HL Deb 14 July 1987 vol 488 cc1004-26

8.18 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland (Lord Lyell)

My Lords, I beg to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 30th June 1987 be approved. The order is being made under paragraph 1 of Schedule 1 to the Northern Ireland Act 1974.

As your Lordships will be aware, the future ownership of the electricity industry in Great Britain has recently become a matter of wide public debate. We as a party recognise the benefits of private enterprise and are fully committed to privatisation of the industry, and your Lordships will be aware that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy is taking this matter forward with all possible speed. But I have to tell your Lordships that there is no connection between the Government's new initiative in Great Britain and the draft order that we have before us this evening. Rather the draft order has two quite distinct purposes.

First, we hope that it will facilitate the private generation of electricity in Northern Ireland. Its second distinct purpose is to effect a number of amendments to the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 which have become necessary since it was made. As your Lordships will appreciate, 15 years is a reasonable amount of time and we should like to make one or two amendments.

With your Lordships' permission I should like to deal first with those provisions in the 1987 draft order which facilitate the private generation of electricity. The electricity system in Northern Ireland differs in a number of respects from that in Great Britain. The Northern Ireland system does not enjoy the benefits of interconnection with any other system. Also it is considerably smaller in scale and it is nearly 90 per cent. dependent on oil for generation. It is particularly vulnerable to increases in the cost of that fuel such as those experienced in the late 1960s and the late 1970s. As a result the cost of electricity in Northern Ireland has in the past been considerably higher than in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, in 1981, following a major tariff policy review, the Government introduced the present subsidy arrangements. They ensure that electricity charges in Northern Ireland are aligned to the highest prevailing tariff in England and Wales.

In introducing the arrangements before us this evening we recognised that there was still a need to remedy the basic problem of over-dependence on oil for electricity generation. Northern Ireland is fortunate in having substantial reserves of high quality lignite, and that resource naturally featured prominently in the review of future generation strategy undertaken in 1984. The review concluded that the Province's future generation requirements could be met through the construction of a lignite-fired power station at a mine-mouth location. The review also recommended that a more immediate reduction in oil dependency could be achieved through the conversion of the Kilroot power station to dual coal/oil firing, and that recommendation has since been adopted. Work on the conversion of the station is well advanced and should be completed by the summer of 1989.

In addition to authorising Northern Ireland Electricity to proceed with the initial planning of a new lignite-fired power station, it was decided to explore the possibility of private sector involvement in such a project. As a result two private investor groups have submitted proposals for the construction and operation of a lignite-fired station and these are currently being examined, together with Northern Ireland Electricity's options, which in addition to a lignite-fired station include the completion of Kilroot power station as additional dual-fired capacity or coal-fired plant. Interconnection with the Scottish electricity system is also being considered.

Private sector generation of electricity offers many potential benefits for Northern Ireland, not least the possibility of lower cost electricity through private sector efficiencies. The provision of a new power station would also give a welcome boost to the construction industry and to the economy in general in Northern Ireland, and such a substantial investment by the private sector would represent a significant demonstration of confidence in the future of Northern Ireland. However, I must stress to all noble Lords that no decision has yet been taken on the various future generation options and I should like to make it quite clear that our eventual decision will be made in the best interests of electricity consumers right throughout the spectrum in Northern Ireland.

Private sector generation therefore is a real option but existing Northern Ireland legislation prohibits the generation and supply of electricity as a main business by any undertaking other than Northern Ireland Electricity and forms an obstacle to private investment in the industry. In seeking to remedy this position the 1987 draft order is designed to bring Northern Ireland more into line with the situation in Great Britain.

The detailed arrangements which might govern the purchase by Northern Ireland Electricity of electricity supplies from a private generator do not come within the scope of this draft order. In the event that the Government should give their consent to the construction of a private sector power station such arrangements would be contained in a power purchase agreement between the two parties. That agreement would also contain appropriate provisions to ensure the continuity of electricity supplies to Northern Ireland Electricity.

I should now like to deal in more detail with the provisions contained in the draft order which facilitate private sector generation. Articles 4 and 5 on pages 2 and 3 of the order, make provision for the introduction of private generation of electricity in Northern Ireland and empower Northern Ireland Electricity to enter into agreements with a private generator to purchase privately generated electricity for sale to consumers. As Article 5 makes clear, Northern Ireland Electricity will not be obliged to purchase electricity from a private generator and it is envisaged that it would only do so in circumstances where the terms of supply were favourable. Article 10 (page 9) actually removes the existing statutory bar on the supply of electricity as a main business by anyone other than Northern Ireland Electricity, while Article 11 (also on page 9) enables Northern Ireland Electricity, on request, to permit the use of its transmission and distribution system by a private generator.

Noble Lords will also note that the draft order contains a number of safeguards which are intended to ensure the continuity of electricity supplies should we decide to go down the private sector route. Article 5, for example, which I mentioned earlier, empowers Northern Ireland Electricity to acquire, hold and dispose of shares in or make grants or loans available to a private generator in the interests of safeguarding supplies. Article 7 (on pages 4, 5 and 6) empowers the Department of Economic Development, where necessary for the maintenance of continuity of electricity supplies, to acquire and dispose of any land required for a privately owned generating station. In order to ensure that proper controls are exercised over the provision of future generation capacity, Article 12 (on page 9) provides for the consent of the Department of Economic Development to be obtained for the construction, extension or operation of all generating stations in excess of 2 megawatts. This article also requires that notice of all such proposals be given to Northern Ireland Electricity.

