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15 Nov 2006 : Column 85

Even worse, even in the urban areas in my constituency, the companies have stripped out buses that do not go on direct routes. For example, in Hilda Park and other parts of Great Lumley, buses that used to go round the estate and pick people up no long do so; they stay on the main road. An elderly person in one of those communities walking to catch a bus might as well be a million miles away from the nearest bus stop.

The attitude of Go North East has changed. At the public meeting on Monday night, Peter Huntley, the chief executive, was accused by the audience of being not honest, but I have to say that he was far too honest for my liking. He admitted that Go North East’s strategy now is to concentrate on profit and the routes that generate it, which marks a huge change from a few years ago, when Go North East had some sort of social conscience. Clearly the company does not have one today.

I understand that the Bill offers the potential for pilot schemes. May I stress that we do not need any more pilot schemes? What we need is action. We need regulation of buses and, more importantly, we need to ensure that local people have a say in their bus services. Go North East conducts sham consultations: it will accept umpteen petitions, but still go ahead with its plans. One example of that was its withdrawal of the 21A bus from Great Lumley. A well publicised meeting was held—

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. I hope that, now that the hon. Gentleman has given us some examples, he will relate his remarks to the Queen’s Speech.

Mr. Jones: I am, Madam Deputy Speaker, in speaking about consultation.

Mr. Ian Taylor: This is not a local council debate.

Mr. Jones: The hon. Gentleman says that, but I had to sit through the drivel uttered by one of his colleagues, so he will listen to mine.

The parts of the Bill that deal with consultation will be important in ensuring that local communities have their say. The Bill will also help to ensure that buses meet a certain standard. Low-floor buses tend to be concentrated in urban areas. I look forward to that Bill and to ensuring that my constituents have access to a service that is not a privilege, but vital to many rural communities.

Turning to the local government Bill —[ Interruption. ] I shall continue, despite the reaction of the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). I had to sit there and listen to some long-winded speeches, and he is going to hear mine as well.

My hon. Friend the Member for Tyne Bridge (Mr. Clelland), who is no longer in his place, said that he did not welcome another local government Bill. Neither did I, at first, but I saw what is in it today. As one who served in local government for more than 10 years, I freely admit that we have dabbled in local government and in some respects made it worse, not better. I welcome the proposal to allow counties to become unitary authorities, as that will be vital to County Durham. The present system does not work: it
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is bureaucratic, misunderstood by local people, and costly. If we are to have strong local government in County Durham, it is important that we have a strong county tier of unitary authorities.

It is also important that we involve local people, so I welcome the proposal in the Bill that local people should have a direct say in how their local councils are run. In County Durham, I would support a unitary council with parish and town councils, which work well at local level doing the things that local people want done right, such as street cleaning and lighting.

I ask that the new county structure should have a strong scrutiny role. Proper scrutiny of local health care has been lacking for a long time. I hope that the new unitary authority will play a key role in ensuring that those bodies that spend millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in local health services are held accountable for what happens.

There are two matters missing from the local government Bill. First, it should deal with the regional spatial strategy. For County Durham the regional spatial strategy is a nightmare that will lead to inertia in housing development and in economic development. It should be resisted and, if possible, be abolished under the local government Bill. The strategy has more resonance with Soviet-style planning than with the modern day Britain in which we live.

Secondly, in dealing with the structures of local government in the north-east, we need to tackle the continued existence of the North East assembly, which is left over from the days before the referendum. I supported regional government and a yes vote in the referendum, but the people of the north-east had their say and there is no role, either now or in future, for the unelected regional assembly. It should be done away with, and if the local government Bill can be used to do that, we should do it and replace the assembly with bodies that are accountable, such as the Association of North East Councils and the chamber of commerce. That would be more cost-effective and more representative than what we have now. We are spending almost £2 million a year on a talking shop that has little support outside those people who have the vested interest of sitting on the assembly.

I welcome the legislation announced in the Queen’s Speech. There are proposals that will improve the lives of my constituents. In particular, I look forward to seeing a legal services Act that has real teeth and that can ensure that my constituents are not continually ripped off by unscrupulous solicitors and other members of the legal profession.

7.36 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): I harbour no ill will toward the hon. Member for North Durham (Mr. Jones), but listening to parts of his speech I found it easier to understand why the north-east rejected the regional assembly. Leaving that aside, I am sure that we can make up over a drink in the Members’ Bar.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) made some telling points. He used the word “groundhog” and there is a sense of “Groundhog Day” about today. The Queen’s Speeches of the past few years have all had the same texture and the same feel. Here let me pay a genuine tribute to the Prime
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Minister: his enthusiasm every Session for what he must realise is a speech that, in a way, exists to repeat the failures of the previous Queen’s Speech is quite remarkable. His air of get up and go on the morning that we open the new Session of Parliament is probably the reason he has lasted so long—indeed, today I almost had the sense that he wants to continue. There was a frisson that suggested that this would not be his last Queen’s Speech after all.

