HC Deb 13 January 1977 vol 923 cc1617-20
2. Mr. Craig

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on energy policy both as to the immediate future and the long term, having regard to the high cost of present sources which disadvantage the people, industry and commerce of Northern Ireland.

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. J. D. Concannon)

This is a large and complex subject, but I would reiterate the Government's concern that electricity and gas prices in Northern Ireland are now the highest in the United Kingdom. I am considering a report on the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. The problems facing the gas industry are the subject of a separate study by the British Gas Corporation which will not be completed for some months.

Our overall energy policy must be largely geared to an assessment of the prospects for these two industries and the scope for cost reduction, but future policy must await the findings and conclusions of these studies.

Mr. Craig

Does the Minister agree that this is a matter of extreme urgency and that the problem arises out of Northern Ireland's dependency on expensive oil? Will he make an examination of the feasibility of the greater use of natural gas, bearing in mind the enormous increase in fuel costs of recent time? Has he noted that the Quigley Report records that since 1972, taking the index base of 100, costs soared in Northern Ireland to 317 in 1975, against an equivalent of 249.5 in England, that for gas in Northern Ireland the domestic consumer pays 45p per therm as against 14.35p per therm in Great Britain, and that industrial consumers in Northern Ireland pay 30p per therm as against 5.16p in Great Britain?

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am reluctant to interrupt the right hon. Gentleman, but he is giving a lot of information rather than seeking it.

Mr. Craig

I am asking the Minister, Mr. Speaker, whether he is aware of the great discrepancy. Will the Minister note the enormous burden that this presents to Northern Ireland industry, and the consequent effect on employment?

Mr. Concannon

I am very much aware of this. Putting the matter the other way around, gas prices in Northern Ireland are three times what they are, on average, in the rest of Great Britain. The cost of electricity for the domestic consumer in Northern Ireland is 20 per cent. higher and for the industrial consumer it is 50 per cent. higher. That is why I am sometimes worried about previous decisions that have left us with this problem in Northern Ireland. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I am well aware of the Quigley Report, but this has some financial connotations. We are doing what we can in that respect.

Mr. Thorne

Will my hon. Friend indicate what publicity is being given in Northern Ireland to the code of practice of the Department of Energy in regard to the fuel disconnections that seem likely to arise this winter in view of the very high prices to which he has referred?

Mr. Concannon

As I think Northern Ireland Members know, on fuel prices in Northern Ireland this winter we have made a special case. We have this for gas prices as well, due to those prices being, as I have said, three times the average of those in the rest of Great Britain. However, there is quite a lot of publicity about this matter and the guidelines appertain to my Department as well as to others.

Mr. Powell

In considering the future of the gas industry—it is unfortunate that there is still a delay in the appearance of the report—will the Government bear in mind that in Great Britain areas which cannot, for physical reasons, be served with natural gas enjoy the benefits of a tariff which takes into account the costs of natural gas? Will the Minister seriously consider the application of the same principle to the analogous situation in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Concannon

The whole problem is that this is a matter for the British Gas Corporation within Great Britain. When I look back, I find that this is one of the decisions about which I worry. In Northern Ireland, this matter is to a great extent still in private hands, or in local government hands. With the price of oil quad rupling over the last few years, the fact that Northern Ireland depends on oil-based gas, has meant that the Province is at a great disadvantage. However, the gas study will be coming along, and this will be one of the things that we shall be looking at.

Mr. Farr

What progress is being made in the search for natural gas and natural oil under the offshore waters of Northern Ireland, especially in the Irish Sea area?

Mr. Concannon

We should be only too delighted if we could find natural gas off the shores of Northern Ireland so that we could enjoy that supply. However, such a supply has not yet been found and we have to make do with the existing capacity, bearing in mind the capacity that has been planned and is still in construction.