Few people would genuinely say that our parliamentary system does not need fundamental change. It is important to remember that the biggest change to the composition of the second Chamber came under a Labour Government, when we secured the abolition of most of the hereditary peers. That was the start of a reform that we must complete as soon as is practicable, and it must be a

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radical reform. I say radical reform, rather than abolition of the second Chamber, because I am not convinced that we should move away from a bicameral parliamentary system.

Kelvin Hopkins: Clearly we have a difference of view on this. My hon. Friend says that there has not been enough discussion about reform. There has been a lot of talk about reform, but there has not been much of a debate about the alternative of having a unicameral Parliament. That is what I want to see.

Wayne David: I respect my hon. Friend’s view. That is one of the discussions that we need to have in this Chamber. He is perfectly right that we need to discuss not just how reform might be brought about, but whether we even need a second Chamber. I am of the view, although I am willing to take part in a debate, that we should have a bicameral system. There is a need for a second Chamber to scrutinise, modify, suggest amendments to and delay legislation, although I think that legislation should always emanate from this House.

It is deplorable that we are seeing two sustained attempts not to introduce more democracy into the second Chamber, but to exercise control over the second Chamber’s ability to hold the Executive to account. It is important to remember that this Government have appointed more Conservative peers than Margaret Thatcher did in her 11 years as Prime Minister. There is also a debate taking place about Lord Strathclyde’s report, which I would argue is all about undermining the ability of the other place to hold the Government to account.

We know why the Government are trying to control and weaken the Lords. It is not because they believe in democracy or because they have accepted the arguments of the SNP, but because they do not like to be scrutinised or challenged, no matter where it comes from. The issue is not the primacy of the House of Commons over the House of Lords; this is about the Government trying to minimise challenge and push aside opposition.

In the last Parliament, a great deal of time and effort was spent on debating reform of the House of Lords. Sadly, it came to nothing because the Liberal Democrats refused to have a constructive dialogue with reformers on the Opposition Benches and because—it is important to remember this—the Prime Minister did not deliver on his promise and Conservative Back Benchers defended the status quo.

What is needed now is a nationwide debate about the kind of democracy we need for the 21st century. The 19th-century, highly centralised nation state based on London is surely a thing of the past. Decentralisation must be the order of the day, not just to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but to the regions, cities and localities of England. There is therefore a strong case for a second Chamber—call it a senate if you like—made up of representatives of the nations and regions of the UK, possibly with people drawn from local government as well. Such a second Chamber might be made up of indirectly elected representatives or directly elected representatives. It would have the advantage of providing informed scrutiny by individuals drawn from all parts of the United Kingdom. It is a shame that most Members

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of the other place are either drawn from, or have a focus on, London and south-east England. That cannot be acceptable.

When we talk about fundamental change to our constitution, it is important to remember three things. First, there must be debate and dialogue between all political parties and, if possible, a high degree of consensus about what kind of changes are needed. If it is believed that political advantage is a motive behind any constitutional change, that change will not work effectively and will ultimately fail. Secondly, it is important not to see Lords reform in isolation from other changes that are needed for our democracy. I have already referred to devolution, but I believe that in our country there is a widespread thirst for popular engagement. No longer are people prepared simply to sit back and allow those who are unelected to make important decisions. It is therefore important to have a broad perspective when considering changes to our democracy.

Thirdly, we must not believe that there can be a top-down approach towards political reform, or that we are the repository of all knowledge on these matters. The people of our country need to be fully engaged in the debate on democratic renewal, and that is why we believe that there needs to be a people’s constitutional convention. Such a convention ought not to be made up of the great and good; rather, it should draw in people from all walks of life and all parts of the country. It must be focused in its discussions, and it must also inspire and enthuse people so that we give our democracy fresh life and inspiration.

4.31 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (John Penrose): I add my congratulations to the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) on securing this debate, and I thank the Backbench Business Committee for granting it. I think he said that it was his beginners plea when he made his case, but he knocked any sense of being a beginner into a cocked hat with his speech. He hoped that we would forgive his tendency for Celtic hyperventilation—I think that was the phrase he used. He was also kind enough to mention that he counted Wales and certainly Cornwall as part of the Celtic fringe. I may not represent Cornwall but I have a Cornish name, so I am glad to hear that he would include me in that group. I will try not to hyperventilate either, and the hon. Gentleman made a powerful and good case.

We also had the opportunity to compare and contrast our debate with the previous debate on space policy, which contained many quotes from David Bowie. In this debate we had many quotes from Robbie Burns. I will leave Members here present and those reading Hansard later to come to their own conclusions about the relative merits of those two bards, one ancient, one modern. I suspect that they will both be clasped firmly to different people’s hearts during this debate.

Let me echo a point made by a number of colleagues during the debate and ask: where on earth are the Liberal Democrats? Where have they got to?

