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House of Commons

Thursday 21 July 2005

The House met at half-past Ten o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


Standing Orders


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Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

Electricity Supplies

1. James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): What advice he has had from Ofgem on the security of electricity supplies. [13802]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Alan Johnson): The Department is in regular contact with Ofgem. My hon. Friend the Minister for Energy has met John Mogg, chairman of Ofgem, on several occasions to discuss various issues, including security of electricity supply. The Government's and Ofgem's shared understanding of the outlook for electricity and gas supply is set out in a report, which has today been laid before the House. It is available in the Library. I propose, subject to the usual channels, to offer the House the chance to debate the report in the autumn.

James Duddridge: Given that severe weather this winter would require gas supplies to be cut off to industry to maintain electricity generation, and the fact that the Secretary of State has not explained what will replace some 30 per cent. of power station capacity, which is due to close in 2015, why has he placed a report before the House only today, when it was required under section 172 of the Energy Act 2004? Why does it take a parliamentary question from a mere first-time Back Bencher to elicit the information?

Alan Johnson: Not a mere Back Bencher, but someone who has forced the Government to produce a report today. We are not required by law to report at a specific time. Ofgem and the Government believed that the primary objective was to give as full and as clear a report as we could, including the issues that may come up this winter. That is why we have published the report
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now. The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members would be glad to have a debate on an important and serious matter but it should not revolve around peripheral issues such as the timing of the report.

Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South) (Lab): Will the Secretary of State tell the House what assessments he and his colleagues have made in the context of energy security of the work of places such as Woking, which now generates 135 per cent. of its electricity needs, and the Mayor of London's announcement that he wants London to be energy self sufficient in a decade? Is the Department working on the security implications of local generating systems?

Alan Johnson: Yes. We must ask whether we have what is called the headline plant margin—the headroom—when considering security of supply. We currently have 22 per cent. headroom whereas this time last year, we had only 16 per cent. That is important for security of supply.

We are also committed to renewable energy. We have the 10 per cent. renewables obligation. The announcement and the initiative that my hon. Friend mentioned make an important contribution to security of supply and the related issue of ensuring that we tackle climate change.

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex) (Con): There are an astonishing 65 written ministerial statements to be made on the last day of term but there is no written ministerial statement about security of supply on the Order Paper. The response that the Secretary of State should have given to the perspicacious question of my hon. Friend the Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge) was, "By the skin of my teeth." He got the report out by the skin of his teeth.

The Secretary of State faces considerable problems. Did he see the following e-mail from his lead official? It states:

What has he got to say about that?

Mr. Speaker: Order. The Secretary of State needs to answer only one of those supplementaries.

Alan Johnson: I certainly did read that report—as did the rest of the British public, because it was leaked to three Sunday newspapers the weekend I was appointed. It set out the issues that we face on energy and replicated the points made in the 2003 energy White Paper. Of course security of supply is a central issue for the Government and for the House to tackle, as are climate change and the objective in the energy White Paper to ensure that we reduce the number of people in fuel poverty. Those are all important issues.
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The hon. Gentleman said that we got the report out by the skin of our teeth. We have Trade and Industry questions today, and we have had a question from the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge)—on which I congratulate him; it is a very pertinent question—which has given me the opportunity to respond, and we have lodged a report, not a statement, in the Library of the House in anticipation of a debate in the autumn. Even the hon. Member for North Essex (Mr. Jenkin), on this last day of term, should accept that that is not a bad thing for the Government to do if we want a serious debate on security of energy supply.

Mr. Jenkin: I very much welcome the fact that the Secretary of State wants a serious debate on the security of energy supply. At the previous DTI questions, however, does he recall saying that he had only been in the job for five weeks? We can understand why he is feeling a little overwhelmed by what his predecessors have left in his in-tray—[Interruption.] Eight years, this Government have been in office. I should like the Secretary of State to confirm that this memorandum states:

Are not those problems urgent? I am grateful for the debate that the right hon. Gentleman is to give us on the subject, because it is serious.

Alan Johnson: In the interest of having a proper debate on a serious issue, of course we have to look at this. The issue of security of supply is particularly important over the winter period, and that memorandum was pointing that out to an incoming Minister. We have dealt with this in terms of the market having the capacity to ensure security of supply, which is the right way to approach the matter. The Government have to ensure that we are convinced that the market is providing that capacity, well ahead of the winter period. The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to say that officials should point out to me the challenges that we face, and it is absolutely right that we should debate those challenges in the House. I do not understand his argument that my predecessor has somehow left me in a bad situation. My predecessor did not pass a law to say that we were no longer to have bad winters, so we shall always have to prepare for them and ensure security of supply.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that nuclear power must play a major part in ensuring security of supply? What does he see as the short-term, medium-term and long-term prospects for supply from the nuclear industry?

Alan Johnson: When considering climate change and security of supply, we need to look right across the range, including at nuclear energy. My hon. Friend will know that our energy White Paper said that we had left the door open to nuclear energy. We also said that if we were going to go down the route to new build, we should need to produce a new White Paper and fresh consultation. That is still the Government's position. In
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the long term, after 2035 when the last existing nuclear power station closes, the issue will need to be addressed within this Parliament, as the Prime Minister has said.

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