|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. Speaker : Order. I shall allow questions on the statement to run until 5 o'clock and then I shall call the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) to move his motion. I intend to give precedence to hon. Members who represent Scottish constituencies because this statement refers to Scotland.
Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian) : Whereas the Secretary of State for Energy has the excuse that he has been dropped into this midden, the Secretary of State for Scotland has no such alibi. He has been responsible for this tacky business right through from beginning to end.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that his announcement today means that the two power stations in my constituency, Cockenzie and Torness, will be under totally separate ownership and management? One will be in the public sector, the other in the private sector. I give a guarded welcome to the fact that the climbdown means that Torness will be kept under public control.
Will the Secretary of State tell us what he will do to restore coal production capacity to meet future needs in Scotland? Will he comment on the report that failure to recommission refuelling machinery at Torness may lead to the two reactors there being shut down throughout most of this winter?
Column 1184In my statement, I gave details of the latest situation and its implications for coal. It has long been understood that the best prospects for coal depend on the opportunities that the Scottish industry finds to export surplus capacity. I said that the cumulative effect of what has been announced by the Government underlines the need to upgrade the interconnector, the purpose of which is to maximise the export of surplus Scottish electricity. Today's announcement is helpful to the Scottish coal industry's prospects. In view of the enormously complex arrangements necessary for the safe handling of fuel in nuclear power stations, it is essential to ensure that every aspect of its operation is fully tested during the commissioning process at Torness. I understand that full commissioning of the fuel route is expected to take place in time to allow refuelling to occur in January, subject to all the necessary steps being completed to allow safe, reliable operation of the plant.
Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries) : For clarification's sake, would my right hon. and learned Friend say what will be the status of Chapelcross nuclear power station, which is in my constituency? It is owned by British Nuclear Fuels, but it has to sell power to Scotland or to England. Is my right hon. and learned Friend certain that that condition will be retained, in the interests of the 650 employees there? Subject to inspection by the Health and Safety Executive, will Chapelcross have a life of at least 10 more years?
Mr. Rifkind : I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that today's announcement has no implications for Chapelcross. I recall that it has successfully agreed a contract which enables it to export some electricity south of the border.
Mrs. Ray Michie (Argyll and Bute) : The Minister should have ended his statement by saying, "Three cheers for the mixed economy." Does he agree that everything he has said this afternoon has vindicated our repeated assertions that privatisation of the electricity industry is unworkable in Scotland, and that the Government's pretence of cheap nuclear power is in tatters? Can he say who will pay for the upgrading of the interconnector between Scotland and England? If those boards are to be privatised, when will flotation take place?
Does the Secretary of State agree that this is another shambles created by the Government and that the whole idea should be scrapped forthwith?
Mr. Rifkind : I am happy to confirm that the flotation will still take place in this Parliament. We have no reason to review its timing. It has always been intended that the upgrading of the interconnector would be the responsibility of the relevant companies north and south of the border. It is a commercial arrangement whereby they will sell surplus capacity to distribution companies in England, so the financing arrangements will not be affected by today's announcement.
Mr Bill Walker (Tayside, North) : My right hon. and learned Friend is to be congratulated on reaching what must have been a tricky and difficult decision. Does he agree that his statement clearly reveals how much England and Scotland are interrelated in energy matters and that one cannot consider them in isolation? The interconnector is a vital and important part of the entire operation, enabling Scotland to continue to sell its produce to
Column 1185consumers in England. One of the most important factors in my right hon. and learned Friend's statement is that a substantial part of the Scottish electricity generating industry is being taken out of the public sector borrowing requirement. Those of us in the hydro areas will welcome that because the hydro company will be very viable and profitable.
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend is right about the hydro company and Scottish Power being extremely profitable and viable companies. As for the interconnector, my right hon. Friend's announcement about the future of the PWR programme south of the border enhances the prospects for successful exports of surplus electricity from the Scottish electricity industry, and we shall need to address that.
Mr. David Lambie (Cunninghame, South) : May I remind the Minister that, although the Government intend to privatise the water industry in England and Wales, they are not doing the same in Scotland? Given his announcement today that more than 60 per cent. of the sales of electricity in Scotland will be from plants remaining within the public sector, is it not time that the Secretary of State for Scotland spoke up for Scotland and stated that a public SSEB should remain and should compete on favourable terms with a private industry in England and Wales?
