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Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): The hon. Gentleman has said that he would like to see a greater diversity of supply, and we agree. He also said that he would like to see small suppliers generating electricity, but that would of course result in price rises. To what extent would the Liberal Democrats be prepared to tolerate price rises?

Mr. Stunell: The words "of course" are the give-away in that question. Smaller does not always mean more expensive. Indeed, in the case of wind generation, which is now competitive on the market with its 3 MW units, it is not the case that smaller means more expensive. People are investing in those technologies because they can now compete in the market.

Mr. Blunt: Wind energy is only competitive now because of the existence of the renewables obligation, which provides some 70 per cent. of its income as subsidy, with only 30 per cent. coming from the price of the electricity generated. That cannot be the hon. Gentleman's definition of economic.

Mr. Stunell: If we were in a completely deregulated market, we would have 100 per cent. gas generation. But we are not, and no one in the House believes that we should be. In a regulated market, it is appropriate that regulation should relate primarily to the need to meet environmental guidelines. I do not have a problem with a regulated energy market, and I did not think that the Conservatives did either. Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, they supported a regulated market that favoured the nuclear industry, so it should not be too much of a problem for me to support one that favours renewables.

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If we want 2,000 MW of electricity generating capacity in this country, the cheapest way to provide it is by saving that energy through conservation and efficiency. That is cheaper than gas, nuclear power or renewables. The problem is that in a market environment it is difficult to trigger investment in those areas, because conservation means using less product and therefore provides less cash for those who make the investment. The Minister needs to invest much thinking time and some real policy development in ensuring that conservation and efficiency play a full part, as they can, in a regulated market. It is also necessary to check the maintenance and manpower shortcuts that may be the result of a privatised process. Again, the role of the regulator is vital.

The Liberal Democrats want the Minister to say clearly that the Queen's Speech will contain an energy Bill that goes beyond waste disposal for nuclear power; to give a full-time commitment to this important topic; and to do more long-term thinking, with less short-term panic.

1.59 pm

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich): I am thoroughly enjoying this debate because it puts me in a unique position. I have been a Member of Parliament for a long time and this is the first time that I have been in total agreement with Opposition Front Benchers. Today, comprehensively, exhaustively and—presumably—after much work, the Conservatives have rubbished the private electricity industry. They have made it clear that that industry has failed in its duty to the nation and is incapable of carrying out the job that it was privatised to do. That seems a very interesting argument, and one with which I rather agree. I hardly like to say this in public, as I know that it will embarrass the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo), but I am at one with him when he argues that privatisation of electricity generation has led to a total failure of efficiency. I hope that it will not damage the hon. Gentleman's career if I say that I parted from him only when he appeared to suggest that we should nevertheless continue along that line of confusion.

I was only slightly more pleased with the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), who seemed to be even more confused than me. Even so, it is important that contributions be made to the debate not only by those of my colleagues who, through training, background and effort, have become experts in electricity generation, but by people who, like me, know a little about the use of public services and who are worried about the future of the London underground.

It may come as a shock to Members of Parliament, who like to demonstrate expertise in esoteric and important matters, but the general public are singularly uninterested in the question of who generates electricity. People are interested in what causes them to have to use a form of public transport that broke down on one of the hottest days of the year. The underground system is more than 100 years old, and it can cause considerable discomfort for those trapped in it. As a child, I was trapped in an underground train during an air raid. I have never forgotten the experience. In fact, I suspect that it engendered in me a mild form of claustrophobia, which I never accept or admit.

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Our nation sits on a very efficient and basic form of fuel, and seeks to develop industry at every level. How can such a nation find itself in a position where a resource as important and basic as electricity can fail? When that happens, many people are inconvenienced, and it costs industry and individuals a very great deal of money.

I was glad to hear my hon. Friend the Minister say that the Government are investigating the matter. He said that a working party had been set up, that the engineers will be called in, and that different aspects of the problem will be examined. However, I want him to give clearer support for a number of difficult propositions. The phrase "non-sequitur" has been used generously today, and I shall continue that happy trend. I believe that the electricity generation industry in this country, even though it generates more electricity than in the period after the war, is not capable of leaving itself a sufficient cushion of safety so that it can support essential systems.

I see no reason to doubt the accuracy of the account given by my hon. Friend the Minister, but how is it that the failure of a small part of the system—perhaps even something as simple as the use of the wrong fuse—can generate total chaos? In the past, the underground system accepted the need for a back-up system, so how is it possible that only a very tiny part of an alternative is now provided for? Hospitals in the national health service accept their responsibility to provide alternative forms of electricity generation if the main systems fail. Why should not the same obligation be clear in respect of the underground?

When the Lots road facility closed, did the underground management give generalised assurances that all would be well in the future, secure in the knowledge that the national grid very rarely failed? The last really bad series of power cuts happened just after the war, when there was considerable difficulty in generating sufficient supplies. This country needed a co-ordinated and nationalised—as it was called—industry precisely because the private sector was not capable of doing the job. As far as I can see, the private sector has given no indication that it is capable of doing the job now. We need more answers.

