Previous Section Index Home Page

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman supports our proposals on planning—although that was not immediately obvious on Monday afternoon when the hon. Member for Meriden (Mrs. Spelman), who speaks for the Tories, rather gave the opposite impression. As to decentralised energy, which is important, measures are proposed to remove some of the barriers that stand
23 May 2007 : Column 1285
in the way of decentralised energy. We want to encourage that—for individuals and for schools, for example.

The hon. Gentleman criticised us for not having a commitment to the installation of smart meters. I therefore invite him again to read my statement and the White Paper, which both make it abundantly clear that we want smart meters introduced for business and companies. Yes, it takes time, because it does not make economic sense to go into everybody’s house tomorrow morning, rip out existing meters and install others just like that. On top of that, as I said earlier, from 2008-09 any householder wanting a free visual display to see how much electricity is used will be able to get it. The hon. Gentleman, rather like me, has been in his post for about a year. We are now two years into this Parliament and it is quite clear to me that the Conservatives still do not have an energy policy.

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for putting forward such a thorough and courageous White Paper, which really provides what we need. I am particularly pleased that he has exposed the gesture politics that passes for energy policy on the Opposition Benches. Will he tell us how soon it will be before the methodology for the siting process for the new nuclear stations is brought forward?

Mr. Darling: First, we have to consult on the principle of ensuring that nuclear remains an option that can be considered by generators in the future. We want to consult on that. In parallel, we are also publishing documents relating to licensing and siting. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that nuclear is a controversial and difficult issue, but I am quite clear in my mind that it is important to have a mix of energy supply so that we do not become over-dependent on one particular source. It really is important that we do not become over-dependent on imported gas, which is bad for the environment and very worrying for the security of energy supplies in the future.

Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD): On our analysis, by 2050 we can reduce emissions from the power-generating sector by 94 per cent. entirely without nuclear power. Bringing in nuclear has the effect only of displacing renewables rather than gas, so nuclear brings no advantages on climate change and no advantages in security of supply in the long term. All it does is leave us farther away from a completely renewable system.

Does the Secretary of State agree that carbon capture and storage will provide a better interim technology than nuclear to keep emissions low and plug any gaps in the supply system while wind, wave and tide technologies are brought on-stream? Has he not read—on the basis of his statement, I do wonder—the words of Scottish and Southern Energy on carbon capture last week to the effect that all the technology is proven at the desired scale, so we are demonstrating the ability to integrate technologies? Did not the Government sign up to a binding EU commitment on CCS by 2020? Will the Secretary of State acknowledge that CCS is more compatible with
23 May 2007 : Column 1286
a rapid increase in renewable forms of energy and with microgeneration, because it can accommodate variations in load—the intermittent energy that the Secretary of State mentioned—while nuclear does not do so efficiently?

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the Government have accepted a binding commitment for 20 per cent. of all energy, not just electricity, to come from renewable sources by 2020? In his White Paper, he targets 15 per cent. of electricity by 2015, so could he please somehow integrate those two statements? Does his document on the future of nuclear power continue to assert below-market price financing for nuclear power, as he did in earlier documents and appears to continue to do today? Given his strong statements in favour of nuclear in the media today, does he think that his consultation will be seen as genuine?

Will the Secretary of State also confirm that by 2050, the effect of nuclear would be to reduce the percentage of electricity generated using gas from something like 19 per cent. to something like 15 per cent., and that that negates completely any argument that nuclear would significantly increase security of supply?

Finally, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman’s adoption of our proposals for a cap and trade scheme on energy efficiency and for smart metering, but why has he missed the chance offered by the White Paper to take firm action on social tariffs for vulnerable consumers? There are so many areas where the Government have made or could make U-turns, so why have they chosen to make a U-turn on the one policy that they got right the first time round?

