HC Deb 05 February 1979 vol 962 cc13-7
13. Mr. Hooley

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will invite the Energy Commission to work out in detail a low energy strategy for the United Kingdom.

14. Mr. Litterick

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is his Department's estimate of the energy requirements of the British economy in 1990 and 2000, respectively; and what are the basic assumptions underlying those estimates.

Mr. Benn

Estimates of United Kingdom energy requirements to the end of the century were presented to Parlia- ment in last year's Green Paper on energy policy. The Energy Commission will be discussing my Department's latest forecasts at its next meeting. I intend that it should consider low energy strategies, which are also currently the subject of a special study by the energy technology support unit.

Mr. Hooley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that steady economic growth can be sustained with static or even diminishing energy consumption, given sensible technology? Will he discourage the Central Electricity Generating Board from a continuing programme of massive two gigawatt power stations, which are likely to be superfluous over the next decade?

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend is right in saying that forecasts are the basis of all energy policy. That is why we are having a special meeting of the Commission to look at forecasts. However, we must be sure that the necessary energy is available, and theoretical models of very low energy consumption would have to be tested against the likely outcome by those who have experience of the matter. I am pleased that forecasts have now moved into the centre of public discussion about energy policy.

Mr. Litterick

Has my right hon. Friend read the report of the International Institute for Environment and Development, which, based on assumptions of a 2 per cent. to 2½ per cent. economic growth rate during the next 20 years, arrives at the conclusion that, using existing energy conservation techniques, the United Kingdom's economy could be consuming the 1 million tonne equivalent of about 130 million tonnes less than the existing energy consumption projection? Can my right hon. Friend enlighten us on the colossal difference between the two estimates of which we now know, this one and that of his own Department?

Mr. Benn

I think that what my hon. Friend says about the importance of studying the low energy strategy is right. We are not only funding our own work on it, but Dr. Leach's work and that of his colleagues is of great interest. We must be sure before we build upon a low energy forecast, because it may be based upon certain assumptions which are themselves not sustainable, and we must also be careful that we do not look to a continuing slump to solve our energy problems. We must have a proper rate of growth for sustaining our economy.

Having said all that, however, I am strongly in favour of this work being done. I should like to see more funding done by my Department of alternative strategies and policies, so that we can test them in the general crucible of discussion.

Mr. Dykes

At the blunt end of the energy-saving problem, is the Secretary of State satisfied that enough is still being done in large buildings, both public and private, to save on heating costs, particularly now, since we appear, at least for the moment, to have passed the very cold spell of weather?

Mr. Benn

That matter is for the Department of the Environment and not for me. However, I ask the House to consider that conservation takes some time to develop. I ask the House to remember the clean air legislation. If I remember the figures correctly, £70 million spent over 10 years gave us 70 per cent. more sunshine. While that was happening a lot of people thought that nothing was happening, but then they realised that something was happening.

Conservation is of that order of a programme. I am very keen that we should pursue it, because it has a lot to offer. We have already allowed, I think, for 100 million tonnes of coal equivalent in savings by the year 2000 from conservation measures already undertaken.

Mr. Madden

Does my right hon. Friend remember outlining important areas of British energy policy where the European Commission was seeking to interfere? Has that desire to interfere quickened or lessened over recent months?

Mr. Benn

There are six areas in which three Commissioners are bringing their influence to bear on me. One is interest-relief grants; another is full and fair opportunity; another is the landing of gas; another is the landing of oil; and there are two others in the nuclear field. I have made clear in Brussels and elsewhere that I do not think that a European energy policy would be acceptable if it involved seeking to replace the control of Ministers accountable to Parlia- ments in any of the member States concerned.

Mr. Adley

I note the right hon. Gentleman's continuing hostility to the EEC. However, does he agree that, on the question of pollution, particularly oil pollution, there is a great deal to be said for working as closely as possible with our Community partners? Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that he personally is taking an interest in this matter and is co-ordinating the activities on pollution control not only with our EEC partners but with his ministerial colleagues?

Mr. Benn

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's skilled mind has not somehow associated a defence of our national interests in energy with a preference for polluting the atmosphere by oil-fired power stations, because were he to do so he really would be exaggerating. Of course I am in favour of international agreement on pollution. Indeed, I have recently made it clear that I would not accept an oil-fired power station at Insworke Point. However, I hope that the Conservative Party would give support to any British Government who were trying to see that the House of Commons retained ultimate responsibility in these major areas.

Mr. Palmer

Does my right hon. Friend agree that whether the energy strategy be high, low or just evangelical, the key to the situation is a rational pricing policy, which is what is lacking?

Mr. Benn

I agree with my hon. Friend about pricing policy. He has often stressed this. But I think he will recognise that what he is urging is entirely incompatible with the other argument that is often urged, which is that Ministers should not interfere with the policies of nationalised industries. Both cannot be right—that each industry operates entirely as if it were privately owned, as some urge, and, at the same time, that I should be regularly urged to introduce a thermal parity pricing for energy, or whatever may be right. We must work steadily towards this. That is what the Energy Commission is doing and will continue to do.

Mr. Tom King

May I say how much we on the Conservative Benches welcome the Secretary of State's rather latter-day conversion to the importance of conservation? If he is to continue his interest in this matter, will he lend his authority to trying to resolve some of the interdepartmental rows in the Government, and will he tell the House when he can get some agreement on improved regulations for building standards and on the question of appliance energy efficiency labelling?

Mr. Benn

I have announced the biggest programme in the whole of the EEC on energy conservation. I remind the House that the Conservative Party's plan for energy conservation was limited to the advice that we should brush our teeth in the dark.