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Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West) (Lab): I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate. I congratulate the Government on their review, and I must take issue with my colleagues on the Government Benches who feel that it is unnecessary. The security and supply of energy is of huge national importance, and we must keep it under regular review. I say that because, in terms of energy supply and security, things have changed dramatically in the short period of eight years since the Government took office.
I can tell my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy, who is conducting the review, that on the basis of some experience I think it might have been better to make it independent, and that there may be a case for regular independent reviews of the security and diversity of energy. I say that I speak on the basis of some experience because in November 1997, shortly after our party took office, we underwent the first crisis of that Labour Government. We suddenly discovered that we were to close half the coal pits, and that coal was finished as an industry. We saw the collapse of the British coal industry. We could look forward to virtually all our energy supply for the next 50 years being delivered in the form of imported gas, mainly from the Transcaucasus, but no one seemed terribly worried about the prospect.
I posed two questions, and expensive consultants were commissioned to consider them. My questions were "What about gas prices?"at that time, gas was attractive on cost groundsand "What about security of supply?" The eminent and expensive consultants responded that there had never been an interruption of supply, and that they did not expect one. The confrontation between Ukraine and Russia in recent months put paid to that argument. Their other response was that they saw no great threat to the stability of gas prices, which would remain advantageous in comparison with the price of other energy sources. The situation following the ill-fated intervention in Iraq has put paid to that argument as well.
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I do not exaggerate much when I say that, in a nutshell, that was the advice that I was given. It was pursued, and much resulted from the review, not least the continuing argument about where we are today. As I have said, I welcome my right hon. Friend's review, and I ask my hon. Friends to bear in mind that great changes take place. In 1997 there was hardly a mention of renewables, or of their importance. Emissions and the link with energy policy barely got a look in, and energy saving was scarcely considered. The argument was, "Close down coal. Coal and gas-fired plants are finished. Face reality. Sack 5,000 miners, and let us be done with it."
I prayed for a turf war between the Departments in Whitehall at the time. There was not a blade of grass to be seen anywhere. There was unanimity in Whitehall. Over the weekend, I read in the national press that we now look forward to a third, or perhaps half, of the next generation of power stations being coal-fired. So things do change, and I ask my hon. Friends to keep an open mind.
I do not think that the Liberal Democrats are approaching the idea of an energy review in the right way. I do not wish to intervene in the war between parties over who shall come second, but I thought that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) made a very good speech. His tone was right, as was the balance of his argument. This is a cross-party issue. There is no party political divide, as there inevitably is on such matters as social policy, taxation policy and, for that matter, health policy. This issue comes down to an evidence-based, hard-headed assessment of where the national interest lies. I shall return to that shortly.
I also welcome the terms of reference of the review. I hope it will constitute a starting point, enabling us to examine issues in the future. The review that I was instrumental in commissioning in 1997 was intended to deal with the coal crisis. The 2003 review posed a question that it left unanswered. It is no good Labour Members saying that we do not need a review; we must have one, because the last one left the nuclear issue open, and it will not go away.
Unlike the Liberal Democratsand perhaps even my right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), who speaks so eloquently and passionately about these mattersI am not prejudging the issue. We must not do that: we must view it in a hard-headed way. I share the instinctive dislike of the negative aspects of nuclear energy that is felt by all Members, but I do not believe that it can be ruled out a priori, particularly on emotional grounds.
What we need from the Government is a reviewnot every year, but every three to five yearsof where we are in relation to our stated objectives. It must start with some really reliable facts and comparative data about the different aspects of production costs. There is no way of avoiding that, although it has not happened so far. My right hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West and Royton mentioned the Cabinet Office performance unit. I doubt whether that is where we get such information from. I am not prejudging the review in any
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way, but I shall be surprised if it bears out that information. We do not have good figures on which to base our assumptions.
When I said that an independent review would have been much better, I had in mind the Turner review of pensions, which set a good precedent in so many ways. It did not flinch from posing the very difficult questions, or from spelling out the assumptions on which it was working. Nor did it flinch from taking a long-term view, which Governments have an instinctive and understandable dislike of doing. If any issue needs such an approach, it is energy. The decisions that we make now will take effect in 10 or 20 years' time, and if we can, we must lookwith some degree of caution, of courseto 30, 40 or even 50 years hence.
The review needs to spell out its underlying assumptions, so that we can test their realism, to look at security of supply in the harsh light of reality, and to provide reliable and generally agreed up-to-date production data for renewables, for example. It needs to spell out the real prospects for renewables. Some Members are confident that we will meet our renewables targets, but some other people are not. However, nobody is making a realistic assessment of the current situation. As has been pointed out, we have only just embarked on the renewables programme; we do not yet know what the outcome will be, which is why we must keep it under review.
I welcome the review and I look forward to debating it in the House. I congratulate the Liberal Democrats on enabling us to debate it while it is still under way, but it is clear that we will need to debate it again when it comes before the House. I hope that, in doing so, we shall make a hard-headed assessment of where our national interest lies, rather than taking a party position based on emotional or other grounds.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con):
I am grateful to the Liberal Democrats for scheduling this debate, which has given the Government and the official Opposition a good opportunity to make a compelling case for a return to two-party politics. With the benefit of hindsight, when the good Lord decided where to allocate the world's hydrocarbon reserves, it was a bad day for Him and not the best decision that He might have made. Mesopotamia was the site of the Garden of Eden, but things have moved on since then. The middle east has become a particularly unstable area, and we do not know what to expect from the former Soviet Union, either. Last week's debate on security of energy supply starkly outlined the worrying prospect of our being in the position of Ukraineof being held to ransom by another, possibly unstable regime in the former Soviet Union or the middle east. I should at this point draw Members' attention to my entry in the Register of Members' Interests as a Gazprom shareholder. I should also add that President Putin did not consult me before taking action against Ukraine.
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Mr. Goodwill: I am grateful for that question. I was in Canada in the summer with the all-party group on nuclear energy. We spoke to Canada's uranium mining industry, which assured us that it has 80 years-worth of supply. However, it also pointed out that there is no incentive to look for further uranium, given the existing supply, and that many modern reactors can also burn thorium, which there is more of in the world than uranium. Moreover, there is the prospect of a fast-breeder reactor programme when the uranium runs out. So there is no doubt that, if the Government announce a new nuclear build programme, there would be plenty of uranium to fuel it.
We have two responsibilities, the first of which is to ensure that the lights stay on in this country for the sake of our economy, for our hospitals and schools, and for our elderly, who need heat in winter. It is also true that despite increases in fuel efficiency, modern economies such as ours have continued to use more and more energy. We are seeing a move to more air conditioning in the summer, and I suspect that it will not be long before peak demand in this country will not be in winter but in summer. We also have an obligation to meet our Kyoto emissions commitments. We cannot do both without new nuclear build.
In September 2004, I went to Hartlepool, where a by-election was being held. I do not want to take the credit for our coming fourth in that by-election but it was interesting to talk to people on the doorstep about the issues that concerned them, bearing in mind that Hartlepool has an advanced gas-cooled reactor. The biggest environmental issue there was not nuclear, but the ghost shipsthe former American navy ships that were being towed to Hartlepool to be decommissioned.
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