Previous SectionIndexHome Page

3.29 pm

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale): It is a well worn cliché on such occasions that those who make the wind-up speeches say how excellent and informative the debate has been. However, I genuinely believe that that applies today. As a humble transport spokesman, I have learned more about energy supply this afternoon than I ever expected I would.

I pay special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway), who spoke with a depth of understanding about and interest in NETA, and to the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who spoke, as a former dean of an engineering department, with great knowledge of the technical background to events on 28 August. She also made some wider points that I hope the Government will take on board in the longer term.

16 Sept 2003 : Column 765

My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt) made an interesting contribution. He has studied energy supply in great depth in recent months. I shall revert shortly to the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Newark (Patrick Mercer), who speaks for our party on homeland security and posed the Government some important challenges.

I make it clear at the outset to both Ministers that no one believes that the issues that they confront and that we have been debating are easy to resolve or require the mere waving of a magic wand or the exercise of political will to cause all difficulties to disappear. Of course, that is not the case. We are dealing with challenges that have built up over many years. The decisions that we make will have consequences for many more years and decades.

I shall begin with some comments about our general energy debate before concluding with a few specific questions to the Minister for Transport on transport matters. Although I look forward to his response because he is one of the most entertaining speakers on the Government Front Bench, I regret the absence of the Secretary of State for Transport. We understand the absence of the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—she is returning from the Cancun deliberations, which it was perfectly appropriate that she should attend. However, the Transport Secretary is absent because he has been attending a party to celebrate the first stage of the channel tunnel rail link. Some would say that it was a little premature to celebrate any part of our transport infrastructure, but we shall await the Minister's comments.

Many speeches paid tribute to the skill and ability of the Minister for Energy. We find it curious that he is also Minister for E-Commerce and Postal Services, just as it is curious that the Secretary of State for Transport doubles as Secretary of State for Scotland.

Events in London and the south-east on 28 August and in the west midlands on 5 September—and in many parts of East Anglia last year, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) pointed out—harked back to the past. In an entertaining speech, which I shall shortly consider in greater detail, the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) said that the last time we had serious power failures was shortly after the second world war. She may be right about the scale but, as someone who grew up in the 1970s under Governments of both parties, the events to which I referred were reminiscent of the period when many of us enjoyed our childhood. There were repeated power failures and power cuts. Eighteen years of Conservative government consigned them to memory and perhaps it is not coincidental that, after six years of a Labour Government, we appear to be reverting to some unfortunate old patterns.

The hon. Member for Crosby rightly set out in almost as much detail as the Minister—who reads a brief that is put in front of him—the exact technical nature of the failure on 28 August. I am not qualified to challenge her and I am sure that her description of what happened practically is accurate. However, what occurred was described by the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich as a clear warning of what might happen if we do not have security of supply in the future. That is the context in which the wider points about the Government's

16 Sept 2003 : Column 766

energy policy and the sad deficiencies of their energy White Paper were made by a number of speakers, not only on this side of the House.

There is a general sense of disappointment that the Government, who had placed such great stress on the quality of their energy White Paper, its all-embracing nature and the courage with which various options were going to be assessed and decided in it, have none the less come up with a document in which, in the view of many experts, they have ducked more decisions than they have made. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk, but was not adequately addressed by the Minister, who made the best of a rather sticky wicket. I do not blame him for the difficulties in which he finds himself, but many people seriously question what the status of energy supply will be in 2020 and whether it is credible to believe, as the Government do, that by then 20 per cent. of our energy will come from renewable sources. Very few people dispute the desirability of that outcome, if it is deliverable, but many have reservations about whether it can be done.

It seems curious, given that the Government have chosen to produce this White Paper, that it should be in Opposition time that the House first gets the opportunity to debate the issues arising from it. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) pointed out, it also seems extraordinary that it should be through private correspondence that we receive a commitment from the Government to place an energy Bill in the next Queen's Speech. It would be helpful to find out whether the Minister is prepared to say on the Floor of the House what we understand a couple of Ministers have said in correspondence: namely, that there will definitely be an energy Bill in the Queen's Speech. If so, what areas it will cover?

