Transport (Concessionary Fares)
Joyce Quin accordingly presented a Bill to allow pensioners and disabled persons in England to benefit from free travel on buses in current travel concession authority areas and in the vicinity of those areas; and for connected purposes.: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 21 November, and to be printed [Bill 159].
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[17th Allotted Day]
We now come to the main business. I inform the House that I have selected the amendment in the name of the Prime Minister.
Mr. Tim Yeo (South Suffolk):
I beg to move,
That this House is greatly concerned about the security of the electricity supply; recognises the crucial importance of reliable supplies to every aspect of domestic and business life, including transport; believes that the Government is neglecting the risk of power cuts this winter and in the longer term; condemns the Government's Energy White Paper for planning to make Britain dependent on gas imports from unreliable sources and for not balancing the need for secure supplies with environmental responsibilities; notes that the consequences of the recent power cut on the London Underground may have been worsened by the inadequacies of the Public Private Partnership negotiated and imposed by the Government; and calls for urgent action to ensure no repetition of the alarming experiences endured by hundreds of thousands of people in London and the South East.
Nineteen days ago, the first that I knew of the chaos that was about to strike London was when the lights flickered in my office here in Westminsterin the middle of the recess, I should add. Over the next hour or so, hundreds of thousands of Londoners and their neighbours in Kent received an unpleasant reminder that the electricity supply, which we have come to regard in the past 20 years as extremely reliable, is prone to failure. Just eight days later, hundreds of thousands of people in the midlands were similarly warned of the fallibility of the system. Last month, New York and much of north-east America were plunged into total chaos as power failed across a wide area. Last autumn, my constituency and other parts of East Anglia suffered power cuts following storms that brought down power lines and left some homes without electricity for over a week. Disgracefully, on that occasion, the then Minister for Energy and Construction refused to act to help many of the victims of that crisis, leaving them without compensation.
Only in the past month has the company concernedEDFmade a belated gesture in the form of payments to the customers that it let down so badly.
Even though the causes of each failure appear to have been different, this pattern of events is very disturbing, because a continuous, reliable and uninterrupted supply of electricity is essential for domestic and business life. Ensuring that the lights stay on and that power is available to every home and every business is an important duty of Government, alongside defending the borders, policing the streets and ensuring that health care and education are available to all. It is a duty that the Government show every sign of shirking, as Ministers bury their heads firmly in the sand, determined to ignore the problems that loom this winter and beyond, hoping against hope that no major crisis will occur before the next election or, in the case of the Secretary of State, before her free transfer from the Department of Trade and Industry to the Ministry of Defence.
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Even more irresponsible than the Government's attitude to these immediate risks is their approach to Britain's long-term energy needs. No wonder they have been so reluctant to debate the vacuous White Paper. Seldom has a document that was so eagerly anticipated delivered so little and disappeared so quicklya document notable for its wishful thinking on renewable energy and for its utter disregard of the national interest, as Ministers prepare to make Britain dependent on gas imported from Russia, Algeria and Iran
The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms):
Let us consider the short-term problem first. There are growing concerns about the risk of power cuts in the next year or two. Professor Ian Fells of the New and Renewable Energy Centre at Newcastle university said:
"A black-out could happen here . . . I have come to the conclusion that there is a 20 per cent. chance of power cuts this winter . . . In January and February, there are vulnerable weeks when they"
the National Grid
"might not be able to meet their obligations . . . The amount of spare capacity has been cut back dangerously."
Generating capacity, according to figures from the House of Commons Library, is almost 15 per cent. less than it was two years ago. The Ofgem fact sheet 31 published last week confirms that the margin of spare capacity is now only 16 per cent., though that will rise to 18 per cent. when the Isle of Grain comes back on stream. Ofgem itself admits that this margin is lower than it has been in the past and a margin of 20 per cent. has previously been considered the minimum acceptable. No wonder the well-respected Dieter Helm, director of Oxford Economic Research Associates and an adviser to the DTI, earlier this month commented:
"I have always been much more concerned about the conventional bad scenariowhen there is a cold spell in winter, and there is a failure at a nuclear power station. Suddenly, there is a shortage and you're getting within capacity boundaries you shouldn't get inside. The risk of an outage is very great indeed."
David Porter, chief executive of the Association of Electricity Producers, warned just after the London power failure what might happen if there was a cold snap and a couple of power stations broke down. He stated:
"If something like that happened this winter, the prospects would look considerably blacker . . . I don't think you'll find many people in the industry who will tell you nowat the end of Augustthat they can guarantee there won't be blackouts this winter."
Jonathan Stern, director at the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, points out:
"Equipment is just getting old and is getting less reliable."
Despite all these warnings from a variety of authoritative sources, the Government's attitude continues to veer between complacency and carelessness. In the section of the DTI departmental report for 2003 entitled, encouragingly, "Security of Supply", we read:
"Emergency arrangements for the energy sector continue to be reviewed and updated in the light of lessons learnt from the fuel crisis of 2000 and the events of 11 September 2001."
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Those lessons are being learned somewhat slowly, as the document was published in May 2003. It adds that:
"the Joint DTI and Ofgem Energy Security of Supply Working Group . . . was established to assess risks to Britain's future gas and electricity supplies: specifically developing indicators for energy security to make information more widely available."
I am not sure how comforting it is to all the customers who may be horrendously inconvenienced to know that the Government are developing indicators to make information more available. For this Government, indicators seem even lower down the pecking order than the targets to which many Ministers are addicted.
The report goes on to state that, after the October 2002 storms, the DTI "launched an investigation"
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire):
My hon. Friend will like this one. The investigation
"confirmed that companies which had carried out effective network maintenance and had anticipated the storms well suffered fewer incidents and got customers back on supply more quickly."
Well, there is a bit of rocket science. The Minister might want to step ahead of his civil servants in taking credit for that. The report goes on to assure us that Ministers are not considering undertaking any activity, but
"considering along with Ofgem and the industry the best means of ensuring that the resultant recommendations are implemented."
We do not quite know what those recommendations are.
Of course, the report was published when Britain still had a full-time Energy Minister. Now, the Minister of State, whom I welcome to his place, has to double up as the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services. The latter is another area that may be claiming some of his attention right now.
Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst):
He has to triple up.
As the Minister has so many duties to perform, perhaps it is not so surprising that the written statement about London power cuts that he gave to the House last Monday was pretty thin gruel. However, he said that he was
"determined to ensure that the necessary lessons are learned."[Official Report, 8 September 2003; Vol. 410, c. 10WS.]
As an action plan for one of the world's greatest capital cities, more than half of whose underground network had to be closed down and where 410,000 electricity customers suffered a power cut, his response fell some way short of what the situation demands. Anxious consumers, and especially those with elderly or disabled people in their families, wonder how they would survive as some of my constituents had to survive last year in coping for eight days without electricity. Single parents out at work wonder what will happen if their children are sent home from schools that are forced to close because of power cuts. No doubt, the Minister's office at the DTI has an emergency generator. Even if it does not, he can always rely on the plentiful supply of hot air from the energy White Paper.