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House of Commons

Thursday 16 January 2003

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Energy White Paper

1. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): If the White Paper on energy will take account of energy sources for transport. [90932]

The Minister for Energy and Construction (Mr. Brian Wilson): The energy White Paper will be published shortly and will take account of energy sources for transport.

Dr. Ladyman : The Government's figures suggest that 12,000 to 24,000 people a year are killed as a result of burning hydrocarbons, at least half of them by motor cars. Although shifting to liquid petroleum gas will help in the short term, that is still derived from scarce fossil fuels and will not eliminate greenhouse gases. Will the White Paper plot a clear course towards a hydrogen economy, and will it be brave about where that hydrogen will be made?

Mr. Wilson: I very much agree with the thrust of what my hon. Friend says. He is right about LPG, which is useful in the short term. I am very anxious to encourage its use. It is better environmentally, and can be a cheaper fuel, especially for people in peripheral areas. For that reason I support LPG. There is no doubt that hydrogen has much more to offer, if not in the immediate term then perhaps by 2020, when vehicles using hydrogen fuel cells might be in commercial production. In the meantime, we can do a lot to encourage the technology. For instance, some buses using hydrogen fuel cells will be introduced in London next year through the green fuel challenge. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced that hydrogen will be exempt from fuel duty for a limited period. We are doing a lot already, and although I do not want to pre-empt the White Paper, I assure my hon. Friend that what we are doing is very much in the spirit of what will be proposed.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate): The White Paper has been subject to the most inordinate delay. First it was going to be published last year, then at the turn of the

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year, then in the new year. Last week, Lord Sainsbury, the Under-Secretary of State in the other place, said that it would be published in the spring, and now the Minister has told the House that it will be published shortly. Are we to take it that both those statements are correct and that they represent the current position? Is the Department's definition of Xspring" the same as its definition of Xshortly"? If Lord Sainsbury represents the official position, will the Minister say on exactly what date the Department thinks that spring begins? Is not it the case that all the procrastination that I have set out means that the White Paper will not be comprehensive, and that the Government's energy policy will continue to be marked by muddle, confusion and short-termism?

Mr. Wilson: Where I was educated, spring is normally defined as February, March and April. I do not know whether that helps the hon. Gentleman. The Tories might work to a different calendar, as well as belong to a different planet. The White Paper will be with us shortly. There has been no inordinate delay. It deals with very important issues, as we are looking at the future of energy supply in this country up to 2050, not just for the next few years. It is better to get that right than to worry too much about in which month of spring the White Paper will be published.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone): Will my hon. Friend say whether the White Paper will set out a sustainable future for the indigenous deep coal-mining industry? Will that sustainable future be based on an aid package that will focus on investment? There is a rumour that the package may be based on regional selective assistance. If so, that would not be appropriate for the coal industry.

Mr. Wilson: We are committed to an investment aid scheme in principle. We went to Europe to get permission for such a scheme, which would benefit the indigenous coal industry. We would not have done that if we did not intend to introduce the scheme. The future of what remains of the indigenous coal industry is not entirely in our hands, for geological reasons as much as any other. However, I assure my hon. Friend that I am acutely aware of the importance of the deep-mine coal industry, and indeed of the surface coal industry, to those communities where the industries still exist. I have no doubt that that importance will be reflected in the White Paper.

Magazine Covers

2. Andrew Selous (South-West Bedfordshire): What recent representations she has received about the regulations governing covers of magazines displayed in shops. [90933]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Miss Melanie Johnson): None.

Andrew Selous : Many of my constituents with young children are very concerned about the increasingly lurid covers of magazines such as FHM, GQ and Maxim. As those magazines are not deemed to be pornographic, they are often displayed at children's head height. Will the Minister assure the House that she will ask all

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magazine retailers to put such magazines well out of the eyesight of young children, as it is difficult for families to avoid those displays, especially when calling at petrol stations?

