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11.37 am

Tom Brake (Carshalton and Wallington): First, I, too, apologise for having to leave before the end of the debate because of appointments that could not be rescheduled.

I welcome the debate but I am intrigued by its purpose and especially its timing. I listened carefully to the Minister and had great difficulty in finding anything in his speech that had not been announced in the Budget statement in March. The only change is that the "Powering future vehicles" consultation paper will be delivered in November, not in the summer as promised in the Budget. I am a little disappointed because there has been no progress since March. Instead, there has been a slippage in the publication of one consultation paper.

We agree that transport has a huge impact on the environment because of the greenhouse gases and local air pollutants that it generates. We certainly support the promotion of technologies to improve vehicle efficiency and the use of alternative fuel systems such as liquefied petroleum gas and, in the longer term, biofuels and zero-emission vehicles.

The debacle surrounding Railtrack and plans for the partial privatisation of London Underground have led me to question whether those developments will make a positive contribution to the modal shift that is desired. I suspect that they are going to have the opposite effect and that people will switch from public transport to their cars rather than from cars to public transport. However, the Minister made some positive comments and there are desirable developments in the air quality strategy, which are welcome.

In the Budget statement in March, the Chancellor announced several initiatives, prompted in part by responses to the Government's green fuel challenge. It is worth reminding hon. Members of what was said. The Government said that they would support pilot projects for hydrogen, methanol, bioethanol and biogas with duty reductions or exemptions, and would consult this summer to encourage the development, delivery and uptake of newer, alternative, greener fuels and technologies. However, as I said, the "Powering future vehicles" consultation paper will not be delivered until November. Six months on, it is worth taking stock of the progress that has been made on the promises of support that were given in March.

I hope that the Minister will be able to confirm how, in the past six months and in the future, the Government's performance measured and will measure up to

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Greenpeace's response to the Government's green fuel challenge. Greenpeace pushes harder, further and faster than any Government would desire, but I believe that the Government will get to the time frame that Greenpeace wants in the longer term. I will therefore remind the Minister of what it seeks.

Greenpeace believes that the aim should be to install 250 compressed natural gas—CNG—refuelling points, but there were no targets for such refuelling points in the statement in March. Will the Minister tell us whether there is a target for increasing their number? By how many more does he expect the number to increase over the next 12 months and over the term of this Parliament? According to Greenpeace, there are only 20 CNG refuelling points in the country. Even a change in the duty is unlikely to have any effect on the uptake of CNG, therefore, because very few people will be able to get to the 20 existing points.

Greenpeace called for grants for the conversion costs for 5,000 freight vehicles and for 25,000 cars a year. It will be interesting to learn how Government figures tie in with such an ambitious target. It also called for incentives for the installation of electricity refuelling points. Clearly, that is not within the Government's remit; it is something that local government can do. Presumably, however, the Government have given the matter some thought.

There may be concerns that electric vehicles result in the displacement of pollution, because they are supplied by electricity generated at a power station. Renewable energies can be used, however, and I invite the Minister to visit a residential development in my constituency—the Beddington zero energy development project—where, once the development is complete, a scheme will provide for a pool of electric cars to be powered by photovoltaics. That is a good example of how one can obtain complete sustainability in a development. Does the Minister have any views as to how many electricity refuelling points there should be after the next 12 months and at the end of this Parliament?

The Government talk about the need to take further steps along the road towards a hydrogen-based economy. Unless there is a distribution network for the hydrogen, I am not sure that it will be possible to take steps down that road. I do not know why the Minister shakes his head, because I have referred directly to what was said in the March statement. Do the Government have plans to install a hydrogen network and, if so, what is the time frame in which it will be rolled out?

On LPG, I thank the Minister for confirming that refuelling points and the fuel tanks in vehicles should present no safety concerns. I shall pass on that information. However, has he considered whether vehicles running on LPG should be subject to congestion charges? That is a matter of current debate.

In the statement, the Government talk about looking in the medium term towards bioethanol and biogas. How would the British Association for Biofuels and Oils rate the Government's proposals? It called for a tax derogation for biofuels of 7.5p per litre. Is the Minister able to give us any information about incentives?

Mr. Andrew Turner: The hon. Gentleman asked the Minister about congestion charges. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us whether he thinks LPG-driven vehicles should be exempt from congestion charges?

Tom Brake: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that point. There needs to be way of determining the extent to which

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the LPG nature of a dual-fuelled car is used. Unless that can be established, it will be difficult to determine whether a dual-fuelled car is being used permanently in the LPG mode or permanently in the petrol-driven mode. I am pleased that the Mayor of London and his team will have responsibility for clarifying that point and resolving the dilemma.

Mr. Jamieson: I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has raised this point. As he can imagine, it is exercising our minds as well as his, and he is having almost as much difficulty as we are. Many LPG conversions are carried out under railway arches and some of them are not done well. Could he help the Government by telling us how we might distinguish between the good and the bad conversions? Might we not encourage something undesirable if we were to give a blanket exemption to all LPG vehicles?

