HC Deb 02 May 1991 vol 190 cc422-5
8. Mr. Clifford Forsythe

To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland what progress has been made on the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Richard Needham)

The Government have published a White Paper and draft legislation. Work is progressing to schedule on the establishment of a regulatory regime, the drafting of contracts and the restructuring of the industry.

Mr. Forsythe

Will the Minister confirm that the original recommendation of the Government's advisers, Rothschilds, and of Northern Ireland Electricity's advisers, Barclays de Zoete Wedd, was to privatise Northern Ireland Electricity as a single entity flotation with share ownership in the Province? Will he explain his unseemly haste in rushing this important matter through the House by an undemocratic Order in Council, against the wishes of the public representatives of Northern Ireland and the people of Northern Ireland?

Mr. Needham

On the second part of the question, this is, as the hon. Gentleman knows, a transferred matter. I hope that there will be a lengthy and full debate on it in the Northern Ireland Committee. Nothing will be decided over the course of the summer as a result of the current talks which would in any way affect what happens.

As for the hon. Gentleman's first question, there is no question of the Government's wanting to create a private monopoly out of a public one—the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) made that point in comments reported yesterday. The Government are trying to produce in Northern Ireland a plurality—a mix—of sources of electricity generation which will give the people of Northern Ireland the most competitive price for domestic, commercial and industrial use.

Rev. William McCrea

Does the Minister accept that the people of Northern Ireland are wholly opposed to the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity? Does he accept that it has more to do with political dogma than with reality? When all the people of Northern Ireland and all its constitutional parties are against the move, why do not the Government yield to the pressure from Northern Ireland?

Mr. Needham

Does the hon. Gentleman want continued nationalisation? Does he want 50 per cent. overcapacity above maximum demand? Does he want 70 per cent. of generation in Northern Ireland to continue to depend on oil? One result of the nationalisation policy is that £93 million worth of equipment is sitting under tarpaulin. Until privatisation started to be discussed., there was no discussion of gas, little discussion of an interconnector and the lignite option had been put on one side. Has nationalisation worked for the consumer in Northern Ireland? The answer, as I am sure the people of Northern Ireland, looking at their bills, would agree, is no.

Mr. Beggs

The Minister must be aware that the high cost of electricity in Northern Ireland cannot be blamed on the Northern Ireland Electricity service because it was his Department and previous Departments that approved the over-dependence on oil. The Minister knows very well that the cost of electricity in Northern Ireland could have been reduced by the completion of phase 2 of Kilroot, but that NIE has not had the money to proceed with it. As we are very concerned that the Minister's Department has spent £3.5 million in t he past two years on consultants' reports, £500,000 of which was related to the privatisation of electricity, will he tell us how much was spent on obtaining from consultants the report that enabled him to advance the privatisation proposals in their present form, which will never be accepted by anyone in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Needham

When my right hon. Friend introduced our proposal the hon. Gentleman said: Northern Ireland industry and Northern Ireland consumers have been crucified."—[Official Report, 20 March 1991; Vol. 188, c. 289.] No doubt he said that in the context of the existing Northern Ireland Electricity service. The hon. Gentleman has criticised the management, the cost of electricity and the lack of a gas supply and he has spoken about the lack of the lignite option. However, he has had a Pauline conversion on the road to Lame and now wants a continuation of the existing system. That does not make any sense for the Northern Ireland consumer.

Mr. Kilfedder

Over the years the Government have frequently castigated Northern Ireland politicians for not being able to get together and reach agreement on anything. Now that the constitutional parties represented in the House have reached agreement, should not the Government reward them and encourage them to reach further agreement on other matters by withdrawing this contemptible measure?

Mr. Needham

It appears that they have agreed to continue with a form of nationalisation, which certainly has not served Northern Ireland industry. Perhaps hon. Members should ask the workers at Harland and Woolf, Shorts, Montupet, Fruit of the Loom and Daewoo what they think about having to pay prices that are sometimes 30 per cent. above those large users in the rest of the country.

Mr. Jim Marshall

The Minister's statement in reply to an earlier question was one of the most outrageous that the House has heard. I remind the Minister that it was his Government who refused to build a gas pipeline and to make money available for the development of phase 2 at Kilroot. There is widespread condemnation, not just by politicians but by all sections of the community in the Province, of the Government's proposals, particularly the specific proposals for the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity. Will he at least think again about postponing any final decision until the constitutional talks have come to fruition and, we hope, reached a successful conclusion? In such circumstances, politicians in the Province would be able to make the final decision.

Mr. Needham

I said to the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Forsythe) that nothing that will happen in the summer will in any way stop any new arrangement after that being the subject of a separate decision. However, that is no reason for us to stop seeking ways to make sure that the Northern Ireland consumer has as plural and as big a mix of sources as possible. I remind the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall) that in 1975 his Government gave permission for the purchase of equipment for phase 2 at Kilroot. Since then that equipment has sat under tarpaulins and, in any event, it would not necessarily reduce electricity prices in Northern Ireland. It excludes the discussion of matters such as interconnectors and a gas supply from Scotland. It was a typical example of a nationalised industry making a poor decision with bad planning and coming up with an option which, if it had excluded flue gas desulphurisation, would have been a dirty option to boot.

Mr. Hume

The Secretary of State and his Ministers have made intensive and praiseworthy efforts to get agreement among politicians in Northern Ireland. When we do reach agreement, will the Secretary of State and the Minister encourage us to continue by agreeing with us, particularly on a matter that affects every home in Northern Ireland? We are against the privatisation of Northern Ireland Electricity. What consideration do the Government give to the fact that all parties in Northern Ireland have asked for this matter to be reconsidered?

Mr. Needham

I am sorry to repeat myself, but there is no question of what we are doing over the next few months altering our position. I hope in the next few months to persuade the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends that the best way forward for his constituents and his business people is to go down the route that we propose. That route will give his constituents and investors much lower electricity prices and a much better service than those which they receive under the present nationalised regime.

Mr. Speaker

Question No. 9, Mr. Bellingham.

Rev. Ian Paisley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that a point of order arises. I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not complaining because he has not been called.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Yes, Mr. Speaker, I am.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that a point of order arises on that.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Other hon. Members have been called——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman may not have been called, but a member of his party was.

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