I should now like to turn to the other more general provisions contained in the draft order, the majority of which simply represent an updating of earlier legislation and are designed to bring Northern Ireland more closely into line with the position of Great Britain. The remainder of the provisions aim to clarify or strengthen the existing law in the light of Northern Ireland Electricity's operational needs and experience.

If I may, I shall restrict my comments to the more significant provisions of the draft order. Article 6 (on page 3) makes it compulsory for Northern Ireland Electricity to support and adopt schemes for the use of heat produced by the generation of electricity, provided that such schemes meet with Northern Ireland Electricity's normal financial criteria.

Article 8, which is on page 6 of the order and which is labelled "Powers of Entry", extends Northern Ireland Electricity's existing powers of entry to bring these into line with legislation in Great Britain. The draft order clearly sets out those circumstances under which authorised Northern Ireland Electricity personnel may enter lands or premises. In the event that that right of entry is refused, Northern Ireland Electricity may apply to a justice of the peace for a warrant to enter. However, the draft order also provides that premises entered must be left secure and any damage repaired. It also makes it an offence to obstruct an authorised person in the exercise of such rights or entry.

Article 17 (on page 11) extends the time limit for prosecution of certain offences, such as the unlawful interference with meters, from six months from the commission of the offence to six months from the time it comes to the knowledge of Northern Ireland Electricity, subject to an overall time limit of two years.

Article 18 (on page 11) deals with a small procedural amendment to the arrangements governing the making of certain orders by the Department of Economic Development and is being proposed on the recommendation of the Examiner of Statutory Rules in Northern Ireland. The orders in question relate to the granting of permission to a resident of Northern Ireland who wishes to obtain a supply of electricity from outside Northern Ireland—from the Republic. Such instances are rare. Only two such orders have required to be made during the past seven years. They normally arise where someone residing in the vicinity of the border with the Irish Republic finds it cheaper to obtain a supply of electricity from the Electricity Supply Board in the Republic rather than Northern Ireland Electricity. The department of Economic Development can only make such orders where Northern Ireland Electricity consents to the proposed supply arrangement.

Finally, Article 20 (on page 12) effects a number of minor amendments to the electricity supply code and makes it an offence to permit someone to commit an offence, such as the unauthorised reconnection of electricity supplies. Article 20 also makes it an offence to resell or supply electricity without Northern Ireland Electricity's consent and prevents the use of any electrical fitting which causes interference to any electrical supply or affects any electrical or telecommunications equipment.

The draft order is important to both the private and public sectors in Northern Ireland. It removes the existing statutory bar on private generation, while at the same time it amends and updates the legislation governing the activities of Northern Ireland Electricity. As such it forms an important milestone in the continuing development of the electricity supply industry in Northern Ireland. I commend the order to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 30th June be approved.—(Lord Lyell.)

8.35 p.m.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, substantial deposits of lignite have recently been discovered not far from Belfast. That must be very good news for Northern Ireland, because it has no gas, oil or coal deposits. The Government, for their part, are greatly interested in encouraging private rather than public sector involvement in the development of lignite-based electricity for the Province. However, as the noble Lord has acknowledged, there is at least one initial obstacle in the way of the Government. If private sector involvement is to become a reality in the electricity law which has served Northern Ireland well for many years, it must be changed. That is the reason for the order which is before the House.

I do not propose to pursue the subsidiary objectives of the order. I propose to deal with its main objective, which is to facilitate the private generation of electricity by a commercial company which seeks primarily to serve some commercial end of its own and to enable, if not to dictate to, the public electricity service to purchase its supplies from that private generator.

That objective raises many questions which are left unanswered by the order. A lignite-based power station producing from 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. of the electricity needs of the Province is a profound development in which all Northern Ireland people have a right to be interested. Our approach to the order is governed by two main and closely related considerations. There is the need to protect the electricity customer and the need to ensure that the capacity of the public electricity service to discharge its statutory duty is not damaged or weakened by the provisions of the order.

Those two main considerations should also have weighed upon the Northern Ireland Office. But have they? Let us take the case of customer protection. The Minister has told the House that parts of the order are drafted on the lines of the Energy Act 1983, which currently governs the position in Britain. However, this order, unlike the 1983 Act, fails to provide that the price to be paid by the Northern Ireland electricity service to the private generator shall not increase the price payable at the end of the day by the customer.

Will the Minister explain to the House why the Northern Ireland customer is denied that protection which is available in Britain under the 1983 Act? I understand that the Consumer Council has expressed some concern to the department about the absence in the order of provisions that would strengthen its hand and enable it to fulfil more effectively its obligation to the electricity consumer. That desire could easily have been achieved by inserting a few obvious words into Article 14 of the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. Will the Minister tell the House why that has not been done?

There is yet another aspect to consumer protection. Consider what will happen if the commercial company generating 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. of the supplies needed goes bankrupt at some future time. The liquidator may not want to accept responsibility for running the power station. He may therefore repudiate the power purchase agreement, as he is entitled to do. What will happen in those circumstances? This order fails to address itself to that situation.

The Minister, on instructions, may say that that is unlikely to happen. Nevertheless, it is a possible situation. Would it not have been sensible to include in the order a statutory duty which would be binding on the liquidator to continue to supply electricity on the terms of the power purchase agreement, at least until alternative arrangements could be agreed?

