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10.50 am

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) for introducing this debate and for the terms in which he did so. It has been an excellent debate. My only frustration is that I have only about 10 minutes to reply to it, and that others wanted to take part and have not been able to.

The debate has been wide ranging. I enjoyed the phrase "joined-up thinking" that my hon. Friend used. I am usually accused of insisting on joined-up thinking between Government Departments. The thought that we should take away from this debate is that perhaps we need to move to holistic action. The debate has cut across transport, energy conservation, the Environment Agency, nuclear power, energy generation, gas, electricity and renewable sources of energy, and the technologies behind new sources of energy. That leads into science and technology, and the new industries of the future. It is to the credit of my hon. Friend and other hon. Members that we have raised this matter on the Floor of the House. It is thanks to my hon. Friend today, and we need to continue the conversation.

I will not have time to reply in detail to all the points, much as I would like to. I am always tempted to adjourn to another room to continue this important conversation. It has been said that the two key issues of the new century will be the world's needs for water and for energy. My hon. Friend made the point well. We need to consider the international complexity, and to make the international connections as well as local connections.

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We often get hung up on lighting and heating, but most energy will be wasted this summer through the use of fans and cooling systems in Britain. That will be the key source of carbon dioxide and energy loss, although we often do not connect summer conditions with the need for energy conservation. We do not do the joined-up thinking that we need to do in analysing these matters.

I welcome the fact that our Government put environment right at the heart of policy making. I got the impression from the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) that he did not even talk to his colleague, the hon. Member for Daventry (Mr. Boswell). Perhaps he does not know that we had a full debate in Standing Committee on the European paper on renewables. Perhaps he does not know that we put renewables on the agenda in Europe, or that we have had debates in the House on energy policy and the role of coal and renewables. But then, the hon. Member for South Suffolk sticks to the environment and perhaps he does not talk to the shadow spokesman on energy. We have a different response from the Conservative party on energy every other day, so we are not clear where we are with the Opposition.

Our manifesto made it clear that a commitment to diverse, secure and sustainable energy sources was at the heart of our policy. We committed ourselves in our manifesto to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We set a challenging target of a 20 per cent. reduction to 1990 levels by 2000. On energy, we set the tough target of increasing renewable sources of energy--wave, wind, biomass, landfill gas, energy from waste, energy efficiency and combined heat and power schemes--by 10 per cent. by 2010. That is an ambitious target and we have already taken action to get there. The hon. Member for South Suffolk obviously has not heard of the non-fossil fuel obligation scheme that his own Government introduced. We extended it in November to double the amount of renewable energy. We shall reach 5 per cent. by 2000 as a result of that action and investment.

We inherited from the previous Administration a context in which the old nationalised, centralised system of energy generation, distribution and supply was atomised, separated out and privatised. The national grid was privatised and energy was split into generation by National Power or PowerGen, Scottish Power, Scottish Hydro-Electric and Nuclear Electric. They were all privatised. We expressed reservations about where the free market approach would lead. The system was originally divided into 12 separate regional electricity companies. We saw the opening up of competition in electricity and in gas. We have inherited an energy market system. There is the privately owned Pool for power generation. Spot markets are developing in gas and electricity. Seventy companies are now licensed to sell gas and 25 to sell electricity. In that context, how on earth do we deliver diverse, secure and sustainable sources of energy and ensure that environmental objectives are not undermined by the market system? That is precisely why we have considered regulation. We cannot have pure economic regulation; we must bring into account environmental factors.

Under the previous Administration, 74 per cent. of energy was generated from coal--not from oil as my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North said, which is

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included in total energy use, including transport. In 1980, only 1 per cent. of energy was generated from gas. By 1996, as a result of the dash for gas, and the squeeze on and practical shut-down of the coal industry, gas had moved to 23 per cent. and coal had slipped back to 41 per cent. Renewables were still languishing at 0.7 per cent. So there was not a push in the direction of renewables. There was simply a dash for gas under the previous Government. We felt that that was irresponsible, which is why we have checked it to see what we can do to deliver a balanced energy policy. That includes promoting renewables and insisting on a larger share of generation from them.

One could argue that Britain has achieved its targets for carbon dioxide emissions. It did so because the previous Administration closed down manufacturing. When manufacturing shrinks from 52 per cent. of the economy to 22 per cent., we should not be surprised if carbon dioxide emissions are reduced. That is not the way in which to do it. We want to see a shift from fossil fuel generation to renewable energy sources. Renewable sources, combined with energy efficiency and conservation, will achieve the objectives without undermining our economic capacity.

I was asked about offshore oil and gas licences. I have to say to the hon. Member for South Suffolk that when the Labour Government came in, we insisted immediately that environmental impact assessments be imposed on the energy generation industry. The previous Government ignored that, for all their rhetoric about environmental concerns. We have made enormous strides by insisting that environmental considerations are taken into account.

I share the reservations expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) about the nuclear industry. The Government are not in the business of building power stations, because the industry has been privatised. I suggest to him that the cost of building further nuclear power stations is now prohibitive. I cannot see any private power company establishing an economic, let alone any other, case for doing so. The question of the waste still remains, as my hon. Friend eloquently spelt out.

Yes, we have clear targets as a result of Kyoto. My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister was indefatigable in brokering the negotiation at that conference. There were rumours that it would not get off the ground and could not possibly be a success. It is a mark of the achievement of my right hon. Friend that a conclusion was successfully reached. Under the Kyoto protocol, all developed countries now have a legally binding target to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases. Together, they have agreed to reduce emissions of six greenhouse gases to 5.2 per cent. below 1990 levels over the commitment period from 2008 to 2012. We will work through our share of that target and present our proposals on how to meet it.

