HC Deb 15 April 1975 vol 890 cc391-416

9.11 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise the important matter of energy conservation policies. I appreciate very much that the Under-Secretary of State is in attendance and that he has put himself out to be here at short notice. I hope that he will not find the late hour a waste of his time.

One of the main reasons for taking this opportunity of raising the subject of energy conservation is that we have had no opportunity for a detailed debate on the measures and the policies initiated by the Government in their provisional interim measures which they announced last December. We have had a debate on energy, but that was a wide-ranging debate which covered the Government's improprieties in the North Sea and various other matters. The fact is that we have not had an opportunity to discuss in detail short, medium and long-term strategy and the more rational use of our energy. It is important that we should do so.

I feel that the Government have not given an opportunity for such a discussion because their own measures have not had time to mature. On the other hand, time is running on and we have had more than a year since the upheaval of oil price increases. Further, we have had more than a year of the present Government, during which time it has become increasingly more urgent that we develop an energy strategy. We have had today the fourth Budget in 13 months. It emphasised again the fact that we are living substantially beyond our means. We are running a huge trade deficit ranging between £2 billion and £3 billion a year.

Imports of oil are a major contributor to that deficit. It is costing us approximately £10 million a day to import our oil. Of course, we expect to be self-supporting by 1980, assuming that the Government do not frighten away all the oil companies from the arduous, risky and expensive work in the North Sea. We shall be self-supporting and no doubt we shall even be able to export, but I rather suspect that it is because of the feeling that we shall be self-supporting and that we shall have enough of our own resources that there is a lack of urgency in the programme for conservation.

I want to be kind to the Department of Energy tonight, although probably following previous encounters it is not what the Minister expects from me. I want to try to be fair and to suggest that it is not entirely the Department's fault that we have at present no energy strategy. The Department has not been established for that long a period. Indeed it was set up by the Conservative Government. It would be unfair to blame the Department of Energy for all the failings which are an accumulation of several decades of misguided policies—ranging from the dependence on cheap oil imports and the running down of our indigenous coal industry to the assumption that we would have adequate energy resources for as long as we wanted, and cheaply.

The result was that over many years we failed to learn the need to use our energy more efficiently. The time is now past when we can afford to continue to waste as much as we do. The fact is that we waste far too much energy. It is not a matter of switching off lights or of brushing our teeth in the dark. That is only fiddling with the problem. We must get to grips with the major areas of waste which continue. It is only fair to give credit to the Government for having initiated an advertising programme which draws the consumers' attention to the points at which savings can be made, and it is also fair to give credit to the Government for having begun the policy of a realistic pricing of energy rather than going for subsidies which simply encourage waste. Therefore, I give credit where it is due.

On the other hand we are entitled to question whether, after 14 months or so, the Government should not have made a little more progress in developing a medium and longer-term strategy which would ensure that we wasted less of our energy. I wish to mention one or two areas in which I think action could be taken. I hope that the Minister will regard my suggestions as constructive, even if somewhat critical.

Opposition Members have had to endure a fair amount of criticism from the Government and the Department of Energy suggesting that we were attacking the Government's policy—or lack of it—without putting forward counterproposals. Time and again it has been said, "Well, what would you do?" Many of us have put suggestions to the Government when opportunities have been made available. I am not saying that those suggestions have been ignored, but it is right to put on record that some of us have ideas and constructive proposals to put forward and have done some research in this area. Therefore, we may have something to contribute to the policy which we hope will emerge, in the national interest, without too much further delay.

The first major criticism I wish to make—and it involves the major area where our strategy should evolve—relates to the area of governmental priorities. It is very difficult at a time when the Government are under extreme pressure to cut Government spending to make suggestions which will increase expenditure in a different area—an area which many members of the Government have not been prepared to regard as an important priority. On the other hand, I believe that this is now such an important priority that there should be greater Government spending on energy conservation. When I talk of priorities, I suggest that it will pay us as a nation to cut back on other spending—for example, on food subsidies or whatever one happens to regard as less essential—and to make some of those national resources and capital investment items available for energy conservation. The reason is that investment in this area will produce a fairly quick return in terms of our balance of payments, whereas a large proportion of Government spending, however essential, does not produce an equivalent balance of payments saving.

This is the primary issue. If there is to be an energy strategy in the United Kingdom, the Government must accept as an important priority the fact that energy saving will be of major benefit to the economy in terms of the balance of payments, of maintaining our standard of living and of curbing inflation. It is only by means of positive investment that we shall be able to produce the savings in energy, or the less wasteful consumption of energy, which are required.

The Government must first change their investment priorities in the electricity supply industry. For many years past we have been in a rut. We assume that because the demand for electric power rises every year we must automatically increase the supply, or suffer power cuts. I challenge that basic assumption, because we waste far too much of our electric power. If we wasted less power and spent a little money on economy measures we should not need to spend about £700 million a year on the construction of new power stations. Some of that capital could be directed to energy-saving projects.

