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Mr. Baldry: This has been a timely and welcome debate. The House has been broadly united in agreement about the Commonwealth's value, potential and achievements. The underlying feeling that emerged in the debate was that more needs to be done to bring home, both here and overseas, what the Commonwealth stands for and its potential. That was the broad canvas against which today's debate took place. A number of specific points were raised, some important and some of detail, and I shall try to respond to them, particularly to those on which I was specifically asked to respond. However, I do not want those points to detract from the strong overall agreement in the House.
Column 1118By and large, I agreed with what the hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) had to say on this subject. There is no daylight between the Government and the Opposition on the subject of Hong Kong, and I am sure that the House of Commons is at one in its position on Hong Kong, which is a great strength and support to the governor and people of Hong Kong, as we approach 1997 and the period of change.
The hon. Gentleman will not be surprised, however, that I fundamentally disagreed with him about our aid budget and the European development fund. We have every reason to be proud of our aid budget, which is the sixth largest in the world at a time when many countries, such as the United States and Canada, are reducing their aid budgets. I am sure that we shall debate that subject on many future occasions--I look forward to ODA questions on Monday--so I shall not dwell on the subject now.
My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) rightly discussed the contribution that the Commonwealth can make towards tackling drugs and international crime. I fully support him on that. We already do a considerable amount, and a large chunk of our aid budget is devoted to supporting Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan in tackling its drugs problem. As I said in my opening comments, one of the subjects that we shall consider at the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Auckland is what more the Commonwealth can do to tackle drugs, money laundering and international crime.
There are already many excellent examples of co-operation. As recently as a few months ago, for example, the Government of Anguilla, working with others, achieved a first-class operation in setting up what was, in effect, a sham bank which sucked in large quantities of laundered money from the drugs trade and succeeded in achieving many arrests in South America, Spain and elsewhere and in having a significant impact on one of the Colombian cartels. That was a Commonwealth country working with the United States, ourselves and others to achieve that.
The hon. Member for York (Mr. Bayley) specifically asked, in relation to some of the smaller dependent territories, whether, when they have offshore banking regulatory regimes, the costs should be met by greater licence fees. A number of those dependent territories, such as the Cayman Islands and Bermuda, receive no development aid. Some dependent territories, such as Montserrat and the Turks and Caicos Islands, do receive development aid. Because they are small territories, they need it. We regard responsible offshore finance as a means by which territories can achieve sustainable economies. While I am on the topic of dependent territories, it may be helpful if I respond to the arguments of the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). I shall not leave out any issues raised by other hon. Members, but it might be convenient to discuss these points at this stage.
Dependent territories are not colonies; we have no colonies left--they are dependent territories. They have legislative assemblies. I am sure that the hon. Member for Thurrock did not mean it in that way, but I am sure that the Chief Ministers of countries such as the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the British Virgin Islands,
Column 1119which have recently had democratic elections, would feel insulted if they thought that we in Westminster sought to interfere with their business.
In so far as the dependent territories have governors, those governors have reserve powers under the constitution. They are finite, limited powers under the constitution. The hon. Member for Thurrock is perfectly free to question Foreign Office and other Ministers about the responsibilities of those governors, in terms of those reserve powers, to the United Kingdom Government.
Mr. Mackinlay: The Minister is right. I was not referring to the Chief Ministers and colleagues in the local legislatures. Those matters which are devolved to them are their affair, and I very much welcome that. It is those powers that are reserved to the governor which need to be scrutinised. They include the very important function of policing. Policing is therefore exclusively the province of the governor and the Attorney- General is invariably appointed from Westminster. I think that such powers need greater scrutiny.
Mr. Baldry: They are very much reserve powers. The governor would exercise powers over policing only if there had been some failure by the local legislative assembly to ensure that its territory was properly policed.
