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House of Commons

Monday 26 June 1989

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Oral Answers to Questions


Sacked Miners

1. Mr. Skinner : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will meet the chairman of British Coal with a view to discussing the re- employment of the miners sacked during the mining dispute ; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Michael Spicer) : Since this is the ninth time that the hon. Gentleman has asked the same parliamentary question, he will be aware that the dismissal and re-employment of dismissed miners is a matter entirely for the management of British Coal. Of the 1,014 miners who were dismissed 663 have been taken back.

Mr. Skinner : The Secretary of State for Energy did not have to ask nine times to get his job back. Is he aware that a fortnight ago Geoff Almond was killed in Betteshanger colliery when he was crushed to death? John Moyle, president of the Kent area and a local inspector, went to the colliery. He is a victimised miner, because British Coal refused to give him his job back. Upon trying to find out the events which led to that tragic death, he was ordered off the premises because he was a sacked miner. It is high time that the Secretary of State for Energy or any of his accomplices had a word with British Coal. When victimised miners who are trying to resolve and find out the cause of such tragic accidents are ordered off the premises, it shows that it is high time that British Coal and all its allies gave up this lust for revenge.

Mr. Spicer : Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman by once and for all setting this matter in its proper context and giving further details of some of the charges brought during the miners' strike. There were three charges of murder, five of threat to kill, three for explosives offences

Mr. Hood : Answer the question.

Mr. Spicer : This is exactly answering the question. There were 49 charges involving offensive weapons, 15 for arson, 1,019 for criminal damage, 13 for conspiracy to cause damage, 39 assaults, 360 for assault on the police, 429 for assault causing bodily harm, 19 for resisting arrest, 31 for burglary and 352 for theft. That is merely the

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beginning of the list of charges. There were 201 custodial sentences handed out. Perhaps that explains why British Coal cannot take back all the miners.

Mr. Dickens : Does the Minister agree that there is not a private employer in this country who would be expected to take back on his staff someone who had beaten another member of staff with a baseball bat? Offences involving miners included incidents such as concrete slabs being dropped off bridges. Why should the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) come to the House time and time again to suggest to the Government that they should encourage the chairman of a nationalised industry to do something which no private employer would dream of doing?

Mr. Spicer : I agree with my hon. Friend, and as I said in my opening comments, I could have listed further charges which were brought and sentences passed.

Mr. Patchett : The Minister read out a list of charges. Will he list the number of charges dropped after the dispute?

Mr. Spicer : Of course, not all charges were proceeded with. We are talking about 201 custodial sentences. Only 333 miners were, in the end, not reinstated.

Office of Electricity Regulation

2. Mr. Mullin : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what discussions he has had with the director-general-designate of the Office of Electricity Regulation since his appointment.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Cecil Parkinson) : Discussions are taking place between my Department and Professor Littlechild on a wide range of issues.

Mr. Mullin : Is it not wholly improper to appoint Professor Littlechild to a job which requires independence, given his association with a number of Conservative party think-tanks and his former role as a political adviser?

Mr. Parkinson : First, Professor Littlechild has never been a political adviser. He has been an adviser to the Government, which is quite different from being an adviser to the party. I have never heard any Labour Members suggest that Sir Gordon Borrie is unfit to hold his job as the Director General of Fair Trading because he stood as a Labour candidate in a parliamentary election. He has turned out to be a distinguished public servant, as will Professor Littlechild.

Mr. Rost : When is the grid company likely to be able to announce the basis on which it will charge for transmission? Until that is announced, no contracts can get under way, either between the newly independent producers or between the distributors and existing producers.

Mr. Parkinson : We are making good progress on a range of issues. I hope that these figures will be available by the end of July.

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Central Electricity Generating Board

3. Mr. Jack Thompson : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board ; and what matters were discussed.

Mr. Parkinson : I regularly meet the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Mr. Thompson : Following recent reports that the European Commission is to investigate the legality of the electricity privatisation Bill, whose provisions concerning the protection of the nuclear industry are under question, did the Secretary of State discuss with the chairman of the CEGB the future prospects for National Power and its marketability if the European Commission makes an adverse decision?

Mr. Parkinson : We shall clear all our plans with the European Commission, with which we have had preliminary discussions. The Commission recognises that at the end of this privatisation we shall have the most open electricity supply industry in Europe. Broadly speaking, it is strongly in favour of our proposals and we expect to be able to satisfy it about the details of the fossil fuel levy.

