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Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, I support the amended form of the amendment. I start by commenting on the rather curious argument adumbrated by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale. Does he suggest that the regulator is entitled to go on a frolic of his own so far as concerns major policy matters regardless of the views of the Government of the day? We allude immediately to the distinction between "operational" and "policy" which has featured singularly in debates over the course of the past few weeks and in the media. One could not have a better example, in a way, than the one posed in this instance.
If the regulator were to abandon any consideration in his judgment of sustainable development, or any other major element of policy, could he possibly be justified in that regard? I am perfectly happy to give way to the noble Lord if he wishes to intervene.
Lord Skelmersdale: My Lords, I am conscious that this is Third Reading. However, the duties of the regulator are well established in statute, both in the Gas Act 1986 and by the amendment of that Act by this Bill.
I believe that the noble Earl is absolutely entitled to introduce this provision because it goes to the very heart of environmental policy. The Secretary of State is responsible for adumbrating that environmental policy on behalf of the Government of the day. Consequently, he is entitled, therefore, to give guidance on those issues.
One of my responsibilities in the Commission, as the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, will remember because he was a Government Minister in that field at that time, was in relation to environmental issues. One of the most
If what the noble Earl argued here were inconsistent with the Government's objectives, I could understand the Government saying that they could not go along with it. But that cannot be the case. If the noble Earl's proposal were inimical to the purposes of the Bill, I could equally understand it if the Government were to say that that was unacceptable to them. But neither of those propositions can be sustained. The noble Earl is saying here simply that the director shall have regard in this particular context to the objectives of sustainable development, to the guidance that the Secretary of State may from time to time provide. There is nothing wrong or ignoble about that. There is nothing that debases the purposes of the Bill or the Government's objectives.
As the noble Earl rightly said, there is an important audience that the Government ought to take into account in relation to these matters; namely, the audience outside. That is not simply the British electorate but the wider world community. It is important. Not that the wider world community will take too much notice, I suspect, of the Third Reading of the Gas Billthough perhaps I am wrong; it may be on the tips of the tongues of all world leaders. I know that they always listen to what my noble friend Lord Peston has to sayI have that on the highest authority. It is important for the Government to signal in a very decisive way that they are concerned about these matters. Here is the ideal opportunity to do so. Therefore I strongly support this amendment. I hope that if the Government's response is negative, the noble Earl will take the appropriate course and challenge that view.
Lord Cochrane of Cults: My Lords, I am sorry to see that the noble Earl has reintroduced his amendment, with which we dealt at some length last Wednesday. Before dealing with it in more detail, with the leave of the House I draw noble Lords' attention to the declaration of interest that I made many moons ago when we first set out to deal with this Bill.
Gas, as at present organised, is an extractive industry. Sustainable development in the long term, and possibly the very long term, cannot exist in an extractive industry. Were it to do so, we should be in the happy position of having discovered the secret of perpetual motion. Alas, no such luck attends us.
The point that my noble friend sought to emphasise in his amendment about sustainable development is that we should make the supply of gas, which is finite and is available to us, last as long as we decently can. That is our duty. It is profoundly unfortunate that "sustainable" and "development" have become linked, rather in the way that all the fumes these days are toxic. There are many other examples that are very often used as the parrot cries of single interest groups. Therefore, as the duty to preserve in the longer term the finite resources of gas that are available to us is already written into the Bill and sustainable development is inherently indefinable, I much regret to tell my noble friend yet again that I cannot agree with him.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, I support the amendment so effectively moved by the noble Earl. As presently drafted, new Section (4)(1) in Clause 1 is too narrowly drawn. It does not pay sufficient regard to the fact that gas is a commodity of particularly widespread and fundamental importance. Therefore, merely to talk about securing the supply and making sure that licence holders have the necessary finance and securing competition does not pay regard to that feature. The Government, in spite of what was just said, are committed to the concept of sustainable development. It occurs in many government publications. No doubt the noble and learned Lord, when he responds, will confirm that. The fact that it might be difficult to define is not the issue. The fact is, this is a broad concept; namely, making sure that we support environmental improvement as everybody understands it in that light.
Had I not been subject to an unfortunate sequence of events, I should also have moved in relation to this section an amendment to bring in consumer interest. I shall deal with that point at a later, appropriate stage. I very much hope that in his response the Minister will take very serious account of the remarks made by his noble friend Lord Cranbrook and will accept this amendment.
Lord Desai: My Lords, I hesitate to add my voice to the debate at Third Reading as I have not spoken before on this Bill. I also apologise to the noble Earl since I arrived after he had begun his remarks. My only point is that the fact that sustainable development cannot be defined is not a good enough reason for not accepting the amendment. New Section 4(1)(c) refers to "effective competition". As a professional economist, I challenge anybody to define effective competition any more precisely than sustainable development.
Making such a requirement helps us to sharpen a vague notion slightly more because it is now policy relevant. If we include "sustainable development" in the Bill, it will concentrate our minds. It will draw from the Secretary of State and the regulator a little more effort to define it more precisely. If they cannot define it more precisely, just as in relation to competition they refer to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission, a Royal Commission on the environment could be referred to to find out how it would implement sustainable development. The point is, were we to stop putting vague words into law, there would not be much legislation left.
Viscount Caldecote: My Lords, I also support this amendment. In the debate on Report, one of the points made against it was that it was not logical or appropriate to include this reference in the Gas Bill. The point was also made today that there was no precise definition. On the second point, it seems to me absurd and completely illogical that the Government in fact published a command paper on the strategy for sustainable development at the beginning of this year, and therefore presumably know what sustainable development is. I think I have a fairly good idea. The argument that the idea should not be included here because it was not included in similar Acts of Parliament seems extraordinary. We have to start somewhere. It was an error not to put such emphasis on sustainable development elsewhere. For goodness sake, let us start now.
Thirdly, surely this approach to emphasise the importance of the objectives of sustainable development is entirely in line with the Government's response to the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on sustainable development which we shall debate on Thursday. For all these reasons, I strongly support the amendment.
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