Mr. Baldry: Yes, it is. I am conscious that the hon. Gentleman wishes to take a greater interest in the subject. If he formed a team of his colleagues, we might start with St. Helena. If they would like to visit St. Helena in the next six weeks or so, I am sure that the Government Chief Whip might be prevailed on to find the requisite funds.
As the hon. Member for Thurrock obviously wants to take an interest in the dependent territories, I should tell him that, if he visits the Foreign Office, officials will, I am sure, be happy to brief him on how limited the reserve powers of governors are nowadays. The dependent territories are, by and large, countries which determine their own decisions. Bermuda, which is a dependent territory, as the hon. Gentleman knows, has recently published a Green Paper and is debating whether it might consider moving towards independence. It is absolutely right that we should be especially worried about parts of the Commonwealth which are in difficulty, and that we should be especially worried when parts of the Commonwealth are in difficulty with one another. In my opening comments, I referred to the position of Pakistan and India, which is of great concern to every friend of both countries.
It is tempting to think that either the United Kingdom or some other country or organisation could do something to take the process forward, but an imposed solution to Kashmir would be doomed to fail. Progress will only be made if India and Pakistan talk to each other and seek to resolve the situation in Kashmir themselves.
It is worth remembering that the Simla agreement was reached through discussions between Prime Minister Bhutto, the father of the current Prime Minister
Column 1120of Pakistan, and Mrs. Ghandi when she was Prime Minister of India. They made considerable progress in those talks, and the evidence of history is that the greatest progress has been made when India and Pakistan talk to each other.
We have made it clear that we feel that there needs to be a genuine political process in Kashmir--the status quo cannot continue for ever--with full recognition of human rights and a cessation of external support for violence in Kashmir. Those are important prerequisites.
On the broader issue of Pakistan, we were all delighted to welcome Prime Minister Bhutto to the United Kingdom last year. She came to a successful investment conference organised by the Confederation of British Industry and she obviously had the opportunity for discussions with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and many others. She was a welcome visitor.
Next week I will lead a trade mission to Pakistan of some 50 business men and women, who are keen to invest in that country. They recognise that there is potential for partnership with it. I am sure that the Government of Pakistan see in the United Kingdom a people and Government who are keen to work with Pakistan to ensure its stability and development. It is a crucial country in the Commonwealth as it stands at the gateway to central Asia. We often look to Pakistan for advice on developments in that region. There is no shortage of desire to ensure that there is stability in Pakistan and that its Government is supported in their efforts to achieve economic stability and economic progress.
Mr. Galloway: I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said and I wish him and the trade delegation well when they leave next week. Before he concludes his remarks on Kashmir, can he explain how it is that under international law, according to United Nations resolutions, there must be a plebiscite so that the people of Jammu and Kashmir can decide for themselves whether they wish to remain in India, join Pakistan or, for that matter, strike out as an independent country? The Simla agreement cannot supersede those UN resolutions, which have the force of international law.
In as much as the Simla accord was useful, does the Minister agree that bilateral negotiations between India and Pakistan have run into the sand, or the snow, as I acknowledged earlier? Now there are no substantial negotiations or talks between those countries. All that I asked for in my speech was for Britain and the Commonwealth to kick-start that process, perhaps through an eminent persons group. Will the Minister give that request some consideration?
Mr. Baldry: The hon. Gentleman can rest assured that we spend a considerable amount of time considering the difficulties of and concerns about Kashmir. Many parliamentary colleagues on both sides of the House quite rightly and most helpfully keep Ministers briefed on their visits to Kashmir, their impressions of it and their contacts with politicians on all sides of the equation.
We are firmly convinced, however, that progress will come about only when India and Pakistan decide that it is in their best interests to talk to each other. The Commonwealth can and will interfere only if Pakistan
Column 1121and India request it to intervene. Long- term sustainable progress will come about only when India and Pakistan talk to each other. As I have said, all the evidence of history is that the greatest progress is made when India and Pakistan talk to each other.