We are often told that it is not possible for the Government to provide capital for energy conservation measures, such as grants for thermal insulation or other grants to industry, because the money is not available. Money spent on energy conservation would produce a greater capital saving than that spent by the Exchequer on building vast new power stations.

I hope that Government thinking will be directed to the electricity supply industry. At present every two units of heat produced in the electricity power stations result in one unit of electricity. Those units of heat go up the cooling towers or into the rivers. That is a phenomenal and unnecessary waste of energy. The technology for the utilisation of waste heat already exists. The process has been increasingly undertaken in other countries for many years. The waste heat, which is now being deliberately dispersed through the ghastly, environmental-polluting cooling towers, can be used for space heating and for industrial purposes.

Why are we not doing it? What is holding us up continuously? We have the monstrous waste of about two-thirds of our energy in this present system of electricity generation. The average thermal efficiency of our generating system is just about the lowest in Europe.

In view of the time, I do not wish to go into a great deal of detail, but I draw attention to the very large number of specific examples in other countries where waste heat from power stations is utilised. In fact, it is even happening in this country. Just outside my constituency at Spondon a power station which the CEGB would regard as being too small to be of interest has a 70 per cent. thermal efficiency because the waste heat is used to provide heat for British Celanese—and it was built for that very purpose. ICI produces a great proportion of its own electricity, and it does so in order to utilise the waste heat. It gets a thermal efficiency of about 70 or 80 per cent. in the process.

In the Ruhr, a great proportion of industry and district heating is combined, with much higher thermal efficiency. District heating systems combining electricity and steam generation are being installed increasingly on the Continent—in France, Denmark and Sweden especially, where this is very well established.

London has 14 power stations. Only one small portion of one station—Batter-sea—uses its waste heat. Waste heat from these power stations could heat the whole of London if suitable conversions were provided. There are plenty of examples in other parts of the world. There are even examples in this country. The truth is that we are not getting on with it.

With one or two other hon. Members, I have been trying to draw attention to these matters for a number of months. It is a little discouraging to be snubbed by Ministers in replying to our Questions. It does not help to promote the argument.

I last raised this specific matter on 7th April. I asked what progress was being made in the research at Harwell on the more efficient utilisation of fuel in power stations by combining the generation of electricity with the sale of heat. The Under-Secretary—I hasten to add, not the hon. Gentleman who is to reply to this debate—said, The combined generation of electricity and heat from power stations is primarily the responsibility of the electricity supply industry."—[Official Report, 7th April 1975; Vol. 889, c. 806.] I accept that it is the responsibility of the electricity supply industry, but surely it is also the responsibility of the Department of Energy. When we are wasting two-thirds of our fuel in the existing system of power generation, it is not good enough, if we are to have a Department of Energy which presumably accepts responsibility for initiating energy conservation programmes, for Ministers in that Department to say that they have no responsibility.

We have to analyse why Ministers say that they have no responsibility and why they continue to suggest that this is a matter to be sorted out by the electricity supply industry. I suggest that the reason goes back to the Electricity Act 1957. It may be that we are lumbered with that Act. If we are, it is time that we amended it. It gives statutory powers to the electricity industry to produce electricity as efficiently as it can. However, it does not give any directives to the electricity industry to sell heat or any directives on fuel efficiency.

Fuel efficiency is much greater in other countries because on the Continent it is the local authorities or private enterprise industries that set up power stations. They are able to produce electricity and to sell the waste heat without being restricted by the monopoly of a nationalised industry. Therefore, I ask the Under-Secretary to look at the existing statutory powers which restrict the extension of a more efficient system of electricity generation in this country together with the sale of heat. It is only when that is done that we shall make progress.

I have suggested two major areas which need urgent action. First, we must establish priorities for capital investment and, secondly, we must reorganise the electricity supply industry.

The Department of Energy should get to grips with the problem and find out, if it has not done so already, what is happening in the rest of the world. The Electricity Council should be scrapped or, at least, reorganised into an energy council or board. The statutory directives would have to be changed to make it responsible for converting the fuel as efficiently as possible and for enabling it to sell the heat. There is tremendous advantage to be achieved in such a programme.

I do not suggest that there are no difficulties. We know that there are. The present policy of building more large power stations in remote areas presents difficulties for district heating, but there is no reason why these stations should not be planned with some local industry surrounding them. The environmental problem would equate itself because the cooling towers would not be necessary. They are the worst environmental problem. Instead, two or three factories would utilise the heat. Some of the less efficient power stations in urban areas are about to be closed down because the electricity boards do not regard them as efficient enough. Yet these are just the kind of power stations which are ideally suitable for conversion. District heating schemes could be adapted from them. This possibility should be seriously investigated. The time has come when the Electricity Council must be changed into an energy council which should put greater emphasis on a more rational use of fuel.

