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9 Jun 2009 : Column 211WH—continued

Before I turn to the specific issue of solar storms, I would like to thank my hon. Friend for the wider interest that he has demonstrated in this matter. I am aware of his work on the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee which, as he pointed out, has considered funding for research. In the course of my reply, I shall also expand on the answer provided in
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response to my hon. Friend’s recent parliamentary question on the need to protect the national grid from extreme solar weather.

A recent article in the New Scientist raised concerns that a repeat of the Carrington event to which my hon. Friend referred could have a major impact on national electricity transmission networks. It prompted a letter from a concerned constituent of the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox) and a debate in both the Scottish Executive and the Welsh Assembly. I therefore very much welcome this opportunity to discuss the issue and to explain the Government’s view on the risk that we believe is posed to the UK’s electricity network, and the measures that are in place to monitor events and mitigate the risks.

National Grid Electricity Transmission owns the England and Wales electricity transmission system, and Scottish Power Transmission Ltd and Scottish Hydro Electric each own part of the transmission system in Scotland. National Grid also has responsibility for overseeing and managing the flow of electricity across the whole of the Great Britain transmission network. My Department maintains close contact with those companies on all network resilience issues.

As my hon. Friend said, satellites are capable of giving several hours’ warning that a major solar storm has occurred on the sun, and about 30 minutes’ warning that the subsequent discharge could impact on the earth. The information is available in real time to National Grid, which has procedures in place that set out the actions that would be taken should such an alert be received.

There is also an international research programme to improve understanding of the potential impact of solar storms. It is led by the Electric Power Research Institute based in the USA, to which my hon. Friend referred, and National Grid is a partner in that research. The programme monitors the ongoing low-level solar storms that are detected from time to time by satellites and correlates them with measurements of induced currents on the ground as detected by monitors placed around the globe. In that way, we are gaining experience in interpreting early warning signs of solar storms.

My hon. Friend asked whether it was wise to cut the budget. I shall write to my relevant opposite numbers and make an inquiry further to his inquiry. I am not in a position to make a judgment, but I would say to him that, as in so many such matters, the international scientific endeavour is most important. As the UK Government, and through the partnership of National Grid with the US institute, we are able to obtain up-to-the-minute, appropriate science.

Graham Stringer: I am grateful for that response, and I realise that this debate covers several departmental responsibilities. Would my hon. Friend make the point to her colleagues that while international collaboration may deal with some of the details and with development of policy, there is a real economic importance to work going on in this country because of the insurance industry in the City?

Joan Ruddock: I will certainly look at that and make the specific connection that my hon. Friend just made.

The procedures that National Grid and other utilities have in place for reacting to a major solar flare include steps to increase the generation reserves that can improve
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voltage levels across the network, and possibly switching out certain transformers at the edge of the network if sufficient information is available to give confidence in the route that the electrical currents caused by the solar storm will take.

My hon. Friend asked whether I agree that the fastest storms would not be predictable. It is a fact that, if something occurs at a speed that we are not able to pick up in the networks that already exist—in the satellite messaging systems that we depend on—we would be taken by surprise. Generally, however, through satellites, we are certainly getting information within a reasonable time frame. All transformers connected to the national grid transmission network since 1999 have been designed to eliminate the risk of damage presented by solar storms. That answers my hon. Friend’s question about more modern facilities with higher voltages. Protection has been built in and there is an acceptance that, as voltages have increased, there is a need to introduce appropriate safeguards.

Of course, a wide range of incidents and emergencies might have an impact on all or significant parts of the UK. The national risk register, published in March 2008, sets out the Government’s assessment of the likelihood and impact of a range of different risks that may directly affect the UK over the next five years, including accidents such as major fires or technical failures, natural events, including severe weather and flooding, and particularly the threat of international terrorism. Comprehensive plans are in place for handling both a complete national outage of electricity supplies, which, of course, has never occurred, I am glad to say, and regional outages. Although solar storms are not included specifically in the national risk register, the resilience measures in place to deal with the risks I have mentioned would be equally applicable to the effects of solar storms.

As my hon. Friend said, solar storms approximately follow an 11-year cycle and are thought to be related to changes in the sun’s magnetic field. We are in a quiet phase at present and the latest information from NASA is that the next peak is likely during mid 2013. My hon. Friend hoped that I would take this matter seriously. Indeed, the Government do take it seriously. Solar storms are known to be capable of damaging electricity transmission networks on earth and this has happened, as he said, in both Canada and Sweden. The most significant event occurred on 13 March 1989, when a severe storm caused the collapse of the Canadian Hydro-Québec power grid in a matter of seconds. As he said, millions of people were left without power for nine hours, with significant economic loss. In the UK, there have been at least four peak cycles of solar storms during the existence of modern high-voltage transmission networks. Generally, these have caused no problems, although in 1989 two transformers suffered damage: one in East Anglia and one in the west country. However, in both cases, the impact was limited to the locality.