In addition to speaking about Kashmir, my hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman) raised the issue of Sri Lanka. He will be interested and pleased to know that the President of Sri Lanka was in London this week. She had discussions today with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and with me two days ago. Much of what we discussed with her dealt with what more we could do to help the peace process in Sri Lanka move forward.
Since the election of the President of Sri Lanka, considerable strides have been made in the peace process, which seeks to resolve the difficulties with the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam in the north. That process appears to be temporarily halted, and we were keen to understand what more we could do to help her in that regard. We are certainly willing to give what support we can to move the process forward. We all earnestly hope that, by the time the CPA conference takes place in Colombo later this year, the peace process in Sri Lanka will have made considerable progress.
My hon. Friend the Member for Carshalton and Wallington summed up well our attitude towards the non-proliferation treaty. It is a valuable instrument in trying to ensure that world peace is sustained, and in the post-cold war era it is all the more important that the non-proliferation regime is sustained.
Mr. Forman: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for responding to the three issues that I touched on. Perhaps I could ask about the issue which concerns me and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway). The Minister spoke rather disparagingly about Britain or the Commonwealth seeking to impose a solution in relation to Kashmir or of seeking to interfere between India and Pakistan. That was not the sense of what I and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead(Mr. Galloway) were seeking to say.
We sought to say that we should take every opportunity, bilaterally and through the Commonwealth, to make our good offices available in different ways to facilitate some sort of coming together and a rational process. If that does not happen, the dispute has all the qualities necessary to turn the area into a serious flashpoint, possibly with wider implications for the world as a whole.
Mr. Baldry: Progress will be made only if India and Pakistan decide to talk and move matters forward in their best interests and in the best interests of the people of Kashmir. If at any time India and Pakistan come to us together and say, "We would like the assistance of the United Kingdom or the Commonwealth to facilitate progress on this issue," it is inconceivable that we would do anything other than seek to be supportive. But we cannot seek to be an umpire or to impose some solution on India and Pakistan. That is the straightforward position.
Column 1122Minister to respond immediately to the powerful case that was put by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galloway) and by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Mr. Forman). It would be helpful to the House for the Minister to say that he will take this matter away and have a word with the Foreign Secretary to find out his reaction to these suggestions. In the light of the well argued case of my hon. Friend, that is the least that the Minister can do, and I hope that he will do it.
Mr. Baldry: It is always tempting to take problems away, but it would be disingenuous of me to do that, because this issue has been raised frequently with us. We have given it careful consideration over a long time and, as I have said, our clear view is that progress in Kashmir will be made only if the Governments of India and Pakistan talk to each other, if a genuine political process is started in Kashmir, if there is full recognition of human rights there, and if there is a cessation of external support for violence in Kashmir. [Interruption.]
Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West): Does the Minister not understand that the Simla accord is more than 20 years old, that about seven bilateral sets of talks have taken place between India and Pakistan, and that India has shown a marked reluctance to discuss Kashmir in any meaningful way? As the hon. and learned Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) just said from a sedentary position, peace would never have come to South Africa if the Minister's attitude towards Kashmir had been displayed towards creating democracy in South Africa. We are asking for some fresh thinking. Like the Foreign Office in its policy on Kashmir in the past five years, the Minister seems to be whistling in the dark. No elections will take place in Kashmir. The overwhelming majority of people in Kashmir want the right to determine their own destiny. We are asking the Commonwealth to take an initiative to ensure that peace and the right to determine their affairs come to the people of Kashmir, as it has come to the people of South Africa.