Martin John Docherty: The House of Lords!

John Penrose: Many of them are in the House of Lords. They are reduced to a small number of MPs, and none of them is here today. I regard that as a real

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tragedy because in the last Parliament, and in previous Parliaments, they—they have not been the only ones—were pressing the case for reform of the Lords and other constitutional reform. All of a sudden, when they are hugely over-represented in the House of Lords relative to their representation in this House, they are nowhere to be seen. They are Macavity’s cat when it comes to reform of the Lords and this debate. That is a tragedy, and people will draw their own conclusions about their relative levels of interest.

The hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire encapsulated a series of criticisms about the Lords, which have been widely echoed by many Members. I will not go through them all in huge detail when summing up the debate, but broadly speaking he made the point in a variety of different ways that the level of democratic legitimacy in the House of Lords is incredibly low. The only group that are elected are the 92 hereditary peers, and they are elected from an electoral college.

There are other criticisms—that the House of Lords is very large, and the bishops and hereditaries should not be there—that buttress the central charge of a lack of legitimacy and democratic principle in the Lords as it is currently constituted. I agree and that is reflected in my personal voting record on the issue. The hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins) mentioned the series of votes on the issue in the 2005 Parliament. It was my first Parliament and I voted consistently for anything that would increase the level of democratic involvement in the House of Lords. In the 2010 Parliament, we had an incredibly long and drawn-out attempt to reform the House of Lords. I do not think that anyone could claim that there was not a determined attempt—probably the most determined attempt for several generations—to reform the House of Lords and to make it more democratically legitimate. I voted consistently throughout for those reforms, even though the form of election might not necessarily have been to everybody’s taste—even mine. They were a step in the right direction, however, or at least they would have been had they been passed. I cannot argue, therefore, either from a personal or Government point of view, that the central charge is not valid. That is why the Conservative party’s election manifesto said we remain committed in principle to reform. Our approach is not driven by an opposition to the central charge made by the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire (Martin John Docherty) and echoed by many other hon. Members today.

Kelvin Hopkins: The Minister talks about making the House of Lords more democratic, which is second-best to abolition. How will he deal with the real problem: prime ministerial patronage?

John Penrose: If I can ask the hon. Gentleman to hold his horses, I hope to come back to that later. I am sure he will pick me up on that if I do not address it sufficiently.

At this point, I should declare a small, non-financial family interest. A couple of years ago, my wife was appointed to the House of Lords. When she was appointed, I had to point out to her that I had a long track record of voting multiple times to abolish her, and anybody like her, from the House of Lords in due course. She has forgiven me and I am sure the House will be delighted to hear that relations over the family breakfast table are

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not too strained. However, I can reassure hon. Members that my personal views have not changed, despite the family involvement. Given the chance, I would vote to make them far more democratically legitimate.

I started by assuming, I think not necessarily entirely correctly, that the SNP was exclusively and purely a unicameralist party. I think we have heard support for that view during the debate from many SNP Members, the hon. Member for Luton North and, to some degree, my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers). I hope I am not putting words in anybody’s mouth, but I think I heard some degree of qualified willingness to at least consider a more democratically legitimate second Chamber as an alternative to the perhaps favoured unicameralist view.

Peter Grant: Just to clarify that point, the view of the SNP and the Scottish Government was that, had we won the referendum last year, we would not have needed a second Chamber in Scotland because the Scottish Parliament works effectively. This Parliament, in the view of the SNP, is not working effectively and so a second Chamber is beneficial, but it must be democratically elected.

John Penrose: That is very helpful in clarifying the SNP’s view and it leads me to talk about opportunities for reform. I, and the Government, would certainly favour keeping a second Chamber and making it more effective if the opportunity ever presented itself. There are huge advantages to having an effective second Chamber here. I say that because often the level of scrutiny imposed on any Government by the second Chamber is not a comfortable experience. It has not always been a comfortable experience for previous Labour, Conservative or even coalition Governments. Even though it is not necessarily easy or comfortable—on occasions it can be incredibly frustrating—I believe it is democratically justified and desirable, and that it results, at least in Westminster, in better law. I went along to the Lords yesterday and stood at the Bar, listening to its debate on the Strathclyde review. I challenge anybody to say it was not a high-quality and capable discussion, conducted at a high level and very clearly expressed. It has a great deal to offer, regardless of its legitimacy, and our democracy would be the poorer without a revising second Chamber.

As colleagues on both sides have said, however, we need to be careful about the Lords’ powers and composition. The problem is agreeing not on the need for reform but on how we do it. As the hon. Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson) said, we should be discussing not whether change is needed but what kind of change could be achieved. That is where we all come up against a serious and fundamental practical problem. While many people agree that some kind of reform and improved democratic legitimacy for the upper House is vital, agreeing on its form and creating a democratic consensus about what it should look like—as opposed simply to agreeing that there should be something—is a great deal harder. And that is what politics is all about; it is about forging the necessary democratic consensus. I think the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) mentioned the need for a democratic debate.