Sir Trevor Skeet : Is my right hon. Friend aware that negotiations are taking place between the generators and the large industrial users about the direct buying of electricity, which comes under clause 6? Will he accelerate that process and ensure that the CEGB's successor will have the right to do just that?

Mr. Parkinson : The industry is settling a range of complex issues at the moment. They arise from the fact that we shall be changing the whole basis on which the industry operates. At present, it is producer-dominated and the producer--the generator--has the last word in disputes. In future, producers and users will have to negotiate a settlement between themselves- -that is what they are in the process of doing.

Mr. Maclennan : Given the expressed view of the chairman that, following the removal of the duty to supply from the Central Electricity Generating Board to the consumer, responsibility for maintaining medium and long-term research fell, upon whose shoulders does the Secretary of State intend that that financing should fall?

Mr. Parkinson : My Advisory Committee on Research and Development-- ACORD--has been looking at the entire range of research that is carried out in the electricity supply industry. The successor companies have already made it clear that they will carry on with a range of operational and medium-term research. ACORD is advising me whether there are any areas that the companies do not want to pursue which, in ACORD's opinion, should be pursued. The Government would then take those on.

Mr. Colvin : Has my right hon. Friend discussed with the chairman of the CEGB the problems of research and development following privatisation? Following his decision to sanction the closure of Marchwood engineering laboratories and the allocation of their R and D capacity to Berkeley and Ratcliffe-upon-Soar, it seems that the plans that the Government have in mind favour National Power and Power Gen, which will draw on the

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resources of those two research establishments. If any other bodies such as the distribution companies choose to generate power after privatisation, which they will be empowered to do, to whom will they go to get research and development done? Surely a case can be made for the privatisation of the CEGB's research and development facilities in a single company which can contract its resources to anyone who may want to generate, rather than for making these facilities the exclusive preserve of National Power and Power Gen.

Mr. Parkinson : We considered the privatisation of the research facilities as a separate research company, and came to the conclusion that that was not practicable. Private generators would be able to approach these research establishments and seek to place contracts. Other research establishments are available. The main fact was that after the most careful examination there was no justification for maintaining Marchwood. The work being done there can be transferred to Ratcliffe and Berkeley. Marchwood is simply not necessary.

Mr. Morgan : Following press reports last week that the Government have done a U-turn in their relations with the CEGB and National Power, in respect of the full indemnity that we understand will now be given for nuclear waste reprocessing disposal and decommissioning, as distinct from merely the unforeseeable costs of those three categories of the CEGB's and National Power's expenditure, will the Secretary of State tell the House whether he agrees that that is a thoroughly undignified chapter in the breaking of a promise made at the Committee stage? Does he agree that he is now reduced to shovelling the shares off the back of a lorry before he finally shovels the Department of Energy into oblivion?

Mr. Parkinson : My advice to the hon. Gentleman would be quite different. He should stop believing as gospel everything that he reads in the newspapers. There has been no change in Government policy. The policy as set out during the Committee stage is the policy that we are maintaining. We are advised that clause 93 in its present form did not achieve the aims that we had for it when we put it to the Committee.

If Opposition Members wish to quote either my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State or myself, I hope that they will quote Hansard accurately instead of misrepresenting what we say.

Electricity Privatisation

4. Mrs. Clwyd : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what is his current estimate of the total costs of advertising and other expenditure to be incurred in the flotation of the electricity supply industry.

5. Mr. Redmond : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what is the total cost incurred to date by his Department on advice on public relations and advertising aspects of the privatisation of the electricity supply industry.

Mr. Michael Spicer : No advertising expenditure by Government will take place before the Electricity Bill receives Royal Assent. It is therefore too early to provide estimates of costs.

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Mrs. Clwyd : It is perhaps not surprising that the Minister ducks the question. Will he confirm or deny that the cost of pursuing the Government's half-baked dogma will be between £200 million and £370 million? Does he agree that that kind of money would be better spent on the Energy Efficiency Office--instead of halving its budget--so that it can help people to save energy, to reduce pollution and to cut fuel poverty and wastage? That would be a much better use of the money than electricity privatisation.

Mr. Spicer : I assure the hon. Lady that whatever costs are incurred will achieve value for money for the taxpayer. We cannot help it if the Labour party does not like wider share ownership. We do, and we will continue to back it.

