HC Deb 26 June 1978 vol 952 cc1017-20
5. Mr. Michael Marshall

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he intends next to meet the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

23. Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he intends next to meet the chairman of the British Gas Corporation.

24. Mr. Mike Thomas

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he plans next to meet the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board.

30. Mr. Gordon Wilson

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he will next meet the chairman of the British Gas Corporation.

Mr. Benn

I meet the chairmen of all the fuel industries regularly as and when necessary.

Mr. Marshall

When the right hon, Gentleman next meets the chairman, will he take the opportunity of discussing with him the situation following the Government's apparent interest in referring electricity prices to the Price Commission? Will he discuss with the chairman the possibility of getting lower electricity prices and resisting the temptation to argue for higher gas prices?

Mr. Benn

A statement has been made about electricity prices and gas prices for the current year. There is to be a freeze on gas prices until the end of the financial year of April 1979. The increase in electricity prices has already been announced. Reference of these industries to the Price Commission is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection. I have no desire to see energy prices rise more than is necessary to allow the industries to meet their financial requirements.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of the British Gas Corporation, will he ask him to explain his pricing policy, since prices to domestic gas consumers are being held down whereas industrial consumers are having to pay sharply increased prices? Is it not therefore true that we are acting contrary to the way in which other industrialised nations are operating, and domestic consumer prices are being held down for political reasons?

Mr. Benn

If I may say so, the hon. Gentleman is completely wrong about this. In the first place, some of the early contracts which were signed by British Gas were highly favourable to industrial consumers in order to provide a long-term based domestic market to launch North Sea gas, and in any case some of these contracts were set at prices to take account of interruptible supply. The British Gas Corporation, which makes an annual report and will shortly do so, explains its policy to the public and to Parliament, and I do not believe that the hon. Gentleman's charges would stand up to one moment's examination.

Mr. MacFarquhar

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the CEGB, will he take up with him the question of the refurbishing of power stations? Is he aware that, now that the Government have taken justified steps to protect the industries supplying the new power stations, there is some concern among workers in the industry that power stations may be phased out far in advance of their full life?

Mr. Benn

I am concerned with the overall energy policy aspects of the CEGB and the other fuel industries. I must not—and I do not wish to—seek to influence their management decisions. Where I am concerned directly is with the fuel burn, and I am now studying possible strategies, one of which would involve the burning of our indigenous coal as a first priority, with imported energy coming as a residual. That is a matter for me, but on the individual details of the refurbishing of particular power stations I have, in effect, to be guided by some of the management knowledge of the industry itself.

Mr. Budgen

Will the Secretary of State confirm that the main object of his interference in the price of gas is to give continuity of employment to the mining industry and the mining community generally because he believes that to be to the political advantage of the Labour Party?

Mr. Benn

Hon. Members should sort out the line which they will adopt. A moment ago I was told that I was keeping gas prices down deliberately for electoral purposes. Now I am told that I am inflating them to protect the miners. If only there were some clear line of thinking on energy policy coming from the Opposition, the whole nation would be profoundly grateful.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

If, when my right hon. Friend meets these various chairmen, they happen to raise with him the burning topic—as suggested in the Press—of their own salaries, will he point out to them that the ordinary member of the public who will have to meet any increase which may be made either through increased prices or through increased taxation feels that a 70 per cent. increase on their already not inconsiderable salaries would be a bit too much to bear for both the public and most of my right hon. and hon. Friends?

Mr. Benn

I take what my hon. Friend says, but he will know that the salaries of nationalised industry board members, together with other categories of public servants, are handled not by the sponsoring Minister for each industry but under general arrangements arising under other recommendations.