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9.58 am

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I greatly welcome the debate and congratulate the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing it. It should be seen as a plea for fewer warm words and more hard action. There has been a tremendous change, in that 10 or even five years ago, it was believed that only extremely strange people such as the hon. Members for Islington, North and for Hazel Grove supported the concept of sustainable energy, but it is now one to which Governments worldwide are committed.

I remind the House that the targets that we are discussing relate to reductions in emissions between 1990 and 2010. We are already eight years into that 20-year period, but we are still debating precisely what policies should be in place to achieve those targets. Therefore, it is not a question of our rushing the Government or of the House being impatient; rather, it is a recognition that time is passing, and passing very quickly.

I shall spend a minute or two considering what the Government have done, as opposed to what they have said, since 1 May last year. There are some bad signs, which I shall enumerate, but there are also some good ones. We need to examine not only what the Government say but what they do and the impact of that.

The Government have implemented a manifesto pledge to cut value added tax on fuel. Of course, that helps the poor, and we understand and support that. However, we need to recognise that it will increase fuel consumption and, therefore, carbon dioxide emissions.

There has been a somewhat grudging cut in VAT on energy conservation materials. The Government have done a brilliant job of persuading the public, but they have provided only a limited concession that may allow energy conservation materials to be installed in 40,000 homes, when 8 million homes have poor insulation and bad energy conservation.

I shall not say too much about the Government's policy on coal, as I am sure that others will want to speak about that. However, I have made a point before of drawing

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attention to developments in respect of our non-fossil fuel obligations and the fact that we now have legislation in place that, remarkably and paradoxically, allows a levy to be placed on renewable energy generators as well as those using fossil fuel.

The Government promised us a Green Book that would be produced alongside the Red Book. Not only would it list all the financial implications of the Budget and the Finance Bill, but it would give us a clear signal as to their environmental and green impact. I asked parliamentary questions about that and was assured that the Green Book was on page 73 of the Red Book. It consists of one page listing 15 items and their environmental impact. Of those 15 items, three are for consultation and not for implementation and will have no environmental impact this year. Two of the items show a small increase in carbon dioxide emissions and only three of the remaining 10 show quantified reductions. Therefore, despite some bold, brave and welcome words about the direction of Government policy and the integration of all Government policies into environmental concerns, the Green Book has become a green page and only three of the 15 policies listed on it will provide any reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

Over the past few months, I have been asking about energy consumption by the Government, as I have been trying to establish how much energy Government Departments use. I asked how much vehicle mileage was covered by Government employees, but the information was not available. I asked how much energy was being consumed by Government buildings and fixed assets in the United Kingdom. Some Departments have been very helpful and have provided figures, but others have said that the information is not available within the scope of parliamentary questions.

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): It strikes me as ironic that we meet every day in a darkened room where we have the lights on to have our debates.

Mr. Stunell: I thank the Minister for that intervention and I agree with him. As hon. Members are not allowed to read their speeches, having the lights on should not be necessary, except for Front-Bench speeches.

If Government Departments do not know how much energy they are consuming, how will they know whether they have reduced energy consumption by 8 per cent., 10 per cent. or 20 per cent.--20 per cent. of what and from when? We need to recognise that it is not just a matter of slogans and targets; it is about real plans and real progress if we are to achieve what we all want.

I could also mention the Government's hesitant approach to the European Union White Paper on renewables. I discussed the issue with the Minister in the European Standing Committee, and I understood the political logic of what he said. However, the hon. Member for Islington, North was right to draw attention to the United Kingdom's poor record in respect of renewable energy.

Belgium's percentage of renewables is 40 per cent. greater than ours. When people hear the figures for Sweden, they say that it has rivers and mountains and not

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very many people and that there are many reasons why Sweden might have an entirely different energy budget from ours, but Belgium is not exactly dominated by mountains.

Mr. Battle: It is appreciated that although the hon. Gentleman was not a member of the European Standing Committee, he took an interest in it, but he will recall that we debated the fact that Belgium burns all its municipal waste, which raises other environmental issues. Therefore, I remind him that the matter is not quite as simplistic as he appears to suggest.

Mr. Stunell: I welcome the Minister's intervention. He is quite right that the issue is not as simplistic as it seems for the pros or the antis. I understand that he is working in a complex political and economic environment, and I would be the last person to underestimate that.

I do not know what the Minister would say about Ireland, where the percentage of renewables is three times higher than ours. Perhaps there is a particular reason for that, but we need to examine the issue and understand why the United Kingdom is at the bottom of the pile and not at the top.

There are opportunities for the United Kingdom to raise its percentage of renewables without the conflict implied in the Minister's intervention in respect of waste incineration, for example. During the Easter break, I visited the Centre for Alternative Technology and, on behalf of the Minister, I received praise for the Government's investment in the photovoltaic installation there. There are opportunities, but we are not exploiting them.

I expect that the Minister would be a little indignant if I did not mention the good signs. There is clearly wide public acceptance of the need for action, and the Government are being offered a great deal of good will. Their warm words and investment in respect of photovoltaics or renewable energy installations at Ford, for example, are widely welcomed. There are opportunities, and the public are ready to accept them.

Returning briefly to the Government's policy on coal, I welcome the fact that they have now backtracked somewhat on their ban on the installation of gas generators and have lowered the threshold at which it applies. That is common sense, but it underlines the fact that there is much work still to be done before we can be said to have a genuine energy policy for the United Kingdom. It ought to be easy to get started, and it is good that the Government have given a fair wind to the Road Traffic Reduction (National Targets) Bill, the Waste Minimisation Bill, the Energy Conservation (Housing) Bill and the Energy Efficiency Bill, but they are all private Members' Bills. We need strong, positive, Government-directed action.

My plea is twofold. First, will the Government tell us what their energy policy is? It has to be integrated with the environmental policy issues that we are discussing and with fiscal and economic policy, but until that foundation is laid, publicly discussed and agreed, the conduct of the entire debate is extremely difficult. Secondly, I make a far wider plea: we need to get away from the impression that growth, wealth and prosperity can be purchased only at the expense of high energy use and low environmental conditions for the work force and the general population.

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What should be done next? Liberal Democrats were disappointed that the Budget did not contain a bigger commitment to public transport. Although the figures that were announced were high, careful reading of the Red Book shows that they have to be divided by four, as they apply over four years.

We were disappointed that the changes to vehicle excise duty for next year will not be implemented this year. It is worth noting that, in the European Union, the car fleets with the smallest engine sizes are in Italy and Denmark, which seems to be connected to the fact that the taxation of vehicles in those countries is based on mileage and fuel consumption rather than on a flat-rate tax such as vehicle excise duty. By contrast, the car fleet engine size in the United Kingdom has increased throughout the 1980s and 1990s. I ask the Minister to make those points as clearly as possible--wearing both his Department of Trade and Industry and his energy hats--to his ministerial colleagues.

Growth, wealth and prosperity are often thought to conflict with an environmental policy. Countries that have high standards of living, high gross domestic product and, indeed, high energy costs are among the most prosperous, but one need only look at Germany and--perhaps through half-closed eyes at the moment--Japan to see that it would be wrong to claim a connection between a strong environmental policy and a weak economy with low prosperity.

Will the Minister say plainly and clearly what the Government's energy policy is? Do the targets for the United Kingdom that were announced before Kyoto still obtain? Are the Government committed to investment in renewable energy sources and to conservation and the promotion of energy efficiency? He should understand that a strong message is coming from both sides of the House: we want the Government to be positive, purposeful and prompt in tackling the issue.


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