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Planning and section 36 consents are a devolved matter and we do not propose to change that. But let
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me repeat that the Scottish nationalists, who tell us that they want more renewables, object to wind farm applications—perhaps more than anyone else—every time they come along. One Minister in the Scottish Executive Administration opposes installation of the power line that would carry the electricity from the wind farms down to where it is consumed. The nationalists cannot go on saying no to nuclear generation and no to renewables: that is the way to switch off the lights.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): Can we assume from the answer that the Secretary of State gave the hon. Member for East Lothian (Anne Moffat) that if any new nuclear power stations are recommissioned in the United Kingdom, they will definitely be in England rather than Scotland as a result of the devolutionary process?

Mr. Darling: No. All nuclear power stations will be decommissioned at some stage. Scotland has two nuclear power stations, due to be decommissioned in 2011 and, I believe, 2023. Torness was the second last nuclear power station to be built in this country, Sizewell being the last. My point was that the nationalists’ position seemed rather contradictory, and I think that the Conservatives north of the border agree.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): Does the White Paper give any illustrative figures for the true cost of nuclear generation, including the costs of future decommissioning and radioactive waste management? Is it not a complete fantasy that the private sector will build new power stations without assurances that the Government will step in if things go wrong?

Mr. Darling: I can see that my hon. Friend has yet to be persuaded of my argument. The answer is yes: the White Paper goes into the costs at some length, and makes it absolutely clear that the industry will have to take account of the costs of decommissioning and long-term storage.

I have said several times that it is for the generators to come forward and make proposals relating to whatever form of generation they consider appropriate. People ask what has changed. Two or three years ago nuclear generation did not seem attractive, but more and more generators now think that it must be an option because of the economics, the carbon price, climate change and the knowledge that Governments will have to deal with it, and security of supply. As I have said, if we do not do anything we will be in grave danger of becoming over-dependent on gas from areas that can pose great difficulties, because we are subject to the sometimes unpredictable whims of foreign Governments.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): Earlier today the Prime Minister made it plain that the Government favoured a large nuclear generating capacity, and I agree with that. The Secretary of State’s statement, however, told us only that the Government would seek to encourage private-sector investment. That is not the same thing. Will the Secretary of State tell us what proportion of generating
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capacity he thinks should be nuclear-based, and what steps he will take to encourage the private sector to make that investment?

Mr. Darling: I am sure that the Prime Minister and I are in complete agreement on that, although I was not present at Prime Minister’s Question Time.

We have made it clear that if new nuclear plant is built, it will be built in the private sector. Proposals will be presented and planning permission will be sought in the usual way. The consultation document discusses all the issues relating to waste, the economics and so on. But, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), whereas in the past there was not much interest in nuclear generation, there is now a growing interest among generators who want to be sure of a proper mix and diverse energy supplies.

Jeff Ennis (Barnsley, East and Mexborough) (Lab): A couple of years ago I had the privilege of opening a methane extraction plant in my constituency, on the site of the former Hickleton colliery. It is run by a company called Octagon Energy, and it produces enough electricity in my constituency to power 5,000 homes for the next 20 years. Can my right hon. Friend reassure me that plants such as that will be able to qualify for the same tax incentives and assistance as those producing other forms of renewable energy?

Mr. Darling: We want to encourage development of that kind. There are many examples of methane being captured to provide energy for towns or for local businesses.

I urge my hon. Friend to look at the results of the consultation, and at the banding. We want to encourage various forms of energy generation to ensure that there is diversity, and that we can recycle as much as possible. I hope that my hon. Friend will find that helpful.

Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): Is the Secretary of State aware that there are now 500 offshore wind turbines either under construction on, or planned for, sites in the Wash or off the Norfolk coast? They are less intermittent than onshore turbines, and they have critical mass and carry huge public support, in stark contrast to the various applications for sporadic onshore sites, which are far less efficient, do huge environmental damage and are universally unpopular. What can we do to get these onshore turbines offshore?

Mr. Darling: The first thing that the hon. Gentleman could do is tell the Conservative members of Swale borough council to withdraw their objection to the cable that links the offshore wind farm on the Thames to the land where the electricity will be used. He could help me in that, as he probably has more influence with them than I do. However, he makes a serious point. Offshore wind farms have a great deal of potential because there might be fewer objections. Of course, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others might have concerns, but we were able to address them in respect of London Array and other offshore wind
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farms. We have to face up to the fact that offshore wind farms can be as controversial as onshore ones. However, I would like there to be more renewable energy. Our country is not as far advanced as it should be on that; we are seventh in the world, but we should be higher. As every little helps, if the hon. Gentleman could have a word with the good people of Swale, I would be most grateful.