If that solution is thought not to be feasible, should the order not have conferred upon the electricity service—for example in Article 5 paragraph 6—a specific right to take over or to purchase the lignite station upon terms to be specified in the article in the event of the liquidator repudiating the power purchase agreement? On these Benches we think it is unbelievable that the order fails to provide a formula to ensure the uninterrupted supply of electricity in the event of the liquidator repudiating the power purchase agreement.

The second main consideration is related to the duty currently placed on the electricity service by virtue of the 1972 electricity supply order. The public service has a statutory obligation to maintain an efficient and economic supply of electricity. However, this order places no such duty on the private generator. Nevertheless, the statutory obligation of the electricity service does not cease with this order, even though henceforth there may well be practical limitations on the extent to which the electricity service can really control the position. Again we ask, would it not have been sensible and fair to extend the statutory duty to maintain an efficient and economic supply of electricity to the private generator itself?

The Minister may say on instructions that this should be a matter of contract between the parties. To that we reply that it should be a matter on which Parliament insists. In any event, as 1 have indicated, if the liquidator were to repudiate the agreement there is no way on earth that one can enforce contractual conditions which no longer exist. I understand that the power purchase agreement will be a very complex document. Indeed, it has been suggested that the contract may be of 30 years' duration.

The terms upon which the private generator will sell, and the public electricity authority will buy, the supply of electricity are to be agreed between the parties, subject to the approval of the department. Can the Minister explain to the House what will be the role of the department in relation to the negotiation of this agreement?

I notice that in the debate on this order in another place a week ago the Minister contemplated that the Government would even assist in the negotiation of the agreement. Those could be ominous words, but I have been unable to find any authority in the order for the Minister's statement that the department might assist in the negotiations of the terms. The department's power by virtue of this order is merely to withhold its consent to the agreed terms. Of course, the power to grant or withhold consent is in itself an important power, particularly where there is no right of appeal against the department's refusal to give its consent—and there is no such right of appeal according to this order. This situation comes very close to giving the department the power in practice to issue a directive by refusing to give its consent.

The non-appealable right to withhold consent raises the important question of the criteria which the department will apply in deciding whether or not to give its consent. Will the Minister give an indication of what are the criteria? The order is strangely silent on this matter. It fails to specify any criteria. We ask for the third time: would it not have been sensible and fair to the electricity service and to all concerned, that the order should prescribe the criteria which are to be satisfied instead of leaving the department completely at large?

There is a feeling among people who are knowledgeable about the subject matter of this order—and tonight we shall hear from noble Lords who have a wealth of knowledge in this field—that the department will have firm views of its own about the terms of a power purchase agreement which it will approve, and that in practice the public electricity service will find that it has to negotiate within very narrow parameters. There is also a feeling that at the end of the day the department, the Northern Ireland Office, will be saying to the electricity board, "This is how it is going to be".

The reference in the other place a week ago to the department assisting in the course of the negotiations between the parties merely reinforces one's growing conviction that the department proposes to adopt an active and dominant role. We have no idea what criteria it will apply while discharging that role. Can the Minister tell the House who, henceforth, will be in charge of the electricity supply industry in Northern Ireland? Will it be the Northern Ireland electricity service or the department?

It is well known that the department has held many meetings with at least two commerical companies which are anxious to win the prize of being allowed to develop the substantial lignite deposits. They believe that there are profits to be made out of the lignite. In the year ended last March there were no less than 17 private meetings between the department and the Antrim Power Company to discuss future electricity generating capacity in Northern Ireland.

If the contract is awarded to a commercial company such as the Antrim Power Company——whose calculations of costs and prices and methods of accounting will have been taken into account by the department in awarding the contract to it—what assurance can the Minister give to the Northern Ireland electricity service that its negotiations with the company will not have been hopelessly prejudiced by secret understandings previously come to between the department and the commercial contractor?

There are many risks in having a contractual agreement whereby 25 per cent. to 40 per cent. of the electricity needs of the Province is generated by a single power station operated by private generator and supplied under a long-term agreement to a public undertaking which has to ensure efficient and economic electricity for all the people of Northern Ireland year by year and day by day. One does not require much foresight to envisage that things can go seriously wrong, possibly at short notice, for the private generator which would be to the detriment of the entire electricity system in Northern Ireland, and its customers. A prudent department, a prudent Northern Ireland Office should seek to avoid the possibility of trouble by seeing to it that the legislation has already foreseen the potential difficulties and provided a framework for the answer. From these Benches we say that the Northern Ireland Office has failed to do this. It has failed to build into the order reasonable safeguards to protect the consumer against foreseeable risks. To be fair to the civil servants who are in the Box, I believe that they have been working in great haste and under great pressure from the Secretary of State and probably from the head of the Government herself. They may have created a trap for themselves.

Therefore, what do we say to the Government? We urge the Minister to press his right honourable friend the Secretary of State in another place not to proceed with this draft order until it has been withdrawn to incorporate fair and sensible precautions. It appears to me that the Minister is saying that he cannot respond constructively to this request and he merely throws up his hands. If his right honourable friend cannot reply constructively we will urge the Secretary of State to set up a public inquiry, as has been suggested by the Northern Ireland Economic Council, to advise as to how the lignite deposits can best be developed to the entire advantage of the community in Northern Ireland. For the reasons which I have tried to develop, we are unable to give our consent to this order.

