Previous Section Index Home Page

Earlier, the Secretary of State said that legislation should be the last resort. I am worried that that means there will be no legislation to tackle fuel poverty. Such legislation is needed, because fuel poverty, which is defined as when a household spends 10 per cent. or more of its income on gas and electricity, is a large and growing problem. It is shocking that 4 million homes are in fuel poverty, and that the problem is increasing rather than decreasing.

Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): Is it not the case that the families to whom my hon. Friend refers are also the sort of people who do not have access to the internet? People who get the best deal on energy are often those who can use internet search engines, which enable them to negotiate a good deal.

Anne Main: My hon. Friend makes a valuable point. People need not only access to the internet but to be savvy enough to negotiate their way around many of the offers. People switch their energy providers, but as my hon. Friend says, it is often the more intellectual or thinking user who manages to switch most frequently and get the most benefit.

The population of St. Albans includes a high proportion of people with degrees. We are known for being an educated population. St. Albans is perceived as being affluent, but it has areas of genuine deprivation. It is estimated that 16 per cent. of my residents in affluent St. Albans—some 7,500 households—live in fuel poverty. That is above the national average. The problem therefore affects all areas, not only the more obviously poor communities. National Energy Action estimates that the national figure could hit 3 million by 2010. Fuel poverty should therefore be a key feature of the Bill.

22 Jan 2008 : Column 1419

In October 2007, I met the Energy Retail Association because of my concerns about the poorer communities in St. Albans. The association was formed in 2003 and represents Britain’s suppliers of electricity and gas to the domestic market. I understand that it is working closely with the Government, which I welcome, to ensure that there is a co-ordinated approach to tackling key issues. All the main energy suppliers are members, and the meeting in October showed that they were worried that there was some sclerosis in the Government’s introduction of smart metering, which would help fulfil their commitment to alleviate fuel poverty.

Smart metering has been mentioned often in the debate. The Secretary of State knows that the ERA is calling on the Government to provide a mandate for the energy retail industry to roll out smart meters. We are talking about 45 million households; it is a massive project, along the lines of introducing chip and pin. We must think big, and I am not sure whether the Government will do that. Support for smart metering constituted a clear commitment in the energy White Paper, and the Secretary of State said that the Bill should implement key parts of that document. Smart metering was in the White Paper, so why is it not in the Bill? I do not understand the logic. If the Bill provides no mandate, the industry will get cold feet. We have heard examples of the industry getting cold feet about other projects, and the last thing we need is for the industry to worry that the Government have no genuine commitment to smart metering.

The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), attended a meeting of the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government in December. When I raised energy companies’ comments on smart metering with her and the Minister for Housing, the latter stated:

We are in the new year now. How far have we progressed?

How far have we progressed with the Ofgem trial? The hon. Member for Sherwood said that it was successful. If so, is there a commitment to smart metering? I do not believe that there is, because at the Select Committee meeting, the Under-Secretary went on about electricity display devices—EDDs. They are a method of examining what we use, but not of tapping into fuel tariffs, which would relieve fuel poverty the most. I asked her about fuel poverty, but her reply, which is in the transcript of the evidence, skirted around EDDs without focusing on smart metering. If we are to regain our focus on smart metering it needs to be included in the Bill, or the energy industry will not believe that we intend to act.

The £60 EDD is a sticking plaster, not a solution. It taps into electricity only, not gas. If the Government are to focus only on EDDs, let us have some clarity and honesty. They should admit that they are abandoning the commitment, which the Prime Minister reiterated, to proper smart metering. If every household is to have smart metering in the next decade, provision must be made in the Bill and we need to buy into it. An
22 Jan 2008 : Column 1420
early-day motion has been signed by 128 Members, calling on the Government to push forward on this. That shows that not only the energy industry but many hon. Members are willing the Government on, so I ask them please not to drop the ball at such a late stage.

