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Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: My hon. Friend referred to the national grid and the failings in the west midlands, but does he agree that one significant problem is that that national grid interfaces with an enormous number of electricity suppliers? There is a desperate need to ensure that the standards set by each of those suppliers are commensurate with the standards of the national grid.

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Sometimes it is labelled as the bad party, but in fact it is generating the supply and passing it on to people who are not capable of managing it adequately.

Mr. Timms: By and large they are capable of that, but I agree with my hon. Friend that the investigations conducted by Ofgem, the Department of Trade and Industry and the engineering inspectorate need to examine the whole system, including the distribution systems as well as the national grid. The engineering inspectorate investigation will take account of other transmission failures over the last five years as well, and will examine precisely the point that my hon. Friend has made—how the national grid interacted with its customers and what lessons need to be learned.

Ofgem will formally decide by the end of the year whether any of the companies were in breach of their licence obligations and, if they were, what action should be taken. I welcome the assurance that the national grid will further review its systems and procedures, and will work closely with other operators to improve overall supply, particularly to city centres and transport systems. It is right to highlight the importance of that. I am pleased that the Trade and Industry Committee will investigate the resilience of the national grid, and my Department looks forward to contributing to that work. Quite rightly, therefore, there will be a good deal of follow-up to ensure that lessons are learned from what happened.

In conclusion, I want to reiterate our central White Paper commitment to maintaining the reliability of our energy supplies. That is an absolutely central priority for the Government and central to our energy policy. Together with the work that we are undertaking in the immediate aftermath of the recent failures, I am confident that we shall be able to minimise the risk of similar future failures.

1.42 pm

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): We certainly welcome the debate, but the motion before us is rather rambling and some of the presentations that we have heard were rather dramatically over the top. It is an extraordinary leap from an undersized fuse in Wimbledon to the end of civilisation as we know it, which is pretty much what Opposition Front Benchers have put to us today. There are some important issues and I hope that, despite the soothing and comforting words of the Minister, his Department will take some important questions away after the debate and take any necessary action that is required.

On security of supply, there are questions about generating capacity, about transmission distribution capacity and about supply capacity. I was a bit surprised that the Conservatives confined themselves to the case of the underground because, during the last major international at Twickenham, the overground suffered parallel failures on account of underinvestment in the electricity supply to the rail network in the south-west of London. Ensuring that investment keeps pace with demand becomes a more serious problem the further down the pyramid one goes from generation to supply.

I hope that we can examine the problems more rationally than the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) did. The Ofgem briefing paper, which hon.

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Members have received, is clear and straightforward, so it is sensible to pay some attention to it. It makes the point that the predicted surplus over peak demand of 16 per cent. will rise to 18 per cent. when the Isle of Grain comes on stream later this year. That estimate does not take account of the interconnector with France, from which another 2,000 MW can be expected, or of plant that is more deeply mothballed, which can come on stream comparatively easily to the tune of another 7,500 MW.

I wonder whether Conservative Front Benchers have been taken in on the generation issue by their own spin doctor, because the leading exponent of the view that we are about to run out of generating capacity is Sir Bernard Ingham and his nuclear power forum. Just because they were taken in once when he was operating for Mrs. Thatcher, the Conservatives should not be taken in twice now that he is working for the nuclear industry.

On transmission capacity, the Minister has quite properly drawn attention to the fact that National Grid Transco has a very good record of meeting demand. I believe that the figure is 99.995 per cent. or better each year, so it seems unnecessary to spend too much time worrying about transmission security of supply.

That brings us to the bottom level and final stage of supply to individual users and consumers. We have heard about the dodgy fuse and I guess that, when the final report is produced, we will know more about it. We have heard a little about the London underground back-up system, which was recently handed over to the private sector and did not kick in as planned. One of the companies mentioned is Electricité de France, which is a supplier and distributor of electricity in London. I wonder once again about the wisdom of the Conservatives complaining about the system, when EDF is wholly owned by the French Government and operates as a result of the privatisation of the electricity industry that they commissioned. It is one of the paradoxes of energy debates in the House that we can hold our debates only because the lights are on, and the profits from the lights running in the House go straight to the French Ministry of Finance as a direct result of the Conservative privatisation of the industry.

Richard Ottaway: Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that the Liberal Democrat party policy is to nationalise the electricity sector?