Mr. Baldry: The hon. Gentleman is asking for the Commonwealth unilaterally to interfere-- [Interruption.] Yes, he is. He is asking it unilaterally to interfere in the internal affairs of two Commonwealth countries. Its rules are clear: it can intervene only if both Pakistan and India request its involvement. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has a large number of constituents who take a particular interest in the Kashmir issue--that is understandable--but I repeat that in my view, and in that of the Government and the vast majority of people, sustainable progress on the Kashmir issue will be made only if India and Pakistan talk to each other, with each country wishing to reach a solution without other parties' involvement, and without it looking as though we or others are seeking to act as umpires or to impose some solution on those two countries. Mr. Menzies Campbell rose --
Mr. Baldry: I shall not give way any more on this, as I have comprehensively explained our position on Kashmir. It seems that the spokesmen from the two Opposition parties are being slightly disingenuous in the way in which they are approaching the issue. It is a
Column 1123difficult subject, which is of considerable concern to two of our Commonwealth colleagues. I have made our position clear. If either the Liberal or the Labour spokesmen is suggesting that progress should be made other than in the way I have suggested--which is by talks between India and Pakistan, by genuine political process in Kashmir, by a cessation of external support for violence, and by recognition of human rights in Kashmir--they owe a duty to the House to make that clear.
Mr. Campbell: In the Minister's anxiety not to prejudice the position, he has closed his mind to another possibility, which some of the interventions have sought to embrace. It is right to say that progress will be made only when the two countries agree to talk to each other, but what is wrong with the Commonwealth encouraging them to talk to each other?
Mr. Baldry: It is clear from everything that I have said that we and everyone should continue to encourage India and Pakistan to talk to each other. We do that whenever we have any discussions with members of the Indian or Pakistan Government. If I have the opportunity next week when I am in Islamabad and elsewhere, I am sure that I shall repeat what I have said to the House today. Of course we take every opportunity to urge India and Pakistan to talk to each other and to make progress on the issue, because we are aware that it is of considerable concern to many people, but real sustainable progress will be made only if India and Pakistan talk to each other. There is no disagreement about that.
I should like to make two final points for completeness. In relation to Ireland, there is always a danger of it looking as though the UK is speaking for the Commonwealth. It is always tempting to think that we can speak for the Commonwealth, but we would appear presumptuous if it were thought that we were doing so. It is self-evident that countries are applying and do apply for membership of the Commonwealth, and the Government of Ireland must know that it is always open to them to do likewise if they choose to do so. The last time I studied the statute of Westminster was for my university law finals. Having heard all the horrific things which might occur as a consequence of that statute, I should like to take the matter away, reflect upon it, discuss it with the Law Officers and write to the hon. Member for Thurrock, who raised a cornucopia of problems.
I hope that I have responded to all the specific points raised by hon. Members. I must mention the Commonwealth Institute, because it is important. I should make it clear that the Government emphatically do not want the institute to close: we want it to use the fine building in Kensington high street, provided by the Government, to promote the Commonwealth in a modern way and to be able to stand increasingly on its own feet. I certainly commend the work of the institute's board. The director-general and his staff have shown commendable drive and imagination in developing a re-launch strategy, and it was because of that that Ministers judged the strategy worthy of support.
Column 1124As I said in July last year, we offered an extra £2.4 million to help with the institute's own fund raising. We have set the institute the target of raising £5 million in the next 18 months. The Government hope that the public, businesses and all those who see the Commonwealth as a force for good will respond generously. When the institute raises that sum, as I hope it will, we shall be ready to respond speedily to ensure that the windows of opportunity that have been alluded to are taken advantage of and that no opportunity is missed. As I have said, we wish the Commonwealth Institute to continue.
This has been a helpful and welcome debate. I hope that I have responded to all the points that have been raised and I hope that it will not be too long before we have another debate on the Commonwealth.
I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn .
That it be an Instruction to the Standing Committee on the Proceeds of Crime Bill that they have power to make provision in the Bill for facilitating the enforcement of overseas forfeiture and restraint orders.-- [ Mr. Baldry. ]
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Baldry.]
Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale): I am grateful to Madam Speaker for selecting for debate the proposal for a new 400 kV power line through the vale of York. I welcome my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary to the Dispatch Box. It is good to see him there. I understand that this is his first Adjournment debate. In wishing him many more, I am thinking only of the length of his ministerial career.