We have already instituted work on policies to promote renewable sources of energy, in addition to our work on supplementing and carrying forward the fifth round of the NFFO. We have already reviewed sources of power and are looking at the flawed market system set up by the previous Government to determine how to deliver sustainable, secure and diverse energy generation.

We shall take forward the climate change programme with the contribution of renewables. In the next two years, the use of renewables will double from 1 to 2 per cent.

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Our programme will result in an improvement to 4 or 5 per cent. in the years to come. We need to work with the Commission's White Paper on renewables; as I spelt out in Committee, we shall respond positively so as to develop a strategic approach that will enable us to meet targets to increase the use of renewable energy sources across the European Union. The fifth round of the NFFO order will ensure that we reach a target of 5 per cent. of energy derived from renewables by 2000, which will be no mean achievement.

In my work as Minister with responsibility for energy policy and science, I look at scientific programmes with a view to investing in new technologies, for example, tidal power. A grant from my Department--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order.

22 Apr 1998 : Column 752

Beekeeping

11 am

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the serious issue of the threat facing the beekeeping industry. It is fair to say that the issue fits into the general pattern of crisis in the countryside, with the decline in agricultural incomes and the threat to the British rural way of life.

Until a few weeks ago, I was not fully aware of the extent of the crisis facing the beekeeping industry, but it was drawn to my attention by my constituents. I, like many of my colleagues, thought that beekeeping was primarily concerned with honey production and that, as long as there was honey on the supermarket shelves, all must be well. I am reminded of a conversation that I had with a senior colleague in which I mentioned my intention to raise the question of beekeeping; he replied that he was all in favour of beef eating. When I said that it was not beef eating but bee farming which I had in mind, he said, "Yes, BSE is a very serious issue." When I said, "No--what I have in mind is the winged sort," he said he had not realised that the problem was getting quite that serious.

The issue is serious, not only because bee farming is worth while in its own right, but because of the central role it plays in British agriculture and the ecological system. There are reflections of the BSE crisis in the problems affecting beekeeping because of the spread of the varroa mite. The varroa mite has been evident in the United Kingdom since 1992 and has spread progressively throughout the country. From looking at the experience overseas, we know the effects of the varroa mite, yet we have taken almost no action to tackle the problem. Today, I shall outline the nature of the beekeeping industry and the threat facing it and our great concern about the passivity and demonstrable inertia displayed by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and its failure to act.

I shall start by describing the beekeeping industry as a whole. Beekeeping is as old as the pyramids--in fact, when the tomb of one of the pharaohs was recently opened, a jar of honey was found. It is part of the traditional way of life in Britain and has been so for many thousands of years. Today, there are believed to be 20,000 beekeepers in Britain and approximately 100,000 hives, although we cannot be certain, because there is no systematic recording and no national register.

The industry is almost entirely unsubsidised: bee farming is a cottage industry--the sort of industry where, if sheep, cattle or hill farming were involved, the farmers would be the recipients of large sums of Government money--but it is a worthwhile industry because of the combined efforts of professional beekeepers and the many small hobbyists who supplement a rural income by keeping bees and so preserving countryside traditions. This country used to produce 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes of honey, whereas 21,500 tonnes is imported, so the domestic industry is useful in terms of the balance of payments. Most British honey is of premium quality and is sold through small shops or farmers markets. The industry is one to be treasured and supported in its own right.

More important, bee farming is vital to the agricultural chain, because it is crucial to the future of top fruit and flowering and seeding crops. According to MAFF's own

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estimates, honey-bees pollinate about £7 billion-worth of crops in the United Kingdom; if the number of honey-bees decreases--in some parts of the country, the honey-bee faces extinction--that yield will decline, to the detriment of agriculture as a whole. The importance of the honey-bee is that it is by far the most efficient pollinator: it is the one species of pollinator that confines its efforts to one species of plant; it is not promiscuous, unlike the bumble-bee, which will move from, say, an apple tree to a pear tree and so cause sterility, not pollination. It has been demonstrated that, if honey-bees are present, many crops yield 40 per cent. more than would be achieved by wind pollination or other insects.

More than that, the honey-bee is vital for the ecology of the British countryside. The National Farmers Union reckons that 80 per cent. of all flowers and trees depend on the honey-bee for pollination; therefore, as the number of honey-bees declines, so too will the number of flowers and trees. That is where we see the importance of small hobbyist beekeepers--a group much derided by MAFF in the correspondence that I have seen. We need hives covering the entire country; on average, bees cover a three-mile radius around the hive, so without having many small beekeepers, some patches of the country will be sterile because of the lack of a honey-bee population. Small hobbyist beekeepers need support. They are dependent on the advice, research and support of the beekeepers federations and MAFF. If we allow this crisis to continue and lose the honey-bee population, there will be no pollination in large parts of the country, with fewer seeds, fewer flowers and, as a result, fewer birds. The garden of England will start to fade.

The threat from the varroa mite to beekeeping is potentially terminal. We estimate that the number of beekeepers has declined from 35,000 to 22,000 over the past few years. We know that in Kent--a top fruit- producing county--that number has declined from 1,000 to 400 in only five years and the number of hives has probably halved. According to MAFF estimates, honey production has fallen from 4,000 tonnes to 2,500 tonnes. The industry is now experiencing a rapid decline of crisis proportions. That decline affects many individual beekeepers, both professional and hobbyist.

I shall describe the experience of a constituent of mine in Tunbridge Wells. Peter Hutton bought 150 colonies in 1995 and planned to increase that number to between 300 and 500 colonies. Since 1995, he has lost no fewer than 165 colonies to the varroa mite and he now has only 50 colonies. The cost to him has been £26,500--a sum few farmers or entrepreneurs can afford.


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