As I have said, fuel poverty affects an increasing number of households. I should therefore like the Government to explain why, when they said that they were concerned about it, they have not included the aim of alleviating it in the Bill. Many people, including 16 per cent. of households in my constituency, face a choice between heating and eating this winter. That is not good enough. I believe that, for all of us who are committed to alleviating fuel poverty, the Bill represents a missed opportunity if it does not include that aim. I urge further consideration of that in Committee.

7.8 pm

Mr. Jamie Reed (Copeland) (Lab): I begin by declaring an interest as the Member of Parliament for Sellafield or, perhaps more accurately, for 17,000 individual interests. That is the number of jobs that depend on the plant in my part of the world.

The Secretary of State rightly said in his opening remarks that no single generating source can solve the problems of climate change that now face us. Obviously, I shall concentrate on the Bill’s nuclear element, which, in my view, is overdue, necessary and welcome. I want to pick up on the comments of my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) about the tone that has characterised the debate so far. It appears to be becoming a constrained debate—almost an intellectual straitjacket—in that many hon. Members are concentrating on how to stop the nuclear industry rather than on how to fight climate change. Surely than cannot be right and should be avoided.

The Government consultation on the nuclear option has been thorough, lengthy and detailed. Nobody can doubt that everybody who wants to have their say on the nuclear issue has had every opportunity to make their views known. It is a matter of regret that certain groups with what I can only describe as a pathological hatred of the industry have chosen to withdraw from the consultation, no doubt as part of their strategy of taking the Government to the High Court yet again, in order to try to thwart the will of a democratically elected Government who are seeking to address the civilisation-threatening phenomenon of climate change.

Such opposition is as inexplicable as it is predictable and illogical. People of my generation, for which I make no claims to be a spokesperson, cannot understand how groups that claim to care so much about our planet and our environment can seek to thwart the necessary steps that will give us our best chance of preserving our environment and our life within it. Those groups have no absolute or sole right to term themselves environmentalists; indeed, I consider myself an environmentalist. The label, which is often misappropriated by the anti-nuclear brigade, serves only to undermine a lot of the good work that environmentalists have done for decades in this country.

None the less, the nuclear element of the Bill marks a spectacular renaissance of an industry that until recently—until two or so years ago—was dead. In fact, the Bill represents a resurrection more than a
22 Jan 2008 : Column 1421
renaissance. Either way, it is of real and material importance to communities such as mine up and down this country. The Prime Minister put it best in his foreword to the White Paper when he wrote:

With that in mind, I want to stress that, like my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Albert Owen), I am an enthusiastic advocate of renewable energy, assuming that the developments are situated in the right places, that they actually work and that they are worth going ahead with. We all know that, objectively, not all of them are. It is for those reasons that I support the unprecedented subsidies, totalling billions of pounds, that the Government are putting into renewable technologies.

I should add that it is a matter of fact that the subsidy works. It is also a matter of fact that energy utility companies would not touch renewables without the renewable fuels obligation; indeed, they have told me so, as I am sure they have told many other hon. Members. Moreover, without the renewable fuels obligation, the consumer—we have heard a lot of wise talk about fuel poverty—would not touch renewables either.

With my support for renewables clearly established, I return to the issues surrounding nuclear, as these have been the most significant points of debate and argument on the Bill so far. There are perhaps 10 principal myths about nuclear. They have been raised today and will be raised again over the coming hours, weeks and months in this place, in the media and, I expect, in the High Court—I refer to them as myths, but they might be more accurately described as lies.

The arguments postulate that the UK should not retain nuclear generation because of the following issues. The anti-nuclear lobby claims that we do not know what to do with the waste, but that is not true. There are no technical or scientific obstacles to radioactive waste disposal, as we have heard; rather, the obstacles are principally political, and in some cases legal.

