HC Deb 10 December 1990 vol 182 cc645-8
6. Mr. Kirkwood

To ask the Secretary of State for Energy whether he has any plans to formulate and implement a long-term national strategy for energy.

Mr. Wakeham

Our strategy for energy has been stated on many occasions.

Mr. Kirkwood

Is not it a cruel irony that on the weekend when we saw the final stages of the flotation of the electricity industry, more than 5,000 of my constituents in the Borders were devoid of any electricity supply, sometimes for more than 24 hours, and that some of them are still cut off? Does the Secretary of State understand that were it not for the courage and dedication of the engineers and line staff, that figure would have been higher? When will the Government bring forward a long-term strategy for the energy industry to guarantee future security of supply and ensure that the supply system is hardened against adverse weather conditions so that the effects of events similar to those last weekend will, in future, be minimised?

Mr. Wakeham

I have already paid tribute to the work of all those who were, and still are, involved in restoring electricity supplies in the face of some extremely difficult weather conditions. The electricity companies and the Department are continually considering ways in which security of supply can be improved, and any lessons to be learnt will be learnt. Our broader energy policy is clear; it is to ensure that the United Kingdom has adequate and secure supplies of energy in the forms that people want it, at the lowest realistic prices, by subjecting as much of energy supply as is practical to the operation of market forces. That includes oil, gas, nuclear, renewables and coal.

As this is the last Question Time with Lord Haslam as chairman of British Coal, I hope that the House will not mind if I take the opportunity to record the Government's appreciation of the impressive leadership that he has given to the industry during the past five years.

Mr. Andy Stewart

Last week the chairman of British Coal announced excellent financial results and said that coal was king again and would feature in any future energy strategy. Those achievements were due entirely to the Government's policies and the Union of Democratic Mineworkers, which negotiated wages and conditions to allow greater take-home pay from productivity, while reducing coal prices to customers by 40 per cent. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the coal industry has a great future running into the next century as long as the miners watch their backs against the synthetic support of Opposition Members, one of whom has already betrayed the industry by replacing his coal-fired boiler with a gas one? I refer to none other than the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

Mr. Wakeham

The coal industry has made significant improvements since the 1984–85 strike which we should recognise and which are a great tribute to the management and the miners. After the strike the average miner produced 571 tonnes of coal; today that figure is 1,080 tonnes. Since the end of the strike, output has remained almost unchanged, while the number of collieries has been halved without a single compulsory redundancy. As the House will know, British Coal recently achieved a new productivity record of more than 5 tonnes per man shift.

Mr. Skinner

Does the Secretary of State understand that people who have been without electricity over the past weekend appreciate only too well that their supplies have not been reconnected because the electricity companies have been more concerned with selling off their assets in the privatisation organised by the Secretary of State, at less than half their proper value?

Mr. Wakeham

The hon. Gentleman's question convinces me that his party will never get into government again. If Labour has such contempt for the thousands of people in the electricity supply industry who worked their hardest over the weekend to restore supplies, no wonder people are looking elsewhere for political support.

Mr. Moss

The tremendous success of the first stage in the privatisation of the electricity industry is due not only to an attractive share flotation but to the radical reorganisation that the Government undertook in the generation and supply of electricity. Does my right hon. Friend agree with the statement recently made to me by the president of the New York Power Authority, that the United Kingdom is now seen as a world leader in electricity supply, which was not the case before privatisation?

Mr. Wakeham

The electricity supply system that we have devised is regarded with admiration and envy in the west as well as in the old iron curtain countries. The United Kingdom's flexible approach to marketing and competition serves as a model for the whole world.

Mr. Hardy

Referring to the point made by the hon. Member for Cambridgeshire, North-East (Mr. Moss), which the Secretary of State echoed, may I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept that, although British Coal has secured splendid improvements in productivity, the coalfield communities have paid a vicious price in terms of their changing economy and environment?

Has British Coal paid its electricity bill? Perhaps the Secretary of State can explain why, for the first time in modern history, collieries in South Yorkshire found themselves without electricity, when men were travelling up the shaft in the pit cage?

Mr. Wakeham

The question whether British Coal has paid its electricity bill is for its management. I have no doubt that the bill has been paid and that the management has negotiated good supplies with the regional electricity companies. Last weekend saw some of the worst weather ever experienced. That is certainly true of north Nottinghamshire, as I know from the chairman of the electricity board there. But it ill behoves the hon. Gentleman continually to snipe at the work force that is trying to put things right.

Mr. Trimble

Does the Secretary of State appreciate the need for a truly national energy policy—one that ensures that all parts of the kingdom have access to national fuel and energy resources? I refer not just to the provision of oil and gas to Northern Ireland but to an electricity interconnector. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept the need to ensure that not only private consumers but commerce and industry in Northern Ireland are not penalised by high energy prices?

Mr. Wakeham

I do not have responsibility for the regime in Northern Ireland, but I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has proposals for improving the position there. In privatising the electricity industry in England and Wales, we have borne in mind the principle that while interconnectors can certainly be built, they must be commercially justifiable.

Mr. John Marshall

Will my right hon. Friend promise the House that part of his long-term strategy will be the early privatisation of the coal industry—which would be popular with customers, miners and taxpayers? Does he agree that the only contribution of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) to a national long-term energy strategy is hot air?

Mr. Speaker

Order. That has nothing to do with the Secretary of State.

Mr. Wakeham

I must disagree. The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) represents the mining industry vigorously in the House. I mostly disagree with what he has to say, but no one could say that he has no knowledge of the subject, or that he does not express his views with vigour. He will not like what I am going to say next—the Government are committed to the privatisation of the coal industry, although not until after the next election.

Mr. Barron

Does the Minister recognise that there is a difference between diversity of supply and security of supply? Does he think that anyone will be any happier after the events of this weekend when, as my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) mentioned, many coalminers were left underground? Many in my constituency were also left underground for hours on Friday night. I refer to the fact that the duty to supply electricity to consumers has been taken away.

Mr. Wakeham

That is a misunderstanding of the arrangements. Security of supply is now protected by arrangements which the regional electricity companies have to enter into, the contracts that they have to enter into and the terms of their licences.

Mr. Barron


Mr. Wakeham

The hon. Gentleman misunderstood the position in the past and he misunderstands it now. The regional electricity companies have an obligation to enter into contracts for the adequate supply of electricity, under the terms of their licences. If they do not contract for enough, they will have to go into the market to buy it, and it will be very expensive.