The third area in which the Department of Energy should accept some responsibility and take some action is research and development. A little research and development is taking place, but it is inadequate. It overlaps and it is diffuse. If many important areas of research and development were to be given greater priority, we could make a major contribution more quickly. It is the Department's responsibility to co-ordinate this research effort.

I want to give one or two specific examples of areas in which we ought to be spending a little more. We ought to be spending more on the fast breeder reactor system in order to give that progress a little more push. Second, we ought to be spending more on remote-control coal mining systems. There is no reason why we should not be moving ahead towards developing remote-control coal mining. If we do not get on with the research it will be decades before we achieve anything.

Third, we ought to be giving greater priority to research and development on tidal power, wind power, solar power and wave power. We all know that there are feasibility projects which need a little more encouragement on the research and development side so that we may reach the stage at which we can do something to develop alternative energy sources. Taking the longer-term view, we need to encourage them so that we do not use up the breathing space which the North Sea hydrocarbon resources will give us for 20 or 30 years, and perhaps 40 years, and then find at the end of that period that the tremendous time lag required to develop alternative resources has been squandered.

The fourth and final area—in which I would mildly rebuke the Department of Energy for not having got on with it—is seeing that there is greater co-ordination between Government Departments. I appreciate that it is very difficult for the Minster to throw his weight about in this area. However, if we are to have an energy strategy, it simply will not do if other Government Departments are not prepared to accept the priority for it and to take the necessary measures to implement it.

To give specific examples, if one suggests that there should be more thermal insulation in housing, assisted by loans or grants, the Department of the Environment says that it does not have the money and that it is not interested in energy conservation. If one asks why new or existing Hospitals are not adapting themselves to more efficient fuel systems or better insulation, one is told that the capital investment is not available to do so and that in any case the Department of Health and Social Security is not concerned with energy conservation. The same thing applies with the Department of Education and Science when one asks why we are not building our schools to greater standards of fuel efficiency. I could continue with many other examples.

There is no co-operation or co-ordination between Government Departments in this matter. The reason is that the Department of Energy has not asserted itself. It has not been given the correct priority within the Government. I hope that the Under-Secretary will tell the Secretary of State tomorrow that he ought to throw his weight about a bit more, to assert himself in Cabinet and to state why it is essential that a more rational use of our energy is given greater emphasis within Government planning and the co-ordination of Government Departments, and that he ought to ensure that the capital investment is made available.

The time has come when the nation can no longer afford to allow this situation to drift without an effective strategy. It is also time that we accepted that an energy policy and energy conservation are not two separate subjects. They are integrated. It must be accepted that the problems arising in both can be solved only in a co-ordinated way. The need now is for us to use the breathing space that the North Sea will give us to develop far more efficient uses of our energy in the areas I have suggested. No doubt there will be other areas, but I have suggested four in which I believe action ought to be taken. These are the reorganisation of our electricity supply industry, greater co-ordination between Government Departments, greater Government priority for capital investment, with fiscal incentives, and a more positive research effort. These are four lines of attack in which so far we have been completely inadequate. The Department of Energy must now sell the need for a more rational use of our energy not just to the country, as it is doing in its advertising campaign, but to the Government, if we are to make any progress at all.

The more effective use of our energy can make a major contribution to the balance of payments. It costs less to spend our capital wisely on energy conservation than to spend our capital wastefully on building new generating plant to produce electricity which would not be needed if we implemented conservation programmes. An effective policy for the next few years could help to maintain our living standards or to raise them and could make a contribution to the gross national product far more effectively than Government spending in other areas which do not produce such an effective economic return.

We must, above all, end the imbalance which still exists in Government priority. The imbalance must be ended by changing from an attitude of increasing supplies to one of increasing efficiency. This is where the priority is wrong and this is where it must be changed. There is not all that much time left, and certainly there is no more time left for complacency. We must stop wasting the national wealth in this way.

I know that the Under-Secretary of State appreciates these problems, and I am not criticising him. Nor am I necessarily criticising his colleagues in the Department. What I am saying is that they must make a greater effort to put their case across to the rest of the Government and to the country.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. William Hamilton (Fife. Central)

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) made an extremely constructive speech, less abrasive than his normal contribution in this House, and I shall try to respond in the same spirit.