Mr. Darling: I agree with the hon. Lady in what she says about renewable energy. I want to see far more of it, particularly wind or wave power, as and when the technology allows it, but I am sure she would agree that, although there are some interesting developments on wave power, it is still very much in its infancy. On wind power, she will not be surprised to hear me say that her words would carry a great deal more credence if Liberal Democrat councillors up and down the country were not objecting to just about every wind farm that ever comes up for consideration. They also object to any power line that would carry the energy from the wind farms to where it is needed. It is a problem that all politicians must face: we can be in favour of something in principle and in favour of a good idea like renewables, but we then have to back the means to make it possible. As I said in my statement, more than 170 applications for wind farms are now blocked in the planning system—many of them by Liberal Democrat councillors, so the hon. Lady should have a word with them about that.

Let me deal with some of the hon. Lady’s further points. The 20 per cent. commitment on renewables and energy was entered into by the Heads of Government at the European Council. It is a European target. We discuss it in the White Paper and refer to the fact that we need to take account of it. We support what Europe is trying to do, and the allocation of the 20 per cent. target among the 27 member states will, I suspect, be a matter of some debate—not necessarily in this country, but certainly in some others—particularly in respect of what exactly constitutes a renewable and how it will be allocated. It is important for Europe to
23 May 2007 : Column 1287
act in a number of ways. It is also committed to liberalising the energy market in Europe, which is very important.

On the cap and trade proposals for business, I am glad that the hon. Lady welcomes them. It is important for supermarkets, banks and large-scale public sector organisations to be brought into the scheme. They are not in it now, so it is important to help us meet our objectives.

In relation to the whole question of nuclear, yes I have changed my mind. I used to be sceptical about nuclear power, but two facts have changed my mind. First, it is now clear that the rate of damage being done to the climate by carbon emissions is such that we need to do something about it, and nuclear is a low-carbon source of energy. Secondly, I am increasingly concerned by that fact that, as we obtain less and less oil and gas from the North sea, having to import more gas from areas of the world that are sometimes not politically stable could put our security of supply at risk. The Liberal Democrats might be willing to do that, but I am not.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I need the help of right hon. and hon. Members. I am aware that this is an Opposition day but, equally, this is an important statement. Brevity would therefore be extremely helpful if I am to protect that later business.

Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): I agree with my right hon. Friend that renewable energy sources have a vital role to play. He will be aware, however, that there are apprehensions that the production of certain imported biofuels is environmentally damaging and can even have a negative effect on net emissions of greenhouse gases; in other words, it can increase them. What steps are being taken to address that issue?

Mr. Darling: My right hon. Friend makes a perfectly good point. Most of us would like to see more biofuels, and I referred in my statement to our commitment to go to 5 per cent. in relation to petrol and diesel. He is also right, however, to say that their production must be sustainable and that we must not damage the environment elsewhere by growing those products. We are having discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport about how that will work, and how we can be satisfied that the production of biofuels does not result in the destruction of forests, for example. My right hon. Friend has made a very good point, and we are alive to the issue.

Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire) (Con): Although I am not sure that it was wise of the Secretary of State to pre-empt his statement to the House on the “Today” programme this morning, may I congratulate him on the calm way in which he stood up to the simple rudeness of John Humphrys during the interview? I did not disagree with anything that the right hon. Gentleman said in that interview, subject to my studying the detail of his proposals. Does he understand my concern, however, that the policy framework that he has set out in the White Paper—when I come to read it—will be
23 May 2007 : Column 1288
insufficiently robust to guarantee his own commitment on renewables, never mind the European commitment, or to provide the incentives for private sector investors to invest in the new generation of nuclear power stations that I believe is necessary?

Mr. Darling: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words, and I look forward to hearing his next interview with Mr. Humphrys in the light of what he has just said. He must let me know when he is on.

I am convinced that the renewables obligation has made a real difference. The changes that we are announcing today, which will band the obligation to provide greater incentives towards new technologies such as wave power, will also help. We have had a lot of discussions with the industry about this, and I believe that this proposal will provide them with the certainty that they need to carry on increasing the amount of renewable energy.

