, BNF's overseas earnings make a substantial contribution, and will increasingly do so. BNF will be one of Britain's biggest yen earners, having already contracted business worth more than 500 billion yen or £2.5 billion.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : Will the Minister give an assurance that, when contracts are finalised with the Japanese Government and other Governments, they will include a provision that waste will always be returned to the country of origin, and that it will not in future be buried in the so-called offshore dump for nuclear waste that is to be built off the west coast of Cumbria when Nirex has managed to fix the inquiry? We support the nuclear industry, but do not accept that we should take everybody's nuclear waste in the future.

Mr. Spicer : No decision has yet been made about where nuclear waste will be buried, if it is buried. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance he seeks ; since 1976 all contracts for overseas earnings include an option providing for the repatriation of the waste, and those options will be exercised.

Mr. Jack : Will my hon. Friend join in congratulating the workers of British Nuclear Fuels' Springfields division in my constituency on their contribution to improved productivity, which contributed to our nuclear industry's remarkable export performance?

Mr. Spicer : Yes, gladly.

Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary

12. Mr. Norris : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on the Atomic Energy Authority constabulary.

Mr. Michael Spicer : The latest annual report of the chief constable of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority constabulary was published in August 1988. Copies are available in the Library of the House.

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