This debate reminds me very much of an idea that was put forward some years ago by the late Dick Crossman when he was Leader of the House. He recommended an experiment with morning sittings of the House. I have long thought that instead of having an Adjournment debate when all the Government business has been finished and everybody has gone home, when a Minister and a backbencher are hanging around and they alone are there for an Adjournment debate coming on at an uncertain hour and causing the maximum inconvenience to everybody concerned, instead of having this kind of debate at this hour, with this kind of attendance and hardly anybody in the Press Gallery, we could have two or three such debates at morning sittings. We could have them, say, on Monday morning and Wednesday morning, or, indeed, every morning if necessary, and only those who were interested would need to attend. It would not inconvenience the civil servants. It would not inconvenience the Minister concerned because it is usually a junior Minister—although I usually find the ability of a Minister is in inverse proportion to his status in the Government. I say that with great affection to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State—and I think he knows exactly what I mean.

If one had that kind of thing, not only would one get greater publicity for this kind of debate but it would be a convenience to hon. Members, civil servants and the Under-Secretary himself. instead of having to sit here he could be on a train to Scotland, on the way to his constituency. However, I think that the debate is serving a useful purpose.

I can agree with a lot, almost all, that the hon. Gentleman said. I hope that he will not hold that against me. I do not know whether he has sought to cost what he is suggesting or has tried to work out a time scale. It is perhaps unfair to suggest that he has not done those things because he obviously could not do so. The hon. Gentleman has put forward proposals for the Government to consider.

I agree that as a nation we must be more energy conscious than we have been hitherto. I must remind the hon. Gentleman— here I get a little acid myself; there is no one on the Opposition Front Bench— that the Conservative Government conserved energy in a way that we would not wish to follow. They stopped the miners digging coal and then we had a three-day working week. If the Government pursued policies which brought about a confrontation with the miners, the power workers, or any other group of key workers in the energy-producing industries, we could conserve energy, but we do not want to save energy in that way.

On the contrary, the Chancellor today went out of his way to make it clear that he will strive to prevent an upsurge in unemployment. That means a full-out industrial effort which will use more energy, unless we pursue some of the energy conservation policies of the Conservative Government. I intended to speak about some of the proposals put forward by the hon. Gentleman. There is no need for me to remind him that the Conservative Government allowed the nationalised fuel industries to encourage the wasteful use of energy. The hon. Gentleman knows that they were prevented from charging really economic prices for fuels and that encouraged the wasteful use of energy.

What disturbs me and many hon. Members on both sides of the House is that we shall see fuel economies by the purse. In other words, both individual domestic and industrial consumers will be compelled to save simply by price.

I had a letter, either yesterday or the day before, from somebody in Perth—a Labour supporter, but not a constituent of mine—who said that he would not vote Labour any more because of the outrageous increases in the price of electricity. He asked why the Government did not give a 20 per cent. subsidy to electricity to stop these increases. That is what the previous Government did until the February 1974 election, and that is why the present Government are having to impose swingeing increases in prices which are now being pushed through the pipeline, or the electricity wires, as the case may be.

The injury has been compounded by simultaneous increases in the prices of all fuels. That situation is bound to direct attention to the more economic use of all fuels. Like food, the days of cheap fuel are over. Nobody can pretend that we can return to the days of either cheap food, whether inside or outside the EEC, or cheap fuel, by whatever method. I do not think the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East, was suggesting that, but, rather, a more economic use of fuel. I may be out of date, but I recall my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-upon-Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas) pursuing the question of having an examination of the price mechanism to make sure that instead of having a preferential tariff the more one consumed, one should have a preferential tariff the less one consumed.

This is a very important matter, particularly for the small consumer, who, by definition, is generally in receipt of a small income. I am thinking particularly of old people. I believe we will all have received, this week or last week, from one of the charities dealing with old people—whether Age Concern, Help for the Aged, or Shelter I cannot remember—a document giving statistics about the number of deaths from hypothermia among old people. One does not want to ration fuel by the purse for such people if it is going to mean more deaths among the old.

We have been very lucky. If we had had a severe winter we would have felt the pinch much more than we have. We have been fortunate, in the sense that we have had one of the mildest winters on record. Up to the last year or two we have been very profligate in our use of fuel of all kinds, not least coal. I come from a coal mining family. My father was a coal miner. I represented a coal-mining area. I say "represented", because it no longer is one. Most of the pits in my constituency have been closed. But we have the kind of automated mining of which the hon. Gentleman was speaking. I do not know whether he has visited the Longannet power station in Fife, on the north shore of the Firth of Forth, and seen the coal mines there. The coal is power-loaded on to a belt and taken direct into the power station. It is virtually all done by automation. I do not know how practical it is to repeat that in other ways, but certainly it is one of the ways in which we can use our fuel resources for the maximum benefit of everybody.

