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Energy Bill [Lords]

Energy Bill [Lords]

Column Number: 207

Standing Committee B

Thursday 27 May 2004

(Afternoon)

[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]

Energy Bill [Lords]

2.30 pm

The Chairman: I understand that at the end of this morning's sitting amendment No. 68 was proposed and it is now open for debate. I shall interrupt the proceedings of the Committee so that we can debate the programme resolution that has just been adopted by the Sub-Committee, but first we must conclude our debate on the amendment.

Clause 16

Annual Plans

Amendment proposed [this day]: No. 68, in

    clause 16, page 14, line 14, at end insert—

    '(1A) In the case of work carried out, or designations urgently made, the NDA shall, with the permission of the Secretary of State, amend its annual plan, even though it may already have been made and submitted.'.—[Mr. Laurence Robertson.]

    Question again proposed, That the amendment be made.

The Chairman: I remind the Committee that with this we are discussing the following amendments: No. 26, in

    clause 16, page 15, line 21, at end add—

    '(9) In the event that at any time during the year to which the plan relates the NDA has operated, or acquired with a view to operating, any nuclear operating facilities within the terms of section 6(1) or otherwise they shall include in the plan a full explanation of the reasons for acquiring or operating such facilities, an estimation of the length of time that the said facilities may operate and their strategy for bringing the operations of said facilities to an end.'.

No. 70, in

    schedule 3, page 162, line 5, after 'State', insert

    'and such a plan has been laid before each House of Parliament'.

No. 71, in

    schedule 3, page 162, line 9, at end insert

    'following consultation with the Secretary of State and the revision to the plan being laid before each House of Parliament.

    (3) The NDA may revise its plan if required to carry out work, or receiving a designation, considered to be urgent.'.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus) (SNP): I want to speak to amendment No. 26, which is in the group. I shall not detain the Committee as we have already debated the matter in connection with an amendment to clause 6 tabled by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). I got that right this time.

The amendment relates to the role of the NDA in continuing to run nuclear power stations, about which we should by now have a sense of deja vu. The previous amendment sought to restrict it to a period of 12 months, although I think that is too restrictive.

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However, there should be a mechanism for making it clear that any such use is temporary; there should be a method of bringing it to an end as quickly as is practicable, except that that may not be within a few months, as closing down a nuclear generator is not merely a matter of throwing a switch.

The solution proposed is to put into the annual plan, only in the years when a station has been acquired, a statement of why it is still running, an estimation of the time that it may operate and a strategy for bringing it to an end. If, as the Minister has repeatedly assured us, the NDA is concerned only with decommissioning, he should have no problem in accepting the amendment, as it is not deliberately prescriptive. For example, the NDA may be able to say that the generator is allowed to continue for some time to fill an energy gap until other facilities come on stream; the amendment does not seek to impose time constraints. I accept that in some cases a generator may have to run for a few years.

The Minister assured us that the Government have a target for closing down existing stations, and the Bill sets up an authority to run decommissioning. The amendment merely seeks a public statement and an agreed strategy to bring those two together in specific circumstances: when the NDA takes over a station and thus becomes a generator. That is essential if the NDA is to be independent and operate with the promised transparency.

The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms): I assure the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir), who spoke to amendment No. 26, that concerns about the NDA operating nuclear power stations, other than when decommissioning is pending, are unfounded. The rationale for the continued operation of facilities designated to the NDA will be fully covered by the combined effect of the NDA strategy and the annual plans and report. The strategy will include operational facilities. The NDA will be required to explain the decisions reached in its strategy and to keep it under review. The annual plan will set out how the NDA will carry out its functions and deliver its strategy for each site installation and facility, including running costs, capital expenditure and income. The annual report, which will be laid before Parliament, will set out what it has done to deliver its strategy and plans for all designated installations, sites and facilities. That is why I think that amendment No. 26 is unnecessary, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

Mr. Weir: I accept, to some extent, what the Minister said, but what concerns me is that there does not seem anywhere to be a specific statement by the NDA about the anticipated time that a nuclear power station may continue to operate. It is a point that has been canvassed before, but there is still no specific obligation on the NDA to say that it is taking over a particular power station or that it anticipates that it will run for two or three years, or six months, or whatever. It would be beneficial to have some indication of that. I accept that it cannot be prescriptive and that it could not run over that period, but some indication would be useful.

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Mr. Timms: The information that the NDA will provide will shed light on that matter, and will include the strategy for each site. That is likely to provide reassurance on the hon. Gentleman's point. I think that I can be more helpful on amendments Nos. 68, 70 and 71, which would require the NDA to lay the annual plan, including any revisions, before Parliament before it could come into effect. As willing as I was on the earlier point to reconsider that, it is important not to introduce unhelpful delay into NDA planning—a concern recognised by the hon. Member for Tewkesbury (Mr. Robertson)—so it is more likely to concern the annual plan and revisions, than the earlier instance that we considered. I want to ensure that we would not be creating any unintended, difficult consequences if we were to go down the road advocated. I should also like to ensure what the implications for Scotland would be. In principle, the purpose behind his amendment is right, and if he is willing to withdraw it I give him an undertaking to reconsider the matter and see what I can introduce on Report.

