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House of Commons

Thursday 11 October 2007

The House met at half-past Ten o’clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

The Secretary of State was asked—

Coal Mining

1. Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): When he last met representatives of the coal industry to discuss prospects for the deep coal mining industry. [156868]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): In the past year, Ministers have regularly met coal industry representatives to discuss a range of issues under the auspices of the coal forum, and they will continue to do so.

Paddy Tipping: The Minister might be aware that there has been discussion in the coal forum about an indicative figure for coal—a target figure for domestic coal of, say, 20 million tonnes per annum, split roughly between deep-mine coal and open-cast coal. What is his view on that? Does he support it?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend gives me the opportunity to pay tribute to the work of the coal forum. We welcome the engagement of all the different coal industry stakeholders through the forum. I am aware of the discussions that my hon. Friend describes. Let me say that we recognise the continuing importance of coal, particularly to electricity generation in the UK. He might be aware that last year coal generated an average of nearly 40 per cent. of the UK’s electricity, rising to 50 per cent. at peak prices. As he will know from the energy White Paper published last year, we continue to recognise the importance of coal. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy will want to discuss my hon. Friend’s point with him when he visits.

Mr. Stephen Crabb (Preseli Pembrokeshire) (Con): Open and deep-cast coal production now barely meet a quarter of total UK demand, and the figure is dropping every year. Regardless of whether demand for coal increases or falls in the years ahead, the truth is that domestic production will continue to fall. Rather than getting caught up in discussions about how to slow the decline in domestic production, should not the
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Minister’s focus be on what will happen to our coal-fired power plants, and on whether the development of carbon capture technology can be accelerated in time to create a new generation of clean coal-fired power stations? Such stations will help to protect us against an over-reliance on gas-fired generation.

Mr. Thomas: The hon. Gentleman rightly recognises the importance of carbon capture and storage. As a result, I am sure that he will welcome the announcement made in the pre-Budget report. We see considerable potential for carbon capture and storage and think that it has a significant contribution to make in helping us deal with the carbon dioxide issues that we face; it will also help our energy industry more generally.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) (Lab): Is the Minister aware that most remaining privatised coal companies own vast acres of land around their pits? Is he further aware that in recent times some pits have been closed and vast sums made out of them as property? Many of us believe that pits are being shut to make money as property developments. Will the Minister keep a wary eye on the few remaining companies involved in the production of coal? It is important to exploit the huge deposits of coal underground, rather than being concerned about the land on top.

Mr. Thomas: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s long-standing championing of the coal industry. We certainly continue to keep a wary eye on the prospects for the coal industry in the UK. One of the reasons we established the coal forum was precisely to enable ongoing discussions with all the different stakeholders in the coal industry, to understand the pressures on businesses and the attitudes of those who work in the industry, and to make sure that they are properly taken into account in our assessments of its future needs.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): My hon. Friend the Minister will be aware that the crisis in energy is likely to come between 2012 and 2015, when we will see the simultaneous decommissioning of coal-fired stations and of some nuclear stations. It is therefore important that we ensure that the investment in new technologies is continued; there are, for example, integrated gasification combined cycle and carbon capture and storage projects. The Government are going to help with a demonstration plant, but we need more such plants if we are to ensure that such technology will be available to tackle climate change. If we are to tackle that problem, the transference of such technology has to be involved. Will the Minister ensure that we will be likely to see more than one demonstration plant for carbon capture and storage?

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend will know that we are working extremely hard not only on carbon capture and storage but on a variety of other low-carbon technologies. We are, for example, seeking a trebling of energy from renewable sources. We recognise coal’s contribution to the energy mix, and through a variety of forums, not least the coal forum, we will continue to discuss the UK’s future energy needs with all stakeholders.

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2. Paul Rowen (Rochdale) (LD): What funding and other support is available for those businesses working on the use of hydrogen as a fuel. [156869]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Available funding includes a £15 million fund operated by my Department for hydrogen and fuel cell technology demonstrations. The Department also funded £6.5 million towards the establishment of a fuel cell and low-carbon vehicle technology centre of excellence based in Loughborough.