The Minister has been very open and straightforward this afternoon. He has told us what he is trying to do, how he is trying to do it and where the information will come from. It is unfair to ask him more questions, but this summer's incident was so major that it must give us pause. Large numbers of people were being carried on the underground system at the time in question. I am worried that many passengers were not evacuated for some time and that they were not given the information that they needed. Many staff had no idea what managers were doing to provide emergency organisation, and it seems that the underground's information about its own system was insufficient.

No one doubts the commitment of railway personnel in an emergency, or the adequacy of their training. Without the staff's discipline and common sense, what happened could have been much worse. The fact that so many people were evacuated safely and in such a disciplined manner is a great tribute to the sense of the general public and to the way in which railway men and women respond under pressure of an emergency.

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However, when the trains stopped, operating room staff could no longer see where the trains were. It seems that no alternative system exists to allow them to identify the location of the trains effectively and quickly. When the power came back, they were not able to determine whether people were still in the tunnels—whether they were being evacuated quickly or were still moving down the side of the track. In the latter case, it would have been impossible to restart the system. As a result, the delay was much longer than it need have been.

London Underground must be asked several questions. Why does it not have a back-up system that would allow it to assume, automatically, that trains could remain in operation? Such a system would mean that no interruption would last long, and that trains could at the very least move safely out of the tunnels.

Drivers have responsibility for the safety of passengers on the train. Why were they not speedily given sufficient accurate information about the other decisions that were being taken? Why was it not possible for control room staff to see easily what was happening in the tunnels? Is there no automatic emergency lighting system? That would at least have given some indication of where people were moving and of the dangers that could have arisen had the electricity system been switched back on.

Why did it take so long for the management of the underground to take back complete control of the system? If the problem arises again, what sense of urgency is being engendered to ensure that, between them, the privatised companies and London Underground will be able to know with accuracy where people are, how they can be evacuated, and how long such an action will take?

With so many people being taken off trains in the dark, it is a minor miracle that no one suffered an accident. When large numbers of people are being moved around underground, there is no guarantee that all will be safe. For example, the step down from a train to the level of the rails is a considerable one. The evacuation could have been very dangerous. That is unacceptable: as I said, it is a minor miracle that no one was hurt.

A number of questions have been thrown up by this debate, but the problems go further, as the overground rail system was also disrupted. I sometimes admire the phlegm and self-control of the general public in this country. If people stampeded every time they were inconvenienced by a major incident, we should be in considerable difficulty, but there are so many problems with the railway system that people are in a miasma, almost accepting that such things are sent to try us and that eventually we shall survive them. However, that is not an attitude that the House should find acceptable and nor, certainly, should Ministers of the Crown.

That railway incident was a microcosm of the problems that face us throughout our national systems. I do not want to embarrass the Government by suggesting that the fact that we have not pulled many of those major systems into the state means that we are dependent on private companies; I realise that my colleagues have enormous faith in the efficiency of the management of private companies, although I do not necessarily share it. However, the Government must accept the fact that electricity generation is so

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fundamental to our economy that any interruption in supply not only destroys work on a particular day but may have a direct and vital impact on the economies of our cities and towns.

That incident gave us a nasty warning. It told us, in effect, that we are dependent on fragile systems. There may be marvellous explanations—that the system is properly controlled and that there are alternative forms of generation—but when it came to the crunch none of those systems worked. It seems that the reason was simple and straightforward, which should give us considerable pause.

I want the London underground to be able to respond not only to that kind of incident but to any emergency with tightly drawn and clearly understood procedures that are openly available to the general public and can be put into operation at extremely short notice. I believe that London Underground has that intent; my remarks are not made as a criticism of the present management, but as a warning to the House that acceptance of inadequate provision is never suitable.

That brings me, finally, to the point that concerns me most. During my lifetime, I have seen changes in electricity generation. Many years ago, as a junior Minister, I had the privilege of sitting on an imaginative committee, run by the chief scientific officer. It dealt with planning for the UK's future fuel needs and considered the forms and use of various alternative fuels. That is where we must show real imagination and ability.

The present system does not work. Whatever the reason and whatever the divisions between us—whether enough electricity is generated or whether the price is reduced—any nation that depends on the workings of the market for the generation of its most important fuel will get into the sort of difficulties that we experienced recently.

We have been given a clear warning and we should heed it. Our entire system is so ramshackle—to put it kindly—that it should concern us. I rely on my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services and his fellow Ministers to talk to London Underground so that we use our response to that unexpected situation to ensure that we can deal with any future difficulty that arises. First, London Underground should immediately be capable of switching to alternative sources. Secondly, training and controls should be adequate to deal with an emergency. Thirdly, we should tell the various companies that it is not enough to talk about corporate responsibility if, when there is an emergency, they are unable to fulfil the tasks that they have been given by the state.

If the operators, the regulators and the managers of the various companies cannot do their job efficiently, the House must demand that they change their ways and change them with considerable speed.

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