HC Deb 04 July 1977 vol 934 cc861-4
5. Mr. Skeet

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will give a report of his term as President of the Council of Energy Ministers.

19. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will make a statement on his term of office as President of the Council of Energy Ministers.

Mr. Benn

I made a statement on my term as President of the Council of Energy Ministers in my reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Blaydon (Mr. Woof) on 30th June, when I also laid in the Library a copy of my published report on this subject.

Mr. Skeet

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that Dr. Brunner, in Edinburgh, referred to the "I'm all right, Jack" policy of the Government and the Secretary of State? Is he further aware that this presidential period has got us nowhere? We do not have JET as yet, we have not been able to get coal exports to Europe increased and, finally, we have not got a minimum selling price for oil. What has the right hon. Gentleman achieved? Nothing.

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman will know that the JET matter is for the Research Council, not the Energy Council. He will also know that the coal issue was one on which we pressed strongly but without success. As for the minimum selling price, if the hon. Gentleman reads the report he will see that, apart from Euratom loans, coking coal and the work programme, Commissioner Brunner expressed himself as being well satisfied with the achievements of the past six months. I believe that the hon. Gentleman has read wrongly into that speech by Commissioner Brunner a criticism of our Presidency.

Mr. Tom King

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that our view on the Conservative side of the House is that his term as President had just about the success we would expect when all his colleagues at the meetings knew that he was totally opposed to the idea of a European energy policy in any case? Is he further aware that we regard the failure to agree even on a site for the JET project as a major setback for a most important European research project? Although he says that this is a matter for the Research Council, is it not a fact that he appeared before that Council?

Mr. Benn

All I can say on the JET project is that one of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues in the European Assembly demanded that JET be sited at Ispra. The British position has not been helped by the total lack of support for JET which has been evidenced by the Opposition.

Mr. Skeet

Not true.

Mr. Benn

There has been absolutely no support. The last time the hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King) made a criticism of my Presidency, the example he cited was that during my Presidency the German courts had delayed the German nuclear programme. If he reads Hansard, he will find that his criticisms then were as foolish as those he has made today.

Mr. Kinnock

Is it not, as a general rule, a better principle for British Ministers to take an attitude of constructive criticism in the Common Market, as my right hon. Friend has done, rather than the meaningless and supine sell-out attitude towards British interests which would be adopted by the Euro-fanatics on the Tory side?

Mr. Benn

The attitude we have adopted is to work actively and constructively, to see all the Ministers, discuss with them and send regular reports, which I did, and at the same time, at the Council meetings, to put up a vigorous defence of our own interests, exactly as every other member country in the Community does. That is the right way to proceed. The three examples given by the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) on JET, coal and MSP were examples of difficulties created by other members of the Community involving projects of great importance to this country.

Mr. Biffen

During his Presidency of the Council of Energy Ministers, did the right hon. Gentleman form any impression as to whether there would be difficulties for his Government obtaining their objective of up to two-thirds of North Sea oil being refined in the United Kingdom as a result of anxiety on the part of the Commission or Continental Europeans that there should be consideration of a European context in oil refining?

Mr. Benn

Anyone who follows energy policy, as the House does, will know that there are conflicts of interest in each country between producers and consumers and difficulties in different areas. Those conflicts of interest present themselves internationally in exactly the same way as they do within a nation State. The basis upon which I would answer the hon. Gentleman's question is that I do not suppose for one moment that the Commission would seek to challenge the development of an oil policy in the United Kingdom dealing with refineries, landing rights, participation and the rôle of BNOC, which are so manifestly in the interests of the people of this country, any more than I was prepared to engage in public criticism of other member States when they found themselves unable to support things on the ground that they were contrary to their interests. The one thing that the hon. Gentleman will have noticed about my Presidency is that there has been not one word, publicly or by private briefing, of criticism of other nations that have stood up for their own interests.

Mr. Hardy

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the first two supplementary questions that we have had from the Opposition suggest not merely that the national interest would be treated quite frivolously if they were in power, in general terms, but that they would be quite agreeable to the siting of JET elsewhere than at Culham? Will he explain to Opposition Members that they need to make their position abundantly clear on that matter?

Mr. Benn

I should be greatly helped if a firmer line were taken by the Opposition on the siting of JET and if there were firmer support and if my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Industry, who took the chair at that very difficult meeting, in pursuit of perfectly legitimate and objective chairmanship, had not been in receipt of a rain of criticism for handling a difficult matter with considerable skill.