Mr. Redmond : Does the Minister agree that the money that will be spent flogging off the industry would be better spent reducing standard charges for old-age pensioners--or is it party dogma against old-age pensioners?

Mr. Spicer : The Government are absolutely committed to the privatisation of the electricity industry, because we believe that it will achieve much better standards for the consumer, will put a downward pressure on the prices for the consumer and will achieve things that the Labour party would never have achieved in its wildest dreams by keeping the industry nationalised.

Mr. Marlow : Will my hon. Friend explain to the mixture of simpletons and troublemakers on the Opposition Benches that if, in privatising an industry, the advertising cost is more than recouped by an increase in the price that the Government get, it is a jolly good idea for the taxpayer? Will he also point out that companies like Unilever, ICI and other people spend money on advertising, and they do so because they feel that it is commercially beneficial?

Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The net benefits to the taxpayer are precisely as he states them.

Mr. Dykes : Will my hon. Friend re-examine the consumer advertising, both before and after flotation, of the area boards now and the area plcs afterwards, in view of the still prevailing serious allegations of unfair competition against the private sector retailers, notably in the form of the latest advertisements of the Eastern electricity board--"£50-worth of free current if you buy a cooker from us"?

Mr. Spicer : My hon. Friend has for some time been a champion of the independent sector. The Bill and the restructured industry will recognise the anxieties that he and others have expressed by making certain that the retailing aspects of the privatised industry will be ring-fenced, kept entirely independent, and will not be able to trade in that unfair way.

Mr. James Lamond : Although we understand that it is Tory party policy and dogma to spread share ownership much wider, is it right to use public money to publish propaganda for that purpose?

Mr. Spicer : We are absolutely committed to a policy which since 1979 has resulted in an increase in private shareholders from 3 million to 9 million. We absolutely agree with that and think that it is right in every possible

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sense, not least because it provides a great incentive to greater efficiency within the industry. The process of privatisation involves projecting the industry to the public.

Greenhouse Effect

6. Mr. Favell : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last had discussions with other European Community Energy Ministers on the greenhouse effect.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy (Mr. Peter Morrison) : Although not specifically discussed by Community Energy Ministers, the greenhouse effect is borne in mind in the Council's consideration of energy issues.

Mr. Favell : In view of the threat to the earth's atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels, are not those Greens who advocate the abandonment of the nuclear option foolish in the extreme? Is that generally recognised throughout Europe?

Mr. Morrison : That is generally recognised throughout Europe, and the environmental Council of Ministers made precisely that point in a recent resolution. It is sad that the Greens are pursuing a route which presumably will achieve the opposite to what they desire.

Mr. Campbell-Savours : For each therm of energy output, which fuel cycle has the least impact on the greenhouse effect--coal, oil or nuclear?

Mr. Morrison : Nuclear.

Mr. John Marshall : Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is high time that the Labour party learned from President Mitterrand that nuclear power is the friend of the environment?

Mr. Morrison : My hon. Friend is entirely correct. I notice from the Labour party's latest policy review that the ultimate conclusion of its policy will be to phase out all nuclear power stations. That will have a very harmful impact on the greenhouse effect.

British Coal

8. Mr. Haynes : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of British Coal ; and what matters were discussed.

13. Mr. Hood : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet the chairman of British Coal ; and what matters he expects to discuss.

Mr. Parkinson : I meet the chairman of British Coal regularly to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

Mr. Haynes : It is time that the Secretary of State discussed with the chairman of British Coal the amount of coal which the Central Electricity Generating Board is to take on. I have serious reason to believe that the CEGB and British Coal have done a dirty deal which will affect the Nottinghamshire miners whom the Secretary of State defends in this Chamber. The take has been reduced from 75 million tonnes to 60 million tonnes. What will the Secretary of State say at the Dispatch Box on behalf of the Nottinghamshire miners now?

Mr. Parkinson : If I catch your eye later today, Mr. Speaker, I will tell the House that that allegation is

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complete and utter rubbish. British Coal and the two generators are in the process of negotiation about the quantity of coal and the term for which they will take it. We have made the Government's position absolutely clear. We believe that we have put the industry in a strong position to get the lion's share of that business. That is what we would like to happen.

Mr. Hood : When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of British Coal, will he ask him how much it cost to pay off the private coal companies in Bilston Glen as a result of the closure of that colliery? How much pay-off to the private contractors was made in compensation?