We need to forge a democratic consensus not on the need for change but on the form it should take. That is where the previous attempt in the last Parliament came

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unstuck. There were far too many competing recipes for what the revised House of Lords might look like and a plethora of different approaches. It came unstuck not because of a lack of ideas but because there were too many ideas and not enough people agreed on any one of them, and therefore the opponents of reform won through.

Wayne David: I agree with the Minister. Do we not need to learn the lesson that, if any good fundamental reform is to take place successfully, there must be cross-party dialogue and debate and an attempt to find consensus across the House?

John Penrose: I would broaden out that point. It is hugely helpful, although not essential, for any constitutional change to be made with some cross-party agreement, if only because—this is one of the fundamental points of Britain’s unwritten constitution—people need to be happy not just with how things work when they are in government but when the shoe is on the other foot and they are in opposition, because they need to bear it in mind that at some point they might not be in government. Good Governments and good Oppositions remember that point and proceed with caution and agreement wherever possible. It is not always possible, but when it can be done, it should be.

The challenge is not to agree that change is necessary but to define precisely what form it should take and to form a sufficiently large consensus to overcome the forces of inertia, which, if we are not careful, naturally tend to win—I do not know whether it is inertia or entropy, but either way, it is what happened last time.

Alison Thewliss: Will the Minister agree that part of the difficulty in arriving at a consensus is the many vested interests served by the Lords and the history of the appointees to it? It would be useful to bring in members of the public to open up the outlook on what a new constitutional arrangement might be.

John Penrose: That is one of the principles that underlie the support of the many people who are in favour of an increase in democratic legitimacy. With a democratically elected second Chamber, it is much, much harder for the forces of reaction and special interests to win through, because the antidote to most of those things is normally greater democratic involvement. So I think the hon. Lady’s question enclosed its own answer, if I can put it that way; I certainly support her point.

Our problem therefore is choosing—not if, but how. There are currently too many different forms of possible election that could be looked at. There is the alternative vote, for example, and dozens of different forms of proportional representation. I regularly get letters from people who are cleaving to one or more of dozens of different kinds of electoral system. I am not sure what the democratic consensus would be on which one would be right, but I know that without a democratic consensus on choosing one, we will not be able to win the argument and get it done.

My hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) interestingly suggested something based on occupation rather than on geographical constituencies,

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and all these ideas are possible. They would all create alternative franchises that would not clash directly with the one used for this Chamber. Finding a non-clashing democratic mandate would be an advantage, but until such a thing can be done, we are inevitably on the back foot.

Kirsty Blackman: I hope the Minister is not saying that because it is so difficult, we should not do it. As the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) suggested, now might be a good time for this Conservative Government to think about taking this forward. If hardly any Members keen to maintain the House of Lords in its current form are willing to pitch up, it clearly means that there is an appetite for reform. Now is the time.

John Penrose: The hon. Lady made a series of powerful points, many of which I agreed with, but on that particular one I am respectfully going to disagree with her for a couple of reasons. We have heard from a number of different sides that the level of unprompted interest in the Dog and Duck in reform of the House of Lords is remarkably low. It might be quite high if we went along to the Bishops Bar, but that is probably the only bar in the entire country where that topic of conversation would come up naturally. Members of all parties are right to say that, when prompted, many people will agree that it is important to reform the Lords in some way. Without that prompt, however, it ranks a long way down people’s lists of priorities.

We need to form and forge a democratic consensus, but it is difficult for all of us to do so when the issue is low down the list of priorities because other things are more urgent, more immediate or loom larger. It would be wrong to overstate the appetite for reform and wrong to ignore the practical difficulties of achieving it. I do not want to assume that because something is desirable but not simple, it can therefore be wished for and produced with a wave of a magic wand. We all understand, as elected politicians, how hard this is, and we can all see the trail of failed attempts to make big reform changes. We have seen how difficult equally talented politicians, some of them extremely talented politicians, have found it.

That said, there is a possibility for smaller steps to be made. In the last Parliament, there was a series of small reforms. I do not want to let anyone get the impression that we think that small reforms are a substitute for more thoroughgoing things, but in many cases they represent progress in the right direction. It would wrong to let the best be the enemy of the good. When in the last Parliament, the House of Lords chose to change the rules on the retirement of its Members, this House agreed with it and it was a step in the right direction.

Many other issues are currently being discussed in the House of Lords, led by senior parliamentarians at that end of the building, including further reduction of the size of the House of Lords, looking at retirement ages and doing all sorts of other things. Those might not be to everybody’s taste as a complete answer—many certainly do not deal with the point about democratic legitimacy—but they are steps in the right direction, and I think we should encourage their Lordships to proceed with them. We must not be guilty of saying that just because it does not fulfil our perfect world scenario, we should not give it at least the time of day.