Paul Rowen: I am sure that the Minister is aware that the Governor of California visited this country recently, and that California has been a champion of the use of hydrogen fuel technology. Hydrogen is being used as a fuel throughout the state of California. What steps is the Minister taking to adopt some of its widespread availability?

Mr. Thomas: I heard something about the Governor of California coming to the UK, and I welcome the fact that he has championed not only the potential of hydrogen but further investment to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. We recognise the potential, which is why we set up the fund. I also welcome the initiatives such as those taken by the Mayor of London, who has committed to having 70 public transport vehicles powered by hydrogen sources. I know that the hon. Gentleman has an interest in this matter, and I am sure there will be many exchanges about the future of hydrogen. We recognise its potential, but it is still some way from fulfilling it because of research needs. I hope that the funding that we have committed will help to move the technology forward.

Mr. Andy Reed (Loughborough) (Lab/Co-op): My hon. Friend the Minister rightly mentions the institute at Loughborough, and we welcome the announcement of the energy technology institute and the £1 billion that it will bring, which will be focused on Loughborough. He talks about potential, but will he visit Intelligent Energy, a company that has a hydrogen fuel cell motorbike ready for production? We talk about potential, but what can his Department do to assist companies that are ready to produce the vehicles and fuel cell technology that will drive this country forward? We must not just talk about potential but ensure a marketplace for such vehicles.

Mr. Thomas: In principle, I am happy to come to Loughborough to meet my hon. Friend and see the company that he describes. In my original answer to the question of the hon. Member for Rochdale (Paul Rowen), I gave two examples of support that is available to move this new technology forward. There are a range of other sources to help us take it forward and I—or perhaps my right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy—look forward to meeting him to discuss those options.

Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): In Havering, BP conducted a very successful experiment in the use of liquid hydrogen fuel for single-decker buses that
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ended last year. The only trouble was that the buses had to come down from the east end of London to Havering, because that is where the fuel was. Does the Minister agree that it is not just a question of the viability of using a different fuel, but of its availability, in order to make experiments environmentally friendly and to encourage businesses to try them?

Mr. Thomas: I accept the hon. Lady’s point. We need to get to a point where we expand the pilots, which is why I hope she will join me in welcoming the initiative of the Mayor of London to commit to 70 hydrogen-powered public transport vehicles by 2010. Such initiatives will help to move the technology from demonstration projects to reality.

Nuclear Power

3. Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): If he will make a statement on the progress of the consultation on the future of nuclear power. [156870]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): The public consultation on the future of nuclear power in the United Kingdom closed yesterday.

Over the past five months, we have consulted widely, seeking views from a broad range of interested parties on the information and arguments set out in our consultation document. We are now giving careful consideration to all the responses.

Mr. Goodwill: We have already lost vital time because of the way in which the Government botched this consultation. Will the Minister assure us that he at least has the bottle to make a quick decision on this matter?

Mr. Hutton: We need to make a quick decision; I can certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman to that extent.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North) (Lab): The latest figures from the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority reveal a 16 per cent. increase in the cost of decommissioning legacy waste, to £73 billion. Is my right hon. Friend confident that he can honour the Government’s guarantee that there will be no future subsidy from the taxpayer for any new nuclear build, given that no one has the slightest idea about what the future decommissioning and waste management costs will be?

Mr. Hutton: Yes, we are clear about that, and the arguments that support it were clearly set out in the nuclear consultation document. My hon. Friend raises a fundamentally important aspect that has come up repeatedly during the public consultation, but I believe that we have set out the right way forward. There will be no taxpayer subsidy and no hidden subsidies for new nuclear if Her Majesty’s Government reach that decision. That is the right and sensible way to proceed.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove) (Con): As the hon. Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) said earlier, crunch time for domestically generated power in the United Kingdom is only five years away. Bearing in mind how long the Government
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have taken to make a decision about nuclear power and that it has to form part of the mix in future if we are to meet our climate change targets, how soon will there be a recommissioned nuclear power station that produces new nuclear energy in the UK?