This is the fifth time that the matter has been raised on the Floor of the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who is in his place, has raised the matter twice and I have raised it twice. That speaks for itself.
From time to time, all hon. Members experience local controversy over planning matters. Over time, opposition generally wanes, perhaps following a detailed examination of the facts at a public inquiry. That is not the case with this issue, for reasons that I shall outline shortly.
The debate arises out of decisions taken over four years ago on the construction of a gas-fired electricity generating plant--ENRON--at Wilton on Teesside and the subsequent requirements for the electricity generated to be connected to the national grid. In September 1990, before the then Secretary of State for Energy gave planning consent for ENRON, the Office of Electricity Regulation issued a derogation to the National Grid Company for ENRON's connection to the grid. Under the Electricity Act 1989, the NGC had a statutory duty to provide that.
Shortly afterwards, the NGC entered into an agreement with Scottish Power and Scottish Hydro-Electric to increase the interconnection and transmission capability between Scotland the north of England. It was a purely commercial decision by the NGC. As a direct consequence, the NGC concluded that it would need to strengthen the transmission capacity in Yorkshire and, in September 1991, it lodged an application with North Yorkshire county council for the construction of a 400 kV overhead line from Lakenby to Picton and from Picton to Shipton through the entire length of the vale of York.
The proposed line would extend over some 56 km of open countryside. That was the first intimation to local authorities in Yorkshire that the construction of ENRON would have such profound implications for local communities. It highlights a fundamental weakness in the planning process for power stations. There is no requirement to consider the need for transmission into the national grid, or to assess whether the location of a power station makes sense in terms of national energy strategy.
Without question, had the North Yorkshire local authorities been consulted when the ENRON application was considered, they would have registered the strongest opposition. At the very least, they would have sought to ensure that conditions be attached to any planning consent, restricting further power lines in the county.
Column 1126It should therefore come as no surprise to learn that the communities affected by the Vale of York power line proposal feel let down by the planning system. The public inquiry held in 1992 was not seen as sufficiently independent. The inspectors, who were appointed by the Department of Trade and Industry, rather than by the Department of the Environment as happens in all other planning matters, constantly gave the impression that their job was to smooth the way for the power line to be built rather than to make an impartial and objective assessment of the NGC's claims.
Throughout, the NGC relied on the argument that it was merely seeking to fulfil a legal duty. The inspectors agreed and seemed to think that they had no choice. The final paragraph of their report to the Secretary of State states:
"we are satisfied that for NGC to comply with their statutory responsibilities and the terms and conditions of the transmission licence there is a need to reinforce the transmission system." Surely, planning should never be about just "technical" issues. The views of people whose lives are affected must have weight, as they do in any other planning matters, yet the inspectors rejected their concerns. All that seems to matter is that the NGC fulfils its legal requirements regardless of all else.
It seems that we should forget about agricultural interests, concerns about health and the fact that there has not been a proper environmental assessment--a point that I have already raised with Environment Ministers on the Floor of the House. It seems that we should forget that the better solution of undergrounding does not suit the NGC's balance sheet or that the area itself derives no benefit from the proposal--the NGC's interests are paramount. I suggest that that is not a sustainable position for the Government to take.
It is little wonder that local people are up in arms. When the public inquiry was held in 1992, more than 8,000 objections were lodged. Since then, a petition organised by REVOLT--a group campaigning against the power line--collected more than 12,000 signatures and has been lodged with my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade.
Opposition to the proposed power line has strengthened as the weakness of the NGC case and the deficiencies in the structure of the electricity industry and energy industry generally post-privatisation have become more apparent. If there is one message that I want the Minister to take from the debate, it is that North Yorkshire says no to the power line proposal.
Although we have begun the Adjournment debate slightly earlier than usual, time will not allow a full examination of all the facts. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Minister has spent many hours reading the various reports and papers. I have, and so has my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks.