Mr. Stunell: No, I cannot confirm that. The Conservatives have already produced several non-sequiturs in the debate, one of which I have already illustrated and another of which is illustrated by that intervention. I would simply describe the Conservative approach to the electricity industry as bonkers.

Let us reflect on the serious question about security of supply, which is what happens in the long term. Conservative Front Benchers mentioned the risk of power cuts this winter and in the longer term, so we need to consider the broader issues of substance. One important argument is that the UK economy and its energy industry will be weak in future because we will have to import energy, but that rather overlooks the fact that there are currently only two economies in the world that do not—the United Kingdom and Canada. All the

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others are net importers of energy, in some cases—the United States and Japan, for instance—on a huge scale. We have a diversity of markets from which to buy.

I was interested to hear the argument that the Russians might seek to blackmail us over Iraq. Of course, the country with the largest dependence of all on Russian supply of energy is Poland, yet Poland willingly and freely joined in the Iraq adventure. Incidentally, I would not have done so, but there is no evidence that any political pressure was imposed. Indeed, the Russians greatly want the money. The idea that Norway is some sort of rogue state that might hold us to ransom is fanciful beyond belief. It also completely overlooks the possibility of liquid natural gas supplies coming to this country from west Africa, south America and a wide range of other international sources.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): As this seems to be a day for non-sequiturs, could the hon. Gentleman make the Liberal Democrats' position clear? He seemed to suggest that it was all right to have the National Grid generating electricity as a private company, but not all right for that to happen lower down the chain of suppliers. Are the Liberal Democrats in favour of private companies being in control of generation or against? Are they in favour of the French being able to control our major system or against the French having control of the movement of gas throughout their company's territory? I am not clear on those points.

Mr. Stunell: The hon. Lady would be much clearer if she read my book on the topic or if she tuned into the debate on energy policy at our conference next week. I do not wish to be ruled out of order, so I shall just say that we accept the realities of a national and international liberalised energy market. I simply point out to the House that it is extraordinary that the Conservatives are expressing doubts about the ability of that liberalised market to deliver a sustainable energy policy for this country. The hon. Lady may take a different view, and I am sure that she will discuss that with her Front-Bench colleagues in due course.

As for prices, we are all quietly admitting that energy prices will increase in this country over the next decade or two. If we are to achieve our aims, especially in conservation and efficiency, those price signals are important. However, the suggestion that we might be held to ransom by outside suppliers is clearly not tenable. One need only consider the 30 or 40-year history of OPEC to see that stability is likely to be achieved in the longer term. I also refer the House to Ofgem's view, which is that there is no problem with supply of fuel to the UK energy market.

At first, we wondered why the Conservatives had chosen to focus on the issues in their motion rather than on what we saw as some of the more fundamental questions—such as the delay in the Government introducing its policy, as opposed to a White Paper. Where is the legislation? I was pleased to hear the Conservatives' spokesman say that they wanted to see legislation in the Queen's Speech and that is a rare point on which I can agree with them.

We thought that the Conservatives would raise the fact that the Government are now struggling along with their fifth part-time energy Minister, which shows a lack

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of commitment to this important area. Indeed, I hope that the Minister will take away from the debate a request that he be divested of some of his other arduous duties, so that he may focus effectively on these matters. Or perhaps the Conservatives might have addressed the lack of evidence that the UK is making progress towards its Kyoto targets—emissions of greenhouse gases are rising again—and the fact that we still have no clear long-term plans for the 60 per cent. reduction in carbon dioxide emissions by 2050. However, then we realised that the Tories have no energy policy and have undergone an even more rapid rotation of energy spokesmen.

The Conservatives claimed that they still regard the environment as important. If that is the case, I hope that they will take a second look at what they are saying about the ability of renewables to deliver and the impact that conservation and efficiency can make on meeting demand in the future. We are clear that we need a diversity of fuels, including renewables. We are also clear that an improvement in security is obtained from dispersed sources and comparatively smaller generation sources. One should not have all one's eggs in one basket. Conservatives ask how we can tell whether investment in gas or in nuclear is best, but it is not for this House to decide that. It is for investors and the promoters of projects to decide that, and they have decided it. They have decided that gas is a more profitable and certain vehicle for investment than nuclear power.

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