The House is well aware of the history of our debates on nuclear power. Earlier this year, the High Court held that we needed to carry out a far more thorough consultation, and I have no problem with doing that. Indeed, when hon. Members have had a chance to read the consultation, they will see that it is very thorough and that it goes into all the matters that I hope the public will want to know about. We need to reach a view at the end of this year. I am encouraged by the fact that a lot of the large generators now acknowledge the economics of change; they know that there is going to be a carbon price. We would like that to be tougher than it is at present, but I think that they can see the general direction of travel, which is important. I hope that the proposals that I have set out today will provide us with a framework that will help us to meet our energy needs over the next 30 to 40 years, while at the same time putting us on a path towards reducing the amount of energy that we consume. To my mind, that is absolutely critical.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): My right hon. Friend’s predecessor stood at the Dispatch Box about 18 months ago and said practically the same things as my right hon. Friend has said today. We seem to have had review after review over the past two or three years before arriving at this situation. May I urge him to get on with making some decisions about our future energy needs? Regardless of the decisions on nuclear power, one of our future energy sources will be coal. We will have to burn coal for some years to come. Will he give further encouragement to advanced clean coal technology, and particularly to the fluidised bed system, a waste-to-energy production method using obliteration on a fluidised bed?

Mr. Darling: I understand perfectly what my hon. Friend is saying. I think that I am right in saying that a good deal of work has been done in his local council area on biomass. A lot has been done in the past 18 months. Apart from anything else, we have almost doubled the amount of energy that we get from wind farms in just over that period, which is important. There have also been developments in the European Union emissions trading scheme. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that we will depend on coal; we do so very substantially at the moment. Two things are
23 May 2007 : Column 1289
necessary to get cleaner coal—although that is a comparative term in relation to carbon emissions—and to move to carbon capture and storage. I should have dealt with this point earlier, because it was raised by the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Susan Kramer). It is true to say that the technology to capture, transport and store the carbon exists, but it has not actually been joined up on a commercial basis yet. That is why I am so reluctant to say, “Let’s abandon nuclear now.” These things might never become available. I have said on many occasions that we should not put all our eggs in one basket. It makes sense to have a sensible mix, and it would make no sense at all to put off these decisions in the hope that they will not come back to bite us one day.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The Secretary of State talked tantalisingly in his statement about local power generation and decentralised power, but—apart from just now in response to a question—he made no reference to biomass or biogas, both of which are renewables that we can produce from our own resources. One of the obstacles to their production is the fact that the renewables obligation is difficult to access for small-scale generators. Is there anything in the White Paper that will make it easier for those generators to access the renewables obligation, so that our biomass and biogas industries can really get going?

Mr. Darling: On the hon. Gentleman’s general point, the banding of the renewables obligation will help biomass production. We are also publishing further proposals today that I hope will help in that regard. I take his point about small-scale applications, and I hope that we can do something to encourage that industry. I urge him to look at the White Paper and at the separate paper that we have published on biomass. I hope that that will be of help to him, but I would be happy to discuss the matter further.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. Will he share with the House his thinking on social tariffs for vulnerable consumers? I am sure that he is aware that during the recent debates in the House and in Committee on the Consumers, Estate Agents and Redress Bill, which will introduce the national consumer council, a great deal of concern was expressed about the fact that suppliers are simply not passing on reductions in wholesale energy prices timeously to some of the poorest consumers. It was also felt that Ofgem either does not have teeth or chooses not to act in the face of that disgraceful behaviour, which is clearly undermining the Government’s positive policies on fuel poverty and inflation.

Mr. Darling: I very much agree with my right hon. Friend. We have made a commitment to reduce fuel poverty, and the increase in wholesale gas prices, which was reflected in the price that consumers paid over the past 18 months, has set back progress quite substantially. The fact that wholesale prices are now coming down as a result of action that has been taken over that period is encouraging, but there are further
23 May 2007 : Column 1290
things that we need to do. There is a discussion in the White Paper about social tariffs. As my right hon. Friend will know, different power companies have taken different approaches to this issue, but we want them all to take action because they have a real obligation to do so. I want to make it clear that if that does not happen, we might well have to consider legislation to ensure that further action is taken. We are also introducing other measures that will take about 200,000 households out of fuel poverty over the next few years. I urge my right hon. Friend to look at the White Paper, because we are determined to tackle this very real problem.