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I encourage House of Lords Members as well as hon. Members here present and others elsewhere—anybody who is interested—to try to address the question of how to achieve greater democratic legitimacy. What kind of franchise can be chosen that will not clash with the franchise of this Chamber? What levels of powers do we think should be approved for the upper Chamber?

Incidentally, there has been some criticism of the Strathclyde review today. Let me gently suggest to those who are critical that, while they may wish that the review had a broader mandate, at its heart is the aim of making the primacy of the elected House apply. I hope that Members can at least agree that that is desirable. The outcome will of course depend on which of the options are followed, but the current formulation would move us towards a much more regularised and clearly defined system of powers between this House and the upper House. A series of options are being considered in respect of the length of stay of those who are currently in the upper House, under the existing system, along with such matters as retirement ages. All those things are vital, but if we are to have reform, I urge all Members who are present today to try to create a democratic debate, and perhaps form a democratic consensus, with the aim of reaching a conclusion.

I want to give the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire a chance to sum up the debate for a couple of minutes—and perhaps to give us a little bit more Robbie Burns; I do not know—so I shall do something unusual for a politician, and sit down and keep quiet. I thank everyone who took part in the debate for their useful and thoughtful contributions. I should also respond to some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant), because he asked me particularly to do so. He made a number of specific suggestions about people who might or might not be appointed to the House of Lords. I will take that as a submission, and will relay it to those in the House of Lords so that they can consider it as part of their current deliberations.

I look forward to hearing the hon. Member for West Dunbartonshire sum up the debate.

4.51 pm

Martin John Docherty: I thank the Minister for participating in the debate, and I thank the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) for informing the House about how we can make progress in the reform of an upper Chamber. I should make clear, however, that for me and for my fellow SNP Members, the mandate from the constituencies of Scotland is that the reform must

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begin with the abolition of an unelected, unaccountable peerage which can generate legislation in that other place.

I also thank the hon. Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the hon. Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts)—I managed to say that very quickly—my hon. Friends the Members for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mhairi Black), for North Ayrshire and Arran (Patricia Gibson), and for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan), the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is no longer in the Chamber, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Steven Paterson), who I know is about to leave the Chamber to go home, and my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant). I especially thank my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), who did much of the groundwork for the debate.

Let me now place before the Minister a couple of caveats on reform. The appointment of ex-Members of this place should be forbidden for a minimum of 10 years. It is abhorrent that those who are thrown out of public office by the electorate can be duly thrown into the upper Chamber. The 26 archbishops and bishops of the Church of England should be removed immediately and prevented from debating the legislation of the civic and religious life of Scotland.

John Penrose: Will the hon. Gentleman clarify his point about former MPs? Would he draw any distinction between those who were defeated and those who have retired?

Martin John Docherty: No.

Members of the House of Lords should be automatically forced to retire by the age of 80. Even members of the Roman Curia are forced to retire as cardinals of the Roman Church. Fundamental, real change requires abolition.

This is an issue in Scotland. It may not be seen as an issue in the rest of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—and I know that the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) would have been present if he could have been—but to us it is an issue of inequality that is at the heart of our liberal democracy. I reject the House of Lords, because my constituents told me to reject it—for they are nothing, at that other end of the Corridor, but a bunch of sleekit, cow'rin, tim'rous beasties, and their time is up.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered House of Lords reform,

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Hinkley C Connection Project

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

4.55 pm

James Heappey (Wells) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to raise this important local issue in the Chamber today. I should start by saying that, while I am very critical indeed of the plans for connecting Hinkley C to the national grid, my support for Hinkley C itself is unwavering. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose)—who has just done a fine job at the Dispatch Box and is leaving the Chamber—my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater and West Somerset (Mr Liddell-Grainger), who have been engaged in the battle over these pylons for many years, as have my predecessors as the Member for Wells. I also congratulate, and pay tribute to, the councils and parish councils, particularly Mark, Badgworth and Biddisham, the Allertons and Cross and Compton Bishop parish councils, which have all worked tirelessly to represent the views of their parishioners over the past seven years so that their objections can be known. Equally, I congratulate the campaign groups and the fantastic public engagement that has meant that church hall and village hall after church hall and village hall have been filled with people wanting to make very clear their views on this pylon line.

With the announcement looming, therefore, I wanted to raise today a few issues that I think are yet to be resolved. I know there are certain constraints on the Minister given that the Department acts in a quasi-judicial role in this decision, but I hope she will be able to consider the issues I raise, and talk about the technical issues even if not in specific reference to the Hinkley Connection project itself. I am also grateful for the response I have had from my noble Friend Lord Bourne to the letter I wrote to the Secretary of State last week, in which he has assured me that the representations that have been made to the Department since the conclusion of the planning inspector inquiry—and which I assume will be included—will be considered.