I shall mention one or two other points which underlie what the hon. Gentleman has said about the insulation problem. We have paid far too little attention to the savings that can be obtained on the domestic front, and particularly on the industrial front, by insulation. Despite the Government's determination to cut public expenditure, it would be expenditure well worth incurring. We always tend to look at the figures on a balance sheet and say, "It is going to cost us this much" without looking at the other side of the ledger and asking, "What will this save in terms of energy?" The Government should try to do some arithmetic of that kind and work out with local authorities what estimated savings would be achieved if old people's individual houses or old people's homes were insulated. I am fairly sure that local authorities could work out statistics of this kind.

I believe I am right in saying the Government provide grants to encourage industry to insulate. The late Gerald Nabarro long ago introduced a Bill on this very subject.

There were two other points which the hon. Member did not mention, one of which was the question of staggered hours. If working hours could be staggered more, it would spread the electricity load. There is a problem in providing the enormous capital sums required to construct power stations when it is not possible to utilise those power stations in off-peak hours. This was the principle behind the system of off-peak storage heaters. The owners enjoyed cheap electricity at off-peak rates. Perhaps it would be worth encouraging industry to spread the load over 24 hours.

The second point concerns the provision of a more efficient public trans- port system. I plead guilty to driving into this place every day in a car of my own. I know that that is very wasteful. If there were an efficient public transport system, sufficiently efficient to encourage me and thousands like me in the big cities to travel to work on it, we could make enormous savings. I belong to a movement in Scotland that wants increasing electrification of the railway system and a reduction in expenditure on the road system. We want this both from an environmental point of view and from the point of view of energy saving. The scheme is not being treated with the importance that it deserves.

I turn now to the subject of housing. Some weeks ago I raised a question with the Department of the Environment about the construction of timber houses. There is a housing shortage and there seems no prospect of meeting that shortage within my lifetime. Perhaps I am being pessimistic, but it is a daunting prospect. In my constituency, as in other constituencies, no doubt, there are firms which build timber houses. These houses are very much cheaper to construct and are much better insulated than traditionally-constructed houses. In Scotland, however, we are in the absurd position of importing Norwegian timber houses, even though a Scottish firm could satisfy the demand. I mention that just to show how the possibilities in this area are legion if only we get down to examining them.

I hope that the Minister does not treat the speech by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East with the contempt that the hon. Member usually gets and sometimes deserves in this House.

9.59 p.m.

Mr. David Mudd (Falmouth and Camborne)

I followed with great pleasure the telling points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) and the wise remarks of the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). I approach the debate with a certain degree of reservation, because I shall be referring briefly to the problems of Cornwall, but let me set the hon. Member's mind at rest and say that I shall be referring to the county of Cornwall, and not the Duchy.

This short but worthwhile debate has repeatedly covered certain aspects. It has dealt with such matters as insulation, power stations, and lack of co-ordination between the Department of Energy and one or two other Departments. The lack of co-ordination is perhaps symptomatic of the fact that the Department of Energy is our newest Department of State. It has grown from a baby to a toddler and, like toddlers, it tends to waver a bit from side to side and perhaps not make the greatest impact on those with whom it comes into contact.

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Dormand.]

Mr. Mudd

Therefore, I suggest that the Department of Energy considers co-ordinating with two of its sister Departments, perhaps, jogging them into action. First, the question of thermal foam insulation has been raised. Evidence has recently reached me that thermal foam insulation contractors operating in Cornwall have come up against impossible stone walls put up by the local authority. If anyone wants to put in thermal cavity insulation he is told by the local authority that he must first obtain permission under the building regulations of 1972. Those regulations were evolved long before thermal foam cavity insulation became the "in" thing and energy conservation became of vital importance to the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Department of Energy can at least have talks with the Department of the Environment on an up-to-date circular to local authorities asking them to cut these corners. This is important because anyone who wants his home insulated is in many ways a customer of impulse. If a customer is told that he has to apply to the local authority he will throw up his hands in despair, because he believes that it will be six months before he gets a decision one way or the other, by which time the cost will have become prohibitive.

The second area of liaison concerns the Department of the Environment and one of the stranger rulings of the British Broadcasting Corporation, which has decided that it will not transmit the BBC2 test card to West Cornwall during non-transmission hours in the daytime. This is our loss, but it is an even greater loss to the television installation and aerial trade. Time after time the installers take a new set to someone's house—which entails a drive of 10 or 15 miles down the highways and byways—only to find on arrival that there is no signal against which the set can be tuned. Therefore, the set is loaded back into the van, taken to the depot and delivered again later the same day. As a result there is a colossal unnecessary consumption of fuel.

Moreover, with the absence of a BBC2 test card during normal working hours against which the engineers can tune the set, much work has to be done in the workshop at night when BBC2 is on transmission. The result is that extra electricity is burnt in the workshop. Therefore, the simple expedient of getting the BBC to restore the BBC2 test card would cut down a waste of petrol and certainly a waste of workshop electricity at night.

