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6 Feb 2003 : Column 521—continued

5.43 pm

Mr. Stunell: I wish to start by thanking the Minister for the courtesy and help that he has given to those of us who have considered the Bill and for the answers that he

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has given to me from time to time. Nevertheless, it must be said that the Bill has been rushed and ill prepared, and we have had insufficient time to consider properly what should be done. I saw some heads shaking when I said "ill prepared", but I would draw the Minister's attention to amendment No. 19—the typography was not even right.

The Bill is wrong in principle. It is a Bill too far, and it is too soon. Overhanging the Bill and behind all the speeches that have been made so far is the fact that we shall have the White Paper in a few weeks—perhaps in a fortnight, according to the latest hints—which will, about five years too late, set out an energy policy for this country. The fact that the Bill pre-empts significant parts of that White Paper strongly suggests that it is the wrong Bill at the wrong time.

The Bill is not just wrong in principle, it is also wrong in detail. However, the word "detail" is somewhat misplaced because the Government can do anything that they like to anything that they want so long as the words "British Energy" are in its title or the money can be channelled through British Energy, and they can do so at any cost that they care to nominate.

The hon. Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) keeps referring back to European Union trade restrictions. It is fine for him to do so, but the charge that the Government and the House have abdicated their responsibilities is right. It may be that Europe offers a safety net, but is that good enough? Does the House really want expenditure to be completely unconstrained except by the intervention of European Commissioners? When one has an existing limit of £2.5 billion, which is not a trivial sum, and then opposes an amendment that would lift that ceiling to £3.5 billion—and would, by extension, have opposed a ceiling of £10 billion—the situation is clearly beyond parliamentary control.

The hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) said that Opposition parties had failed to come up with an estimate. He cannot have been listening because he has missed something. We have provided a ceiling, if not an estimate. The Minister has said that our ceiling does not allow him enough flexibility. His estimate is undefined, but is larger than £3.5 billion. It is utterly outrageous to make the charge that whereas the Government have a nice and precisely controlled budget, the Opposition parties have no grasp of the details. That charge flies in the face of the facts that the House has heard.

Dr. Ladyman: The hon. Gentleman can argue that the House has come to the wrong conclusion, but he cannot argue that the Bill has not been scrutinised. It has been scrutinised on the Floor of the House. Many Ministers proposing Bills, and many Opposition spokesmen opposing them, would give their right arm to have those Bills scrutinised on the Floor of the House. This Bill has had the best scrutiny possible.

Mr. Stunell: The hon. Gentleman is wrong. There has been no time to discuss ways of improving accountability and transparency. Clause 2 deals with the Government's powers to acquire securities but, as far as I can see, there is no limit on the nature and extent of the securities that the Government can purchase. A discussion on transparency would have drawn out that point. The Minister properly pointed out to the

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House that clause 2 is not restricted to British Energy, but relates to any assets that the Government might seek to acquire. However, that point was not discussed further. The hon. Gentleman is wrong: the fact that the Bill was discussed on the Floor of the House did not mean that it was properly and thoroughly scrutinised. The scrutiny it was given has not produced the right result.

The only thing that clause 2 does not facilitate is the purchase by North Korea of the assets, a possibility mentioned by one hon. Member. However, clause 2 does not prevent the Government from purchasing North Korea's assets as a result of the relaxations that will be introduced.

I want to talk about one of the unintended consequences of the Bill. I have no doubt that it was unintended, but money spent on this project will now not be available for other projects that most of us in this place would regard as more deserving. There is competition for resources—whether they are in the form of investment by the Government of taxpayers' money, or investment by the private sector of shareholders' money. There can be little doubt that the result of this particular investment will be to reduce the Government's capacity to invest in other things, and to undermine the desire of the private sector to invest in energy-related matters.

In the past year, we have seen the virtual collapse of the combined heat and power industry for generating electricity. There has been more than a 75 per cent. drop in the amount of electricity that is generated in that way. As a direct consequence, the Government will fail to meet their carbon dioxide reduction targets. There has been no intervention from the Government on that and no support for investment. However, as a result of this project, electricity generation from the nuclear sector has been artificially sustained, and that has driven down prices further and made it harder for private investment to come in. It is even less likely that combined heat and power will become viable in this country.

The hon. Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) raised the issue of coal. The Minister swept his point aside and said that we should not consider the argument in terms of tit for tat. The Minister said that the two forms of energy should not be seen in competition. I hope that he has said to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, "I have spent £643 million on British Energy but, please, do not let that affect your view of how much I should spend on other aspects of the energy industry."

Mr. Wilson: No one has spent £643 million on the nuclear industry—certainly no one in this Government. Will the hon. Gentleman tell us something positive and give us an insight into the Liberal Democrats' thinking? Faced with the situation in which British Energy found itself, what would they have done? If he is ruling out the loan facility that we granted to British Energy on the ground of security of supply and safety, how would he have met the criteria of security of supply and safety? If he cannot tell us that, everything else he is saying is so much hot air.

Mr. Stunell: Fortunately, I can answer the Minister's question. I refer him to what my hon. Friends and I said

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on Second Reading, in other debates and in response to the Secretary of State's statement. Indeed, I refer him to what he told us earlier. When we were in Committee, he told us that no one disputes the fact that these generating assets would continue to generate whether they were in administration or bailed out by the Government through the Bill. Let us put to rest the argument that the Bill is about security of supply or safety. They are not the issues.

Mr. Wilson: The hon. Gentleman must not misrepresent my remarks. I clearly said that either option was available, but that the second option of administration would be available only on the basis of money being made available to the administrator. We would have to pay the administrator and give him the same facility that has been used for the loan. I return to my original point. Why should we suffer this nonsense when a party will not put forward any positive proposals? Is he saying that, if British Energy went into administration, the administrator should not be given access to the same money to carry out his task? Is he saying that the loan should not be given to British Energy?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. That is a long intervention for this stage of our proceedings.

Mr. Stunell: Rather than answer the Minister's point again, I refer him to the speech that my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) made at the beginning of the Committee stage. He clearly justified the arithmetic of our case. A careful study of Hansard will give the Minister the answer that he seeks. [Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. We cannot have continual sedentary interventions.

Mr. Stunell: There we go; they do not like it. The fact of the matter is that the Bill is a mistake from beginning to end.

I was making a point about the competition for resources, and it is unarguable that, if the money is spent on this project and is not made available elsewhere, there will be a threat to future investment by the Government and an undermining of private investment in the industry. It is hard to escape the fact that this decision falls outside any vision for a future energy policy. The nuclear industry has had a boost of several billion pounds at the expense of the rest of the energy sector.

The Minister was at pains to say that the decision was not driven by ideology or by a preference for one technology over another. He said that it had no connection with the strategic development of UK energy policy. If that was not its purpose, what was it? I suggest to the House that it was a panic Bill; a patch-up, make-do-and-mend Bill. It is a pathetic Bill, which the House should reject now.

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