8.52 p.m.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, the draft order before us comes at a time when the whole energy scene in Great Britain, and now in Northern Ireland, is being looked at again. It is therefore of great importance that we should be clear about the implications of this order. Following upon the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, I should like to put a number of questions to the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, on this subject.

My first question relates to the Energy Act 1983. When this draft order was debated in another place the noble Lord's honourable friend stated that it works broadly on the lines of the Energy Act 1983. I should like to know whether in fact it departs from it in any material way. The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, referred to one area where there was a departure. We are entitled to know whether the object of this order is to apply to Northern Ireland the provisions of the Energy Act 1983—that would be reasonably justified because it would bring Northern Ireland into line with what already applies by law in Great Britain— or whether it goes further. It would be most helpful if the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, could enlighten us on that aspect.

My second question relates to the Kilroot power station. As we know, that was constructed as an oil-fired station in the early 1970s. At that time I was personally involved in the affairs of the British coal industry and I must say that that project did not have my support. In due course it emerged that it was mistaken because the price of oil increased substantially, as we know, in 1973, shortly after the decision had been made to go ahead with it.

Subsequently and very wisely, it was decided as the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, mentioned, to convert the station to dual firing, coal and oil, so that it could use oil when it was suitable or coal when it was less expensive. The noble Lord referred to the present conversion process, which will be completed towards the end of 1988 or the beginning of 1989. It will, as I understand it, affect two of the four generating sets. There is a further proposal for converting the other two. It was not clear to me whether this further process of conversion will go ahead. I understand that the Northern Ireland electricity authority would like to proceed with this. The infrastructure is in place and it would therefore seem desirable that all four sets, with the services that exist, should be converted to dual firing. Will the noble Lord kindly indicate whether or not that is intended?

My third question relates to the Northern Ireland electricity board. I am not quite sure what to call it. Northern Ireland Electricity suggests to me that there is something missing—board or authority.

Lord Lyell

NIE, my Lords.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, it is NIE, and there is no word missing. We now know where we stand. It is of course very much affected by this order. It has served the Northern Ireland economy well over the years, operating all the power stations. Was NIE brought into consultation in the formulation of this order and is it quite satisfied of its implications so far as its future operations are concerned? I think that is a reasonable question for us to put to the noble Lord.

Fourthly, I should like to bring in my old friends at British Coal. We regarded—and I presume my colleagues still in the coal industry regard—Northern Ireland as a very important market for coal. We fought very hard to retain it. We were supplying large quantities for the domestic market and also considerable quantities for the electricity market. I have been advised by British Coal that in conjunction with the conversion of the Kilroot set to dual firing, it has offered to supply substantial quantities of competitively priced coal from open-cast sites in Ayrshire. Obviously it is hoping that the further two generating sets will be converted to dual firing so that they can also use coal.

British Coal has a concern of course in that the Belfast West station, which takes currently about half a million tonnes of coal from Britain, is coming to the end of its natural life. Therefore, it would very much like to feel that there will be additional potentially coal-fired capacity for which it can compete when this goes.

I put it to the noble Lord that there are a number of important questions associated with this order on which we would very much welcome elucidation to see whether what is happening in Northern Ireland is, as the noble Lord himself said, in the best interests of the Northern Ireland consumers of electricity.

8.58 p.m.

Lord Blease

My Lords, I suppose it would be a cliche to start by saying that energy supplies in Northern Ireland have been a burning issue as long as memory can recall. We have heard very eloquent arguments from the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Ezra, on the supply of energy to Northern Ireland. They have argued their points with skill, knowledge, understanding and great forthrightness. 1 certainly support the points put forward by both noble Lords in this debate. I do not propose to deal with matters concerning lignite. In my opinion it will be many light years before we have electricity generated by lignite fuel in Northern Ireland.

With other noble Lords I have on numerous previous occasions in this House made known my views about the insensitive and undemocratic way in which Northern Ireland business is laid before this House and before this United Kingdom Parliament. This crucial issue was again mentioned in some detail during the debate in this House last Thursday, 9th July, on the extension order of the Northern Ireland Act 1974. Notwithstanding the Minister's expressed views that the order before us this evening does not arise from the current debate, I contend—and I think that it has been forcibly put forward by the noble Lords, Lord Prys-Davies and Lord Ezra—that the legislative measures before us this evening are highly complex and controversial not only in the context of the difficulties in Northern Ireland but also in direct relation to the current contentious political issues concerning the future of energy and electricity supplies throughout the United Kingdom.

This order makes miscellaneous amendments to the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 and not, as the Minister said, only one or two amendments. There are various aspects of the order which amend the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. That order was a very complex piece of law embracing legislation governing the critical areas of civic rights, including property, powers of entry to premises, legal proceedings, local government powers, the environment and safety, as well as accountability for public finance and borrowing powers. Surely the Government and the Northern Ireland Office had the opportunity to give genuine thought and consideration to the importance of upholding credible parliamentary participation as well as an adherence to party political management machinery and to its policies. This order could, and in my opinion should, have been considered suitable for submission to a duly appointed parliamentary Select Committee.