Mr. Hutton: I respect the hon. Lady’s concerns, which are shared by all parties. She should, however, be careful about saying that her party has a monopoly of wisdom. I have been carefully studying the words of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who appears to take three different positions on nuclear power. He was opposed to it, then it was a last resort and now he is apparently in favour of it. However, we shall shortly discover the position of the official Opposition.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary set out in previous answers some of the measures that we are taking to deal with the hon. Lady’s point. We are aware of the importance of getting on with the matter, and the Government are determined to do that.

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): The Secretary of State wills the end but not the means. Will he confirm that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has not been able to appoint contractors to decommission the old Magnox power stations because they are not interested in doing the work at the price that the Treasury is prepared to pay? Is it surprising that companies such as E.ON and EDF say that the window for new build nuclear is closing in this country, when the Government’s dithering means that old stations are not being decommissioned, there is no clarity about the price of carbon and the Government cannot even set out the regime for nuclear waste disposal? Does not the greatest threat to our energy security come not from the Russians or the middle east, but from the Government’s delays and inability to make the big decisions?

Mr. Hutton: No. Again, I have a lot of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but his remarks are ridiculous. His point would be much more valid if there was any consistency or coherence behind his party’s energy policy. When he supports our reforms to the planning arrangements, others will take his comments a little more seriously.

Postal Services

4. Mr. Andrew Robathan (Blaby) (Con): What recent developments there have been in Government policy on the long-term future of sub-post offices; and if he will make a statement. [156871]

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): On 17 May, following public consultation, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State confirmed, subject to European state aid clearance, funding of up to £1.7 billion until 2011 to support the post office network and place it on a more stable footing.

That Government funding includes a network subsidy of £150 million a year to support the network. Despite that subsidy, because of continued losses of around £4 million a week and a reduction of approximately 4 million a week in the number of people who use post
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offices, it is necessary, as the Secretary of State announced, to reduce the size of the network while maintaining national coverage. That process began last week and will continue in the next 15 months or so.

Mr. Robathan: Notwithstanding the subsidy of public money involved, that answer reveals a paucity of long-term policy and intellectual thought about how we can use that much-loved and much-needed facility, which all our constituents want. Will the Minister confirm that the 77 closures that were announced in the east midlands recently would not have been announced—the announcement would have been held back—if a general election had been called? Will he also confirm whether, when he announces the closures in Leicestershire and Rutland in November, there is any genuine chance of a consultation period that allows some of the closures not to happen? Or will they be enforced?

Mr. McFadden: The timing of the programme has nothing to do with general election timing.

There is a balance to be struck between finishing the programme and the uncertainty that hangs over sub-postmasters and mistresses while it continues. We have set out our timetable to try to achieve that balance.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for visiting my constituency last Thursday to see for himself exactly how rural services are being delivered through what was initially a pilot scheme two years ago. Would he care to share the experiences that he had last Thursday with the rest of the House?

Mr. McFadden: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Alongside the difficult closures that are taking place, the Post Office is developing valuable outreach services. I had the pleasure of seeing them in his constituency last week, in the village of Twynholm, for example, where a member of staff from the neighbouring post office visits several days a week for several hours. The hours are well known to local people and the service has been up and running for two years. From talking to members of staff and the customers who use the service, I found that it was extremely popular. There are imaginative and creative ways in which the Post Office can provide services, particularly in rural areas where it might no longer be possible to sustain a full-time permanent post office.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet) (Con): One of the Post Office’s outreach services, to which the Minister just referred, is the possibility of home visits. When I suggested to the Post Office that it might like to make 3,500 home visits in my constituency, it seemed reluctant to do so. The loss of footfall arises largely from Government policy, which has removed business. Having closed rural post offices, we are now proposing to close urban post offices in some of the most deprived areas of the country, which will do immense social damage. Instead of ramming that proposal through, would the Government care to take it back and consider the proposals that the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters has made to develop
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proper businesses, so that instead of killing those small businesses we can allow them to grow?

Mr. McFadden: The hon. Gentleman refers to the National Federation of Sub-Postmasters, whose general secretary has said:

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