HC Deb 20 November 1997 vol 301 cc446-8
12. Mr. Skinner

What representations she has received about maintaining the size of the coal industry; and if she will make a statement. [15401]

Mr. Battle

We have received a wide range of representations about the future of the coal industry. Our objective is to have secure, diverse and environmentally sustainable supplies of energy at competitive prices. Deep-mined coal has a part to play in meeting this objective. Since taking office, we have taken several strategic steps to create a more level playing field for the industry to try to ensure that coal is not priced out because we remain convinced of the importance of the coal industry, which still makes a significant contribution to local economies and to the economy as a whole.

Mr. Skinner

Does my hon. Friend agree that in the three short years since privatisation, it has become apparent to all who work in the industry and many associated with it that privatisation has failed and that if we are to rescue what remains of it, it should be taken back into public ownership? In the meantime, as the Government are not likely to take that path, will they take three other steps: first, will they curb imports dramatically; secondly, will they get rid of the nuclear subsidy in its entirety; and thirdly, will they stop opencast mining and change the planning considerations that allow it? If the Government do some of these things, they will help those miners who are still hanging on to their jobs, some of whom have been threatened with the sack because they have the audacity to report accidents that happen half a mile underground. Whatever else the Minister does, if any money is going directly or indirectly to Budge, he should take a stake in the industry.

Mr. Battle

It was not just the coal industry that was privatised by the Conservatives, but the power stations, the grid system and even the means of buying electricity. In other words, the whole of the energy industry was fragmented, which is partly what caused the havoc that resulted. My hon. Friend asked what we can do—we are already doing it. In our six months in office, we have taken action by passing the Fossil Fuel Levy Bill through this place precisely to remove the advantages enjoyed by nuclear power and to tackle the import of nuclear energy from France via the interconnector. We have taken strong action to challenge the European Commission on subsidies for German and Spanish coal. I have asked for a review of the electricity pool to ensure that the playing field is not tilted against coal. We are also challenging the gas contracts, asking the regulator to investigate whether coal is disadvantaged in that respect. We are also working hard and making a practical commitment on trying to find a way to develop clean coal technology, which would guarantee a future for deep-mined coal in Britain. Opencast is a matter for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Mr. Paterson

In 1992, the right hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) said that, as part of Labour's policy for coal, no more licences would be issued for gas-fired power stations. Why has BP recently been issued with a licence for a substantial gas-fired power station?

Mr. Battle

A number of power station application consents were under consideration at the time of the general election. There were 25 close to completion. Some have been granted; others are still in the pipeline. The Conservative Government let through 44 gas-fired power stations. The policy was that each should be decided on its merits, after consultation with local communities. That remains our policy. There was no preferential treatment for BP. Some companies are complaining that we are not processing the rest fast enough.

Mr. Tipping

Did not the previous Government privatise the coal industry and the electricity industry? If there are difficulties with the new contracts expiring on 31 March, is not the problem the fact that the whole industry is in the private sector and the Minister has very limited opportunities to intervene to save the coal industry?

Hon. Members

Buy it back.

Mr. Battle

Conservative Members shout, "Buy it back." At the time, they were shouting, "Sell it." The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who sits on the Opposition Front Bench, was once the parliamentary private secretary to the Secretary of State for Energy. He has said on television, "With hindsight, we privatised things in the wrong order. Perhaps we ought to have privatised the coal industry first. It should be run like a business and I wish we would hand it over to a great mining company in this country like RTZ. It is all about going out and finding the cheapest source of power, not about employing people in mines." How can the Conservatives complain about employment in the industry?

My hon. Friend the Member for Sherwood (Mr. Tipping) is right. I am not party to the discussions between the private companies and the power stations. I encourage them to get on with those discussions. I understand that there has been more encouraging news in recent weeks, despite the talk in the press. RJB is negotiating with Eastern Electricity and National Power. I wish the company well in its negotiations with PowerGen. I hope that those power stations will buy deep-mined coal from RJB and ensure the continuation of Britain's deep-mined coal industry.

Mr. Redwood

Will the Minister give a clearer answer on his policy on the dash for gas? In opposition, Labour said that it would stop the policy to protect the British coal industry. How much capacity will he licence? How many pits will that destroy? Is it not true that the only major plant that he has licensed is the BP plant and that at least 25 others are awaiting a decision? Why the different treatment?

Mr. Battle

There is no different treatment. Others have been accepted. The BP application was one of the first ready for a decision after the election. Seven applications have been determined since the general election, one of which involved the use of orimulsion in Pembroke. We referred that to a public inquiry because we did not think that it should go forward without one. The company then withdrew the application. There is no set timetable for completing consideration of the applications. Each one is considered on its merits against the background of section 36 and section 37 consents. In assessing those applications, we have to address local issues and ensure consistency with our wider objectives of secure, diverse and sustainable supplies.

Mr. Redwood

How many are there?

Mr. Battle

There are another 27 in the pipeline. I am prepared to read the right hon. Gentleman the whole list. His allegation that the BP application was the only one accepted is not true.

We are trying to encourage applicants to consider combined heat and power schemes so that we can have more thermo-efficient energy generation. That is one difference from the Conservatives' policy that we have decided on in order to conserve energy.