Mr. Rifkind : I am afraid--no, I am not afraid, I am delighted--that the hon. Gentleman's views are not the views of the Scottish electricity industry. The SSEB is looking forward to privatisation and has been encouraging the Government to bring it forward as quickly as possible.
Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray) : Will the Secretary of State accept that many of us never cease to be amazed by his chameleon-like qualities as he moves from one policy change to another? In that context, can he advise us what has happened since his statement to the Select Committee that he regarded nuclear energy as likely to be much cheaper than any fossil-fuel- generated energy and dismissed any questions about the high costs of decommissioning and reprocessing? What has happened in the intervening months to make him change his mind? In regard to the interconnector, can he tell us exactly what proportion of the investment will be paid for by Scottish consumers?
Mr. Rifkind : On the last point, I cannot inform the hon. Lady as that will be a matter to be discussed between the various companies north and south of the border. As for the hon. Lady's earlier remarks, the question does not concern the precise level of costs, but the uncertainty of not knowing what the costs of decommissioning will be, given that decommissioning may not take place for many years to come, although clearly an investor in the industry would need to take that into account. That is why the industry sought a total indemnity on these matters and the Government took the view that that would not be responsible or in the interests of the taxpayer.
Mr. Ian Bruce (Dorset, South) : Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that his announcement and the announcement by the Secretary of State for Energy today spell disaster for Dounreay and the jobs there? Is it not correct that now that we appear to have decided not to
Column 1186proceed with pressurised water reactors and we have already decided to cut back on the fast breeder programme there will be no research work available at Dounreay, Winfrith in my constituency or Harwell? Will he give an assurance that those matters had been considered before today's statements were made?
Mr. Rifkind : I do not accept that there will be consequences at Dounreay to which my hon. Friend refers. The research in which the staff at Dounreay are involved relates to matters other than the PWR programme south of the border or the public or private ownership of the electricity industry. Of course, Dounreay has particular problems and difficulties which are known to the House, but I do not believe that they have been increased as a result of today's announcements.
c Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) : Is it not misleading for the Secretary of State to continue to insist that the South of Scotland electricity board favours privatisation when he knows that at least 90 per cent. of the work force and the management are totally opposed to it? Given that it must throw current plans into total disarray, is it not irresponsible to insist on suggesting that the industry should be privatised before the next election?
Mr. Rifkind : I do not accept for a moment the hon. Gentleman's premise. When the Government originally announced that Hunterston A, the Magnox station, would not be privatised, the staff were anxious to be assured that they would have the same opportunities to take part in the flotation as staff elsewhere in the industry. That flies in the face of the hon. Gentleman's suggestion.
Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow) : As an admirer of the technical achievements of the SSEB, referring to paragraph 4 of the statement, may I ask what figure the financial advisers have given to the Secretary of State's wide-ranging and unequivocal indemnity? People who talk about a wide-ranging indemnity must have a figure in their brief or it is meaningless.
Mr. Rifkind : On the contrary, it is precisely because that figure could not be identified--[ Hon. Members-- : "Ah."] We are talking about potential decommissioning costs which may not be incurred for 100 years. Precisely because such a figure could not be identified a total indemnity was requested from Government irrespective of what the figure might turn out to be. Neither the financial advisers nor anyone else has sought to put a figure on that sum. Precisely because of that uncertainty an unqualified indemnity was requested and for the same reason it would be improper to give one.
Mr. John McAllion (Dundee, East) : The Secretary of State will be aware that the reorganisation of the hydro-electric board has reached a very advanced stage in the proposed merger between the Dundee and South Caledonian divisions. That reorganisation is being carried out on the assumption that the hydro-electricty will have a nuclear component. Can the Secretary of State make any assessment of the likely impact of his announcement this afternoon on that reorganisation and the level of employment within Hydro Electric?
Mr. Rifkind : I have had one discussion with the chairman of the Hydro-Electric Board who does not appear to believe that any significant problems will arise as a result of today's announcement. That is a matter of some
Column 1187reassurance. Obviously we will keep an eye on that matter to see whether it needs to be revised, but that was the view expressed at this stage.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : I wish to ask about the spent fuel from the advanced gas-cooled reactors. My constituents will welcome my right hon. and learned Friend's emphasis on the fact that health and safety will be paramount in AGRs. Will he assure me that the same safety criteria will be borne in mind when storing the used fuel from AGRs, and will encourage storage at each individual AGR site rather than allowing it to be brought to Heysham for storage?
