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House of Commons

Thursday 6 July 2006

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Trade and Industry

The Secretary of State was asked—

Renewable Energy

1. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What steps his Department is taking to promote renewable energy. [82765]

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): Good morning, Mr. Speaker.

The renewables obligation is the Government’s key mechanism for encouraging renewable generation. This is supported by around £500 million of spending between 2002 and 2008 in the form of research and development, and capital grants on emerging low-carbon and renewable technologies.

Angela Watkinson: What steps will the Department take to make it easier for small and renewable electricity generators to connect to the national grid?

Malcolm Wicks: We can all be encouraged by several developments, such as the Chancellor’s allocation of another £50 million for microgeneration, which will mean that there will be £80 million in all for that kind of technology. The successful private Member’s Bill—it is now an Act—that was promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) includes several measures to encourage microgeneration. There have also been big developments in planning that will make it easier for people to establish microgeneration in their homes. That all shows the Government’s support for such new energy technology.

Mr. David Kidney (Stafford) (Lab): There are significant parts of the country, especially rural areas, in which there is no mains gas. Until now, householders there have felt forced to rely on carbon sources such as oil and solid fuel to heat their homes. Is not the energy review an opportunity for us to make a reality of decentralised energy, as proposed by Greenpeace, in such rural areas by promoting, as a Government, district heating systems using power such as biomass, so that we can get renewable energy into significant parts of the country and give people a real choice for the first time about their sources of heat and power?

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Malcolm Wicks: There is now an interesting debate, with much evidence, about the balance that we will need to strike as the century further unfolds, between the traditional system of power stations and the national grid—we will still need that, given the power that we require for our economy and householders—and newer kinds of technology, even though some of the ideas are quite old, such as combined heat and power, district heating—which some people are now calling distributive energy—microgeneration and the rest. We reflect on such issues as we approach the final stages of our energy review.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Is the Minister aware that a single giant electricity turbine is to be built in a very exposed position on the Mendip hills next to an area of outstanding natural beauty? The planning inspector who passed it ignored all planning considerations and gave priority to central Government targets for renewable energy. Does the Minister really think that vandalising the countryside in such a way, by putting up an expensive, subsidised and inefficient wind turbine, is anything more than a gesture that fails to measure up to the real problems of global warming?

Malcolm Wicks: I rather feel that this is the wrong Front Bench to respond to that question. I had understood that the right hon. Gentleman’s Front-Bench team, to quote one of my favourite poets, was now “Tangled up in blue”—and green.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Which poet?

Malcolm Wicks: Mr. Dylan. If these guys are going to modernise—

Peter Luff: That is not modern.

Malcolm Wicks: This discussion shows the challenge that we face. We will need a great deal of investment in power in the future, whether that is wind farms, marine technology or more traditional power stations of one kind or another. Although local issues are absolutely crucial—which is why we have a planning process—hon. Members cannot keep saying no to things. We will need to start saying yes if we are to have the energy, especially the clean energy, that our economy demands and our people expect.

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab/Co-op): I am not sure that I am the right Back Bencher—

Mr. Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): It is not poetry in motion.

David Taylor: Despite the increased promotion of such energy, does the Minister agree that one of the things that is inhibiting take-up is confusion about green tariffs? Is it not about time that we had an accreditation or rating system so that consumers could know that their suppliers were providing exactly what they said they were, because uncertainty might lead them to conclude otherwise?

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Malcolm Wicks: While there are major roles for the Government, industry and the rest to play on our future energy strategy, we also need individuals to become more aware of energy sources so that they can be the vanguard for the climate change agenda. More and more people are taking an interest in where their energy comes from—perhaps the development of smart metering is an idea that needs to be tested—and in microgeneration. We hope to encourage and enable that interest.

David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP): Will the Minister tell the House what measures the Government have taken to ensure that companies use more recycled material and what, if any, penalties they will impose if they do not comply?

Malcolm Wicks: Clearly, in terms of the environmental agenda, we all need to recycle more materials. Soon, the UK will implement what is inelegantly known as the WEEE directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment so that some of those materials can be recycled rather than going into landfill. There is the issue, too, of biomass and the use of new kinds of fuels in traditional power stations as well as smaller, perhaps mini, combined heat and power stations. The theme of using materials responsibly on our planet in waste policy—not wasted policy—and energy policy is particularly important.