On the third point, I hope to have no more at this stage than the friendly ear of the Under-Secretary of State. It concerns the future of the power station at Hayle, in Cornwall, which has now been given two years' formal notice of closure, which means that to all intents and purposes it will cease operating in 1977. This will involve withdrawing 130 jobs from an area of already chronic, extremely high unemployment.

The Central Electricity Generating Board says that perhaps in the 1980s it will put in a turbine generating station there. However, whatever happens, there cannot be an overlap between the closure of the coal-burning plant and the arrival of the new one. When I ask the board what it will do about the 130 people who will lose their jobs, it says that some will go through natural wastage, one or two will go through premature retirement, and the rest will be found jobs somewhere else within the industry. This is economically wasteful and socially unacceptable. It is economically wasteful to reject 130 people who are generating power. It is unacceptable in social terms that many people who are in their 50s should be told to find a job elsewhere, because they will not be readily acceptable elsewhere. Many of the younger people who would be absorbable elsewhere would say "We have our roots in Cornwall. Why uproot us to suit the whim of a Government Department?"

The board should be asked to reconsider the closure proposals. First, it is a coal-burning station—one of the few in the south-west region which burns indigenous fuel, thus reducing dependence on imported oil supplies and indirectly providing work, revenue and prospects for coal miners. Therefore, there is a case for its continuation in its coal-burning rô le. Secondly, it could be simply adapted for the burning of refuse to provide energy. There are many social, economic and environmental reasons why I hope that the board will be persuaded by the Secretary of State for the Environment to reconsider the proposal.

I am delighted to have had the ear of the House, to have had this opportunity of joining my hon. Friend in the debate. which we have had on his initiative, and to have had the unexpected benefit of the presence of the hon. Member for Fife, Central.

10.6 p.m.

Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)

I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Mudd). I fully appreciate his point about the social consequences of closing a power station. I come from a coal mining area, where we know all about the social consequences, having suffered all the pit closures of the mid-1960s.

As a miner for 41 years, I have seen much criminal waste of fuel, particularly coal. Most hon. Members and members of the general public have a picture of a coal mining village as a little cluster of houses around the pit, with a large, smoking heap in the background. The smoke from that heap was a criminal waste of coal. It does not happen today. Although many people will disagree, rock and waste will not burn. The large heaps in the pit villages in those days consisted of coal that was burning because of inefficient methods of cleaning coal. Even today, some people think that we sell the rock and waste and still do something mysterious with the coal that we produce.

I am a member of the National Union of Mineworkers, which has for years advocated a co-ordinated and integrated fuel policy. We have consistently stood out against not only the criminal waste of coal after we have produced it but the criminal use of resources and money, particularly in advertising one nationalised fuel against another. I hope that the Government will take action towards an integrated policy.

I join my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) in paying tribute to the thoughtful contribution of the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost), particularly in respect of what he said about waste heat from power stations. The Yorkshire area of the NUM has for long advocated that use should be made of such waste heat, and over the years we have put our money where our mouth is. The Yorkshire area has made loans to certain local authorities for district heating schemes. This has been one of my pet ideas for some time.

The Government should be doing far more research into the matter. I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary will be able to say that they are thinking along those lines.

In 1969 I had the privilege of visiting the German Democratic Republic, where I saw a new town to house 50,000 people, whose total energy requirements were met by a single power station. We should be moving in that direction.

The Yorkshire area of the NUM, together with the National Coal Board, helped by the Government, has done this particularly well in the Normanton Urban District Council area, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Harper). It is one of the best examples of the modern use of coal in a mining area. There has been a lot of talk recently about the Selby coalfield. At the moment, while the inquiry is going on, certain assurances have been given about the way in which the field will be developed and the coal transferred to power stations in the near vicinity, particularly Eggborough, Drax and Ferrybridge.

I know the Barnsley Beb. seam. It is the finest seam of coal this country has ever seen. I should think that the whole of the economy of the Yorkshire coalfield was built upon the Barnsley Beb. seam. I would like the Minister to press the coal board about its intentions over this coal field. This is the finest seam of coal the country has ever had. To put such coal into a power station, when most of it goes up the cooling towers, is wrong. I ask the board to look at this again. It might get some inferior coal, which the general public seem to think is being foisted on it at extortionate prices. Some of that inferior coal could be mixed with the Selby coal. I ask the Minister to press for as much research as possible into the better use of this excellent coal, rather than waste it, as millions of tons have been wasted, in generating electricity. It was after the Yom Kippur war that we began to appreciate the true value of coal. We should not waste coal as we have done in the past. I particularly ask the Minister to bear that point in mind in making any approaches to the coal board. It will be criminal to waste such an asset as the Barnsley Beb. seam.