I am glad to say that the UK is not at a particularly high risk of disruption from solar storms, as we are a good way south of the magnetic north pole. The history of extreme solar weather events and the science indicate that the risk of a major impact in the UK is very low. Although the UK may not be completely immune from the impact of solar storms, it is extremely unlikely that we would suffer widespread damage. The damage that
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could occur is therefore small and well within the scope of the resilience and contingency planning that we have in place to deal with terrestrial weather events and other risks that could impact on the electricity networks.

The main risk to electricity supplies during a severe solar storm is that one or more transformers at the edge of the network could be damaged, which would cause a localised loss of supply if the capacity of remaining transformers could not deliver all the demand for electricity in that area. Generally, a damaged transformer can be replaced within about two weeks and it is often possible to take other measures to restore supplies much quicker than that, including an early return to service of equipment being maintained or the re-routing of supplies from a different location.

The highest risk areas of the UK are the west country and parts of Scotland, due to the granite rock formation of the ground in those parts. That type of ground is particularly susceptible to electrical currents, so the geomagnetically induced currents caused by the solar storm are therefore more likely to find a path through the electricity networks. That is more likely to happen because of the terrain in those areas.

A severe solar storm can also depress the overall voltage of the transmission network by a few per cent. However, that is unlikely to cause damage or disruption and defence measures can be taken to reduce the risk even further. For example, National Grid may be able to increase the number of electricity generators on the network to help support the voltage.

These impacts are comparable to the risks faced by the transmission networks in day-to-day operation, for example, by the breakdown of generation or transmission equipment or through the terrestrial weather events that I mentioned earlier. The ability to cope with such events and minimise their impact is built into the design of the networks, operating procedures and the resilience measures available to the grid operators. Emergency planning arrangements are also in place to cover significant and unexpected events.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this important issue. The Department of Energy and Climate Change maintains its capacity to lead the response to energy emergencies and incidents. That means planning, training and exercising alongside those likely to have a stake in a potential crisis. That includes the energy sector, together with local, regional and devolved Administrations, as well as other Departments and agencies whose interests may be affected and whose assistance would be needed.

Although there are clearly uncertainties about the impact of a major solar storm, experience to date indicates that the UK is not unduly exposed to such events and, in the worst case, it could be expected that any interruption to electricity supplies would be localised and of relatively short duration. However, as my hon. Friend implied, there is no absolute certainty in this regard. There is clearly a need for continuing scientific research. We cannot be certain: although we have seen events of a certain nature and events for which we could make reasonable predictions, and although we have in place a significant range of measures that are capable of coping with and, to some degree, mitigating the potential effects on our electricity networks, none the less we need
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to keep such matters under review. The Department needs to be constantly apprised of, and must follow, developments in science.

The resilience and defensive measures that network owners take to protect against terrestrial weather events are equally applicable in dealing with solar storms. Where specific measures are appropriate, such as the development of reliable early warning systems, work is in hand to improve our understanding. I am confident that we can, as a country, cope within the range of what we know has happened in other parts of the world and in this country, and which may happen here in future.

Some hon. Members may be concerned about the Olympics—a major event in this country—which could conceivably be affected if such a storm were to happen, but I say to my hon. Friend, although he did not raise this issue, that we have considered that and we expect that all the measures that I have described to be in place and to be appropriate. We have contingency arrangements for that major national event. However, we are not complacent on these issues. Once again, I thank my hon. Friend for raising an important matter in this debate.

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Home Education

1 pm

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I recognise that the Minister is making her debut here, and that this matter is work in progress for her Department. I contacted her civil servants, and made it clear that the bulk of this half-hour debate will be taken up by my contribution, but that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Albans (Anne Main) and the hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) may wish to intervene.

In the middle of January, the Department for Children, Schools and Families launched an independent review of home education by Graham Badman, the former director of children and educational services at Kent county council. Mr. Badman has been charged with investigating the current system for supporting and monitoring home education, and was asked to consider how any concerns about children’s safety, welfare or education are dealt with. From the outset, the Government have emphasised that they have no plans to change parents’ well-established right to educate their children at home.

All that sounds harmless enough, and in light of recent child abuse cases it is little wonder that the Government want to safeguard children who are not visibly in the system, and to keep tabs on parents. It is right for any Government to want evidence that each and every child receives a suitable education, and genuine home educators have nothing to fear. However, the message coming loud and clear from home educators in my constituency is that that hype should not be believed. Their worry is that the Government are manipulating current anxiety about child abuse to intrude further into home education when they have little legal right to do so.

The latest review will mark the third such consultation pertaining to home education over the past four years. Any action stemming from it could affect the balance of power between civil liberties and state intervention, whether one is innocent until proven guilty or guilty until proven innocent, and whether the state or parents have ultimate responsibility for their children. The ability to be free from an all-knowing, all-seeing state’s ideas of education, welfare and standards forms the fundamental appeal for many of those who choose home education for their children. Any attempt to alter what is very much a matter of balance would undermine the entire ethos of education.