Mr. Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): Given the time that it takes to plan and build a new nuclear power station, and the urgency of this issue, how can the Secretary of State justify 10 years of prevarication through serial reviews and consultations? Will he tell us what was so inadequate about the previous consultations that we now require yet another one? How long will it be before the first electricity from a new nuclear power station flows into the grid?

Mr. Darling: I have some sympathy with what the right hon. Gentleman says, but if he is right about that, leaving nuclear generation as a last resort— which is his party’s policy—must be even worse. As for why we are consulting again, I urge him to read the report of the February court judgment, which explains at some length why that was necessary. I readily accepted the need for further consultation, and we are now going into a degree of detail that did not feature in the earlier consultation.

The right hon. Gentleman is right: the process takes time. That is why I think a decision must be made one way or another this year, and why I want to consult. I accept that the issue is controversial and that hearts and minds have still to be won, but I am persuaded by the evidence that nuclear generation needs to be part of the mix. I believe that it needs to be an option. However, as the right hon. Gentleman well knows, that view is not universal, especially in his own party, and it is not shared by his party’s Front Bench.

Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North) (Lab): I have reservations about nuclear power. What does my right hon. Friend think about the construction of a Severn barrage, which would have major environmental hurdles to overcome but would make a huge contribution to a reduction in carbon dioxide emissions?

Mr. Darling: That proposal, too, is mentioned in the White Paper, and my hon. Friend will know that the Sustainable Development Commission was asked to examine the implications.

The Government would like to encourage tidal power. There are environmental issues, and one that has not yet been properly addressed is the balance to be struck between the impact on, say, the River Severn and the environmental gain that would result from not putting more and more carbon into the atmosphere. Part of our problem is that the European directive does not attach enough weight to the alternative to encouraging more tidal power.

23 May 2007 : Column 1291

I have a great deal of sympathy with what my hon. Friend has said. She has raised an issue of which Ministers are well aware, and I urge her to read the White Paper.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): The statement will not end investors’ uncertainty. The delay over carbon capture and storage, yet more announcements of a competition that seems to have been announced many times before, and the very fact that the Government seem still to be attracted to nuclear generation cause uncertainty among those who wish to invest in non-nuclear carbon-free generation, because they do not know where the Government’s strategy is going. The Government should give non-nuclear carbon-free generation and carbon capture and storage a real chance to develop before diverting investment from that new industry.

Mr. Darling: I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman says. Not a single generator has come to me and said “I am not going to build a wind farm until I know your position on nuclear generation”. I think that most generators would say that it is sensible to have a mix, and to ensure that we have renewable energy and more of it. As the hon. Gentleman is close to some Liberal Democrats who are objecting to various Scottish developments, let me add that if they are serious about wind farms, perhaps they should think again about objecting to every application that comes along.

I believe that we should consider nuclear, gas and coal generation. As I said earlier, putting all our eggs in one basket does not make sense. I understand that the Liberal Democrats oppose nuclear generation—although I think the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) takes a rather different position, which is why he is no longer a spokesman on these matters—but I suggest to the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) that if he took a sensible view not just on climate change but on security of supply, he would recognise that it makes sense for us not to become over-dependent on imports from difficult parts of the world.

Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): What will be the impact of the irresponsible position of the Scottish National party, which wants no new nuclear build in Scotland, on the industry, the skills base and the work force?

Mr. Darling: I think that you would stop me if I attempted to answer for the nationalists, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but I will say this. At present, more than a third of Scotland’s electricity comes from nuclear generation, and there are at least 10 to 20 years of life left in one of its two nuclear power stations. One way or another, a substantial amount of Scotland’s electricity will be generated by nuclear power, and as far as I know the First Minister will not be switching off his light for a third of the time to try to get himself out of that.

Next Section Index Home Page