10.12 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. John Smith)

We have indeed had an extremely interesting debate on the important topic of energy conservation. I am sure that the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East (Mr. Rost) would not have predicted that he would receive such unanimous approval of his comments from the Labour side of the House. As he said, he adopted a slightly less abrasive style than is normal for him in the House. I hope that the unanimous approval he received from his discriminating audience will encourage him to refine and moderate the cool style he has adopted.

The hon. Member must wonder whether he is on the right right lines after hearing his speech praised by my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), while my hon. Friend must wonder whether he is doing the right thing in approving what the hon. Gentleman says. But we ought not to get involved in political controversy on a subject such as energy conservation. it is proper for the Opposition to criticise the Government from time to time. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that he is not too proud to learn from anyone. Any suggestions made by the Opposition, no matter how they are couched, will be received and considered seriously by us.

This is a subject of obvious national concern, in which we can all be involved, whatever our political persuasions. The need for energy conservation remains, no matter what party or combination of parties is in power. I very much welcome the continued interest the hon. Gentleman has taken in this issue. He will note that his interest is shared by many other hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Falmouth and Cam-borne (Mr. Mudd) and my hon. Friends the Members for Fife, Central and Hems-worth (Mr. Woodall). Indeed, we have had an excellent series of speeches tonight.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hems-worth, whose wide knowledge of the coal industry is deeply appreciated by the House, made some interesting comments about thermal insulation, which had been touched on by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East. I will later set out one or two things which the Government are doing on that. My hon. Friend referred to the Selby coalfield. It is difficult for anyone in the Department of Energy to comment on the Selby coalfield during the course of the planning inquiry, but I shall report to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for industry my hon. Friend's comments on the coal and make sure that what he said is fully appreciated by the Department of Energy and the National Coal Board.

My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central made some interesting comments on the need for energy conservation and the pricing mechanism. I assure him that these points are kept very much in mind by the Department.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne ingeniously brought in his constituency interest by referring to the power station at Hayle. In doing so he showed a proper interest in his constituency. I cannot say much about the power station, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that what he said will be studied with care by my right hon. Friend and officials in the Department.

The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne, like his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South-East, urged the Department to be an ambassador with other Government Departments. I hope hon. Gentlemen will not take it amiss if I say that it is the oldest technique in Parliament to ask one Department to get on to another Department. In this instance there is some merit in that, because the Department of Energy is in the lead in energy conservation. I cannot comment on the activities of the Department of the Environment. We shall certainly take up the question of thermal foam cavity insulation which the hon. Gentleman raised and we shall consider his point about the BBC 2 test card. I am not sure that the direct responsibility of the Department of Energy extends to that and I do not undertake to communicate with the Department of the Environment about it, but we shall consider what the hon. Gentleman said in that regard.

The major speech in the debate was made by the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East. He stressed the need for the Government to put energy saving as a priority. Indeed we try to do that. The hon. Gentleman may criticise us from time to time. We are not immune from criticism, nor do we find it wounding if the criticism is constructive. We are giving energy saving a high priority.

The hon. Gentleman made an extremely sound comment in allying energy conservation with energy strategy. Indeed, the two are totally interlinked, even from the balance of payments point of view, never mind the energy accounting point of view. For every ounce of energy we save, the less we have to import and the less expensive investment we have to make. That is not sufficiently widely appreciated throughout the country. Although it is understandable that the hon. Gentleman should direct his criticism towards the Government—and the Government must shoulder the main responsibility—that is a message that should go out to private householders and private as well as public industry.

We have seen some good examples of private companies taking the lead, but it is a matter for each private company in the country as well as for the publicly-owned industries to consider not only the contribution they can make to the well-being of the nation by a sustained programme of energy conservation but how much they themselves might profit by it. If there is any merit in the theory of private enterprise, we should see sustained energy conservation measures coming from the private sector. We on this side of the House shall watch with interest to see whether the private sector does as well as the public sector and Government Departments in energy conservation.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned thermal efficiency in power stations. I am sorry if he feels that he has been snubbed when he has put Questions in Parliament to us, but I am sure he appreciates that the atmosphere at Question Time is sometimes a little different from the atmosphere in an Adjournment debate. If he feels that he is being snubbed from time to time, he is perhaps the author of his own misfortune.

The hon. Gentleman raises the serious point of thermal efficiency. He will know that the Energy Technology Support Unit was set up by the Department of Energy. It operates at Harwell and it is presently studying the transmission of energy over long distances for district heating purposes by means of piped hot water.

The Programmes Analysis Unit, which is the joint unit of the Department of industry and the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, is studying various aspects of supplying processed heat to industry. The Energy Technology Support Unit at Harwell will report to the Department of Energy. The study should be complete within a few months. The Programmes Analysis Unit will support its report to the Atomic Energy Authority. We expect that the report will be complete by mid-summer.