Tom Brake: I am pleased that the Minister seeks my assistance. I also seek his and that of his Department, because I am sure that it has considered the issue. I look forward to the Minister and his friend the Mayor of London resolving the dilemma between them.

I referred to bioethanol. There is potential for it to be developed as a relatively clean fuel in agriculture, and it can assist in combating global warming. It could play an important role in restoring our ailing farming industry.

Will the Minister set out the extent of the support that will be given to the pilot projects that were referred to in the March statement? Will the Government support a set number of projects, and will a budget be allocated in each year of this Parliament to support them? Have they set a ceiling for the special duty reductions or exemptions that will be available? Will they perhaps provide support in other ways, such as consultancy advice and secondments?

The Minister must think through the changes carefully and his thinking needs to be joined up in a way that it is perhaps not in relation to the electricity industry. It appears that the Government's plans for fighting global warming will be jeopardised by the new rules for the buying and selling of electricity. They will have a heavy impact on renewable energy and on combined heat and power.

This has been a useful debate and I regret the fact that I will not be able to stay for the Minister's winding-up. I hope, however, that he will respond to my questions. If not, I shall undoubtedly write to him in the near future to secure answers.

11.49 am

Jon Trickett (Hemsworth): Given what has been said so far in speeches and interventions, I think it possible that this will turn out to be two debates in one: a debate about motor vehicles, and a debate about other matters relating to clean fuels—"Clean Fuels" being, I believe, the title of the debate.

I want to speak about what may well be the minority interest in the House today—fuels used to generate power. No doubt the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is an excellent Transport Minister, and he is obviously an excellent Front-Bench colleague, but I feel that he is a poor

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substitute for the Minister for Industry and Energy. I would have liked to hear a response or perhaps an opening speech from him, but no doubt my comments and those of others will be passed on to him in due course.

As has been said, the Government have launched an energy review, the second that they have conducted. The first resulted in a White Paper, published in 1998. Preparing for the debate, I glanced at it to remind myself of its contents. I felt that its opening betrayed a lack of self-confidence in asking on what basis the Government should intervene in the energy market, a question to which it came up with a number of responses.

I do not think that such a lack of self-confidence would have featured if the White Paper had been written in the present circumstances. The situation has clearly changed since 11 September; it also changed when the power blackouts occurred in California. I shall say more about that shortly, but it seems to me self-evident—as might be expected, given that I originate from a Yorkshire coalfield—that the Government should intervene directly and proactively in the energy market. Indeed, I see a case for public ownership, which may make me old-fashioned. It certainly makes me a socialist, and proud to be so.

As the world's economies have advanced and become almost post-industrial, they have become increasingly interdependent. Energy is now one of the fundamental commodities—so fundamental that it is impossible to imagine civilised life being conducted for more than a few moments without the national grid. We saw what happened during the blackouts in California.

That is my first reason for thinking that the Government should intervene in the energy market. There is also the issue of security of supply. Following the events of 11 September, we should reflect again on the potential impact of a terrorist strike against nuclear plants. I shall say more about that shortly.

Finally—and perhaps the debate should centre on this—there is the question of the environment and the Kyoto protocols. As we know, the production of energy generally is a great pollutant, and those who cause pollution cannot restrict its effects to themselves: pollution travels around the planet. Forests in one country can be destroyed by pollution created elsewhere, and we know that the United Kingdom has contributed to the destruction and defoliation of trees and plants in other parts of the world.

For all those reasons, I feel that the Government should intervene actively in the energy market. We should bear in mind the inheritance that Labour received in 1997: a mixed economy in regard to fuel, but one that was disastrously and dangerously skewed from the point of view of the national interest. Three primary fuel sources constituted part of that inheritance from the Tories, the first being the nuclear industry.

We know from the Secretary of State's response yesterday to an oral question—it has already been mentioned this morning—that the nuclear legacy now faced by the country is terrifying. The Secretary of State estimated that dealing with nuclear waste would cost us £85 billion. When asked who would bear the cost, she said that the British economy would pay the price of dealing with waste already known to exist or currently being created. That means that every man, woman and child in the country, and for generations to come, must deal not just with the polluting effects but with the economic and fiscal effects of nuclear waste.

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When asked whether the current energy review should bear in mind the wider costs of dealing with nuclear waste, the Secretary of State clearly said that it should. It is patently true that every kilowatt hour of energy produced by nuclear plants should bear the costs not just of fuel and construction, but of dismantling and attempting to deal with the potentially lethal legacy of those plants.

What happened on 11 September has also placed another large question mark over the use of nuclear fuel for power generation. It takes no imagination to consider the devastating impact that a direct strike against a nuclear plant anywhere in the country would have, not just on the local population but on the nation as a whole and, indeed, throughout Europe. We do not need imagination, because we have seen what happened on Three Mile Island and at Chernobyl. Those were disasters, but I venture to suggest that they would be overshadowed by a direct strike against a nuclear plant.

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