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10.11 am

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) on securing this debate, and I welcome the opportunity to make a brief contribution to it. I also congratulate my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on the international role he has taken in recent months to make Governments across the world accept their responsibilities to respond to climate change and to reduce emissions.

It is extremely interesting that we are having this debate this week, not only because of last night's news about an unfortunate incident in the nuclear industry or because of the consideration of the Finance Bill, in which the effect of green taxation on emissions has been a theme, but because on Friday, we shall debate a series of private Members' Bills concerned with energy efficiency, eachof which could make a small contribution to our achievement of the Kyoto targets.

My message to Opposition Front Benchers is not to block the progress of those Bills. An unfortunate trend in recent weeks has been that a particular Conservative Member has tried to block every private Member's Bill, regardless of its merits. I hope that the Opposition will take cognisance of the fact that this Friday is an important day for those Bills.

In recent months, as public awareness of the implications of the Kyoto conference has increased, the nuclear industry has attempted to assume a new role

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and to project itself as the answer to all our CO 2 emission and climate change problems. There is no doubt that nuclear power has a role to play in a balanced energy policy; there can be no dispute about the fact that nuclear energy does not add to CO 2 emissions. However, we would be naive--and do the public a great disservice--if we accepted that nuclear energy was the answer to Kyoto, for the simple reason that the nuclear industry has tried to sweep under the carpet the fundamental problem of nuclear waste. Until there is a safe, secure and scientifically accepted solution--I do not rule one out--to the problem of safeguarding the increasing storage of nuclear waste, I do not believe that nuclear power is the way forward.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): Some years ago, I had some involvement in the fight to prevent the pressurised water reactor from being built at Hinckly C. I know that many of my constituents are concerned that the Government have not yet made it clear whether there is a moratorium on new nuclear power installations. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be helpful if the Minister today made a clear statement on the Government's intentions on new nuclear installations?

Mr. Chaytor: That is one of the points that I was going to make, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister will comment on it in his response.

Last night's incident was significant. The disclosure of the secret deal with the Georgian Government to reprocess 5 kg of uranium at Dounreay will serve to reignite public awareness of the dangers of nuclear power, particularly the storage of waste and the transport of waste for reprocessing.

Does my hon. Friend the Minister believe that the time has come for the Government to call in and give their view on the British Nuclear Fuels application to establish a commercial facility at Sellafield for the production of mixed oxide fuel? The deal between Dounreay and Georgia is the tip of the iceberg of what is being proposed in the British nuclear industry--BNFL wants to establish a fully fledged commercial facility to reprocess waste from across the world. The 5 kg of uranium is a drop in the ocean in terms of the total amount of nuclear waste that could come to Britain to be reprocessed. It is critical that the Government intervene and take a special interest in the matter.

I think that I am right in saying that transport creates about 25 per cent. of our total CO 2 emissions. Public opinion has shifted considerably in the past five years, and there is now a general understanding that we cannot sustain our chronic dependency on the private motor car, and that we must greatly improve public transport and pursue a more balanced and mixed transport policy--we all look forward to the White Paper on integrated transport which will be published shortly.

It cannot be stressed often enough that the Government's responsibility is to use the tax system to engineer the shift away from the dominance of the private car and to encourage the use of public transport and more walking and cycling, as well as to encourage people to question whether their journeys are strictly necessary. The Budget contained important steps towards a green taxation policy, but those steps were tentative, and I hope that, in the coming months, the Government will pursue the agenda with greater confidence, and that the next Budget will introduce a more positive form of green taxation.

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We welcome the initial changes to vehicle excise duty, the continuation of the fuel escalator and the action proposed on company cars, but other things can be done. Significantly, the motoring public now accept the annual price rise in petrol. Perhaps the Government are a little behind what the general public are prepared to accept. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will discuss that with his colleagues, and that a much stronger green taxation policy will emerge.

We must not only shift the balance of taxation away from labour and employers' costs to take account of pollution and waste, but consider what we should do with the resulting revenue. We cannot avoid the issue of hypothecation. I know that the Treasury has historically been opposed to it, but the time has now come when we can win public support for green taxation if we can show clearly that the extra revenue is being used for investment in public transport. That is another shift in attitude that will have to come about.

On Friday, several private Members' Bills concerned with minor improvements to energy efficiency are due to be considered. I especially commend the Warm Homes and Energy Conservation (Fifteen Year Programme) Bill, with its ambitious programme for improvements to the 8 million homes in Britain in which households still experience fuel poverty. As my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, improvements will cost money in the short run, but bring enormous benefits in the long run. I welcome the fact that our Government have put enormous emphasis on long-term investment and improvements, getting away from short-term thinking, and the Bill is a perfect example of that.

The current review of the utilities regulators is crucial to energy efficiency. Since privatisation, there has been chaos in the marketplace, with many companies competing desperately to sell more and more fuel, which is obviously incompatible with our Kyoto obligations.

Mr. Battle: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that matter. The review was published a fortnight ago and was warmly welcomed precisely because we built into it those environmental considerations.

Mr. Chaytor: I am grateful for that information, and I shall make a point of studying the review carefully.

The new code for fiscal responsibility in the Budget did not have the high profile of some of the green taxation issues. The code was a welcome development by the Chancellor and established five important criteria--transparency, stability, responsibility, fairness and efficiency--but it does not mention environmental sustainability.

We should consider in the next few months whether we should add the sixth key criterion of sustainability. We cannot continue, as an industrial society, to use up resources as we have in the past 150 years. One way in which to draw attention to that fact and to concentrate the minds of the public and the Government on it is to build into the very structure and principles of taxation the concept of environmental sustainability.

We need to consider the limits of economic growth. It has been our society's basic assumption for 100 years or more that, through the application of technology and

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the plundering of natural resources, we can generate economic growth that is self-sustaining and will gradually increase prosperity for everyone. In the past 10 or 20 years--in this generation--more and more people have begun to question whether that infinite expansion of economic growth and the alleged extension of prosperity for everyone can really be feasible.

There is a growing understanding of the fact that there are limits to economic growth in both social and environmental terms. That represents a major challenge, because it means that we are at a fundamental turning point in the development of our society, and a whole new set of assumptions needs to be made about how we generate prosperity and equality of opportunity. I hope that, in the next few years, Governments throughout the world will take on board the limits of economic growth.

There will soon be a major opportunity for the Government to play a leading role in pursuing the environmental agenda and ensuring that the Kyoto agreements are adhered to, when the G8 summit takes place in Birmingham in the middle of May. Our Government, and our Prime Minister, will have an important opportunity to take the lead again on the international stage.

Even though the Kyoto agreement was signed in December, the most important signatory, the United States, has yet to get the agreement passed through Congress. President Clinton and Vice-President Gore have given it their blessing, but there is still a battle to be fought in the United States Congress. The G8 summit provides the perfect opportunity to ensure that that battle is won.


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