Mr. Robertson: I warmly welcome you back to the Committee, Mr. O'Brien. Given the Minister's sympathetic approach and reassurance, I am happy to wait for what he comes up with on Report, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Chairman: We come now to the motion of the Programming Sub-Committee, copies of which are on the Table at the end of the Room, and I suggest that hon. Members collect one.

That the Order of the Committee of 20th May 2004 be amended by the substitution for the Table of the following Table:-
ProceedingsTime for conclusion of proceedings
Clauses 1 to 5, Schedule 1,6.00 pm on 27th May
Clauses 6 to 14, Schedule 2,
Clauses 15 and 16, Schedule 3,
Clauses 17 to 30, Schedule 4,
Clauses 31 to 41, Schedule 5,
Clauses 42, Schedule 6, Clauses 43
to 48, Schedule 7, Clause 49,
Schedule 8, Clause 50, Schedule
9, Clauses 51 to 54, Schedule 10,
Clauses 55 and 56, Schedule 11
And Clauses 57 to 64.
Schedule 12, Clauses 65 and 66, 5.00 pm on 24th June
Schedule 13, Clauses 67 to 72,
Schedule 14, Clauses 73 to 78,
Schedule 15, Clauses 79 to 96,
Schedule 16, Clauses 97 to 135,
Schedule 17, Clauses 136 to 138,
Schedule 18, Clauses 139 and
140, Schedule 19, Clauses 141 to
156, Schedules 21 and 21,
Clauses 157 to 170, Schedule 22,
Clauses 171 to 193, Schedule 23,
Clause 194, new Clauses, new
Schedules and any remaining
proceedings on the Bill.[Charlotte Atkins.]

The Chairman: The motion applies unless we conclude schedule 12 before 6 pm. Failing that, we shall proceed until 6 pm this afternoon. That is the motion; the hon. Member for Lewes now wishes to move an amendment.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD): I beg to move, as an amendment to the proposed amendment, to leave out ''6.00 pm on 27 May'' and insert ''5 pm on 8 June''.

My amendment seeks to move the knife to 5 pm on the Tuesday we return. I have moved it because, first, it is inherently unsatisfactory that a sitting should be extended at merely a few hours' notice, which is inconvenient to me and possibly other hon. Members. Secondly, there is no desire among any hon. Members here to spin this out; all of us have accepted the time that the Government have allocated to the Bill and are fully in line with the Government's intentions on the completion of its Committee stage, so it is merely a matter of when the knife falls.

Thirdly, certain clauses may not be discussed at all this afternoon, yet there could be time left at the end of consideration of the Bill. That would not be satisfactory and would be a poor use of the Committee's time. Fourthly, certain hon. Members present—I am not thinking of myself—want to speak

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on later clauses and may be prevented from doing so by that. Fifthly, the Government Whip's suggestion that the break should come at clause 63 and schedule 12 is inherently unsatisfactory, because they are in the middle of the section about the nuclear constabulary.

If I may say so, that may put you in a difficult position, Mr. O'Brien, because when we return on Tuesday, hon. Members may well want to draw attention to issues on which the knife has fallen but which are tangentially attached to the issues that can properly be discussed then.

For all those reasons, I ask the Government to show some flexibility. They would lose nothing by accepting my amendment. In fact, it would improve the smooth running of the Committee and ensure that democratic processes worked properly.

Question put, That the amendment to the proposed amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 2, Noes 8.

Division No. 10]

AYES
Baker, Norman
Weir, Mr. Michael

NOES
Atkins, Charlotte
MacDonald, Mr. Calum
Stewart, Ian
Timms, Mr. Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Walley, Joan
White, Brian
Whitehead, Dr. Alan

Question accordingly negatived.

Amendment agreed to.

Norman Baker: I beg to move amendment No. 153, in

    clause 16, page 14, line 39, at end insert—

    '(g) a report to the Secretary of State on the adequacy of funds set aside by nuclear operators, other than the NDA, for decommissioning and clean up.'.

The amendment would include that report in the provisions for annual plans. The Minister has said more than once that it is Government policy that the private sector operators—British Energy most notably or, theoretically, anyone else in future—will bear the responsibility for their own decommissioning and clean-up and that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is the body of last resort. I entirely agree with that policy. The amendment would ensure that that matter was kept under review and that there was confidence that the private company and any others were making proper provision for such matters. We do not want British Energy or another body to say that it is in financial difficulties and cannot meet its responsibilities, resulting in a further bill of £48 billion for the taxpayer. The NDA is a body of last resort, and therefore has an interest in ensuring that the private sector is making proper provision for such eventualities, as do the Government.

2.45 pm

I am not sure that this is the right place in the Bill to raise this matter, and if the Minister makes that point, I shall concede it. However, I hope that he will accept

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that there is a need for a mechanism, whether it is achieved through this annual plan or by some other means, to ensure that the private sector is making proper provision for such eventualities. I fear that the backstop that the Bill provides, in which the NDA will pick up the tab if everything goes wrong, is attractive to the private sector. If the Minister is not happy with the amendment, perhaps he will say what other mechanism is in place to ensure that British Energy—or any other operator—makes such provision.

 
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Prepared 27 May 2004