The following issues are relevant. First, the NGC has failed to establish that the new line is needed. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will doubtless tell us that my hon. Friend and I have that wrong. We have not; he has. It is worth bearing in mind the fact that a 400 kV power line already exists throughout the length of the proposed route. Its capacity is 5,560 mVA--do not ask me to explain, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what that means. The important fact is that that capacity is the highest of any part of the national grid. That is the stretch that it is proposed to strengthen.
Column 1127The route is significantly under-utilised. The derogation granted to the NGC to connect the ENRON power station to the grid has proved entirely adequate. The inspector's report following the 1992 inquiry went into considerable detail in considering whether the temporary derogation should become permanent. The arguments against extending the derogation are unconvincing and acknowledge disagreement within the electricity industry on transmission standards.
At the 1992 inquiry, Dr. Ian Davis, on behalf of the NGC, conceded that the organisation
"take a commonsense view of the application of transmission standards, taking into account the costs and the potential benefits in each case, so departure is often argued for in reasoned terms and can often be justified."
In other words, the NGC interprets the standards to suit itself. I have mentioned the need to improve the link with Scotland, which was the NGC's commercial decision. That need has also been argued as a justification for the power line. But why construct a second high-voltage line on the east side of Yorkshire to cater for Scottish power, which is transmitted on the west coast of Scotland to Carlisle, when the extra load of the export of electricity of 750 MW could be carried south of Carlisle on existing lines, which in the NGC's seven-year statements show a surplus capacity of 2,400 MW? As my hon. Friend the Minister knows, two other gas-fired generating stations for the north-east coast, Flotilla and Neptune, are under consideration. The inspectors and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State sought to argue that the transmission demands of ENRON and Scottish electricity exports are in themselves sufficient to justify strengthening the national grid, but no one is in any doubt that the accommodation of the additional capacity from Neptune and Flotilla is the real reason for the NGC seeking to strengthen the grid.
Indeed, the NGC has already entered into agreements with Neptune and Flotilla for connection into the grid. Yet no formal applications for planning consent for either Neptune or Flotilla have even been lodged. Potentially, they are very much in the future. They may never be given planning consent. They do not justify bolstering the NGC's case for new transmission lines at this time.
It is worth bearing it in mind that a connection agreement with no planning consent in Hampshire and an agreement in Lincolnshire with consent have recently been cancelled. The future of energy generation and pricing is under review. We read in the press this week that the future of the NGC sell-off is in doubt. At the very least, the current uncertainties dictate that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State should postpone any final decision on the NGC application. As I have already said, there is also continuing uncertainty about transmission standards. The NGC has merely adopted the standards established in the 1970s by the Central Electricity Generating Board with no regard to improved technology and despite the fact that faults on the NGC transmission system are currently less than one minute per customer per year. That is a security of supply of 99.999 per cent. The position
Column 1128with the regional electricity companies is rather less remarkable, amounting to an average for connected customers of 164 minutes' disruption a year. Why on earth do we wish to despoil the countryside of North Yorkshire for a potential loss of that one minute per customer per year?
The higher the standard of transmission, the greater the eventual cost for the customer. The NGC also has a vested interest in shifting electricity round the country. That is how it earns its money. However, in the case of ENRON, it results in a power loss of up to 6 per cent. because of the distance over which the electricity is transmitted. With Scottish exports, the power loss may be up to 10 per cent.
Mindful of the importance of those issues, shortly after the 1992 inquiry, Professor Littlechild ordered the NGC to conduct a review of four areas of transmission standards: operating standards, planning standards, connection standards and quality criteria. It took the NGC almost two years to respond. It consulted generators, RECs, interconnectors and customers, but not the environmental lobby. It seems that only North Yorkshire local authorities made
representations on the environment, because other local authorities and environmental groups were unaware that the review was taking place.
Bearing in mind the two years that it took the NGC to respond in its review of its own transmission standards, Professor Littlechild has now given until 31 March--just two weeks' time--for a wider input of views. I remind my hon. Friend the Minister that section 3 of the Electricity Act 1989 places a duty on the regulator to take into account the effects of electricity transmission on the physical environment. It is part of the case of those who oppose the line through North Yorkshire that that duty has not been properly exercised.