Mr. Duncan: The Minister for Trade and I are the living embodiment of microgeneration. Is not Britain far behind other countries in harnessing renewable power, and is there not a desperate need to spark a green energy revolution here? The Carbon Trust reports today that the Government’s renewables obligation is not working. Unless it is urgently revised, the UK will meet only half of its renewable energy targets by 2020. Will the Minister make a commitment to undertake a fundamental overhaul of the renewables obligation to help us take a quantum leap forward?

Malcolm Wicks: I will not go down the route of considering whether microgeneration contributes to hot or cooler air, as that is too easy a follow-up. To be serious, although we welcome late arrivals at the party to save the planet, it was our Government who initiated the renewables obligation and who will spend £500 million by 2008 on such technologies. Some of those late arrivals are talking—and I welcome that—but we have acted on the environmental agenda. The renewables obligation is not cheap stuff, as it will be worth up to £1 billion to the renewables industry by the end of the decade. It is a substantial investment, mainly paid for by customers, both industrial and domestic, and it is the major way in which we are developing renewable technologies.

Mr. Duncan: Later today, we will publish the interim findings of our own review, which I hope the Minister will welcome. If we share common ground, that is good for the country and for investment. The fact of the matter, however, is that UK CO2 emissions have risen in five of the past seven years, and are higher than they were when his party came to office in 1997. The Government have not done enough to reduce emissions. Should we
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not have an enhanced long-term carbon trading framework to guarantee emissions reductions and to incentivise renewable energy technology, so that the country’s electricity supply can deliver green security both for us and for future generations?

Malcolm Wicks: I know that there is media, parliamentary and public interest and excitement about the outcome of the energy review—I had assumed that it was our review rather than the hon. Gentleman’s—which we welcome. For once, politicians do not exaggerate when they say that the environmental question of safeguarding our planet for the future is vital not only for our democracy, but for all other democracies. That is why the Government have set a mid-century target—it is the most ambitious target that any Government have set—to reduce 1990 levels of CO2 emissions by 60 per cent. by 2050. That target is driving the energy review, but the hon. Gentleman must be a little more patient before we say exactly how we will tackle the problem. However, we are committed to doing so.

Nuclear Power

2. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): What the Government’s policy is on nuclear power. [82766]

5. Stephen Hammond (Wimbledon) (Con): What the Government's policy is on nuclear power. [82769]

6. Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): What plans he has to replace the UK’s nuclear power reactors. [82770]

8. Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): What the Government’s policy is on the continued use of nuclear power. [82773]

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Government will publish their proposals shortly.

Mr. Goodwill: The outcome of the energy review with regard to nuclear power has hardly been the best kept secret in Whitehall. I assure the Secretary of State of the support of many Opposition Members during the difficult months ahead. However, in the light of the delays identified by the Environmental Audit Committee in delivering a new generation of power stations in the United Kingdom, does the right hon. Gentleman think we need to review the planning system in that regard before we embark on that route?

Mr. Darling: Yes, I do, and I have said so on many occasions. The planning system is a major obstacle to new energy generation, from whatever source. The right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) has highlighted some of the problems. Of course, we must allow people to make their voices heard if they object to a particular proposal, but it is not in the national interest that applications, many of them for wind farms, are being held up for years. Bearing in mind that possibly a third of our generating capacity needs to be replaced in the next 20 years, the planning system needs to be overhauled.

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Stephen Hammond: Given the Prime Minister’s confirmation to the Liaison Committee on Tuesday that the Government have decided that there will be a new generation of nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom, can the Secretary of State tell us today, please, how many the Government intend to build and at what cost, and what the time scale will be?

Mr. Darling: The Government do not intend to build any generating plant of any description. The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until I publish the conclusions of the energy review. I think, though—following on from the earlier exchanges—that a mix of generating capacity has served this country well over the past 40 or 50 years, and I believe that a mix will continue to serve it well in the future.

