HC Deb 26 June 1978 vol 952 cc1020-2
6. Mr. Arnold

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet other EEC Energy Ministers; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Benn

I expect to meet other EEC Energy Ministers at the next meeting of the Energy Council, the date for which has not been fixed.

Mr. Arnold

What is the present British negotiating position with regard to the proposals for aid to encourage greater use of Community coal and to help deal with the problem of excess refining capacity? When he next meets his EEC colleagues, will the right hon. Gentleman adopt a more helpful attitude towards these issues than he did at the last meeting of the Energy Council?

Mr. Benn

The question is—helpful to whom? In the case of coal, the United Kingdom produces overwhelmingly the cheapest coal in Europe, and it is put of the objectives of EEC energy policy that there should be a greater dependence upon indigenous fuels in order to reduce dependence on imports. I have urged, and so has my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie), at Energy Council meetings the absurdity of putting at risk domestic Community coal production—if I may so put it—and continuing the importation of coal, the price and availability of which cannot be secure.

The United Kingdom has fewer refineries than has, say, France or Italy, which are not oil producers, and I take the view that, as a country moving soon to be the tenth largest oil producer in the world, we are entitled to expect that we should be able to refine our own oil and make use of it. I have made this absolutely clear. The proposals on refineries made by the Commission were quite unnecessary and unhelpful, and I do not believe that in pointing that out and stressing the need for a sensible coal policy I have done anything other than bring a note of realism into Community energy policy.

Mr. Ward

As it is now two years since the European Commission recommended great energy saving by the use of diesel power, will my right hon. Friend be able to tell of any progress at this meeting on the question of the development of a British diesel engine car or on the question of a fuel tax which means that diesel will be available at least at the same price as petrol?

Mr. Benn

As regards energy conservation, we are among the leading countries—if we are not the leading country—in the world in the effort which we have made, but I ask the House to consider this. If somebody has an idea on energy policy, it does not follow that it must be done by the Commission. Member States can do it. Some decisions are best pursued by local authorities. I have been trying to emphasise to my colleagues in Europe and to the Commission that it is one thing to say that we should approach the problem by developing new policies and it is another to say that we should agree to hand over growing areas of our policy for control by the Commission. They are quite separate issues. On conservation we are the leading country in Europe.

Mr. Biffen

When the Secretary of State next goes to Brussels, will he make some comment upon the Commission's proposal to restrict credit assistance for the offshore oil supplying industry, and will he make quite clear that such proposals will be much resented across a wide spectrum of British political opinion?

Mr. Benn

I have done so already. Commissioner Vouel came to see me a year ago, and I saw him again in September, and discussions have taken place with Commission officials. There is no doubt whatever that the interest relief grants, which have given employment in Scotland, have come under attack by the Commission, and this is one of a number of areas where the Commission has been seeking to move into the planning of our energy policy. The British Government's view, as expressed by me, is to try to discuss problems but to take a robust line, and I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's support.