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22 Jun 2010 : Column 19WH—continued

10.36 am

Joan Ruddock (Lewisham, Deptford) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on his success in securing the debate and on the way in which he made his case. He has always been a supporter of nuclear power and has worked hard to keep the issue before the House. Not all of us in the Labour party have shared his enthusiasm over the years. Indeed, my own position was not dissimilar to that of the Prime Minister, who said that nuclear energy was an energy of last resort. However, in any consideration of nuclear energy, we need to ask why so many people have changed their minds in favour of new nuclear, and what that means for those who have not.

As my hon. Friend said, the twin imperatives of tackling climate change and achieving energy security have focused and changed minds on new nuclear-but
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only some minds. Despite constantly challenging the Labour Government to do more on climate change, the Liberal Democrats in their manifesto explicitly rejected a new generation of new nuclear power stations, and we have heard contributions this morning that have entirely underlined that.

Perhaps the Minister could say whether he remains committed to a reduction in greenhouse gases of 34% by 2020, and at least 80% by 2050, as specified in Labour's Climate Change Act 2008, given the Liberal Democrats' brake on his nuclear ambitions. Does he recall the warning given by his newly acquired friend, the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Martin Horwood), who stated:

That is in stark contrast to the Minister's statement that clarity is essential if new investment is to happen.

What are business and industry to make of the coalition Government's position? It is clear that there is no united Government position on nuclear energy. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr Wright) said, there is not just one or even two but three positions. The coalition agreement states that the Government will introduce a national planning statement, so they are notionally in favour of nuclear. But a Liberal Democrat representative will speak against it, and the Liberal Democrat party will abstain in any vote. We always knew that being a Liberal Democrat in opposition meant not having to choose. It seems that old habits die hard and that Liberal Democrats do not accept the responsibilities of government, so perhaps the Minister will tell us whether his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is committed to nuclear power. Was not one of the very first actions of his Government to create the very risks to investment, and slow-down in the development of nuclear power that the hon. Member for Cheltenham threatened?

Much has been said about Sheffield Forgemasters, and some of it bears repeating. Surely the Minister-I have the greatest regard for him and welcome him to his new position-must have shared my astonishment at the decision to cancel the loan to that company. I well remember him in opposition constantly banging on about energy security and investing in manufacturing, so what is his explanation? The deal took two years to negotiate, and would have put the UK at the forefront of an expanding market with great export opportunities. There must have been collusion between a Liberal Democrat Chief Secretary and a Liberal Democrat Energy Secretary who are determined to slow down the nuclear replacement programme that we were putting in place. Exactly what role did Liberal Democrat opposition to nuclear play in the Sheffield Forgemasters decision, and can we have a full explanation? How will that decision affect the timetable for new nuclear?

Without the new investment by Sheffield Forgemasters, the waiting list for pressure vessels is too long. Korean and other companies, including two in China, intend to enter the business of making large forgings, but the work necessary to ensure that steel is made to the right quality is bound to take several years. Any failure of the reactor core would be catastrophic, as the Minister
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knows, and customers will be wary about buying from a company without sufficient experience. Sheffield Forgemasters is one of a small number of businesses in the world that could increase the speed of roll-out of new nuclear. Forgemasters might have been the central company in a nuclear renaissance in the UK.

So what now? In government, we systematically developed the instruments and legal frameworks necessary for the transition to a low-carbon economy. We believed that the energy revolution was vital to our security and to tackling climate change. Planning was clearly an obstacle, so we created the Infrastructure Planning Commission. Despite the CBI saying that it is vital for strategic infrastructure, we understand that the coalition plans to scrap it. In response to that announcement by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Clare Spottiswoode, chair of Energy Solutions Europe, which helps to manage five nuclear sites in the UK, said:

Who will make the decisions on new nuclear plants under the coalition's proposals? I believe that it will be none other than the Energy Secretary, who opposes nuclear power. Does his hon. Friend the Minister of State have any confidence that new nuclear plants will be built? Will the Secretary of State chair the Nuclear Development Forum, or will that also be scrapped? If he does not want to support British manufacturers of components for new nuclear, how does he plan to encourage industry? Is he aware that in the real world where private finance is hard to come by, support through soft loans, tax breaks and procurement policies is commonly provided by our competitors?

In the run-up to the election, both parts of the coalition talked about the need to make Britain less dependent on financial markets and property speculators as the engines of growth. They talked about green investment banks. They talked the talk, but clearly they have no intention of walking the walk. Frankly, cutting investment in a highly skilled and productive British manufacturing company is economically illiterate. Last week the Minister talked about skills, and praised the chief executive officer of the National Skills Academy for Nuclear, John Llewellyn.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): Jean Llewellyn.

Joan Ruddock: I am grateful for the Minister's advice. I shall call him Mr Llewellyn-I do not know him.

Charles Hendry: She is a lady.

