Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Francois: I commend the hon. Gentleman for his honesty in describing himself as a socialist. It is nice to hear such honesty from the Labour Benches.

We are all rightly concerned about these matters, but is it not the case that all modern nuclear reactors, certainly in the United Kingdom, are able to withstand a direct strike by an aircraft? Is that not one of their critical design criteria?

Jon Trickett: Some consideration has certainly been given to security aspects, but I am postulating a direct hit not necessarily by an aeroplane but, perhaps, by some percussive instrument. In any event, I am never entirely convinced by structural engineers' calculations. Regardless of whether a plant could withstand a direct impact with a small plane, perhaps single-pilot and single-engine, the calculations I have seen suggest that large jets with a full payload of fuel could devastate a nuclear plant. I feel that the least we can expect is the rapid conducting of a major review of all those aspects.

Mr. Francois rose

Jon Trickett: I am still dealing with the hon. Gentleman's first point.

I understand that elsewhere, on the European mainland, artillery weapons and even surface-to-air missiles are being constructed in an attempt to defend existing nuclear plants from potential terrorist attacks. That does not inspire confidence in me that Governments who have far more knowledge than the hon. Gentleman or me are confident that current construction techniques result in plants that can withstand terrorist attack.

Having covered the nuclear power aspects of the fuel inheritance received by the Labour Government, I turn to the subject of gas. The Conservatives constructed an energy pool that was severely biased in favour of gas as a source for power generation. Natural gas is a clean fuel, but indigenous sources are limited. Estimates of how long that gas would endure were hopelessly optimistic: in 1990, it was estimated that known gas reserves would last us for 36 years, but less than 10 years later that estimate had more than halved. Indigenous sources of natural gas will expire in about 14 years.

19 Oct 2001 : Column 1380

When that happens, we will face the likelihood of importing gas from the middle east and the former Soviet Union. Half of the world's known reserves of natural gas are owned by just two companies—Russia's Gazprom and National Iranian Gas Company. If we continue to promote the use of gas, supplies of gas to the British economy will be in the hands of a duopoly. That troubles me, first because duopolies tend to exploit their position by forcing up prices, and secondly because the location of those gas resources—geologically and, more important, politically—means that there is a danger that they could be destroyed by either geological or political events. In addition, after the events of 11 September, it is not implausible that a gas pipeline thousands of kilometres long leading to the United Kingdom might enter the mind of terrorists as a possible target for attack. For those reasons, we should closely examine our gas supplies.

Earlier, I mentioned three fuel sources, but I should have said four. The Conservatives did little to promote renewables, so I am glad that the Labour Government are accelerating research and development into those sources, albeit not as quickly as I would like. Given the difficulties of nuclear and gas energy sources, the Government should be accelerating the development of renewables as much as possible. That should form a major part of the energy review.

The final fuel source is coal. The coal industry in this country was deliberately destroyed for political reasons by the Conservatives—the history is well known and I shall not dwell on it now. Coal currently provides one third of the fuel for energy generation. It is not a clean fuel, so something has to be done if we intend to use it as an energy resource. Other than renewables, coal is the only indigenous fuel source of which we have long-term reserves.

Our coal-fired power stations are becoming rather long in the tooth; investment is needed. It is possible to halve the emissions produced by such power stations, and that is something that the Government should do immediately. The Government are funding a foresight programme to investigate the use of clean-coal technology: the programme advocates rapid investment in coal-fired plant to reduce emissions. That is welcome and should be regarded as an imperative. Coal is the only fuel of which we have a large indigenous supply. In addition, UK-produced coal is the cheapest in Europe, and it offers long-term security and diversity of supply.

There is a large world market for the sort of technology that we might use to make our coal-fired energy plants more efficient, and new technologies, some of which have been tested and proved, would allow us to burn coal still more efficiently. Coal liquefaction is not yet tried and tested, but it offers great hope for the future, so more research should be carried out. Gasification of coal has been tried and tested; we should utilise it as a matter of urgency and so ensure that we have a secure and diverse long-term energy industry.

A by-product of coal gasification is carbon dioxide—a pollutant that must be removed to create clean fuels. However, carbon dioxide is needed to pump into North sea oilfields to extract oil, so the carbon dioxide extracted during the process of coal gasification could be recycled to extract oil from North sea reserves. That is an interesting development which the Government should consider during their overall energy review, especially as

19 Oct 2001 : Column 1381

the Treasury would benefit from a windfall of approximately £300 million, which could be used to further research into renewables.

I hope that we can look forward to an early outcome of the energy review. We should finally nail down the nuclear option and begin its removal and the transfer to renewables. In the meantime, we should promote security and diversity of supply, which will direct us toward indigenous supplies such as Yorkshire coal and the use of new technologies.