Miss Melanie Johnson: The teenage magazine arbitration panel monitors the sexual content of teenage magazines, 25 per cent. or more of whose readership is made up of girls under 15 years of age. I think that that is relevant to the hon. Gentleman's point. The guidelines that it produced are the publishing industry's own standards, but they were produced in co-operation with magazine publishers, editors and retailers, and approved by the Home Office. I hear the hon. Gentleman's point, and I shall refer his concerns to the relevant parties and ask them to address them.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough): My hon. Friend will also be aware that it is not just children who are offended by these things, but many hon. Members and constituents, who ask why on earth magazines such as Stuff and T3, which are about technology, have to have women on their front covers. I dare not buy them in shops for those very reasons. Perhaps those concerned would sell more magazines if they took women off the front covers and concentrated on the issues inside the magazines.

Miss Johnson: I share my hon. Friend's concerns. We are particularly concerned that the young and more vulnerable members of society should be protected from potentially harmful material. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is responsible for the legislation and voluntary agreements in that area. I hesitate to be slightly cynical, but I am sure that it has something to do with the fact that it still sells magazines, unfortunately.

Wind Energy

3. Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble): What actions her Department is taking to support the expansion of wind energy in the UK. [90934]

The Minister for Energy and Construction (Mr. Brian Wilson): Last April, we introduced the renewables obligation, which provides an assured market for renewable energy, including wind power, for 25 years. In October, I announced capital grants of #10 million each to the first two offshore wind farms to be given consent. In November, the Department launched a consultation document, which set out options for a major expansion of the UK's offshore wind potential both within territorial waters and beyond.

Mr. Borrow: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. I wish to raise a particular problem that will arise if we seek to increase massively the amount of energy derived from wind power. Most of the parts of the UK that are most suitable for wind power are those furthest from centres of population, requiring major investment in the national grid to ensure that the electricity generated in that way can be used. Will my hon. Friend examine ways to ensure that that investment takes place, whether by fiscal means or by direct subsidy?

Mr. Wilson: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no point in generating electricity if it cannot be taken

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to the markets where it is required. We have a very strong infrastructure, but it is based largely on the old coal and steel economy. If we are to have a much more distributed range of generation, we must have an infrastructure to match. It is an essential part of the overall package that that infrastructure is put in place.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): Does the Minister accept that not all of us are enthusiasts for wind farms? Many of us think that they are pure vandalism, ruining beautiful parts of our country, and that there should be very strict planning controls on them.

Mr. Wilson: I accept that such a point of view exists, although I regard it as extreme and unreasonable.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): Is it not the case that two thirds of planning applications for wind farms are withdrawn because of planning difficulties? When the White Paper is published—soon, shortly or in the spring—is this an issue that my hon. Friend intends to tackle?

Mr. Wilson: A balance must be struck between the legitimate rights of people to object and the country's legitimate needs for renewable energy. The White Paper and the ongoing work by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister have to look at whether we have that balance right. People in all parties and none who pay lip service to renewable energy as a good thing should implement that view by supporting renewable energy projects, rather than joining the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. Mackay) in his somewhat one-dimensional opposition.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Following on the point raised by the hon. Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow), given that the Government have been prepared to invest massive amounts of money to bail out British Energy, are they prepared to put similar direct public investment into the national grid to ensure that we obtain the full benefit of wind and wave power in the future?

Mr. Wilson: I am puzzled by the first part of the question. The Scottish nationalist candidate in my constituency, where there is a nuclear power station, wrote to the local press last week to say that the nationalists are fully behind what the Government have done for British Energy, but whereas there are two nationalists and two opportunities, there are at least four different points of view.

There is no such comparison. I personally think that someone would have to be particularly foolish to draw that analogy. The one thing that people cannot do with nuclear power stations is turn the key and walk away. The Government have not poured money into British Energy; we have loaned money to British Energy to ensure security of supply and the safe operation of nuclear power stations. We are pouring money into renewable energy sources for excellent reasons, which is why there is such an upsurge to meet our targets for 2010.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton): I welcome my hon. Friend's statement on the development of wind power,

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but does he accept that 10 per cent. is only a part of the need for the generation of energy? Will he consider giving the same support to the coal industry as he has given to British Energy and wind power? We need to have a balance, and the coal industry is part of that balance.

Mr. Wilson: I agree entirely that coal is part of the balance. That is why we have had the operating aid scheme during the past few years, since the Government came to office. It is also why we have now put in place the potential for an investment aid scheme—we have won that argument in Europe—and, as I said earlier, I do not think that anyone believes other than that there is a place for coal in this country's energy mix. There is also full recognition of the continuing importance of coal in those places where it continues to be mined.

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