Mr. Denis Murphy (Wansbeck) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that an application has recently been made to build a clean-coal power station in my constituency? It will be a £2 billion project that will burn in excess of 6 million tonnes of coal per year. Sadly, all that coal will be imported even though the site of that power station sits on top of the great northern coalfield where in excess of 500 million tonnes of coal await exploitation. Does my right hon. Friend not think that we should be burning that coal?

Mr. Darling: I would like our reserves in this country to be recovered and burned. However, the Government cannot tell generators that they must burn UK coal and that they cannot burn imported coal; the generators must reach decisions on that. There is a lot of coal in this country that is still available to be mined. That is a resource and we should consider exploiting it, especially as we are sometimes increasingly concerned about the difficulty in importing coal and gas. I would like British coal to be mined where that is environmentally acceptable and economically viable.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): When the price of carbon and electricity falls to such a level that private nuclear generators can no longer cover their costs, can the private investors expect to be rescued as was the case in respect of British Energy four years ago, or will they become insolvent?

Mr. Darling: No, as with other electricity generation we believe that those are commercial decisions for the generators to take. They have to plan ahead and take many things into account. However, I think that it is more likely that the carbon price will increase.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock) (Lab): In a welcome move, the Secretary of State set up the coal forum to inform future policy on the contribution that UK coal could make to a balanced energy policy, but he does not appear to have taken up its suggestion on a statement of need in relation to the role of UK-produced coal in the future. If that is the case, why has he not done so? As he knows, the coal industry is important in my constituency. What comfort can it take that its needs have been recognised in the White Paper?

Mr. Darling: Let me add to what I said in reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy). We want to encourage the extraction of UK coal where that is economic and environmentally acceptable. We looked at the question of a statement of need; as my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) knows, we have been discussing that in the coal forum for some time. There are tensions in various parts of the country, especially in relation to open-cast mining between people who want to recover more coal and those who have well
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established objections to open cast. We have tried to strike a balance on that. As I have said, I hope that we can continue to extract UK coal because that adds to the general mix and balance. We looked at the statement of need and we thought that it would not help in this regard, but I hope that what is in the White Paper does help.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): Speaking on behalf of the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru, I can say that there is much in the energy White Paper that we can support, particularly on renewables and energy efficiency. Indeed, we believe that energy efficiency should be given the highest priority. However, there is a large white elephant in the room in the form of nuclear power. It will come as no surprise to the Secretary of State that the majority of people in Scotland oppose nuclear power, and the Scottish Government will not allow the building of any new nuclear power stations in our country. The Secretary of State has also rightly said that for the foreseeable future we will have to continue to burn a lot of fossil fuels. I note what he said about carbon capture, but by my reckoning this is the sixth time that that has been announced, so why cannot he just press ahead with the Peterhead project, which is up and ready to go? Could he also tell us—

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I cannot allow the hon. Member to make a statement, especially as we have already been addressing this matter for 45 minutes.

Mr. Darling: On the Peterhead plant, I know that the leader of the Scottish National party has a particular interest because it is in his constituency, but the Government cannot simply plump for one project without giving other people who are equally interested, and who also have plans, a chance to put forward their proposals. The nationalists’ position on nuclear power is muddled. I noticed yesterday that their energy spokesman could not even say whether the existing nuclear ought to continue. I would have thought that that should be absolutely clear. In relation to the future, I have already said that the Scottish Executive have devolved powers, and we are not proposing to change that. I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point on renewable energy, but he cannot have it both ways. His party has been talking about local referendums for wind farms. It also objects to almost as many applications as are made, and it objects to power lines. It cannot have it both ways. It says no to nuclear, but it also says no to renewables. It must adapt from being in opposition; it is now the Administration in Edinburgh and it should show that it knows how to stand up and take decisions.

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Mr. Bob Blizzard (Waveney) (Lab): Britain is the windiest country in Europe. My right hon. Friend’s Department has identified many sites around our coasts for offshore wind farms, which can make a major contribution towards achieving the 20 per cent. target in respect of renewable energy, but too many such developments are bogged down in the long and tedious consent process and some are facing real obstacles. What is there in the White Paper that will help those developments to proceed, through streamlining the consent process and removing some of the obstacles?

Mr. Darling: The best place to refer my hon. Friend is the planning White Paper that was published on Monday. Attention has been focused on big infrastructure projects such as airports and nuclear power stations. It takes far too long to get consent for wind farms; far too many different sorts of consents need to be obtained. That is why I hope that all the Members of all parties who say that they want there to be more renewable energy—more wind farms, both onshore and offshore—will back the proposals in the planning White Paper that would make that possible.

Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): In terms of today’s White Paper, I am sure that the Secretary of State will want to confirm the importance that he attaches to inputs from the devolved Administrations and regions of the kingdom. Does he have any particular plans to improve the dialogue and liaison between his Department and the devolved Governments and other areas as we move matters forward in the coming months?