Mr. Rifkind : My hon. Friend refers to wider issues, but I can assure her that the Government will continue to give maximum priority to ensuring that safety requirements are complied with fully in any decisions that are reached on these matters.
Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith) : Does the Secretary of State accept that the part of the country that he and I represent, the Firth of Forth is heavily contaminated by radioactivity? That has been confirmed by the river purification board, whose comments are important to me, to the Secretary of State and to the people who use the Firth of Forth. It is so bad sometimes that even the fish swim around in lead-lined bikinis. That speaks volumes and shows that Torness is not so clean as you suggest. Does the Secretary of State accept that you should close down not just Torness but all the nuclear stations in Scotland--
Mr. Rifkind : I do not accept that the river Forth is polluted in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests. The fact that I have caught and consumed fish from the river Forth and survived to tell the tale is an adequate response to the hon. Gentleman. All the evidence suggests that Torness has a superb safety record. The hon. Gentleman and his constituents can be reassured on that point.
Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North) : Is not the true ideological motivation of electricity privatisation revealed if jobs and the social interest are to be sold off--the SSEB vans and Hydro Board dams--in spite of the fact that the substance of the industry is unsaleable? Will the Secretary of State assure the House that flotation, if that is not too strong a word, in Scotland will not be forced to the head of the queue to prevent the embarrassment of the Department of Energy? Has the Secretary of State's sterling defence of the mixed economy been cleared today with his loyal junior Minister, the hon. Member for Stirling (Mr. Forsyth)? In the light of this latest fiasco and the undermining of his credibility, should not the Secretary of State consider resignation?
Mr. Rifkind : I am always cheered up when the hon. Gentleman speaks from the Dispatch Box. As to whether the substance of the industry is being floated, I remind the hon. Gentleman that total generating capacity in Scotland is 11,000 MW, of which only 2,800 MW is derived from nuclear power. On that basis, I am entitled to say that three quarters of the capacity will be privately floated. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman should welcome these matters, as will those who work in the industry.
Mr. Roger King (Birmingham, Northfield) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. My point of order arises from Prime Minister's Question Time. You, Mr. Speaker, may recall that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) asked my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister whether she had received any complaints from London Weekend Television staff about the difficulty of getting the Leader of the Opposition to appear on its programme--
Mr. Speaker : Order. The whole House knows the rules. The Prime Minister must be asked questions on subjects for which she is responsible. The House could hear that that was not a matter for which she had responsibility.
Leave having been given on Wednesday 8 November under Standing Order No. 20 to discuss :
The current state of the ambulance dispute.
Mr. Cook : Every hon. Member in the Chamber must be aware of the gravity of the situation against which we debate the ambulance dispute. The dispute has continued for eight weeks, during which time it has affected every community in Britain. In London, it has arrived at a crisis as a result of the suspension of ambulance crews. I learned on my way to the Chamber that, in the course of today, throughout other parts of the country management have issued warnings of similar suspensions. The position in London today may be the position elsewhere in Britain by the end of the week.
In London, since yesterday, emergency cover is being provided by 50 Army vehicles and 53 police vehicles. I have no doubt that those who man those vehicles will give of their best. It is clear from their comments that they are in no doubt that their best will not be good enough to avoid the risk of tragedy. No hon. Member can have watched last night's television bulletins without concern when they saw shots of attempts to resuscitate a dying man with cardiac arrest in the back seat of a police car as it sped through central London, or of a woman with a spinal injury being manhandled in and out of the rear doors of a police car. The penalty for error in lifting a person with a spinal injury incorrectly can be paralysis for life.
The first question that the Secretary of State must answer when he responds to the debate is, why has he chosen to rely on these makeshift arrangements for emergency cover when there are trained ambulance staff at every ambulance station in London ready and eager to take emergency calls? Indeed, throughout last night they responded to emergency calls, because they continued to receive them from the Army, which called ambulance staff for the cases that they could not handle, from the fire brigade, which asked them to attend emergency incidents, and from hospitals, which asked them to attend for patients who needed to move urgently.
That was the situation throughout the night, but this morning there was a fresh development. The central control room of the London ambulance service started putting through selected emergency calls to ambulance stations and to the very staff suspended by the London ambulance service, who are not being paid by it but who on every occasion responded to them.