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell), speaking for the Liberal Democrats, rather unfairly attacked the splendid speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk, who spoke with characteristic panache. The hon. Gentleman accused him of over-reacting and of warning that the whole world was going to come to an end. I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that it is his party's amendment that says that Government policy has

and that it was his speech, not that of my hon. Friend, that ended by accusing the Government of acting in panic.

Some of us also found it curious that the hon. Gentleman spent some time saying how wicked and evil it was that the Conservative Government had created a relationship between the power driving the lights in the House and the French Government, given that his party believes that our European neighbours should rule every aspect of our domestic lives. It was even more curious that he thought it a problem to have an energy relationship with the French Government, but perfectly all right to be dependent for large parts of our future energy supply on the Russian Government. That seemed an odd position to take. He did, however, tell the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich and my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South that all problems would be solved if we were to purchase a copy of his book. All I would say, in the kindest possible way, is that if he writes as well as he speaks in the House, I do not think that J. K. Rowling will have any real competition or difficulties with her sales figures.

16 Sept 2003 : Column 767

The priority that has emerged from many of today's speeches is that we must ensure that lessons are learned from what happened on 28 August and subsequently. In that context, I would like to press the Transport Minister on a matter that I raised earlier with the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services. Who, precisely, will be responsible for learning the lessons, particularly about evacuation procedures—a point also raised by the hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) and others—and about the general handling by London Underground of incidents relating to power cuts? Who will be in charge of implementing any ensuing recommendations?

As a result of the £500 million that the Treasury spent on the negotiations over the public-private partnership for the London underground, we now have an extremely complicated and long series of contracts, but it is still not clear to many London commuters who will be responsible for implementing any recommendations on these issues. Will it be the Government, Transport for London, the Mayor of London or the individual train companies? Or will it, as the Minister appeared to suggest earlier, be up to individual drivers to decide what to do in particular circumstances?

Dr. Howells: My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services was right to say that the practitioners, whether on the trains or in the underground stations, will have to take those decisions in the light of all the circumstances. Ultimately, the Mayor of London takes responsibility for the conduct of the underground.

Mr. Collins: That was a helpful reply as far as it went, but the Minister will know that, although responsibility for London underground has, rather belatedly, been devolved to the Mayor of London, responsibility for health and safety legislation, security and a range of associated issues have not been devolved. They remain the Government's responsibility. What about issues relating to what happened on 28 August? The Minister said that 57 tube trains were stuck in tunnels—passengers were kept on 49 of them, but 1,200 passengers were taken out of the carriages of eight trains and put on to the surface of the tunnel, where they walked along beside the rails. As a result, the problems took longer to resolve than they otherwise would have done.

I am not expecting the Minister to have a definitive answer this afternoon, but Londoners expect greater clarity about the overlap, especially between the homeland security issues to which my hon. Friend the Member for Newark referred and the responsibilities of the Mayor of London and others.

Understandably, there has been huge publicity in the London and national media, as a result of what happened on 28 August, about which precise electricity substations in which precise geographical locations provide power to the primary transport mechanism for the capital city of the fourth largest economy in the world. It is not being unduly paranoid to say that among those who will have read those details are people who do not bear this country and its citizens any good will. What additional steps have been taken to protect those

16 Sept 2003 : Column 768

electricity substations to ensure that, now that it has become more obvious how fragile some of these arrangements are, people will be deterred and detected should they attempt to threaten them? Many of us share the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Newark. Like others, I was making that point two years ago when I was shadowing the Cabinet Office. We need a homeland security Department, like that in the United States, to provide a single focus, so that someone can be answerable to the House for questions on these matters.

We do not for a moment believe that it is easy or simple to provide energy security for the future of this country but, in the words of my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk, we believe that that is one of the first duties of Government. We hope and expect that the Government will introduce legislation on this matter in the Queen's Speech, that they will provide answers to some of the issues that they ducked in their energy White Paper, that they will accept that this matter is of supreme national significance—not just in London but especially in London—and that they will give us a sense that they recognise that fudge and delay in this area can no longer be tolerated. Clear decisions, clearly announced and clearly implemented, will alone meet the demands of this hour.

Next Section

IndexHome Page