In a statement in February, Professor Littlechild made it clear that he was not satisfied with the retention of the existing standards, although provisionally--and I stress provisionally--he did not intend to make changes in the short term. He also confirmed that he intends to look with Ofgas at the relative pricing of electricity and gas transmission lines and that he will then return to the question of the pricing of transmission and its implications for price control by the NGC. In other words, the whole question of transmission standards, in addition to the NGC's future and what will happen to electricity generating policy, remains in a state of flux. The Minister will doubtless argue, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks and I have heard so many times in the past, that the Secretary of State will have to reach a final decision on the matter based on the transmission standards as they apply at the time he makes his decision. With respect, that is simply not good enough. As each day passes, it becomes ever clearer that the privatised energy utilities are capable of delivering greater efficiency and lower prices. That is what came out of our own regional electricity company, Northern Electric, in its spirited defence, which I supported, after the Trafalgar House bid. That is what has prompted the further review of prices announced by Professor Littlechild, about which we have heard so much during the past seven or eight days.
Column 1129In two or three years' time, as a consequence of all this, we could be looking at a completely different requirement for transmission. Why, then, should this proposed power line be foisted on the people of north Yorkshire when the argument in favour is at best doubtful, and at worst--particularly in the longer term--totally unnecessary? We must also ask who will pay for the new power line and for all the nonsense that has been going on. Who will pay all the costs of the inquiries? There is only one answer--the consumer. It will certainly not be the NGC or the power generator at ENRON. As the Minister is aware, a further public inquiry is now under way at Northallerton, examining alternative proposals for two sections of the proposed power line route. Many of the issues that I mentioned are being raised in further evidence to the inspectors.
Local landowners have expressed total dissatisfaction with the handling of the inquiry and the unseemly haste with which proceedings are being carried forward. The attitude of the NGC and of the inspectors does nothing to enhance the credibility of the DTI. The current inquiry is also considering the question of wayleaves. Before finishing my speech, I stress in the strongest possible terms the fact that two thirds of the landowners affected by the proposal have not reached agreement with the NGC for the siting of pylons on their land. In some cases, cash offers in excess of £40,000 have been refused. It is not like Yorkshire farmers to refuse that sort of money without good reason.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, on this serious matter, to give an undertaking tonight that, so long as the majority of landowners fail to reach agreement with the NGC, the Secretary of State will not use his powers to impose agreements. Landowners and farmers are resisting the bullying tactics of the NGC, to demonstrate their outright opposition to the power line and their belief that any truly subjective independent appraisal of the NGC's application would result in the plan being shelved.
In responding to the inspectors' report in May last year, the President of the Board of Trade said that he was "minded" to grant approval. I trust that my hon. Friend will confirm tonight that that does not mean that my right hon. Friend has already made up his mind, and that there is still time for him to be influenced and to come to a different decision.
I hope that in this brief debate I have given my hon. Friend the facts that he needs to persuade the officials in his Department, and ultimately the President of the Board of Trade, to think again. For the reasons that I outlined, there is sufficient doubt about the direction of future energy policy not to proceed with the construction of a second 400 kV power line through the vale of York unless and until it is inescapably required.
If people were convinced that the power line was inescapably required, the opposition to it would be nothing like as strong or as vehement. But the NGC has dismally failed to provide a justification. ENRON has been generating electricity for two years, since the winter of 1992-93, and the lights have not gone out yet. In spite of that, and in spite of all the other uncertainties about future transmission requirements, the NGC is ploughing ahead with new commitments,
Column 1130although the power line proposal has not yet been approved. Such action is insensitive, to say the least, bearing in mind the strong opposition to the proposal.