Mr. Parkinson : I will ask the chairman of British Coal that when I next meet him. However, I volunteer some information to the hon. Gentleman in the hope that it will help him. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, Bilston Glen lost £20 million in the last financial year in addition to £50 million of accumulated losses that it had made before then. That is why the colliery had to close.

Mr. Andy Stewart : When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of British Coal, will he congratulate him and his working miners on achieving increased profits of £500 million this year? Fifty per cent. of deep-mined coal comes from Nottinghamshire, which is something of which the people there are very proud.

Mr. Parkinson : I shall certainly do as my hon. Friend asks, and I will remind the chairman that Nottinghamshire miners find the attitude of the Labour party towards them totally hypocritical. That party gave those miners no support when they needed it but is trying to exploit them now.

Mr. Ashby : I hope that my right hon. Friend will discuss with the chairman of British Coal a problem affecting my constituency concerning jobs at the new mine at Asfordby near Rutland. Undertakings were given that Leicestershire miners would be offered jobs there. My right hon. Friend will know that a number of Leicestershire mines will shortly close, and jobs at Asfordby are very necessary for those affected. Will my right hon. Friend remind the chairman of undertakings that jobs at Asfordby would be made available to Leicestershire miners?

Mr. Parkinson : I shall do as my hon. Friend asks, but I point out that although more than 100,000 miners have left the industry since the end of the strike, not one was refused a job if he wanted to stay in the industry. Every one who left did so voluntarily, with a substantial redundancy payment.

Mr. Hardy : Does the Secretary of State accept that the jobs of many miners in Leicestershire and elsewhere are at stake as a consequence of the short-sighted consideration that sees the importing of South African and other coal as being economical? Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that many of his right hon. and hon. Friends are more interested in the future of the South African coal mining industry than in our own?

Mr. Parkinson : The hon. Gentleman delivers a good old emotive sentence but one which has no basis in fact, as he knows. Imports represent about 10 per cent. of our total coal burn, and some of those imports are very necessary because we do not produce all the qualities of coal that we

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need. Of that 10 per cent., less than 2 per cent. is South African. There is no sign that there will be substantial imports from South Africa.

Electricity (Carbon Dioxide Emissions)

9. Mr. Wood : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what is the reduction in the amount of CO emitted per unit of electricity supplied between 1959 and the present day.

Mr. Peter Morrison : CO emissions per unit of electricity supplied have reduced by 33 per cent. over the period 1959 to the present day.

Mr. Wood : I thank my right hon. Friend for his encouraging response. Can he give an indication of future trends and how they would be affected if nuclear energy was no longer part of the country's total energy production?

Mr. Peter Morrison : It is very important to continue our nuclear programme. If we do not, CO emissions will increase. Of the 33 per cent. reduction to which I referred, about one third is attributable to nuclear- generated electricity, so its abolition--which the Opposition propose should ultimately occur--would have a very deleterious effect.

Dr. Kim Howells : Given the Government's obvious enthusiasm for the production of energy from non-fossil fuel sources, why have the West German Government abandoned plans to build a nuclear reprocessing plant at Wackersdorf, and why have the Siemens electricity company and the America firm Acro decided to establish Europe's first thin layer solar cell factory at Wackersdorf? Will Government money be invested in similar technology in this country?

Mr. Morrison : I may have many responsibilities, but I was not aware that the European Community had extended them to Germany's energy policies, so I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Hind : Has my right hon. Friend seen today's press reports that in generating sufficient electricity to centrally heat the average-sized home, coal causes three times as much environmental damage as gas? Is not the message from that that the way forward for Britain's energy requirements must be the use of energy sources that do not damage the ozone layer and contribute to the greenhouse effect, and that nuclear and gas are two ways of achieving that objective?

Mr. Morrison : As my hon. Friend is probably aware, the gas burn directive does not prohibit the generation of electricity by gas, but does not encourage it. The United Kingdom takes a very positive stance on that and we are doing our best to have that directive repealed.

Office of Electricity Regulation

10. Mr. Illsley : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy what discussions he has had with the director general-designate of the Office of Electricity Regulation on the possibility of a fossil-fuel combustion tax.

Mr. Parkinson : None, Sir.