My remarks will fall into three areas: first, Government policy as I see it; secondly, the fact that these pylons are untested and unwanted; and thirdly the importance of visual amenity and the impact that damaging that would have on our local economy.

It is clear from the Secretary of State’s recent speech which reset the Government’s energy policy that there is enthusiasm for marine energy generation. Offshore wind is the method that has been mentioned most keenly, but I think I am right in saying that there is an excitement for the opportunities presented by tidal and wave technologies, provided that—the Minister will nod, I am sure—they do not ask for too much money in delivering them. None the less, if marine energy generation is to be a key part of the Government’s vision for the renewables sector in the future, it stands to reason, given the fantastic natural resource in the Bristol channel and the Severn estuary waiting to be harnessed by these technologies, that we might put in place a transmission infrastructure now that will service everything that might come in the future, rather than just Hinkley Point itself.

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Yesterday and the day before I was with the Select Committee on Energy and Climate Change on a trip to Brussels, and although the “team Juncker” banners around the place were not too welcome to these Eurosceptic eyes, our meeting with Vice-President Šefcovic, who is responsible for energy union, was very refreshing indeed. He made some very interesting points about the plans that the EU and the Governments of the UK, the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium, France and Germany have for a North sea energy grid. If we are looking at putting infrastructure in place under the North sea to facilitate marine generation and interconnection between the different countries that surround the North sea, why should it be so difficult to do so in the Bristol channel and the Severn estuary?

5 pm

Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 9(3)).

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Margot James.)

James Heappey: If Vice-President Šefcovic speaks with such conviction about the opportunities for subsea interconnection and transmission in the North sea, I do not see why it should be such a leap for National Grid to become excited about it elsewhere. Indeed, National Grid shares my enthusiasm and that of the Government for marine energy generation schemes. In its “Future Energy Scenarios” document, it talks keenly about the opportunities for tidal and wave energy, and indeed for offshore wind off the south-west of England and the south Walian coast and out into the Irish sea.

There is a disparity in the timelines that National Grid has used in its submissions for this planning application. It has done a cost-benefit analysis over 30 years, as far as I can tell, yet its “Future Energy Scenarios” document clearly sets out the opportunities for tidal and wave energy generation over the next three, four, five and six decades, so that extends to 60 years. The transmission line itself will extend far beyond that, so if we apply National Grid’s own policy, there will be an opportunity to see the cost of connecting Hinkley C to the grid not just as a cost but as an investment because it aggregates the cost across all that might come in the future. Elsewhere, National Grid has been much more on the front foot with regard to undersea solutions. It has spent £1.1 billion connecting Scotland to England through the western link, which includes converter stations at either end, of the kind that it says are too expensive to construct in Somerset.

Ludicrously, National Grid also has a visual impact provision project, which is using £500 million of bill payers’ money to take down existing pylons and put the cables underground, yet this project will put up new pylons on equally sensitive landscapes. I have looked at the plans, particularly those for the Dorset area of outstanding natural beauty, and it is clear that there are pylons outside that AONB that will be removed because they can be clearly seen from within the AONB. That will also apply in the Mendips. The cables will go underground through the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), but anyone who sweats their way up to the top of the Mendips will see pylons stretching for miles in every direction.

Then there is interconnection. I am going to be slightly cynical and suggest that National Grid’s rampant enthusiasm for interconnection—which is under the

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sea—compared with its utter disdain for going under the sea in the Bristol channel, might have something to do with the opportunity to raise revenue from interconnection. I sincerely hope that that is not the case, but I have an inkling that National Grid applies its enthusiasm for interconnection using undersea technologies only when there is a revenue-raising opportunity attached to it.

As far as I can see, there is also an inconsistency in the existing legislation, which needs updating. The Communications Act 2003 clearly states that when a mobile phone mast is put up anew, there is a statutory requirement for the visual amenity to be considered. In the legislation governing the siting of pylons, however, there is no such provision. We just have the out-of-date Holford rules, which I will come to in a second. What we have seen in the mobile phone industry is that, because there is a statutory requirement to consider visual amenity, there has been a very clear effort to camouflage masts. Masts have got smaller and smaller, and more is spent on where they are sited, but, as far as I can tell, National Grid has not shown the same effort.

Let me turn now to the Holford rules. Rather than going through all of them, I will draw out a couple of the key points. The Holford rules are guidelines, and it is important that we note that. The siting of pylons comes down to guidelines, but the siting of mobile phone masts comes down to legislation. Rule 1 of the Holford rules says:

“Avoid altogether, if possible, the major areas of highest amenity value”.

That includes areas of outstanding natural beauty. I have said already that I see a clear inconsistency in putting pylons underground through the AONB, but not necessarily through the land that immediately abuts it, no matter how important that might be to the overall effect of the AONB.