Arising from the outcome of the debate on the order in another place at midnight last Tuesday, 7th July, the order was approved by a relatively narrow margin in the Division Lobbies with 236 for and 201 against. The outcome is a clear indication of the controversial nature of this legislation and the widespread concern about some of the measures being enacted. It may have been necessary, if not important, to have the opportunity to challenge some of the main amendments in the order by debate and in the Division Lobbies if fairness and parliamentary consensus are to mean anything worth while in representative terms and in the best interests of good government. However, the Government thought otherwise and we are saddled tonight with considering this unamendable order at this stage.

There are a number of articles in the order of which the precise meaning and intention might have been accepted after reasoned explanation and clarification. However, the declamatory process across the Floor of this Chamber imposed by the Order in Council procedure prevents this reasoned and sensible way of conducting the business effectively and gives rise to much unnecessary misunderstanding. In an effort to obtain some clarification and ministerial commitment on parts of the text of this amending order, I wish to put a few points to the Minister in the hope that he may provide some helpful explanations and replies.

I invite the Minister to turn to page 2 of the order. Article 3 concerns Northern Ireland Electricity and states: The Northern Ireland Electricity Service established under Article 4 of the Electricity Supply Order is renamed Northern Ireland Electricity". We have already heard in the exchanges on this order of the confusion arising from this renaming of the Northern Ireland Electricity service. Perhaps I may say that the removal of the word "Service" continues under Article 5. Under the heading, "Additional functions of Northern Ireland Electricity", Article 5 states: The Service, with the consent of the Department, may enter into an agreement with a private generator to acquire supplies of electricity from that private generator". I wish to ask the Minister where we find a definition of the use of the term "Service" in this order? Who or what comprise these services? Are we to assume that Northern Ireland Electricity is "the Service", or could Northern Ireland Electricity and the Department of Economic Development combined be "the Service"? Perhaps the Minister can clarify that point. It is giving rise to considerable debate and confusion in Northern Ireland.

In Article 6 under the heading "Combined Heat and Power" the order says: The Service shall adopt and support schemes", and continues to enumerate some of the proposals in such schemes. In paragraph (2) it states: Nothing in Paragraph (1) shall require the Service to undertake expenditure in connection with a scheme which does not meet the financial criteria applied by the Service in relation to other expenditure of the Service". This again raises questions. Are the financial criteria stipulated in Article 6 applicable only to combined heat and power schemes or do they apply to all other expenditure of the service? Surely it would have been more forceful and to the point if the word "all" had been included in that paragraph.

If we turn to page 4 under the heading of "Compulsory acquisition of land" paragraph (a) of Article 7 states: In order to facilitate the provision in Northern Ireland of an efficient and economical system of electricity supply, the Department may, for the purpose of selling land to a private generator for the construction or extension of a private generating station to which Article 33 applies, being a generating station which generates or will generate electricity which the Service intends to purchase", and it continues to deal with the acquiring of land and the disposal of land by the department.

I ask the Minister again: do the words "the Service intends to purchase" give the sole right to Northern Ireland Electricity to make a contract with a proposed private generator prior to the decision by the department on the acquisition or disposal of land? Where have the Government set out the rights of the service, if by "Service" is meant Northern Ireland Electricity, to have effective consultations about such matters? Where is this undertaking by the department? In other words, I am asking how does the service know that it intends to purchase unless there is prior knowledge of the price and capability of privately-generated electricity? This has already been dealt with at some length by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies.

I invite the Minister to turn to page 6. Article 9 is headed: "Powers of entry, etc." I am not sure that the word "etc." is a useful descriptive word for any legal document. However, if we accept the words as written Article 9 reads: Subject to Articles 9A and 9B, a person authorised in writing by the Service may, on production if required of his credentials, at any reasonable time enter"— and a list is given of the purposes of entry. Among these reasons and conditions, paragraph (iii) reads: to cut off or disconnect the supply of electricity … or to remove the electric fittings belonging to the Service which are on the premises". I now invite the Minister to turn to page 8, where the heading reads: "Warrant to authorise entry", and the article says: Where a justice of the peace is satisfied by complaint on oath"— and there is a list of reasons and conditions— he may issue a warrant under his hand authorising any authorised person to enter the premises". There are two authorisations: an authorisation by the service and an authorisation by a justice of the peace. Under what authority may a complaint be tabled? Will a JP have the necessary instruction on approved forms? Will a JP be able to identify the authorised person to assess the relevance of the complaint or will he have an approved warrant that will stand up in any legal proceedings? This issue raises many sensitive points in connection with the role and duties of a justice of the peace in Northern Ireland.

The justices of the peace in Northern Ireland derive their authority from the Lord Chancellor's Office. They are called upon to carry out their duties as JPs in difficult and sensitive areas concerning debt as well as criminal and terrorist matters. Many, indeed I believe all, JPs in their experience depend a great deal on the thoroughness of the preliminary work undertaken by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. This part of their work concerning warrants to cut off supplies, perhaps to old-age pensioners or others, gives rise to contentious and serious problems in relation to the terms as set out in the order.

Like other noble Lords I have had an opportunity to consult FUSE—that is, the Federation of Unions Supplying Electricity—and its secretary Pat McCartan. This is a very important body to Northern Ireland Electricity. FUSE —may be an amusing word, but I can assure your Lordships that its objectives are certainly clear and taken seriously by the trade unions involved. In the consultations I have discussed a number of points which FUSE considers relevant to the order. I want to put them in the form of words that have been duly considered. I realise that the Minister has covered some of these matters that were raised by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, but I believe they were put succinctly in the terms in which the trade union body would like them to be recorded in this debate.