Mr. Salmond: I, too, am a Prime Minister watcher and today I detected enthusiasm for a range of subjects, but I did not detect that enthusiasm and commitment on the subject of Iraq.

Mr. Taylor: I am about to come to that subject, on which the hon. Gentleman and I agree to a great extent. None the less, I simply wished to draw the House’s attention to the fact that the Prime Minister did not appear to be a man who is about to give up. I am not sure that we have said farewell to him, and the Labour party had better sort out the matter fairly quickly. The Speaker’s ruling means that I cannot go deeper into that subject, Madam Deputy Speaker, so I shall not attempt to do so.

Iraq is the key issue. I was one of those Opposition Members who voted against going into Iraq. It is unfortunate when hon. Members spend their time saying, “I told you so,” but it is necessary to remind the House that those of us, such as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan, myself and others, who before we went to war set out in the House why we should not do so find it difficult to hear people now say, “Oh, if we had only known what would happen, we would not have done it.” In February 2003, I asked the Prime Minister whether he had had talks with President Bush about the fact that

In a later debate, I said that the Foreign Secretary needed to

I shall not indulge myself by repeating speeches that I made before the war. I simply want to point out that the Prime Minister has put us in a position such that it is improbable that we will leave that country with a victory. We went in as an invading army. We did not go in as liberators, nor were we seen as such. Even the Prime Minister has redefined the cause of the war—he did so today when he said that he was proud that Saddam Hussein had been removed. However, none of us in the House admired Saddam Hussein. Before the war, when the Prime Minister said the same thing, I asked him in the House whether the reason for the war was to remove Saddam Hussein or because of the danger of weapons of mass destruction. He replied that the real reason was weapons of mass destruction. That is all in Hansard.

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The tragedy for the Prime Minister is that he has never really faced up to the fact that we got in there for the wrong reasons. If we, as a country, made that admission, it might be possible to find a more realistic solution to the problem. As it happens, I am not one of those who is saying that we must pull our troops out now, come what may. My elder son was a young officer in Iraq at the end of the last year, and he is preparing to go to Afghanistan. I thus have a personal perspective, but I did not know that he was even thinking of joining the Army when I spoke before the war broke out.

It is likely that we cannot leave with self-respect. The danger is that our troops will be left in the firing line for some months while we work out how we can reasonably try to get them out and what justification we will give. That is my worry about the Iraq crisis. Let us not spend our time going back and working out why we went in. Our intellectual effort should be put into determining how we can get out while leaving the middle east as stable as possible. Unfortunately, the two cannot be disentangled. By entering in the way that we did, we have made the position in the middle east worse, and the crisis in Iraq today will reverberate.

It is interesting that we are now resorting to pleading with axis of evil countries— Syria and Iran—to see whether they can help to resolve the situation. The idea that Iran was a disinterested observer of the Iraqi situation is absurd. We armed Iraq in the 1980s because Iran was a threat. More than 1 million people were killed in the war at that time. The Shi’a were constantly suppressed so that they would not do a deal with Iran, so it is not surprising that one of the countries that we were apparently, according to the American President, putting on our hate list is now doing a deal with parts of a country that we have fragmented because of our efforts. The danger is that we will withdraw, leaving the Shi’a to do a deal with Iran, which would destabilise the rest of the Gulf states and, probably, Saudi Arabia. That would have untold consequences for energy.

Energy security is a vital issue. In my view, our energy supplies are now less secure because of the problems that we face in the middle east. One of our biggest energy suppliers is Russia. The way in which Putin is beginning to use energy as a political weapon should cause us considerable concern. It will be interesting to see whether G8 involvement and inviting Russia into an increasing number of the councils of the world leads to a more rational approach to energy policy in Russia. We need to consider what is happening to the oil majors through the various unilateral renegotiations of their contracts in the Russian territory, let alone the pipeline problems that are affecting Poland, Ukraine, Georgia and the surrounding region.

If the UK is to seek a long-term diversity of energy sources, and thus security, it is inconceivable that we should not regard nuclear power as one of the key players. We already have nuclear power. A constituent wrote to me saying that they would never use nuclear power in their house, but they are doing so. Indeed, we are importing such power from France anyway because of our energy shortage.