Those calls show how thinly stretched the temporary cover for emergencies is in London, and the response of ambulance staff exposes how unfair the Secretary of State was on Tuesday when he accused them of pretending and posturing in waiting for emergency calls. The Secretary of State has justified suspending those staff on the basis of the 14 points of the work to rule. I have been through the 14 points and can advise the House that most of them have nothing to do with the emergency service. Some include matters such as a ban on paperwork.
The debate on whether it is possible to maintain emergency cover has focused on the point in the work to rule relating to the use of radiophones. There is no ban in
Column 1190the 14 points on radiophones for emergency use. The point at dispute is of such technicality that I find it breathtaking that grown men should have used it as the issue on which to suspend ambulance cover in London. Management are insisting that crews should press a button on radiophones to inform not the controller but the computer of their position so that control can select the ambulance to attend the emergency.
The staff side is offering to listen to every emergency case announced on open call, which would enable all ambulances to hear the emergency call and therefore enable the nearest one to radio in and respond to it. Mr. Spry, who is manager of one of the London regions, yesterday described this as a Mickey-Mouse service. That service is exactly the system that operated in London until eight months ago. That service, which Mr. Spry described as a Mickey-Mouse service, is precisely the system still used in almost every other ambulance service in Britain. Why, if that system is good enough for Manchester, Newcastle or Liverpool in normal times, would management rather call in the Army than see the system used in London?
There is a further dimension that makes it even more baffling and difficult to find a rational answer to that question. London ambulance staff have been suspended over a dispute aboout how they use their radiophones. They have been replaced by Army vehicles that cannot use their radiophones because they are on the wrong frequency for police control. There is no rational justification for suspending ambulance staff for using their radios in a manner that is the normal working method throughout the rest of Britain and replacing them with a system that has no radiophones.
The only possible explanation why management have taken that decision must be that they chose to escalate the dispute. The second question that the Secretary of State must answer when he responds to the debate is, was that their decision, or was it his decision, to take this gamble with emergency cover in London?
"Our members are prepared to operate 999 services with no qualification whatsoever."
On the same programme yesterday, ambulanceman Chris Cosham admitted that London ambulance staff were not operating existing agreed radio procedures and informing the ambulance controllers when they completed an accident or emergency task.
Mr. Cook rose--
Mr. Cook rose--
Mr. Sayeed : If I am allowed to complete it, I shall not be much longer, Mr. Speaker. Will the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) ask Mr. Roger Poole to keep to the commitment that he made on Tuesday night, or does the
Column 1191hon. Gentleman condone the attempt by the National Union of Public Employees to undermine and deceive the British public?
Mr. Cook : The House is in some difficulty, in that it has some two hours in which to crush a three-hour debate. If that is to be the length of intervention by Conservative Members, it will not be possible to give way again. There is no contradiction--
Mr. Cook : There is no contradiction between the two statements produced by the hon. Member for Bristol, East (Mr. Sayeed). The ambulance staff are prepared to respond to every 999 call in precisely the way they responded up until eight months ago and in precisely the way that every other ambulance service in Britain responds to them.
This morning, the Secretary of State and I had a dummy run for this debate on radio. The right hon. and learned Gentleman justified the suspensions in London on the basis that the ambulance staff were now not moving non- emergency cases. The one example which he shared with the nation of such non-emergency cases was that of cancer patients going for radiotherapy. I have with me the union instructions on the restrictions on non-emergency cases. They list 12 separate exemptions from the ban. Exemption No. 7 is "all cancer-related patients". Mr. Kenneth Clarke rose--
Mr. Cook : It is explicit. All cancer-related patients are exempted. The Secretary of State has 10 minutes before he gets up to respond to the debate. He has all his officials in the Box. I challenge him when he gets up to name one ambulance station in London that has refused to move patients needing radiotherapy.
Mr. Jeremy Hayes (Harlow) rose--
Mr. Hayes rose--
I have no doubt that, when the Secretary of State gets up, he will wish to accuse me of taking my brief from the unions. He has done that in every previous debate, and it would be extraordinary if he put that gibe aside in this debate. I am not ashamed to inform the House that, over the past eight weeks, I have regularly met union officials.