Rule 2 says:

“Avoid smaller areas of high amenity value, or scientific interests by deviation”.

It clearly sets out the importance of missing out sites of special scientific interest. The Somerset levels have many areas that have been so designated.

Rule 4 states:

“Choose tree and hill backgrounds in preference to sky backgrounds”.

But we are talking about the Somerset levels here; there are no hills and there are no trees. Rule 5 says:

“Prefer moderately open valleys with woods”.

The same applies.

Rule 6 says:

“In country which is flat and sparsely planted”

we should keep high voltage lines to a minimum as far as possible so as to avoid a “concentration or ‘wirescape’.” As other transmission lines are in close proximity to the new line, and the wires in the new pylons are more concentrated, that rule simply cannot apply and is another flaw in National Grid’s plans.

If the decision next week is not to our liking in Somerset, I wonder whether the Energy Bill, which will come forward shortly, might be an opportunity for my right hon. Friend the Member for North Somerset (Dr Fox) and I to reintroduce the amendment that he proposed to the previous Energy Bill that sought to

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insert in that legislation the same provision for pylons as currently exists for mobile phone masts. Will the Government consider working with us on that, as that would give us an opportunity retrospectively to use that legislation to amend the decision next week if it is not to our liking in Somerset?

I wish to talk about the T-pylon. Although National Grid is very chuffed with it, we in Somerset have real concerns about it. The Minister’s constituency is not too far from the National Grid’s test centre in Nottinghamshire. It is a beautiful part of the world. With its rolling hills, it is quintessentially rural England. This is where National Grid has tested the T-pylons. I have seen photos of them, and I have seen videos on National Grid’s website bragging about their brilliance. My observation is that the terrain looked a whole lot more hilly and a whole lot more dry than the flat, wet Somerset levels.

I am very concerned indeed about whether these pylons are ready to be employed under tension on a very wet landscape with a very high water table and where the weather will bring all sorts on pressures for them. There is also a danger that if they require additional concrete, it could affect the ability of that land to drain, and could therefore cause flooding. Equally, if it is decided that more concrete is not needed and if the sort of floods we saw in the winter of 2013-14 arrive so that the foundations of the pylons are under water for anything up to two months, will the foundations stand the test of that flood and remain solid; or are we risking leaving our newest nuclear power station without a grid connection because of the inappropriateness of the design?

The security of these pylons is another issue. Any number of terrorist organisations would delight in the opportunity to hit our infrastructure, and taking out a pylon might seem a reasonably easy way of doing so. I am sure that the lattice pylons that have been employed across our grid over many decades will be well tested in this area. I hope that the Minister can reassure us that the T-pylons have been similarly tested.

National Grid claims that the T-pylon is a wonderful concession to the people of Somerset and that we are hugely fortunate to be the first to receive it. It is a concession in National Grid’s eyes, but no one else’s. The lattice pylons that would have conveyed 420 kV of electricity would indeed have been the height of Nelson’s column—they would have been monsters. The new T-pylons, though, are still the same height as the roof of Westminster Abbey, so we are not talking about any massive improvement.

Their height is not the aspect that people least understand, though; it is their width. I wonder whether the camera operator for the Chamber has it in him to zoom out, because it needs to be understood that the width of the T-pylons is the width of the Chamber—not the floor of the Chamber, but wall to wall, from the back of the Press Gallery to the back of the Strangers Gallery. That is the size of the T-bar, plus the hanging rings on to which the wires go. Indeed, the hanging diamonds to which the transmission lines connect are about 10 metres in height. That means that if the T-bar and the hanging diamonds were to be put into this Chamber, they would fill it from floor to ceiling, from wall to wall. These are monsters, and we are seriously considering putting them across one of the most beautiful parts of this country.

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What is more, lattice pylons are 90% air, whereas T-pylons are solid structures. They concentrate the wirescape and are solid white pillars—exactly like wind turbines. That leads me to my final point, which is about visual amenity.

We have rightly been rejecting applications to build windfarms across the country because of the impact they would have on our landscape. Locally, in the immediate vicinity of the proposed pylon line, we have rejected applications for two small windfarms, at Pilrow and Huntspill. I applaud the Government and the planning inspector for making those decisions, but how ridiculous it is that having turned down those big white pillars, which are roughly the same size—in some cases smaller—than T-pylons, we are now seriously considering next week approving dozens of exactly the same thing, strung out over 40 miles of the Somerset countryside. It makes no sense to me. The pylons, in effect, constitute a giant windfarm. Surely the same logic should apply.