Nuclear power is not something that we will suddenly be able to decide is needed in a few years’ time if renewable energy supplies do not work properly. It involves a long-term programme, and calculations are
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made on the basis of a 15 to 20-year return on investment. There are all sorts of other problems, by the way. I learned only recently, during one of my visits to universities, that because of climate change, it is probable that coastal erosion will be such that it will not be safe to build on any of the existing nuclear sites on the east coast of Britain. That will cause planning problems, if we want to build nuclear sites elsewhere.

The Government courageously said in their energy policy that they would accelerate the planning process for nuclear power. Less courageously, they have said that the renewables obligation will not be available. They have also been very unclear about the carbon trading benefits that might come to nuclear power, bearing in mind that nuclear power is not only a source of energy, but has reduced emissions when measured in any comparable way against fossil fuels.

Tony Baldry: We must consider not only the cost of building nuclear power stations, but the cost of the contingent liability of decommissioning nuclear power stations at the end of their lives. Did my hon. Friend notice that the Prime Minister completely failed to answer a very simple question: who is going to pay for that? In the absence of any clarity, one must assume that the Government expect the taxpayer to pick up that bill. It has been made quite clear that the City of London and private investors simply will not invest in nuclear power if they will have to deal with the contingent liabilities of decommissioning nuclear power stations at the end of their lives.

Mr. Taylor: My hon. Friend makes an important point. If we wish there to be investment in nuclear power, we cannot try to tell the market the conditions for such investment are such that will make it impossible for the investment to occur. That would be conflicting with oneself. If the Government believe that nuclear power is essential, they must find ways in which the private sector will invest. The private sector will not invest if it faces not only a possible 20-year return on capital, but a decommissioning cost. The Government must face up to that, as must my party, but that has not yet happened.

Rob Marris: May I assist the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry)? I am member of the Trade and Industry Committee. The Government published their response to our report, “New Nuclear? Examining the issues”, on 17 October 2006. They made it entirely clear that the costs of decommissioning and of disposing of the nuclear waste produced by a new generation of nuclear power stations would fall on the operators, not the taxpayer.

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman puts his finger precisely on the reason the Government are behaving so hypocritically. What he said was textually correct, but intellectual nonsense. I am astonished that a man as bright as him has put such a thing forward. In reality, if one cannot provide the conditions for investment to happen, it will not happen. However, if nuclear power is to be an essential component of diverse energy resources, we must make that happen. What he says is thus unacceptable.

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Rob Marris: I was not putting forward intellectual nonsense. The hon. Gentleman assumes, quite wrongly, that I am in favour of new nuclear power in the United Kingdom when it is uneconomic—he cites one of the reasons why. I do not regard it as an essential component of our energy mix in the United Kingdom. There is no intellectual mix-up on my part. He and I disagree on the issue of security of supply, as he might put it, but we agree on the finances. Nuclear power stations cannot be economic because otherwise people would be applying to build them today—there is no ban.

Mr. Taylor: The hon. Gentleman forgets that the most uneconomic processes are renewable energies. I had some responsibility for the non-fossil fuel levy, as it used to be called in the dim and distant days of the Conservative Government. We deliberately subsidised uneconomic processes to determine which of them might one day experience a downwards trend in pricing towards the average price on the grid due to scale.

Rob Marris: Nuclear did not work.

Mr. Taylor: Nuclear did not work any less than renewables worked. Is the hon. Gentleman saying—I do not wish him to intervene again because I want to keep going, but he might think about this—that therefore this country should not have renewables either?

A point that I made to the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan is important: a lot of the business plans for wind farms are not economic because of the cost of interface with the grid and the fact that we cannot have wind farms in just one place. It may be, long term, that we come up with a viable solution—say, for wave power—but that is not yet viable. My point is that we cannot wait.

If it is in the interest of the Government and the nation to have diversified energy, nuclear must play a role and we must find a way to make it possible for it to do so. We could change carbon trading and make it available to the nuclear industry, we could ask the taxpayer to bear, wholly or in part, the decommissioning costs down the track—technology is improving the risk profile of that, by the way—or we could extend the renewables obligation.

Lorely Burt (Solihull) (LD): I invite the hon. Gentleman to speculate on how much further forward the renewables industry would be if a proportion of the billions of pounds that we have invested in the development of nuclear power were to be invested in renewables.

Mr. Taylor: The Government and their predecessors have invested in renewable energy. As I said, there was a non-fossil fuel levy, which covered all sorts of things from straw burning to chicken litter—goodness knows what else might have been possible—and in certain localised senses, all of them worked.

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