Column 1192I am not ashamed to say also that I have listened to what they said to me about the dispute. I would have more respect for the way in which the Secretary of State has discharged his duties if in those eight weeks he had met the staff side just once. I ask the Secretary of State this third question : will he now meet the staff side? Is he prepared to sit down with the staff side to see whether they can find a solution to this crisis?
As well as meeting those union officials, I have met many serving ambulance men and women and ambulance officers. I have been struck by the commitment that those staff show to their job. Those people are perhaps sadly out of place in the brave new enterprise society that Conservative Members want to create. Overwhelmingly, they are people with intelligence and qualifications that would enable them to get better paid jobs, if that was what they were interested in. They have chosen the ambulance service because it gives them satisfaction and a reward for which money alone cannot be a substitute.
There have been plenty of occasions during the past three years when the nation has had the opportunity to observe the commitment of our ambulance staff and the risks that they take in pursuing that commitment. On Tuesday, the House received the report of the Clapham accident. Paragraph 5.19 states :
"The Court heard many tributes to the courage, dedication and professionalism of all the emergency services. Having heard the evidence and seen videos of their work at the scene, I wish to endorse the deep sense of appreciation which ran throughout the evidence of passengers on the trains for the outstanding work of the men and women who did so much to ensure a safe, swift and successful operation."
When the Harrods bomb went off, ambulance crews were the only people to remain in the street tending to the wounded and dying when police closed the street because they expected a second bomb. When the aircraft crashed on the motorway, it was the ambulance crews who went into the fuselage at a time when aviation fuel poured from every fractured pipe.
Mr. Brian Murray, one of the ambulance men whom I have met recently and who attended the Brighton bombing in 1985, is observing this debate from a place that I cannot draw to your attention, Mr. Speaker. The question that he will want answered is, why is he now offered an increase of 6.5 per cent., which the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) today managed to describe as nearly 10 per cent.? There is no London weighting for Mr. Murray--he lives in Sussex. He has been offered less than the rate of inflation. He is being asked to take a cut in real pay. In truth, Mr. Murray is not seeking a rise just in line with inflation, and I would not pretend that he is. Mr. Murray wants an increase in line with earnings. Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) rose --
Mrs. Currie : I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. Many Conservative Members share his belief that the ambulance service is a very good service and all of us owe it a great deal. Nevertheless, does the hon. Gentleman agree that this dispute is not about whether the ambulance service gives us a good service but about who runs the service, the management or the unions, and whether employees who are prepared to take industrial action which will damage patients should get paid more than those employees who will not?
Mr. Cook : This is a dispute about what is the proper rate of pay for the service that we demand of our ambulance staff. That is why it is proper to remind the House of the service and dedication that we require of them.
Since this dispute started, there has not been a major pay settlement as low as 6.5 per cent. In the week in which it started, the Treasury sanctioned a pay award to Inland Revenue staff that gave Inland Revenue typists 10 per cent. and inspectors 14.5 per cent. Since then, British Telecom has settled at 9 per cent. We are told that postmen may be offered 11 per cent. Firemen have settled at 8.6 per cent. The Secretary of State is much given to saying that National Health Service staff settled at 6.5 per cent.--doctors settled at 8 per cent., dentists at 8 per cent., professionals allied to medicine at 7.7 per cent. and administrators, managers and clerical staff for a deal worth 9.5 per cent.
Members of Parliament are to be awarded 10.7 per cent., and hon. Members will know that we are to receive that figure because it has already been granted to middle management in the Civil Service. I do not believe that Members of Parliament need to apologise for parity with the principal grade in the Civil Service, but I do not understand how hon. Members who benefited from that linkage could vote to deny linkage to ambulance staff. The ambulance staff seek linkage with the other two emergency services--the firemen and policemen. They work together daily with them, they share risks with them and they provide medical cover when the other services take those risks.
Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton) rose --
Once upon a time, the demand for linkage had the full support of the Conservative party. In 1978, the present Prime Minister wrote to two ambulance men saying of the emergency services :
"All three deserve to have their pay negotiation put outside the arena of industrial dispute by being given firm and automatic linkage".
That letter was written to Terry Wilton and Philip Rowe, two Conservative ambulance men in Somerset who were inspired by the letter to become founder members of the Association of Professional Ambulance Personnel, an association which is pledged not to take industrial action. Terry Wilton and Philip Rowe are now so incensed by the short memories of those in the Conservative party that they are supporting the industrial action by the ambulance service this month.