No attempt has been made to value the visual amenity of the landscape. Everything has been about the cash involved in going underground or undersea, yet the land has huge value. The view from the AONB is important, the sites of special scientific interest are important, and the landscape is valued and loved by local residents. Surely that has a value, too. More important still, and perhaps offering a more quantifiable value, is the fact that this area is the shop window not just for Somerset but for the whole south-west. I do not know whether you have ever holidayed in the south-west, Madam Deputy Speaker, but if you have, you will know that you trudge your way along the M4 corridor or down the M5 from the midlands, you queue to get through Avonmouth, and then you come up over the hill and are released into the south-west of England. The Somerset levels extend before you; Glastonbury Tor is off in the distance in the east, the sea to the west.

Every holidaymaker who goes to the south-west of England—I do not flatter myself that millions are watching this evening—will know the stretch of motorway that I am talking about, because for so many it is where their holiday in the south-west starts. The visitor economy in Somerset is worth £1.3 billion a year. The pylon line will run almost parallel with the M5 in exactly the part of the country I have been describing. As people come over the Mendips they will crest the hill, and instead of the magnificence of the Somerset levels, with the sea and Glastonbury Tor on their right and left, they will see these giant white monoliths. It would be unforgiveable to allow Somerset’s shop window to be spoiled in that way.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I know that today you have been treated to some wonderfully highbrow cultural references—Bowie and Burns. I am afraid I am going to lower the tone by quoting Sebastian the lobster from Disney’s “Little Mermaid”. You will forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, for addressing you as “darling” just for the purposes of this quote:

“Under the sea, under the sea

Darling it’s better down where it’s wetter,

Take it from me.”

Don’t just take it from me, though, Madam Deputy Speaker. Take it from my colleagues in constituencies along the pylon line, from my predecessors, and from

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the district councils, the parish councils and the thousands of Somerset residents who have engaged in the consultation process and made their opposition clear throughout.

Not enough consideration has been given to the strategic options that are available for other ways of transmitting power from Hinkley to the grid. Those have been resisted throughout on the basis of cost, yet there is the western link connecting Scotland and England, there is interconnection going on all over the place, and there is the visual impact provision project of the national grid taking down pylons elsewhere. The proposal has been resisted throughout on cost, yet no consideration has been given to the value of this land for other industries, most notably tourism.

Going under the sea is commonplace elsewhere, yet it has never been seriously considered for Somerset. We have turned down wind turbines on visual amenity grounds, yet we are considering dozens of solid white pillars as high as Westminster Abbey and as wide as this Chamber, and we are going to string them out across 40 miles of the most beautiful countryside in the United Kingdom.

We do not know what is in the Planning Inspectorate’s recommendation. It may well be that this, my longest speech in the Chamber, will have been in vain because good news is already on its way, but if it is not—I appreciate that the Minister can give no indication today; I would not put her on the spot and ask her to do so—I ask that if bad news could possibly be on the horizon, all the points that I have raised today and that have been raised in this place by my predecessors and my colleagues in neighbouring constituencies are looked at one last time, and that a delay in making the decision be considered while those matters are looked into. I know that we would all be delighted to come and see the Minister to discuss our concerns further.

There is precedent. I was searching hard and saw that a pylon line between Llandinam and Welshpool was refused, despite the planning inspector’s recommendation, because it would have impacted adversely on the visual amenity and on the environment, and other methods of connection did not appear to have been adequately considered.

Next week Somerset will rejoice or the decision will be reviled. Those pylons are untested, untried, unpopular and unwanted. We should be going under the sea, investing in infrastructure for the future and protecting a wonderful landscape. I hope next week to discover that the Minister agrees.

5.17 pm

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Andrea Leadsom): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wells (James Heappey) on securing this debate on the Hinkley Point C connection project. He has spoken with enormous passion and I agree that he lives in a beautiful part of the country. He has made a powerful speech, and I know that this project is a matter of great interest to his constituency as well as to others along the proposed route of the electric line.

I know that my hon. Friend recognises that the delivery of new energy infrastructure is essential for ensuring that the lights are kept on and bills are kept low for UK businesses and domestic consumers. I am aware that energy infrastructure projects of all sorts can

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have real impacts on local communities. It is also the case, however, that such projects can bring real benefits, so finding the right balance between the impacts and the benefits is a key issue in decision making by the Secretary of State.

Hon. Members will be aware that consent for the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power station, which would have a generating capacity of 3.2 GW, 7% of the UK’s electricity demand, was granted by the Secretary of State in March 2013. EDF and CGN signed a strategic investment agreement in October 2015. EDF has confirmed that it will take a 66.5% stake in Hinkley, with CGN taking 33.5%, demonstrating a clear commitment from both parties.

Nuclear power offers clean, affordable, safe and reliable energy and is vital to the UK’s cost-effective transition to low carbon generation. Existing nuclear plants across Britain currently provide around 16% of the electricity generated in the UK, but most existing plants are due to close by 2024. The Government have therefore prepared the ground for new nuclear power stations through a package of reforms and regulatory measures that remove barriers to investment and give developers confidence. Alongside gas and renewables, new nuclear is therefore an important part of our energy mix, now and in the future.