In addition to that basic study, there are the five regional teams from electricity area boards and the CEGB. They have been established to consider specific schemes for district heating and heating for industry. It is too early to give any indication of the outcome of those studies, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that they are under way.

A combined group on heat and power has been set up under the chairmanship of Dr. Marshall, the Chief Scientist at the Department. He is a very distinguished scientist and we are fortunate to have him working for us. Under his chairmanship the group will consider the economic role of combined heat and power and will identify obstacles to the fulfilment of that rô le. It will report initially to the Advisory Council on Research and Development and to the Advisory Council on Energy Conservation, which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for industry recently established. The council hopes to have its report prepared by the end of the year. The question of publication will then be considered. The membership of the group is drawn from the electricity supply industry, the universities, engineering consultants, the British Gas Corporation and Government Departments.

Although there is not very much in the way of specific proposals on the table at the moment, we expect that such proposals will be coming along as the studies and working parties get on with their work. I hope that I have indicated that the Government are taking the problem seriously. We hope that we shall be able to announce something very soon.

Mr. Rost

I accept all that, but will the Minister at least give some assurance that no new power stations will be constructed unless the reports on combining heat and electricity are taken into account?

Mr. Smith

I cannot give an assurance on such a fundamental matter as that without a little more notice. I would have thought it elementary that, given the great need for new power stations, that aspect would be considered seriously. I cannot give an absolute assurance but I think that that is a matter which must be examined in any intelligent attempt to try to plan for the future.

I have indicated that on the very point the hon. Gentleman has raised—namely, thermal efficiency—a great deal of research and development is taking place. On energy conservation we have the great advantage of the assistance and advice of the Advisory Council on Energy Conservation, the value of which will become more apparent as its work increases. It is extremely important that the Department can refer various suggestions and ideas for detailed analysis to the council.

On energy conservation, we have to taken into account more than just the energy saving aspect of a certain idea. There are many good ideas which involve too much capital expenditure. A great deal of energy expenditure might be involved in creating a system which has been designed to save energy. We have to weigh up the competing priorities for Government expenditure. Many ideas appear to be good on the surface but on closer analysis they may not appear to be quite as productive.

The need for energy conservation, which the hon. Gentleman has repeatedly and rightly stressed, is one which cannot be denied. We must bear in mind that in 1974 we paid £2,500 million more for 5 per cent. less oil than we imported in 1973. When we consider that fact, we see the great burden which this nation carries. We can draw some comfort from the fact that we have large reserves of indigenous fossil fuels in this country.

R. B. Cant (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

in the matter of research and development, is the Department of Energy taking any steps with the Department of the Environment in regard to the growing number of incinerators which are being built in this country and in which the amount of energy consumed is very great and the amount of heat wasted enormous? Cannot the Government draw on the experience of continental countries which use incinerators together with electric power stations to supply heat and other forms of energy to neighbouring townships? Is the Minister in contact with the British Steel Corporation which, through Dr. Finniston, uses old, redundant blast furnaces as high temperature incinerators and recycles glass and metal waste materials?

Mr. Smith

I do not know whether the Department of Energy is in direct contact with the Department of the Environment, together with the British Steel Corporation, but I shall look into my hon. Friend's suggestion. We find as we travel along the path of energy conservation that we constantly turn over new situations where serious wastes of energy occur. The more one examines the situation, the more clearly it is revealed that there are many examples of energy waste taking place throughout the country. The problem is that once a plant had been built, it is difficult to redesign or remodel it, and difficult economic decisions have to be taken. Therefore, the extent to which we give priority to energy conservation matters over other competing demands for public expenditure must be kept under review.

The whole theme of our energy conservation policy is that we cannot do everything in five minutes. We cannot call for extreme measures such as those adopted, for different purposes, by the Conservative Government. This is a matter which must be examined in the long term over a period of four, five or even ten years rather than within a matter of months. We must try to change the habits of a lifetime. We need to change the outlook of people in their homes and those who work in industry. We must have a steady but evolving conservation programme.

We have been heartened by the interest shown by the House in the Government's efforts, even though criticisms are levelled at us. It is important that these matters should be aired constantly and that they are brought to public attention. We shall endeavour to evolve a conservation programme which is receptive to new ideas.

I referred earlier to our good fortune in having within our own land indigenous fossil resources. My hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth referred to an integrated fuel policy. We are nearer to that aim with our four-fuel policy, but we must remember that the resources of the North Sea in respect of oil and gas supplies, and even our coal resources, are finite. They can be used only once. Therefore, there is a great need for energy conservation.

These matters do not affect only our balance of payments problem but will affect our way of life for many years to come. Let us develop our indigenous fuel resources, but let us also bear in mind that we need to conserve energy at every step along the way.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South-East for having given the House an opportunity to conduct a thoroughly interesting debate on a most important national topic.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o'clock.