I became interested, involved and engaged in home education some months back when I met two articulate and passionate local mothers in the Pimlico area of my constituency who had decided to educate their children themselves. One made that decision as a result of her son’s unhappy and unproductive first 18 months in the state school sector. The other had seen home education work brilliantly for family friends, and made the positive decision to take on that task for her daughters. The matter is a Cinderella area, and I approached my meeting with those two mothers with some standard misconceptions that a home education might produce an unsocialised, precocious child who is unable to interact with their peers and perhaps shielded from all negative experiences. However, the more I listened to the two mothers, the
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more impressed and excited I was by their passion and enthusiasm for home education. Each was able to provide an individualised learning experience tailored to the child’s abilities and interests. Far from having an isolated and insulated existence, the children of those two mothers frequently attended classes with other home schoolers, interacted with children of different ages and abilities, and experienced a wide range of activities from practising judo and learning Japanese to visiting galleries and museums during quieter times of day.

Anne Main (St. Albans) (Con): My hon. Friend’s experience is replicated in my constituency where there are 60 home schoolers. That has come to the forefront in my constituency because some parents are deeply unhappy about the school that they have been allocated and are investigating home schooling. It is a resourceful way of proceeding with a valuable education that is tailored to their child’s needs. I echo what my hon. Friend is saying. When one looks into the matter, one sees that it is a heartening way forward and can be complementary to the state system.

Mr. Field: I thank my hon. Friend for her observations. I stress that the notion of a homogenous group of home educators with a single mind could not be further from the truth. Diversity is one of the most important aspects of the home education ideal and the education that is provided for those children who have the great benefit of it. A home-educated child will naturally have a close relationship with their parents, whose lives are often enriched by learning new skills and knowledge alongside their children.

I have discovered that in my constituency, in the heart of the biggest city in our nation, there is an active community of home educators who share classes and co-ordinate their knowledge base. A nationwide lively online community shares best practice and experience, and I have learned about that from the inundation of information to my private office during the past three or four days since it became known that I was having this debate today. I apologise that I will not be able to make all the points that were made to me by interested parents. Many home educators choose not to engage with other families, and the appeal of home education is that individual educational experience can be tailored to best suit the child and the family.

All that comes at no cost to taxpayers because the vast majority of home educators shoulder not only the teaching burden, but the financial one. Despite that, the choice for many home educators is often not the ability to afford such a route—many probably struggle to some extent—but stems from lack of faith in what the state sector provides, particularly when the basis of that provision is “take it or leave it”. That is a problem not so much in my constituency, but in other parts of London where many parents are dissatisfied when only their third, fourth or fifth choice of school is available for their children. Home educators come from a wide variety of backgrounds, and many find that home schooling is the most workable or perhaps the only alternative to expensive school fees or an unattractive local state school.

Unfortunately, both the mothers to whomI spoke at length were deeply concerned about the future of home education. There is long-standing suspicion that the
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Government, both local and national, are uncomfortable about parents providing education that cannot be monitored, tested or accounted for. There is a real fear that the Government, under the banner of child protection, will try to interfere with the freedom of choice of home educators. I represent a big flagship Conservative borough, but the same probably applies to the local education authority, which is equally to blame. I am not making a partisan party political point. The freedom that is so fiercely guarded by the majority of home educators and their choice to pursue that path is due to a fundamental rejection of the state’s values, and lack of faith in the state’s ability to provide a suitable education for their child.

Home education has been under constant scrutiny since the Children Act 2004, which enshrined the Government’s Every Child Matters agenda in legislation. Draft guidelines clarifying the rights and responsibilities for home educators and local authorities were drafted and debated in early 2005, shelved for two years, and finally published in autumn 2007. That consultation caused great anxiety among home educators because it was feared that the Government would try to introduce inspections and to control the curricula. Eventually, guidelines issued after the review maintained the previous position, and most families were incredibly relieved.

Meanwhile the Education and Inspections Act 2006 introduced new duties for identifying children who were missing education. Yet there was another consultation in autumn last year on children missing education, and all home educators will eventually be tracked down as a result of the ContactPoint database. Local authorities will be required to determine

whether a child is receiving what a local education bureaucrat deems is a suitable education. Before that, local authorities were required only to make a note of any families whom they found home educating.

All this casts doubt on the Government’s motives with the Badman review, particularly as the consultation response time has been cut from 12 weeks to four. Why have they not given the latest guidance a chance to work through? Could it be that the consultation is a knee-jerk reaction from a Government who are fearful of any further culpability in the face of some quite deep failings in the care system?

Home educators with whom I have engaged conclude that either the Government have no faith in the previous reviews or this is a superficial exercise to try to allay public concern—a bid to make good other failures with frenetic activity—which will result in few or no changes.

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is making a very strong case. He says that there may be public concern about this sector, but having visited a group of home educators in Penzance in my constituency, it was clear to me that in many cases these people have chosen this option precisely because they want to escape abuse and bullying in schools. Some choose it for other reasons. In a letter dated 19 June 2007 that I received from the then Under-Secretary in the Department, Lord Adonis, he made it clear that under section 47 of the Children Act 1989 the powers already exist to intervene in cases in which the state believes that a child may suffer harm. I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The state already has the powers to intervene where it suspects that harm may be going on.

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