As part of delivering new electricity generating capacity, new transmission infrastructure is also needed. Network companies, such as National Grid, submit proposals for need and funding for new network infrastructure to the industry regulator, Ofgem, and for planning consent to the relevant planning authorities. These proposals are based, through stakeholder engagement, on an assessment of requirements for existing and new generation and, of course, the costs and impacts of different connection options. Network companies seek to identify opportunities to provide savings for the consumer by giving consideration to future possible connections in an area to ensure that the most efficient overall design is delivered. In doing so, an assessment of the risk of future connections not materialising is required to avoid stranded or underutilised assets, the cost of which would ultimately be passed on to consumers.

This approach is reinforced by the Government’s national policy statements for energy, which set out the framework for factors to be considered when consenting to an infrastructure project of national significance. They make it clear that, for electricity networks, proper consideration should be given to other feasible means of connection, including underground and subsea cables. This includes costs, environmental impacts and network operability issues. The Government do not have a preference on the various network options. Instead, we expect network companies to use the most appropriate technologies available for the particular project, in line with planning and regulatory requirements.

New T-pylons have been proposed for some sections of the route. I have heard loud and clear my hon. Friend’s message that he is not a fan of T-pylons. They were developed following an international design competition held in 2011 by my Department, alongside National Grid and the Royal Institute of British Architects, to help identify a new pylon design that would meet transmission safety and reliability criteria and would also belong to the 21st century. The winning design was produced by Danish architects who have since worked

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with National Grid to develop and test prototypes that have informed the final design being proposed for parts of the connection.

The T-pylon is an interesting design. It is around 15 metres shorter than existing transmission lattice pylons and has the potential to reduce the impact on the landscape. I welcome this innovation as an alternative option that National Grid can use when designing overhead transmission lines in future. However, whether they are ultimately used as part of specific transmission projects, including Hinkley Point C, will be subject to both regulatory and planning approval.

The Planning Inspectorate completed its examination of the application for development consent for the Hinkley Point C electric line connection last July. The application is now with the Secretary of State for a decision. Hon. Members will understand that, as the decision is now under consideration in the Department, I cannot take part in any discussion of the pros and cons of this particular proposal.

In a previous debate in March 2012 on electricity transmission in north Somerset—before the Hinkley Point C connection application was submitted to the Planning Inspectorate—the then Energy Minister encouraged individuals and organisations with an interest in the proposal to engage with National Grid. I know that a number of hon. Members took note of that encouragement and were among the many people who made representations to the Planning Inspectorate during the examination of the Hinkley Point C connection application. Prior to examining the application, the Planning Inspectorate indicated that it would cover a broad range of topics that it considered to be of importance in assessing the potential impacts of the proposed connection. The topics on which views were to be sought included flood risk, landscape and visual effects, socioeconomic effects, traffic and transportation, and public rights of way. The inspectorate’s report was submitted to the Secretary of State on 19 October 2015, along with its recommendation on whether consent should be granted or refused. It will now be for the Secretary of State to consider her decision in the light of that report and all relevant information. She intends to announce her decision no later than 19 January 2016, which is the end of the three-month decision-making period set out in the Planning Act 2008.

Large energy infrastructure projects inevitably attract considerable interest from people who may be directly affected by the proposals, as well as people who have views on energy projects in a more generic way. In the case of Planning Act applications, it is for the Secretary of State, as decision maker, to consider all the arguments that are made for and against these projects and that are set out in the Planning Inspectorate’s report.

James Heappey: I sense that the Minister is moving away from a discussion of the T-pylon on to other things. Before she does, may I push her to clarify the technical issues that I raised about exactly how the T-pylon has been tested in a landscape similar to that in which it might be employed in Somerset, and the security concern I raised? Those are technical issues rather than planning issues, and one would hope that the Department already has the clarification at its disposal.

Andrea Leadsom: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that again. As he is aware, the design has been tested and piloted, but it is absolutely the case that there

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will not be any compromise on any issues of safety and security—I can assure him of that. On the very specific technical points, I can write to him with further evidence. He should rest assured that whatever transmission method is used, it will be properly tested and robustly measured against all possible threats.

I assure all hon. Members that the Secretary of State’s consideration of the Hinkley Point C connection application will be rigorous and fair, taking into account all the many issues that have been raised by those who are for and against, and in the Planning Inspectorate’s

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report. I hope that hon. Members are reassured that concerns raised by interested parties about the Hinkley Point C electric line connection are being thoroughly considered throughout the planning process.

I thank my hon. Friend again for his constructive and thoughtful remarks. He has done the people of north Somerset proud by raising this issue in such an impassioned way. I can assure him that they and he do not have too much longer to wait for the decision.

Question put and agreed to.

5.28 pm

House adjourned.