Joan Ruddock: I accept entirely that I have made an error, but I obtained the information from a good source, so I blame that source and not myself. I accept that the chief executive officer is a woman. I have never met her, but she praised the Northwest Regional Development Agency and said that the sector's collaboration in skills training with the agency's backing

Will the Minister tell us his Government's intentions for that agency?

What is left? Is it correct that there will be no assistance with planning, no assistance with investment and no
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assistance with skills? I anticipate that the Minister's answer will be to create a floor price for carbon, something that we, of course, considered when in government. Unusually, I join the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) in asking what progress has been made. How effective does the Minister believe he can be in trying to set a floor for a single member state, at what level might it be set and what might be the effect on energy consumers? What talks have he or his officials had with other member states on the functioning of the EU's emissions trading scheme and the carbon price? I can tell him that there is no easy solution.

The Labour Government transformed the UK's approach to energy security, and recognised the finite future of North sea oil and gas, the challenge of imports and the need dramatically to increase renewables in the face of climate change. We added to that mix the need for a new generation of nuclear power stations and the development of carbon capture and storage to enable us to burn clean coal. We put everything in place to achieve a low-carbon economy. This should be a time of great opportunity. Instead, it is a time of confusion, contradiction and lack of confidence. The Government have made a bad start.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West for giving us all the opportunity to make these issues clear to the coalition, and I congratulate him and all other Members who have contributed to this debate. I look forward to the Minister's reply.

10.48 am

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Charles Hendry): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr Brady, in this important debate, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) on securing it. He has had an interest in this area of policy for many years, and we welcome his commitment. He delivered his speech with the degree of mischief that we have come to expect from him. I hope that we all approach the matter on the basis of needing to find common ground. In opposition, we approached the nuclear debate by asking how we could best co-operate with the previous Government's approach and how to take the matter out of politics. I hope that that approach will continue during this Parliament, because some of the most important decisions will have to be made during it. I will try to answer as many as possible of the points that have arisen during the debate, but if I do not respond to any, I will be more than happy to make an early appearance before the hon. Gentleman's all-party group on nuclear energy to try to provide the assurance that its members seek.

The hon. Member for West Bromwich East (Mr Watson) asked whether I would meet the trade unions. I have already had contact with some of them. They are all part of the family, and I am keen to work closely with them because they have a significant contribution to make on skills, safety issues and the whole approach to new-build nuclear in this country.

This has been a good debate and I am grateful for the kind comments that people have made to me personally-they normally say that they respect me just before disagreeing with virtually everything they think I might be about to say. This is perhaps a bit of a replay of the work of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, to
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which I am sure we will return more formally in due course. We have heard some extremely useful contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Damian Collins) made an extremely impressive speech. He will understand that I am constrained in what I can say about Dungeness, but it is very encouraging indeed that it has such a strong advocate in Parliament for its interest and for the nuclear agenda more generally.

The hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) asked about the respect agenda. We absolutely understand that those planning issues are a matter for the Scottish Government, and it will be up to them to decide whether there should be new nuclear plants in Scotland. We have a fairly clear idea where they are coming from on those issues. The national policy statements covered only England and Wales, so the process for Scotland has not been considered, but if one talks to the investors, one realises they have essentially ruled out investment in new nuclear plants in Scotland for the time being. Many people will feel that that is a mistake and is unfortunate. However, we completely respect the position of the Scottish Government.

The hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) talked about the range of other low-carbon technologies that we should also be considering. I agree with him. This is not just about nuclear; it is about marine development, in relation to which the United Kingdom is not taking the lead that it should. The issue is also about carbon capture and storage, and we must up the game in terms of our contribution to that. As he said, the matter is critically also about the offshore oil and gas industry and having policies in place that enable us to get the maximum potential out of the resources that are there. That is a central part of our national interest in relation to energy policy.

Mr Iain Wright: The hon. Gentleman commands the respect of all parties and I welcome him to his position. He mentioned the issues of nuclear on the one hand and renewables on the other. I agree with him that those matters are not mutually exclusive-in fact, a range of infrastructure is needed to have a degree of compatibility. In Tees valley in my constituency, there are great opportunities to have not only a nuclear power station but a range of renewable energy. What help and support can he give my area to make sure that we become a real centre of excellence and an engine for growth for energy policy in the UK?

Charles Hendry: I absolutely understand that it is not just a nuclear matter. The Tees valley can play a crucial role in the development of carbon capture in nearby Teesside, and there are also many offshore opportunities there. We want to try to find the best way we can to encourage a supply chain to invest in Britain. That is not always going to be through Government grants and subsidies, although there is a role for that and such an approach can make an important contribution. Other issues will also determine whether people invest in Britain. It is mostly-although not exclusively-international companies that will be making such investment, and there is a wide range of issues surrounding the regulatory and tax environment that will be central to whether they invest here. Nuclear is part of an overall
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approach. I hope I will have the chance to come up to Hartlepool to see some of those opportunities, and perhaps be shown around by the hon. Gentleman.