The second claim is that nuclear is not a low-carbon technology. That is not scientifically true, by any objective measure. Much is said about nuclear power’s hidden CO2 emissions, caused by uranium mining, transportation and so on. However, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has stated that nuclear power’s operating lifetime emissions are not only lower than those of coal and gas, but lower than those of wind turbines.

Thirdly, it is claimed that nuclear power is expensive. Again, we know that that is not true and that the economics of nuclear continue to improve, as oil and gas prices continue to rise. Currently, nuclear generation is cheaper than gas electricity generation.

The fourth lie is that the decommissioning of new nuclear reactors would be expensive. However, it is neither fair nor accurate to compare the decommissioning of new nuclear facilities to the current decommissioning of nuclear facilities. As the hon. Member for Mid-Worcestershire (Peter Luff) said, the principal legacy cost comes from our military programme.

22 Jan 2008 : Column 1422

It is claimed that there is insufficient uranium in the world to satisfy global demand. This is not true. There is as much uranium in the world today as there is tin. Both the International Atomic Energy Agency and the OECD have estimated that there is 500 years’ worth of supply. However, I concur with my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, North-West (John Robertson), the chair of the all-party group on nuclear energy, that reprocessing is key. We must reprocess, and I commend the Government for keeping the reprocessing option open.

It is claimed that building reactors takes too long to have any effect upon climate change. That is one of the myths currently circulating that needs to be nailed right here and now. The people responsible for building and designing reactors claim that from first pour to criticality—that is, to reactors coming online—can take three years. People will say, “We’ve heard these promises from the nuclear industry before,” and they would be right to say that. However, Atomic Energy of Canada Ltd has built six reactors since 1991. The longest took AECL six and a half years, while the quickest took four years, so I am optimistic about that.

It is claimed that new nuclear reactors will lead to weapons proliferation, but in fact the opposite is true in the western world. New nuclear reactors can solve our proliferation problems. By way of an example, tens of thousands of tonnes of uranium oxide are stored at the Sellafield site in my constituency, with something in the region of 100 tonnes of plutonium oxide. Anyone who has read the recent Royal Society report will have noted the recommendation that that should be turned into fuel, which can then be burnt in nuclear reactors to produce CO2-free electricity. That is an eminently sensible solution.

It is claimed that wind and wave power technologies are more sustainable. They clearly are not.

Briefly, before my time runs out, there are two more arguments, but when I hear these hoary old chestnuts, I know that the game is well and truly up for the anti-nuclear lobby. One is that nuclear reactors are a terrorist target. However, the fact is that the nuclear industry has existed since the end of the second world war, through a series of international crises. Nuclear facilities are among the safest facilities known to mankind.

Colin Challen: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Reed: I will not give way, as I have only 15 seconds left.

The final issue is to do with public health. I would act if there were significant public health issues to do with the nuclear industry, but after decades of independent, exhaustive study there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that that is the case.

7.16 pm

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): I wonder whether the hon. Member for Copeland (Mr. Reed) thinks that nuclear reactors are more or less safe than skyscrapers, which did not represent a terrorist target until recently. However, that is an aside.

I said in my intervention on the Secretary of State that, 20 years ago, I was a member of the feasibility
22 Jan 2008 : Column 1423
study for the Severn tidal power group. I retain my enthusiasm for tidal power and I hope that the Government will move quickly to put something together to harness the power of the tides in the Severn estuary.

I am afraid that this will inflame the considerable number of pro-nuclear colleagues present, but I was also leader of the Somerset county council that led the opposition in the 1980s to the pressurised water reactor of Hinkley C. By deploying arguments that were based not on the bad science of the time but on sound economics, by exposing the then bogus economics of the nuclear industry and by examining the issue of waste, we succeeded in having a moratorium placed on the building of new nuclear power stations for 20 years. I am proud of that, and I do not resile for one moment from the case that I made then and that is still relevant now.