Can the Minister confirm that nothing in this Electricity Supply (Amendment)(Northern Ireland) Order 1987 is designed to or will enable the Government to impede an early decision on the comprehensive proposals submitted by Northern Ireland Electricity to the Government in November 1986 which recommended the completion of Kilroot Phase 2 as a dual coal and oil-fired plant and that the station will be fully commissioned by 1992?

My second question is: does the Minister agree that this amending order brings the legislation in Northern Ireland into line with the Energy Act 1983 and is designed to facilitate the generating of electricity in Northern Ireland for private profit; also that the order provides for enabling legislation that allows the payment of public finance for the acquiring of sites and property to develop the generation of electricity for private profit?

Thirdly, will the Minister confirm that this amending order, together with the primary legislation—the Electricity Supply(Northern Ireland) Order 1972—does not allow Northern Ireland Electricity to abrogate its overall statutory duty to acquire, nor to be directed by the Government to acquire, electricity unless under strict commercial standards, at the most advantageous price to consumers, and ensuring reliability of supply and services to the various needs of domestic, farming, commercial and industrial consumers throughout the Province.

The Minister has referred to an interconnector supply system with Scotland. Will the Minister comment on the North-South electricity supply interconnector service and the possibility of its again being made operational? Have any private investors expressed an interest in the development of the Camlough hydro-electric station? I understand that turbines for this project are still available in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I may conclude by complimenting Northern Ireland Electricity on its successful year. If I may quote the chairman's remarks in his published review: Financially, Northern Ireland Electricity enjoyed the best year since its formation in 1973, resulting in the elimination of any recourse to Government contribution. This achievement is particularly notable at a time when electricity prices have been reduced in real terms". It is rather sad that this order has been brought forward at a time when morale in Northern Ireland Electricity is riding very high. I consider that workers, management and others involved in Northern Ireland Electricity require some reassurance that what they have sought to achieve is being built upon by the Government. Perhaps I may add that the way the accounts have been presented for the year ended March 1987 is excellent and deserves commendation. They are a model to other private and public enterprise bodies.

I have to concur with the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies. At this stage I must record that I cannot support the order.

9.15 p.m.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, this order has been some time in draft and is, or at any rate at the start was surely, a stalking horse for much wider privatisation of electricity generation. In fact as the proposed new lignite burning station at Crumlin could provide up to 40 per cent. of Northern Ireland's electricity needs, it therefore would represent a major step in privatising the whole industry.

In last Wednesday's debate I gave the reasons why I was opposed to privatisation of our own electrical generation and distribution industry. I suggested what were the real, as opposed to the Government's declared reasons, for wishing to do so. I think that your Lordships would not wish me to repeat that tonight. However, I should make the further point that any sensible government should not rush ahead with privatisation in difficult and debatable areas until they have gained experience from British Telecom and from the gas and water supply industries.

We used to talk about the unacceptable face of capitalism, the advantages of a mixed economy and so on. All this has gone out of the window. We seem to have fashions in which some new idea is pursued quite regardless of common sense and moderation. Just remember high rise flats and unit construction, now discredited as an expensive folly. So was nationalisation and so today is excessive privatisation when an organisation is working efficiently and well.

Returning to this order, there is no justification whatever for the privatisation provisions, and this policy raises major difficulties as to how the system could possibly work, let alone provide any benefit to the consumer. Northern Ireland Electricity is legally responsible for providing a reliable and continuous service to customers and for the distribution network. How can it do so with a private generation station of such a size which it will not control?

Moreover, to maintain a reliable service it must provide some excess capacity, no doubt counted unfairly against it when the Government try to justify on accountancy grounds their privatisation policy. In this instance there are good reasons for supposing that the authority's proposals for its new power station are economically a better solution.

I can imagine the Government arguing that the merit of this case will be decided by competition. What nonsense, because the privatised lignite power station cannot be financed from private capital without an agreement that the existing authority will take most of the power it generates during its lifetime. In no way can a formula applicable over 30 years or so be devised which would be fair or promote real competition.

This is fundamentally an ill-considered piece of legislation, which unfortunately we cannot amend. It would be more logical and sensible to privatise the whole industry rather than have this creeping paralysis, much as I would deplore such greater privatisation. Are we once again witnessing trying it on the dog first, as we are doing with the poll tax in Scotland? The analogy is not quite true, because the Government seem unwilling to find out how the dog reacted, only whether the public can be persuaded to accept their legislation.

9.23 p.m.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, I rise for only a few minutes to reinforce what has been so ably said by my noble friend Lord Blease. My noble friend Lord Blease lives in Northern Ireland. He is aware of the concern of all sections of those involved in the industry over this order. Northern Ireland Electricity has serious reservations. All the trade unions involved representing all the manpower employed in the industry have expressed serious reservations. The Department of Economic Development has expressed serious reservations. Four speakers in this House tonight have expressed reservations about the order.

Most salient of all is the fact that the order will have tremendous repercussions in Northern Ireland on its whole economic development and on the use of electricity for commercial and domestic purposes. The ramifications of the order will affect everyone in Northern Ireland, private and business.