Mr. Darling: First, let me congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his new role. I want there to be close relationships between the devolved Administrations and ourselves. As was the case last week in advance of the announcement on post offices, this week in advance of the announcement on energy I or my ministerial colleagues spoke to Ministers of the devolved Administrations—or offered them the opportunity to speak in one case. It is important on matters such as energy, in which we all have an interest, that we all work together.

Several hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. I am afraid that we must move on. There will be other opportunities to pursue this matter.

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Point of Order

Clive Efford (Eltham) (Lab): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Earlier today in Prime Minister’s Question Time the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) referred to St. Mary’s hospital. I think that he meant Queen Mary’s hospital. He said that it might be closed. However, there are no plans—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. Mr. Speaker has made it clear on several occasions that we must not use points of order for the continuation of debate. If the hon. Member feels that the record needs to be corrected, there are other ways in which he can attempt to do that.

Bill presented

Constitutional Reform

Mr. Graham Allen presented a Bill to provide for the drawing up of a written constitution for the United Kingdom; for its consideration by the people and Parliament of the United Kingdom; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on 19 October, and to be printed [Bill 114].

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Media (Transparency and Disclosure)

1.29 pm

Mr. Gary Streeter (South-West Devon) (Con): I beg to move,

It is important that Britain retains a robust and free press. It is one of the safeguards of our constitutional freedoms and part of the mature framework of checks and balances that keeps us safe from tyranny. Many of the countries to which I travel in my work for the Westminster Foundation for Democracy would give their right arm to have an independent and rigorous press like ours. Yet there are occasions when the great British media overstep the mark and throw around their unprecedented power to influence and shape events and their ability to make or break careers and lives, without exercising proper responsibility or accountability. Too often, media stories are fabricated, exaggerated or sensationalised; too often, there are hidden agendas; and too often, we do not know enough about the integrity or motivation of the primary source of a story. In particular, we do not know whether anybody was paid for that story.

It would be a big job—possibly beyond the scope of any party, Government or Act of Parliament—to put the media back in their box without damaging their essential freedom and the modest measure I bring forward today does not attempt to do any such thing. My Bill is designed to deal only with the fact that the reader or listener or viewer is rarely told whether a source of information for a story was paid, and if so, how much. Why is that relevant? Imagine the situation in a courtroom where a judge or jury is trying to assess the evidence in a complex set of facts. Imagine the sudden revelation in court that a crucial eye witness has been paid for his evidence by the defence. That evidence would be immediately discounted: nobody would believe a word that witness said, even if they had been telling the truth—because concern over a possible mercenary motivation would rightly undermine confidence in the reliability of the testimony.

Why is it different in the media? In a story about an alleged neighbour from hell, a bullying boss or an unfaithful wife, I want to know if the neighbour, the employee or the husband—the persons making the colourful allegations—have been paid for their stories. Why? Because it will help me to decide what weight to give to their evidence. It will help me to make a better informed decision about motivation and veracity and whether the subject of the allegations should rightly be the object of my distrust and scorn. Ah, people argue, but this is not a court of law, this is simply a story on the TV or in the press. It is just harmless entertainment. But it is not entertainment for the hapless target of that story—countless dozens of them everyday, both celebrities and ordinary people alike, the victims of cheque-book journalism. What about the law of defamation, surely that can be used to protect people? It is an expensive exercise and beyond the means of all but the very rich to sue a mighty media organisation for libel, with no legal aid being available. Even stories that
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are horribly distorted and lampoon people unfairly can contain a modicum of truth, sufficient to enable the media’s sharp-suited lawyers to bat away all but the most determined of litigants.

Sadly, the Press Complaints Commission is of little use. More often than not, it reveals itself to be a toothless tiger and a self-congratulatory organisation that persistently fails those who seek its assistance. That means that the print press in particular is effectively free of regulation, despite the enormous power it wields over the perceptions we hold of the events and individuals that shape our lives. That is not a new problem. Even the military dictator Napoleon Bonaparte observed ruefully:

The pen is truly mightier than the sword when it is wielded by the media.

I am not saying that the media should not pay for stories. I am not saying that people should not accept payment for selling their stories to the press. I am simply saying that the viewer or the reader or the listener should be told whether money has changed hands to put that story together, and if so how much. In this age of maximum disclosure and transparency, is it reasonable that the reader should any longer be denied that crucial information? My belief in more media disclosure is only one reason why I do not support the Bill that passed through this House last Friday, and I very much hope that it falls in the other place.

I was interested to see in The Mail on Sunday on 29 April 2007 that at the end of an article entitled, “We loved each other like older people do”, a disclaimer appeared stating that

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