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13 Nov 2000 : Column 758

Control of Fuel and Electricity

10.25 pm

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell): I beg to move,

On 7 September, following similar events in France, protesters blockaded the Shell refinery at Stanlow in Cheshire. The oil companies told my Department that such action, if repeated at other refineries, could quickly and seriously disrupt national fuel supplies. As a consequence, the Government sought an Order in Council under section 3 of the Energy Act 1976. The Energy Act 1976 (Reserve Powers) Order 2000 was made by Her Majesty on Monday 11 September and laid on 12 September. The order came into force on 11 September, it being considered that the exceptional urgency of the situation justified the order coming into force before it had been laid. Were the House and another place to approve the order, it would expire on 10 September 2001--that is, 12 months after it was made. Failing such approval, it would expire at midnight on Sunday 19 November. The order was approved in another place on 7 November.

Paragraph 2 of the order declares that

Those sections enable the Secretary of State to make orders and to give directions to regulate the production, supply and use of certain fuels, including petrol and diesel.

It was considered in September that it was necessary for the Government to have those powers at their disposal, given the serious threat to fuel supplies, and hence to emergency and other essential services, to the health service and to food distribution. Using those powers, the Secretary of State subsequently made orders designating priority retail fuel sites and priority purposes to facilitate the orderly return to normal when protests ended. Those arrangements would have ensured continuity of essential services for a longer period had the blockades continued.

While the order is in force, the Secretary of State can, under sections 1 and 2, regulate the production and supply of fuel and direct companies and others as to the use of petroleum products or the price at which they are sold. Examples of orders and directions that the Government might want to issue would be directing petrol suppliers to supply only to specified locations and for priority purposes or restricting private, commercial or public transport activity, for the purpose of conserving supplies.

I remind the House of the Government's approach in responding to the fuel disruption in September. The Government made clear from the first our determination to ensure that supplies were returned to normal, in view of the risk that the disruption threatened to national prosperity and, potentially, to lives. As soon as it became apparent that supplies were being affected, we took action to ensure that the necessary procedures were put in place to allow for supplies to return to normal as quickly as possible.

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The oil industry's standing emergency committee met daily to report the position in the refineries and the effect that that was having on distribution, and to review its list of priority petrol stations and depots. The ministerial civil contingencies committee met regularly to receive reports and co-ordinate action being taken around the country.

As I have said, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, using the exceptional powers available under the Order in Council, made further orders designating petrol stations and depots around the country priority suppliers, and requesting oil companies to ensure that available supplies were, in the first instance, used to keep those stations open. We received representations from priority users, businesses and the public about the lists, and in response made further orders adding other petrol stations and depots. On the list of petrol stations, we also specified about 300 outlets that were primarily to serve essential users. We issued a list of essential users, including important business sectors such as food distribution as well as the emergency services themselves.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Can the Minister explain why animal feed companies on the list were not granted exemption under the derogation orders?

Mrs. Liddell: A number of issues were brought to the Department's attention when the emergency orders were put in place. Since then we have had an opportunity to review those matters. The list of exemptions is now much wider, and the number of designated filling stations is much greater. At the time, the main priority was to ensure that fuel supplies reached essential services--food distribution, in the first instance. The opportunity also existed to extend the orders if the disruption continued.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): This is a factual question. Can the Minister tell us whether in her view, and according to the advice she has been given, the list of filling stations is now accurate? There were problems with the first list.

Is there now a publicly available list of those who are to be supplied as a matter of priority? And is there is a common place in government where anyone who wants any such information can have access to it on an up-to-date basis, either in the Minister's Department or in any other Department of State?

Mrs. Liddell: Let me explain how the list of priority filling stations and depots was compiled. It happened in consultation with the police and local authorities, following representation from essential users. As I have said, there is now a list of some 600.

The DTI is operating a telephone call centre. Anyone can telephone and find out whether their station or depot, or one that they would wish to use, is on the list. We shall certainly take steps to ensure that Members are aware of the full scope. Some have mentioned problems that arose in their constituencies last time. Many of those problems arose because of the speed with which the issues had to be addressed.

In addition to the September list of petrol stations, we specified about 300 outlets that were primarily to serve essential users. We issued a list of such users, including business sectors such as food distribution as well as the emergency services.

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Although the powers under the Order in Council would have enabled us to issue legally binding directions, we decided that the arrangements should be non-statutory. They were handled by local authorities and the police, and co-ordinated by the Government office in each region. The emphasis was on common-sense decisions on the ground in the light of local circumstances.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West): My constituency contains a company called Clos-o-mat, which provides toilet facilities for disabled people. Although it is based in my constituency, it provides a service across the country. When I approached the Department asking for the company to be designated an essential user, I was told to advise the company to approach the local authority. Surely in the case of a company that provides a national service there is a need for a national designation, which should not depend on a single local authority.

Mrs. Liddell: I will take up the hon. Gentleman's point. I was not aware of the difficulty that was experienced in his constituency. We have learned a lot from the events in September. I hope that we have managed to overcome the problems, as he will find as I make progress, but I will look into the circumstances surrounding the difficulties in his constituency. I understand his anxiety about it.

Guidance on the measures taken in September was placed on Government websites and distributed through police stations, local authorities and health authorities. We set up two telephone hotlines for priority users and members of the public who wanted information. The situation returned to normal. I am sure that every hon. Member hopes that the disruption is not repeated, but the speed and scale of the disruption took everyone by surprise. It remains essential to ensure that disruption on that scale cannot be repeated.

For that reason, the Prime Minister set up a task force, which, on 29 September, published a memorandum of understanding between Government, the oil companies, trade unions, hauliers and the police. Its purpose is to ensure that fuel supply is maintained in the event of any future disruption by committing all signatories to take the necessary contingency action.

On 2 November, the Home Secretary further told the House that the task force was putting in place measures aimed at ensuring, in the event of future disruption, the delivery of fuel to petrol stations, with priority for essential users; better preparation for disruption by local authorities and other essential users; the availability of Ministry of Defence drivers to drive tankers as a last resort; the protection of food depots and other potential targets; and the keeping open of major roads. Last week, we reopened the Cabinet Office's national information and co-ordination centre, which will gather information to enable us to build an accurate picture of what happens throughout the country, so that extra support can be given to forces that need it.

I regret that we appear to be faced with threats of further disruption. We have no alternative but to seek extension of the exceptional powers, so that we can take responsible action to safeguard essential services. The Government are in no doubt that it is necessary to have those powers available for some time to come, in order to

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take the action necessary to preserve essential supplies and services. The Government are firmly of the view that a situation continues to exist in which there is a real threat of disruption to fuel supplies and that it is our responsibility to be prepared to act quickly to maintain essential services, particularly at this season of the year.

The section of the Energy Act 1976 in question--section 3--had not previously been activated, so that was not something that we would do lightly. Careful thought was given before an order was sought in early September, and very careful thought has been given again to the issue, but it is our considered view that it is right and necessary to extend those powers.

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