One of the first orders promulgated by the Government in 1972 after the imposition of direct rule was the electricity order that we are now about to amend. I know that the Government cannot at all times bow to the wishes of an opposition, but it is in the interests of a government in promulgating legislation to listen to voices other than those on their own Back-Benches. I ask here tonight: why the urgency for this order? There does not seem to be any devastating reason why the order has to be pushed through before the Summer Recess.

As my noble friend Lord Blease mentioned, one night last week 16 representatives from Northern Ireland—there are 17 seats, but one seat has not been taken up by the Sinn Fein Member of Parliament for West Belfast—stretching right across the political and religious divide, from the Democratic Unionist Party and the Official Unionist Party to the SDLP, went into the Lobby to express their opposition to the order. Unfortunately, we cannot do that tonight. We are not elected representatives. I feel bitterly resentful about the fact that nothing can be done about the order.

I should like to reinforce what has been suggested by my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies. Over the past two years elected representatives from the Unionist community in Northern Ireland have been boycotting discussions with Ministers and have not been attending Parliament to represent their constituents as a means of expressing their opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement. The Government showed great anxiety in trying to reinvolve those elected representatives. They pleaded with them to come and speak on behalf of their constituents and to carry out their full parliamentary duties. What thanks did they get when they decided to come back? What thanks did they get when they decided to attend Parliament to voice the views of their constituents, all of them affected by this order? At 11.34 p.m. last Tuesday, they were told, "You have an hour and a half to discuss this order. You cannot do anything about it. This is what the Government think and we shall treat your representations with contempt and arrogance. We know best; this order will be implemented".

I rarely agree with the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party. In order to show his opposition to the arrogant attitude adoted by the Government he said that his party would take no part in that debate. Five Members of Parliament representing English consituencies spoke during the course of that one-and-a-half-hour debate and, as in this House tonight, four of them voiced opposition to it. Only two speakers have spoken in favour of the order—the Minister who put it forward in the House of Commons and the Minister here tonight. That must be an indication that the Government are removed from the feelings of the people of Northern Ireland.

We have heard about the two nations theory; there are very few Conservative MPs in Scotland. We now have a three nation theory. Northern Ireland has been totally isolated by this Government. Again I challenge the Government to explain the reason for the headlong rush into this matter. Is it to satisfy some egomaniacal craving for justification of privatisation? The Government want something on the statute book as regards privatisation and have chosen a place vulnerable to the imposition of their wishes.

Even though the Government will get the order through this House tonight, they should not think that this is the end of the story. They pushed the order through the other place in an hour and a half without a single vote being cast in its favour by the elected representatives from Northern Ireland. We cannot vote against the order tonight. I plead with the Government to have regard to the circumstances which now prevail and the atmosphere which surrounds the order. I noticed that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, listened intently to my noble friend Lord Prys-Davies and his contribution tonight should be sufficient to make the Minister realise that this is not an easy order. There are lots of ramifications contained within it. Many apply only in Northern Ireland and to the political, religious and economic circumstances in that part of the United Kingdom.

I would again appeal to the Minister to talk to his right honourable friend in another place and see whether it would not be possible to set up some form of committee in that House so that the elected representatives of Northern Ireland can involve themselves—as the Government have been pleading with them to do over these last 20 months—and express their views, based on the innermost knowledge that they have of this most controversial order.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, as is always the case with Northern Ireland debates, your Lordships will appreciate that this has been a relatively short but very important debate. I assure your Lordships that I have listened with great interest to all the remarks that have been made.

I think that this evening we have had, if I may say so, some notable contributions. Indeed, there has been a certain gain in emotion compared to the normal workmanlike discussion of orders. I was warned—indeed, your Lordships were kind enough to suggest to me—that the order before us this evening would be controversial. Nevertheless, I think that your Lordships have dealt with the order in a lively, thorough and professional fashion.

Perhaps I may preface my concluding remarks by repeating what I said when introducing this draft order. It is being debated against the background of the consideration by the Government of a number of private and public sector proposals for the next phase of generating plant which we hope will be provided in Northern Ireland. In setting out a future generation strategy for the province the clear aim of the Government is the identification of any proposal which represents the best possible solution to the energy needs in the future in Northern Ireland. I think that is the common thread that ran through all my remarks and also through the remarks of all your Lordships who have spoken this evening.

The second point I make at the outset is that in the draft order before us this evening—the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, referred to what had gone on in 1972 and I see that he is not in his place but no doubt he will return—your Lordships will note that there are constant references to the Electricity Supply (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. I will forbear to take your Lordships from the 1972 order to the 1987 order because I know that is a fruitful area for confusion. I note that the noble Lord, Lord Blease, is agreeing with me and I will endeavour to answer succinctly the questions that he raised.

However, presenting the draft order this evening has naturally fuelled speculation that a decision in favour of one of the private proposals—I think your Lordships will be aware that there could be a number of such speculations—is imminent. I hasten to add that the reality is that, largely owing to the complexities of power generation in Northern Ireland, which has been raised by all your Lordships this evening, the Department of Economic Development has not yet completed its evaluation of all these proposals. I want to assure your Lordships that the eventual decision of the Government will be taken in the best interests of Northern Ireland consumers. That is the main point that I want to make tonight.

Once any remarks that have been made this evening are consigned to the Official Report, or indeed to other reports and discussions in Northern Ireland, the main thread of my remarks and indeed of the remarks of all your Lordships this evening is that any decision that will be taken by the Government will be taken in the best interests of Northern Ireland's consumers of electricity.

