HC Deb 10 July 1963 vol 680 cc1243-8
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Noble)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I wish to make a statement.

The Government have given very careful consideration to the findings of the Mackenzie Committee, including its central recommendation that the functions of the two electricity boards in Scotland should be transferred to a single authority.

In making this recommendation, the Committee's purpose, which must also be the Government's, was to ensure that the whole operation of generating, transmitting and distributing electricity in Scotland is carried out on the most economic basis possible, and that judgments on questions arising in this connection—for example, as regards the size, character and location of new generating stations—are not influenced by narrower considerations arising out of the financial consequences to the separate accounts of one or other of the existing boards.

It is, however, clear that the proposal to merge the two existing boards is unwelcome to a wide range of interests, especially those who have benefited by the immensely valuable work that the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board has carried out during the last twenty years. For my part, I do not think that it has yet been established that the continued existence of the two boards is incompatible with the provision of electricity in the most economic manner, and I intend to see what can be achieved by close consultation and co-operation between the two boards.

I have myself talked the position over with the chairmen of the two boards, and have arranged that they will jointly discuss with me or my officers any issues that may arise between them. In the expectation that the common purpose of the Mackenzie Committee and of the Government can by this means be secured, the Government have decided not to proceed at the present time with the legislation that would be necessary to implement the Committee's recommendation on this aspect of the matter.

A particular subject on which discussions with the two boards are proceeding is the comparative cost of providing electricity, on the one hand, by the proposed hydro-electric generating schemes that the North of Scotland Board has published, and, on the other, by the installation of additional thermal generating capacity elsewhere in Scotland.

In the light of the comparative costs thus established, the North of Scotland Board will decide whether it wishes the necessary formal inquiries to be undertaken into the hydro-electric schemes; and the comparative costs will be part of the material placed before any inquiries that proceed.

I have one further point to add. A subordinate recommendation by the Mackenzie Committee was that special assistance should be provided to enable rural electrification in the North of Scotland to be speeded up, and to link the islands with the mainland by submarine cable.

The North of Scotland Board considers that most of these cables will be needed only when the existing diesel generating stations on the main islands have to be renewed, but has drawn up a programme for accelerating the present rate at which consumers in the more remote areas can be given supplies. This programme involves capital expenditure that would increase the loss the board incur at present on similar connections.

The Board's capital investment proposals are now under consideration, as are those of the remainder of the electricity boards throughout the country; and a decision will be taken as soon as possible.

Mr. Ross

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that it is a rare pleasure for me to be able to congratulate him, but that it is all the more sincere in this case because his decision will be received in Scotland, and the Highlands, in particular, with a considerable amount of relief? There has been a considerable delay in getting on with developments in the hydro-electric Board area, in respect of generation, as a result of the proceedings of the Committee and all this delay about a decision.

What will the right hon. Gentleman do now to speed up the necessary work? Can he afford any comfort and hope to my hon. Friend the Member for the Western Isles (Mr. Malcolm MacMillan) about the speed-up of distribution to the islands?

Mr. Noble

I thank the hon. Member for the very unusual compliment that he has paid me. I realise that it has taken a long time from the start of the inquiries until today, but I think that the House as a whole realises that big issues were involved. The problem not only of where to generate but how to get electricity to whichever area it be, North or South, at the cheapest price, is the problem which really interests Scotland in the long term.

As soon as the discussions that I have mentioned in my statement have taken place between the two Boards and my officers the North of Scotland Board may then ask me to publish some of its schemes for public inquiry.

Sir T. Moore

I do not disagree with the view expressed by my right hon. Friend, but is he satisfied that this decision will lead, in the end, to cheaper and more widely distributed electricity throughout Scotland?

Sir G. Nabarro

Dearer electricity.

Mr. Noble

Cheaper and more widely distributed electricity is the aim both of the Mackenzie Committee and the Government, because it is vital to the interests of Scotland. If it should prove—I see no reason why it should—that the two Boards are unable to work the scheme satisfactorily from this point of view, it may be that in a few years' time another decision will have to be taken. But I believe that it can be done in this way.

Mr. Rankin

I understood the right hon. Gentleman to say that in the meantime he did not intend to proceed with the amalgamation of the two Boards. Are we to take it that the decision is not a final one, but merely temporary and, perhaps, even political?

Mr. Noble

For the reason that I gave to my hon. Friend just now, it would be quite wrong for anybody to take a permanent decision. I think that this new scheme can work.

Sir G. Nabarro

I do not wish to associate myself in any way with the congratulatory note sounded by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross). I express my grave disappointment with the Minister's decision in this matter. Does he realise that the people he should consult are the Members of this House, and not a lot of foreign bodies outside? [Interruption] I mean foreign non-parliamentary bodies—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

If we drown ourselves by interruptions we do not get on.

Sir G. Nabarro

Will he bear in mind that 80 per cent. of the capital of the immensely expensive North of Scotland Board is paid by the English taxpayer and that in view of that hon. Members representing English constituencies may have some interest in the future course of events in the north of Scotland and in due economy being practised in the generation of power there?

Mr. Noble

If my hon. Friend had been in the House on many occasions during Question Time I do not think that he could doubt the fact that the statement I have made today was broadly in keeping with what has been said by hon. Members on both sides of the House. His wish and mine is that we should provide electricity in Scotland in the most efficient and cheapest way, and this is what I intend to try to achieve.

Mr. T. Fraser

Will the right hon. Gentleman repudiate at once the suggestion that the English taxpayer is financing the generation and distribution of electricity in the north of Scotland? Will he say whether or not the generation and distribution of electricity there is as efficient and economic as in any other part of the country and bear in mind, too, that people throughout Scotland greatly resent the intervention of foreigners into what is purely a Scottish activity?

Mr. Noble

I think that in this House we ought not to resent the intervention of anybody, from whatever part of the country he comes. I agree with the hon. Gentleman and I think that the statement made by my hon. Friend may be a little wide of the truth.

Sir D. Robertson

Is it not a fact that most of the opposition referred to by the hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) has been fomented by the propaganda of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board? Is not it also the case that the costs incurred by that body in building the stations were abnormal and many million pounds more than the figures submitted to Parliament? Does not the suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Sir G. Nabarro) indicate the proper procedure, which is to bring this matter now—after long delays—to the Floor of this House and get at all the facts?

Mr. Noble

I think that the House has had opportunities on many occasions to discuss the problems of the North of Scotland Hydro-Electric Board. I am not concerned with any difficulties that may have occurred in the past. I want to get the position right for the future.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. We cannot debate this now. There is no Question before the House.