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Mr. Illsley : In view of the speculation hanging over the future of the Department of Energy, and the recent publication by the Secretary of State for the Environment of a document advocating a carbon or coal tax, will the Secretary of State tell us who would be responsible for bringing in such a tax? Would it not be better to introduce energy efficiency measures rather than hitting the coal industry again?

Mr. Parkinson : My right hon. Friend made it clear the next day at a press conference that the views that he had expressed in that pamphlet were personal views. He was talking about discussions that are going on in international fora. He also made it clear that we had no plans to introduce a carbon tax here.

Mr. Mans : Does my right hon. Friend agree that, for many years now, the taxpayer has subsidised the production of electricity from coal, and that in view of that there is no question of a tax being levied on fossil fuel?

Mr. Parkinson : As I have said, there are no plans for such a tax. We and previous Governments have favoured coal strongly : far from penalising it, we have subsidised it.

Mr. Barron : In the constituency of the Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), is the Coal Research Establishment, which is a centre of excellence for research and development relating to clean coal burn, not just in this country but in Europe. Would the Secretary of State for Energy mind taking his right hon. Friend to visit that establishment to see how we can really start to talk about getting rid of greenhouse gases in the world?

Mr. Parkinson : I shall mention that to my right hon. Friend. He always welcomes helpful suggestions, and I am sure that he will welcome this one.

The hon. Gentleman is right to emphasise clean coal burn technology. We shall have to change the way in which we produce electricity from coal ; coal is the great pollutant, and the way forward is more efficient cleanburn technology.

Energy Conservation

11. Mr. Ray Powell : To ask the Secretary of State for Energy by what proportion he estimates the national demand for electricity will be diminished through energy conservation measures in the years 1995, 2000, 2005 and 2010.

Mr. Peter Morrison : I cannot make such an estimate, because improved energy efficiency does not automatically lead to reduced consumption of electricity. However, it is worth noting that the energy used to produce one unit of GDP in 1987 was 7 per cent. lower than in 1983. This represents a saving of over £2 billion.

Mr. Powell : Following the 50 per cent. reduction in the Government's conservation expenditure, is it not time that the Government started to talk about an energy policy instead of a privatisation policy? Is the Minister not concerned about the industrialists--particularly at Rockwell International in my constituency--who produce for conservation and yet are continually bombarded with Government cuts, with the result that their programme is miles behind? Is it not about time that the right hon. Gentleman began altering his policy?

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Mr. Morrison : If the hon. Gentleman looks carefully at the figures, he will see that the reduction is nothing like 50 per cent. If he also looks at where the reduction is being made, he will find that the programmes involved have come to the end of their lives. He will also find, on reflection, that the large advertising budget of the previous two years has had precisely the desired effect : energy efficiency is now very much at the forefront of most people's minds.

Mr. Dickens : Is it not a fact that although we are conserving energy, at the same time we are living in an electronic age? Most of our offices are now using a good deal of electronic equipment, and, because of our great economy, industries are taking off and are therefore using more electricity than they did a few years ago. Although we are encouraging energy conservation, we are also trying to match the demands of industry, trade and commerce, as it is sensible for us to do.

Mr. Morrison : I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. If we pursued the policies advocated by some, though not necessarily by Opposition Members, the economy would not grow and that is not what most hon. Members want.

Mr. Alan W. Williams : Will the Government learn the lessons of the European elections--the performance of the Green party and the tragic results for their own party? Is it not clear that the people of Britain totally reject nuclear power and that they want far more investment in energy conservation and in renewable sources of energy?

Mr. Morrison : If the hon. Gentleman were to ask many of the people who supported the Green party at the European elections, I think he would find that many of them had not read the Green party's manifesto. Had they read what it said about the nuclear aspect, they may well not have voted Green in the elections.

Mr. Blair : Is there not a growing consensus that the best means of combating the greenhouse effect and of promoting environmental protection is through energy efficiency and conservation, which is precisely what the Lords amendments to the Electricity Bill set out to achieve? Why does the right hon. Gentleman not say that the Government will accept those amendments and, for once, put the public interest before privatisation?

Mr. Morrison : I quite agree with what the hon. Gentleman says about energy efficiency. I wish, though, that he would look at his own party's policy towards coal, which he might find also has a greenhouse effect. If he looked at the Lord's amendments, he would see that they are unworkable. He, of all people, I am sure, would not wish unworkable clauses to be included in an Act of Parliament.

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