12.7 pm

Mr. Greg Knight (East Yorkshire): Having been a Member of Parliament representing another constituency for almost 15 years and having had the honour during that time to serve as Government Deputy Chief Whip and Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry, I can hardly claim that this is a maiden speech. To do so would be like the pop singer Madonna turning up to her next wedding claiming to be a virgin. None the less, I shall observe some of the conventions of a maiden speech.

My constituency, formerly the constituency of Bridlington, has a long history of being well served by hard-working Members of Parliament. My predecessor in East Yorkshire discharged his constituency duties with diligence, energy and enthusiasm, and I hope to follow his example. I wish him and his wife Jennifer a long and happy retirement.

East Yorkshire contains some of the most beautiful countryside in England. It is an honour to represent the seat. To any of my hon. Friends who are considering an end-of-season holiday, I strongly recommend a visit to my constituency. It has everything to offer, from the traditional seaside holiday at Bridlington and Skipsea, to the beautiful scenery of Flamborough Head. Travelling west, the tourist will find the interesting historic market towns of Market Weighton, Driffield and Pocklington—

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster): Good beer there.

Mr. Knight: Indeed there is. On that note, I should be happy to treat any of Member of Parliament, Conservative or Labour—or you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—to a round of drinks. If you, sir, visit East Yorkshire, we could go to Jerome's and have a drink while overlooking the beach and Bridlington bay.

The subject of the debate today is rather like motherhood and apple pie; it is difficult to be against it. How could any hon. Member oppose the trend towards the introduction of clean fuels? I welcome the development of clean fuels and the progress that is being made in this area.

I remind the House that not all vehicles can use the new, cleaner fuels. The Government have accepted that because, so far, they have behaved responsibly in allowing the continued but limited sale of four star leaded fuel. Modern everyday cars do not need to use that fuel but it is necessary for most vintage and classic cars. It is here that I ought to declare an interest, although perhaps that word is inadequate. I should say that I declare a passion for restoring, maintaining, owning and driving historic and classic motor vehicles. These vehicles are part

19 Oct 2001 : Column 1382

of our national heritage and bring pleasure to tens of thousands of owners. They also bring pleasure to many members of the public, judging by the numbers who attend classic car events. Many of these events are held in support of charitable organisations.

I hope that the Minister can assure the House that it is no part of his longer-term strategy to force these cars off our roads by the introduction of a complete ban on the sale of leaded fuel. Some vintage cars do not need to use four star fuel. It is perhaps a testimony to the build quality of Rolls-Royce vehicles that every single Rolls-Royce car ever made can run on unleaded fuel without sustaining engine damage. Other classic vehicles are not so fortunate and many valuable and cherished vintage cars need to use leaded four star to be kept on the road. The overall output of vehicle emissions from classic vehicles is negligible. The Government have rightly recognised that, and I hope that the Minister will continue to allow the sale of leaded four star fuel at specialist outlets.

I wish to refer to the use of gas as a fuel for vehicles. I agree with earlier comments that the take-up of such vehicles in the UK to date has been disappointing. When John Major was Prime Minister, I was one of the first members of his Government to use a car capable of running on gas. There is a loss of power in a car running on gas as opposed to petrol, but this loss is so small that, under normal driving conditions, one cannot notice the difference. When driving on a motorway, one certainly cannot notice the difference in performance.

I believe that gas is an ideal fuel for fleet users and users in the public sector. How many Government cars—I include cars used by civil servants—have been converted to use gas? What is this number as a percentage of the total? If it is not 100 per cent., why not? Surely the Government should be leading by example. If the fleet is not 100 per cent. converted, will the Minister tell us when he expects it to be so?

The Government face a dilemma, which has been picked up by a number of my hon. Friends. The Government say that they want the wider use of gas and other clean fuels. However, if enough motorists were to make the change to these fuels, revenue from fuel taxes would plummet. A number of business men to whom I have talked have said that they do not think it is worth changing to gas. They believe that once the volume of gas-powered vehicles on our roads increases, the Government will increase tax on gas. They feel that there would not be sufficient time to claw back the extra investment before fuel duties were increased. The Government may have to revisit their commitment not to interfere with the tax on gas until 2004. If they want to accelerate the changeover to gas-powered vehicles, particularly among fleet users, they may find that that commitment has to be extended into the future.

One of the main problems at present is the availability, or non-availability, of gas, a point touched on by the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Jon Trickett). No motorist will travel miles out of his or her way to purchase a fuel that, in the long run, is only marginally cheaper to use.

Next Section

IndexHome Page