We have to keep returning to the issue of waste. Until there is a satisfactory solution to the disposal of waste, I am afraid that there will be a serious question mark against nuclear power. I noted the convolutions of the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Alan Duncan), who dug not so much a hole for himself as a geological repository, in trying to avoid the question that the Secretary of State quite properly put to him. I know where the Secretary of State stands and where my hon. Friend the Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) stands. However, I have no idea where the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton stands, other than perhaps in a position from which he can give two opposing answers depending on whom he is speaking to—whether it be Zac Goldsmith or his hon. Friends in this place.

I do not want to pursue that issue, however, because I want to put one narrow point to the Minister for Energy—I am glad that he is in the Chamber, because I want him to take notes and listen carefully. My point is about micro-hydro power, about which he knows I am enthusiastic. Micro-hydro power is a growth sector in my constituency, where we are bringing old mill buildings and water wheels back into use with new hydro-turbine capacity. That will be enormously valuable in environmental and social terms. It will make a genuine contribution. We now have several well established groups doing this.

A particular issue relating to the Bill and to the renewables obligation consultation is the way in which micro-hydro is treated in terms of the allocation of double ROCs—renewable obligation certificates. Double ROCs are going to be made available for water turbines and other renewables with a declared net capacity of 50 kW or less. There is a gap between that declared capacity and the capacity of 100 kW or more at which commercial capacity begins. That will create a perverse disincentive for people who are installing such turbines.

I want to explain this to the Minister. My constituent Anthony Battersby has recently installed water turbines in his mill at Tellisford. It is a very successful installation. Its declared net capacity is 55 kW, which is very inconvenient in the context of the Government’s proposals. It will generate about 280,000 kWh per year, for which the income, including its single ROC, would be about £26,600. A similar site with a
22 Jan 2008 : Column 1424
declared net capacity of 50 kW—5 kW less—would generate about 231,000 kWh per year, for which it would have a double ROC and earnings of about £33,500. It does not take a mathematical genius to work out that the station generating 17 per cent. less electricity will receive 26 per cent. more money. That does not seem to be a sensible incentive.

The problem is that that arrangement will discourage new entrants into this area of microgeneration. I know at least six more mill owners in the Frome area who would like to install this kind of micro-hydro arrangement. The maximum capacity would be about 55 to 60 kW, producing a total of about 1,500 mWh per year. However, under the new rules, it is unlikely that any of them will install to the full capacity, which would result in a loss of 400 mWh a year of renewable capacity. That does not seem to be good or sensible policy.

I think that Ofgem has a policy that all types of microgeneration should have the same definition in relation to capacity. Perhaps the Minister can enlighten me on that. That does not seem to make sense when comparing photovoltaics, which have a maximum capacity, with water turbines, which have a slightly higher capacity. I understand that micro-hydro in Northern Ireland and Scotland is defined as having a capacity of up to 1.25 mW, which is different from other microgeneration forms in those areas. That suggests that there is a discrepancy between Northern Ireland and Scotland, on the one hand, and England and Wales on the other. I think that England and Wales have got it wrong. Will the Minister look carefully at this, to see whether it could be changed before the Bill comes into force, so as not to provide a perverse disincentive to a valuable part of the microgeneration spectrum?

7.23 pm

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone) (Lab): I want to make two main points in the brief time that I have tonight. One is on energy policy, and I want to relate that to the present situation. In doing so, I want to express my concerns about the nuclear option. I believe that there is an alternative, to which I shall refer.

The right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) said that he had looked at various documents and could not find where the Government’s energy policy had come from. Had he looked at the energy White Papers and the energy review, he would have seen quite clearly where it had come from. The Government’s energy policy is based on four planks. The first is to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to help to reverse climate change. The second is energy security. The third, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Paddy Tipping) said, is to ensure that heating and lighting can be provided to residents at reasonable prices. The fourth is to ensure that we can provide British industry with energy at prices that will enable it to retain its competitiveness. That is a commendable energy policy.

Next Section Index Home Page