HC Deb 31 July 1978 vol 955 cc11-5
5. Mr. Jim Lester

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of the National Coal Board.

9. Mr. Forman

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

16. Mr. Hannam

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last met the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

Mr. Benn

I meet the chairmen of all the fuel industries regularly.

Mr. Lester

When he next meets the chairman of the National Coal Board, will the Secretary of State apologise for his dilatory approach to the Community in trying to arrange a scheme which would benefit the British coal industry and increase consumption in Europe?

Mr. Benn

I do not think that the chairman of the NCB, the mining unions or anybody else thinks that there is anything to apologise for in what we have done. We have put our view forward for 18 months at EEC Council meetings. We agreed to the coking coal scheme, which helps the German steel industry, and we agreed to the Euratom loans, which primarily help France and Italy. We had every reason to expect that the steam coal scheme would be accepted. It was not. Far from apologising to anybody, we have been much disappointed by the Community's failure to allow the cheapest coal in Europe—I gave the figures a few minutes ago, showing that it is £10 a tonne cheaper than anyone else's—to be burnt in preference to cheap imported Polish coal. This view has been most formidably expressed in the Council, to the satisfaction of the British mining industry.

Mr. Forman

When the Secretary of State last had discussions with the chairman of the CEGB, did he confess to him that his own stated intention to try to intervene in the merit order decisions of the CEGB would be both premature and improper in the light of the Government's commitment in paragraphs 20 and 21 of their nationalised industry White Paper to do such things only on the basis of secured legislation and adequate compensation?

Mr. Benn

I think that the hon. Gentleman has misunderstood what is meant. If there is a coalburn scheme of a kind already announced and approved for Scotland and Wales which makes coal available more cheaply to the CEGB, then, without our intervening in the merit order as such, the order of burning of the stations individually changes. That is what is proposed. We believe that that can be done without impinging in any way on the cost of electricity paid for by the consumer.

Mr. Hannam

Will the Secretary of State discuss with the heads of the fuel industries the current shambles in the accountancy system being adopted by them, with some of them adopting current cost accounting and others not doing so? Why has the right hon. Gentleman failed to secure agreement on a common system for all of these nationalised industries?

Mr. Benn

I think that the hon. Gentleman has a point on accountancy. This is primarily a matter for the relationship between the nationalised industries, not only in the fuel sector, and the Treasury. I have seen some of the comments on whether inflation accounting methods are used or various other methods are used. The matter was discussed at a meeting of the nationalised industries' chairmen, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer, at which I was present. That will require further clarification.

Mr. Hardy

Did my right hon. Friend see a letter from Sir Derek Ezra in The Times last week suggesting that the public sector industries faced real criticism for profiteering if they were in the black but were equally condemned if they made a loss? When my right hon. Friend meets Sir Derek, will he try to explain to him why this occurs? Will he confirm that the public sector energy industries have very impressive achievements to their credit? It would be very useful if he would invite the Opposition Front Bench to confirm that it approves of that success.

Mr. Benn

The one constant in all these matters is the hostility of the Conservative Party to the public sector, either for losing money as a result of its own policy or for making money as a result of the policy we have adopted. There are complications about inflation accountancy, but the fact is, that the publicly owned industries have done well. I have already cited coal, which is outstanding compared with any other mining industry in Europe. The day the Opposition pay a tribute to the public sector, we shall take seriously the criticisms they may wish to make of those industries from time to time.

Mr. Tom King

Why was the Secretary of State less than frank with the House in his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) in saying that he did not consider that he had been too slow in pushing the the coal scheme in Europe, when in a Financial Times interview only last week he said that he thought he had pushed the coal scheme too late and that it would have been better if coal had been part of the earlier package? We certainly endorse the right hon. Gentleman's rather franker earlier comments and not the comments he has now made to the house.

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood the position. I pressed the steam coal case 18 months ago, and the Council of Ministers would not agree to it. I felt it right not to hold back—[Interruption.] Of course I have read the article. I felt it right not to hold back on agreeing to the Euratom loans and the coking coal scheme, but the Council of Ministers has not been ready to endorse our policy. There is no power open to a British Minister to force it, although I would not mind a bit more help from the Conservative Party on our approach to Europe as well.

Mr. MacFarquhar

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the CEGB, will he press on him the advantages for the boiler industry of building a new boiler to replace the one at No. 11 unit C station, at Drakelow power station in my constituency? Is he aware that the CEGB has announced that it is not prepared to repair it but that It is considering building a new one in its place?

Mr. Benn

The reference to the new boiler at No. 11 created a slight confusion in my mind. I cannot go into individual management decisions, nor is it my wish to do so. But I think that the case for refurbishing existing power stations at this time is well worth considering, because it would be of real help to the industry. The boiler-making industry and the power plant industry must be kept in being for the major orders we expect to follow. Therefore, to that extent, I hope that I may satisfy my hon. Friend's general desire.

Mr. Heffer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Why did my right hon. Friend group Question 5 with Questions 9 and 16? Question 5 concerned the chairman of the NCB and the other Questions were about the chairman of the CEGB.

Mr. Speaker

The Minister decides his own grouping. Supplementary questions seem to have indicated why the Questions were grouped.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Will the Secretary of State examine the recent proposal by the European Commission for the substitution of imported coal by home-mined coal both in this country and in Europe? If so, has he costed it and what is his attitude to it? It seems to me that this is exactly along the lines that he has been proposing. I hope that he will be successful in pushing this through, because I believe that it would be advantageous not only to us but to Europe.

Mr. Benn

I most strongly agree. It does not seem to me to be very sensible to pass a lot of resolutions calling for a reduction of dependence on imported energy and at the same time to allow the domestic coal industry to be put at risk by imported coal. I have put forward this point of view most powerfully over a period of 18 months to two years, but the Council of Ministers has not accepted it. I think that it is necessary and should be encouraged, and I shall continue to press it. I have placed it on the agenda for the next Energy Council meeting.

Mr. Stoddart

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I and many other Labour Members heard with great concern the problems that are caused by the interference of the EEC in our energy policy? Does he discuss these matters with the chairmen of the nationalised industries when he meets them and does he tell them exactly how difficult this interference is making the work of energy use and conservation?

Mr. Benn

I do discuss these matters. The House knows that the Commission is attacking us on six fronts at the moment—the interest relief grants, the Offshore Supplies Office, the landing rights, the possible attack upon the monopoly purchase of gas by British Gas, nuclear policy on the Euratom agreement, and refineries. This is a major range of attacks upon our national energy policy. I discuss them with those concerned and I might add—[Interruplion.] If the House will listen it will hear that these are not disputes with other member States, many of which share our view about the role of the Commission in energy policy. This is a question involving the Commission, not member States. It would be helpful if I could carry some Opposition Members with me on these issues.