In conclusion, I ask the Minister to reassure me, my constituents and the people in the Richmond constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks. Even more people are affected in Richmond than in Ryedale, and we are finding it bad enough. Minister, please reassure us that the NGC has no authority from the Department to behave in such a cavalier fashion, and that in response to the most strongly felt public anger that I have ever known, the Department will reject the NGC proposal, or at the very least postpone indefinitely any final decision. Please listen to the voice of local people in north Yorkshire. Tonight that voice says emphatically, "No, no and no again," to the National Grid Company.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page): I know from experience how difficult it is to obtain time for debates of this kind. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) on his success, and thank him for the kind words with which he opened the debate.
There have been two previous Adjournment debates on this matter, the others having taken place in 1991 and 1992. It must be quite unusual for three Adjournment debates to be held on the subject of a single overhead line project: that demonstrates the level of concern. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the zeal and effectiveness with which he has pursued the interests of his constituents, not only this evening but over the long history of the project.
It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[ Mr. Page. ]
Mr. Page: My hon. Friend's constituents can know that, whatever the outcome of the proposal, he has represented them in a most effective and forceful fashion. Having read the files that have accumulated over the years, I know that he has been a definitive and powerful force in expressing their concerns.
It would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to other hon. Members on both sides of the House who have acted in a similar fashion on behalf of their constituents. Let me particularly mention my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who raised the matter on the two previous occasions. Despite his ministerial duties, he has made time to be present tonight; he sits beside me, a brooding presence, waiting to express the anxieties of his constituents. I know that both my hon. Friends appreciate that I cannot discuss the merits or otherwise of the project. I can only view it as an ordinary Member of Parliament--as if such a project were proposed for my constituency. I understand my hon. Friends' natural concerns, but as a Minister I note that this would be one of the largest overhead line developments of recent years, and it is entirely appropriate for it to receive detailed scrutiny both throughout the planning process and in the House.
Column 1131All aspects of the project have been, or still are, the subject of statutory proceedings, reports of which my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade will consider carefully when making his decisions. I must therefore limit my remarks to general matters, and not the specific issues that have been raised in the public inquiries and local hearings.
It may be helpful if I remind the House of the background to the project and the current position. I know that my hon. Friends are vividly aware of the circumstances, but it is only right to put them on the record, because what is said tonight will command a wider audience.
The NGC submitted five applications for consent under the Electricity Act 1989, in September 1991. The applications suggested alternatives--two possible routes for the proposed line between Lackenby on Teesside and Picton in North Yorkshire, and three possible routes between Picton and Shipton, also in north Yorkshire. Those applications were the subject of a long public inquiry in 1992, whose report my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade published on 12 May last year. At that time, he said that he was minded to accept the inspectors' recommendations but would make no final decisions on the five applications until the NGC had made progress in obtaining the appropriate rights over the land concerned. That is in line with his normal practice in cases where wayleaves have not been obtained.
The inquiry inspectors recommended that consent be granted for the major part of an overhead line between Lackenby and Shipton, combining elements of the five application routes, but recommended refusal for three sections of the line. It suggested undergrounding for one section and possible rerouting overhead for the other two sections.
Since that time, the NGC has pursued wayleave negotiations with the landowners involved. As few of the landowners were willing to grant wayleaves voluntarily--my hon. Friend referred to that forcibly this evening--the NGC applied to my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade for necessary wayleaves under the provisions in schedule 4 to the Electricity Act 1989.
Local hearings on the applications were held in November and December 1994. The NGC has also submitted a compulsory purchase order relating to land required for the underground cable, including the sealing end compound, and new consent and wayleave applications in respect of alternative routes in the other two sections which my right hon. Friend suggested that he was minded to refuse consent. All those matters are the subject of a new public inquiry, which is currently in progress in Northallerton.
At this point, I should like to take the opportunity to put the record straight about certain complaints against my Department on procedural matters. For example, I am aware, from correspondence that I have seen, that there has been public comment that there has been complicity between my Department and the NGC--the applicant--on procedural matters. I reject such accusations unreservedly.