Some of the issues raised today have to be considered against the backdrop of the challenge that we face as a country. In the course of the next few years, we will see a third of our coal plant being taken out of commission because of the large combustion plant directive, and most of the rest will go as a result of the industrial emissions directive. Much of the remaining oil plant will also be closed because of those measures. Based on current plans, if there are not life extensions, apart from Sizewell B, the nuclear fleet will have closed down in little over a decade. We therefore have an incredible challenge to face.

The hon. Member for Glasgow North West, who introduced the debate, talked about £200 billion of new investment, which compares with about £350 billion of new investment in energy infrastructure in the other 26 nations of the European Union. We have a uniquely serious challenge, and part of the problem is that not enough has been done soon enough. If the five-year moratorium on nuclear had not taken place, we would obviously be five years further forward in the development of those plants. The pressure points in our energy security to which he and others have referred exist because we have not been securing enough investment at an early enough stage during the course of the process.

The coalition agreement is absolutely clear. By definition, a coalition agreement brings together people of differing views to work together for the national good, and that is what we are seeking to achieve. It has been made clear that nuclear will be part of the mix as long as that is done without subsidy. Above all, we have to know whether the industry itself is comfortable with that position and whether the people who will be required to invest billions of pounds in each plant are happy with that agreement. The discussions that we have had since the election suggest that they are comfortable with that arrangement and with the position of myself and the Secretary of State.

Some people opposed nuclear for philosophical reasons; others believed that it would not happen because it would never be economically viable. The Secretary of State has always questioned the economics. However, he is happy that if people come forward with an application for a new nuclear plant without subsidy, it should be part of the mix going forward. We have a clear position, which the investors themselves have been very keen to clarify and which they are now able to support. I hope hon. Members will give us the credence to work forward on that basis, because it is critical for investor confidence that they see a broad coalition in Parliament in favour of a future role for nuclear in this country.

We will go to great lengths to ensure that the taxpayer is protected-no subsidy means no subsidy. We are considering areas in which there may have been hidden subsidies and dealing with those. For example, we will certainly maintain-and reinforce if necessary-measures put in place by the previous Government to ensure that the operators of new plants are required by law to set aside money from day one to pay for the waste and clean-up process. The industries themselves will have to
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carry out the investment, but the Government will be responsible for the regulation of the safety and environmental aspects that go with that.

The Office for Nuclear Development will continue its crucial work in trying to remove barriers to investment. I give the right hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock) an assurance that the Nuclear Development Forum will be a key part of taking that forward. It has been an extremely important part of that process, in which both the Secretary of State and I will be very involved. We want people to see that we are at one on these issues.

There has been much discussion of planning during the debate. A statement will be made to Parliament in the near future that will set out exactly how the changes will work. We want the national policy statements to be ratified by Parliament because that reduces the risk of judicial review and makes them stronger and more robust. We want investors to see that there is a strong majority in Parliament in favour of new build, as that sends a strong signal to their overseas boards. We will certainly take account of the representations made by Dungeness to be included in the list, but we will also give similar weight to the representations from community groups in areas concerned about new build, so that we can ensure that their views are fully taken into account. We are currently considering our response to the NPS consultation process and we will make it clear as soon as we can.

On the Infrastructure Planning Commission, we will be introducing a degree of democratic accountability. There will not be delays as a result of that process because we totally understand the urgency of driving these decisions forward, not just in nuclear but right across the board in the energy mix. However, we are keen to ensure that there is parliamentary accountability-again, because we believe that reduces the risk of judicial review.

John Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

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Charles Hendry: I hope the hon. Gentleman will understand that, with just two minutes left, I shall do so for just a few seconds.

John Robertson: Will the hon. Gentleman mention Sheffield Forgemasters, because a number of colleagues have mentioned that matter?

Charles Hendry: I am grateful for that intervention. Other issues have also been raised, on which I will certainly write to hon. Members. On Sheffield Forgemasters, the decision was not a reflection of the quality of its workmanship or the nature of the company. We simply had to look across the board at a vast number of projects to which significant sums of money had been committed at a time when the nation could not afford it. Essentially the Government were having to borrow money to lend money. If one went to a bank and said, "I need an overdraft because I want to give more money to charity," the bank would question the wisdom of that approach.

Joan Ruddock: It is not a charity.

Charles Hendry: It is not, but the similarity in the situation I outlined exists. I am not suggesting that the money was for charity but, however good the cause, it does not make it right to borrow money when one cannot afford to do so. As a Government, we clearly recognise that the previous Government committed us to borrowings that we cannot afford. Sheffield Forgemasters is not a charity; it is a very important business and a key part of the Sheffield community. We will work with Sheffield Forgemasters, which has indicated that it is looking for commercial routes to make its plans possible. We very much want to see that happen, but we do not believe that it is possible to provide Government funding to do so. We will obviously want to return to some of the other issues, and I will certainly write to hon. Members on them. Once again, I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving us the opportunity to discuss such a crucial subject.

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