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Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): It might benefit the House if I were to point out that--although it is not, strictly speaking, a declarable interest--many of my constituents earn their living by working for the successors to British Gas. I approach the debate from that direction.
The Minister rightly said that Lords amendments Nos. 12, 14, 15 and 17 were seeking simply to expand the statement that "so and so shall arise out of this part" to "so and so shall arise out of this part or the Act itself." I am not a lawyer or a parliamentary draftsman. However, I am puzzled about why, if the legislation provides that something shall arise out of the Act, it should also state that something shall arise out of one part of the Act. It seems to be an excessively belt-and-braces approach to say that something will arise from both the Act and a part of the Act. Surely to goodness we know that "this part" is a part of the Act itself. Why is the Minister so keen, at a very late stage in our consideration of the Bill, to urge us to support including repetition in the Bill? I should be grateful for some clarity on that point.
I am also concerned about Lords amendments Nos. 16 and 17. If I heard the Minister correctly, the Government have made a concession. They initially preferred to have no reference in this part of the Bill to the long-term supply of energy. In a debate in the other place, they tried to prevent Parliament from saying that the long-term provision of energy matters sufficiently to be mentioned in the Bill. I suppose we should be grateful for the concession, but it is worth making the point that they tried to exclude any such reference.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) made it clear that, if we were the Government, we would not be starting from here, but the Government are starting from here and have decided to overturn the existing arrangements for the regulator and introduce new requirements. If they are determined to do that, they have the majority, and no doubt they will use it. It is extraordinary in those circumstances to resist any reference to the long-term supply of energy for the British people.
In the absence of a realistic justification, that seems to reveal the Government's hidden agenda and to show that their real focus is not on the consumer's interests, as they claim. It suggests that, if they are not interested in the long-term supply, they are really only interested in control and regulation. That reveals their prejudice.
The Government see that we have successful businesses, following the Conservative Government's privatisation of the industry. We are being asked to approve legislation that is aimed, as is always the case with the Labour party, at wrecking a successful business. The Government cannot tolerate financial success or bring themselves to understand that through such success comes prosperity and the underpinning of long-term viability for all sorts of enterprises.
The Government are now conceding the point, presumably because they want to get away by 7 o'clock, and thereby conceding that they ought to consider other factors rather than wrecking successful businesses out of spite and prejudice. I would be grateful if the Minister could explain how I am wrong.
Mr. Stunell: The debate seems to be rather wide- ranging, but the amendments in this group and the clauses to which they relate go to the heart of some of the Bill's aims. I want to respond to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton (Mr. Gibb) in support of the amendments in lieu. Neither the Lords amendments nor the amendments in lieu make any significant difference to the impact of the Bill, but it is legitimate to discuss them.
I agree with many of the hon. Gentleman's points about the construction and history of the Bill and the disappointing way in which it has proceeded. It was cut in half and had 600 amendments added in Committee, we now have the Lords amendments, and we can see further difficulties lying ahead. There are also some missed opportunities. Some of them are the result of an absence rather than an excess of regulation. In Committee and elsewhere, the Liberal Democrats tabled amendments to try to give the regulating authorities greater power and influence, particularly in the area of environmental control.
I want to tackle the central argument that the hon. Gentleman deployed. The energy supply industry in the United Kingdom has never been completely deregulated and left to the mercies of unregulated rampant market forces. The Conservative Government never thought that that was an option and it is certainly not one for the future. The hon. Gentleman said that it would be absolutely bonkers to lift all regulation except that relating to competition. It would be particularly bonkers for hon. Members representing rural constituencies. If one simply left competition to run unhindered, rural consumers would pay higher prices than urban consumers because the cost of supplying them would be greater.
The hon. Gentleman may contradict me, but I do not believe for a moment that he has brought to the House a new Conservative policy on energy supply which is that rural consumers should pay the full price for the product and therefore pay more. Nor do I believe that he is in favour of dismantling the regulatory framework relating to the security or safety of supply. In some respects, it is absolutely transparent that the quick soundbite of getting rid of all regulation except that relating to competition is bonkers.
Mr. Stunell: What we have established from that intervention is that I am correct: the hon. Gentleman does not seek the dismantling of the regulatory regime. When an industry is privatised, the constraints provided by state ownership are withdrawn and if one does not substitute a regulatory framework rural consumers will pay more, safety corners will be cut, long-term investment will go out of the window and security of supply will become a redundant issue. Quite clearly, the Conservatives do not mean what the soundbite suggests.
Let me take the argument a little further because the Utilities Bill addresses some of the issues of social welfare. I give the Minister credit for those provisions, but the Bill is still slack on environmental control. The Minister has missed some opportunities and this group of Lords amendments does not restore the regulatory framework to the extent that I would like. I do not know whether the Conservatives will press the matter to a vote, but the view of the Liberal Democrats is not that we should have excessive regulation, but that we should have regulation which benefits and protects the consumer. That is why we need regulations on safety and supply and the social provision of energy, and that is why we believe that there should be additional regulation relating to the environment.
Mr. Gibb: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way a second time. If those issues are so important, will he tell the House why his party has not tabled amendments enabling the House to discuss them?
Finally, the hon. Member for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton alleged that somehow the Bill was leading inexorably to a secret renationalisation of the energy companies in the United Kingdom. That is quite amusing given that the profit made from the electricity lighting the lamps in the Chamber is going to a state company--but it happens to be the French state electricity company. That is the outcome of the privatisation process of which the hon. Gentleman is so proud.
Dr. Howells: I agree with the hon. Gentleman. If the previous Government had been a bit more rigorous and shown more guts in taking on other member states to break up the monopoly markets that still exist in some parts of the European Union, we might not have been in this situation.
Mr. Forth: I want to register my mild protest at amendment No. 13, which strikes me as the epitome of guff. It looks innocuous enough, and who would argue with the intention to secure a diverse and long-term energy supply? However, propositions that arouse no argument are usually vacuous and meaningless. I suspect that this one is too.
The amendment appears to encourage the development of solar energy, and wind and wave-generated energy. It may also aim to encourage the development of coal as a source of gas, in competition with or to complement natural gas. That is all very well, but is not that at odds with some of the environmental aims espoused by the same people who produced this nonsensical amendment?