Mr. Ellwood: In answer to the original question, the Secretary of State recognised that there is a problem with the planning system, but he did not offer a solution. It took 20 years to get a spark out of Dungeness nuclear reactor. What does the right hon. Gentleman intend to do to ensure that that does not occur again?

Mr. Darling: I take the hon. Gentleman’s contribution to mean that he would support a reform of the planning laws. The last time the Government tried to reform the planning legislation, they ran into stiff opposition from the Conservatives and a great deal of opposition in the other place. I hope that this time, if we can get something approaching a consensus on how we generate our electricity, we can also get a consensus on how we achieve that. When I saw that the Leader of the Opposition had described wind farms as bird mincers, I began to wonder whether he was prepared to back his words on making sure that we have greener energy generation with the necessary action to ensure that we deliver it.

Philip Davies: Does the Secretary of State agree that nuclear power is desirable in order to guarantee security of energy supply and also to meet our environmental obligations in the future? May I urge him to stop dithering on the issue and face down those on the left wing of his own party, who want to put dogma before the best interests of the country?

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman might want to have a word with his own Front-Bench team. The shadow Secretary of State made it clear earlier this year that he was hostile to nuclear power. We will make our proposals fairly shortly, but the Conservative party had better decide whether it is for or against nuclear power.

Alison Seabeck (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab): I declare a registered interest. If the decision taken in due course is to replace some of our nuclear power stations as well to expand alternative technologies, we will clearly need expertise to take forward these complex sites. What reassurances has my right hon. Friend received from his colleagues in the Department for Education and Skills that efforts are being made now to develop such skills, particularly across the engineering disciplines which will be vital?

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Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. Right across the whole energy sector, there is a continuing need to make sure that we have people with the necessary skills and expertise. That does not apply just to nuclear. It applies to the oil and gas industry, for example, and to renewables—where, incidentally, we have an opportunity to show a lead, particularly in the development of wave and marine generation, which is underdeveloped so far. My hon. Friend is right: it is important that we build and maintain our expertise in that regard.

Mr. Adrian Bailey (West Bromwich, West) (Lab/Co-op): Does my right hon. Friend accept that there have been complaints from British manufacturing industry that it is the victim of an energy supply market, particularly in Europe, whose failure to liberalise has been a factor in increased prices in the UK? Does he agree that in order to reduce the vulnerability of British manufacturing industry, it is essential to have a varied range of sources of future energy supply, including nuclear energy?

Mr. Darling: I agree with my hon. Friend. We face two big challenges: first, we need to tackle climate change; secondly, we need to address the issue of security of supply. As the House knows, the supply of gas into this country was very tight last winter, and this winter will be difficult, too. Yesterday, I met representatives from the generating industry, the regulators and, importantly, consumers of electricity. We must ensure that we have adequate infrastructure to get the right amount of gas into this country.

My hon. Friend is right about Europe. People talk about the need to have a liberalised energy market in Europe, but there are far too many member states where that is simply not happening. We fully support the Commission’s efforts to make sure that that market works.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): My right hon. Friend will be aware that coal will make a major contribution to the energy review. In my constituency, it is estimated that some 500 million tonnes of coal have still not been mined, and my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Leicestershire (David Taylor) has told me that more than 700 million tonnes of coal have still not been mined in his county. Does my right hon. Friend agree that clean coal can make a major contribution and that we should tap into that resource as part of the review?

Mr. Darling: My hon. Friend has made a good point. Coal is an important part of the generating mix. Scottish Power owns the Longannet power station, which is in sight of his constituency, and earlier this year it announced plans to install equipment to burn cleaner coal, and it is co-firing biomass there, too. We want to encourage developments and technologies such as carbon capture, which will be important not only in this country, but across the world.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): The Secretary of State’s Department has been looking at the economics of energy in detail for some time. Will
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the right hon. Gentleman name any British nuclear power station that has been built on time, on budget and without any taxpayer or consumer subsidy? If he cannot do so, perhaps he will name such a nuclear power station somewhere in the world at any time, ever.

Mr. Darling: The hon. Gentleman has made a good point—although I do not think that he intended to make it—about the time that it takes to build any sort of power station, let alone a nuclear power station, which is partly due to planning difficulties. I commend what the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable), who is sitting behind him, said earlier this year:

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