I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, made a notable speech. I was fascinated to hear that he felt that I was under some sort of dictation. The noble Lord put it in his traditionally courteous style. I hasten to reply that I am under no dictation whatsoever and I stress to him and all your Lordships that the order that is before us this evening merely gives permission. I am sure that the noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, will take that on board as well.

I also want to stress to the noble Lord, Lord Prys Davies, and to your Lordships that he and the Government are indeed at one. I should like to repeat a very short portion of my opening remarks. I referred to the review undertaken in 1984 entitled The Future Generation Strategy, which concluded that the future generation requirements of the province could be met through the construction of a lignite-fired power station at a mine mouth location. I went on to say—and I hope that the noble Lord will take my comment to heart, because it shows that he and the Government are at one on this particular aspect—that the review also recommended that a more immediate reduction in oil dependency could be achieved through the conversion of the Kilroot station to dual coal/oil firing and that this recommendation has since been adopted.

I ended with the following very important passage: Work on the conversion of the station is well advanced and should be completed by the summer of 1989". I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, of all people, will be aware of that, and I understand that British Coal has a large input into this particular conversion strategy.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord for elucidation. Is he referring to the first two sets only or to the conversion of the four sets at the station?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, as the noble Lord heard me say, at this stage I am only referring to the fact that work on the station is well advanced and should be completed by the summer of 1989. That is the first stage. Whatever else may happen at Kilroot has not yet been fully decided. It is under consideration. That is all part of my observations. It is the first stage, and I think that the noble Lord knows what I am referring to.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, if the noble Lord would give way——

Lord Lyell

My Lords, as the noble Lord heard me Lord Stoddart, must wait. I must first try to answer his colleague and the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies. If the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, wishes to say something before I finally sit down, I shall try to deal with it. I know that he is a specialist in energy matters.

The noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, raised a number of interesting points, the first of which concerned his fear that Northern Ireland Electricity would be overdependent on one particular generator. I stress again that no decisions have yet been taken on the various proposals for future generation. Any decision in favour of private generation of electricity will be strictly conditional on strong contractual provisions being put into effect to safeguard the continuity of electricity supplies to Northern Ireland Electricity on fixed and binding terms, thereby ensuring that Northern Ireland Electricity can carry out its statutory duty.

Secondly, the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, asked me about the criteria for the selection of a private sector generator. In my opening remarks I tried to explain that no decisions have yet been taken on the various options for future generation. The principal criterion that the Government will apply in their evaluation of the options before them will be the identification of whichever option will achieve the cheapest possible electricity supply for all consumers in Northern Ireland. I think that your Lordships will certainly be at one with us on that aspect.

The noble Lord asked who would be in charge of the Northern Ireland Electricity Service in Northern Ireland. Under the 1972 order, what is known as the parent order, Northern Ireland Electricity is a body corporate with the statutory duty to develop and maintain an efficient and economical system of electricity supply in Northern Ireland. I stress that this duty is not affected in any way by the amending order now before us.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, raised a number of points. I wish to put his fears at rest about the name of Northern Ireland Electricity Service being changed merely to Northern Ireland Electricity. The draft order continues to refer briefly to "the Service". We are amending the 1972 order on the advice of the draftsmen. Because of that, we have to use the term "Service" throughout the 1987 order. In the event that the opportunity is taken at some later date to consolidate all the legislation, the name of the body corporate will be changed.

The noble Lord asked about the financial criteria applied by the service in Article 6A of the order. In that article the only reference is to financial criteria. The answer to his query is therefore yes. The article in question mirrors a similar position in the Energy Act 1983. The 1972 order imposes a general duty on the service to develop and maintain an economical system of electricity supply to all the consumers in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord asked whether Northern Ireland Electricity would be consulted before the exercise of compulsory purchase powers proposed in Article 7 of the order. In accordance with the normal procedures, the Department of Economic Development will ensure that there is full consultation with Northern Ireland Electricity and all other interested parties. I assure him that notice will be given of any proposed vesting order. This will be duly published in the local press. I hope that we will obtain suitable coverage in the local press and media in regard to all vesting matters.

The noble Lord asked about the problems of disconnection under Article 7 and Article 20 at page 12 of the order. The powers of entry for the purpose of effecting disconnection reflect similar powers in the Electricity and Gas (Rights of Entry) Act 1954 and, more recently, the Gas (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. I hope that your Lordships will accept that the powers of entry are on the basis of previous legislation when considering what are known as the public utilities.

The noble Lord went on to ask about the status of justices of the peace in Northern Ireland in connection with the operation of Article 8 on powers of entry and also about methods by which warrants are served. In enacting this order we follow a recent provision in the Rights of Entry (Gas and Electricity Boards) Act 1954 to which I referred. We believe there is no reason why in operation it will be any less effective in Northern Ireland. I stress once more that the future procedures in Northern Ireland will follow those already in operation throughout the whole of the electricity industry in Great Britain.

The noble Lord was kind enough to warn me that he might ask one or two other questions. The noble Lord, Lord Blease, will be happy to know that I can confirm there is nothing in this draft order which would in any way impede a decision by the Government on the various future proposals for electricity generation which are currently under discussion. These include NIE's preferred option of the completion of Kilroot station as additional coal-fired capacity.

I wish to stress to the noble Lord that Article 7 is merely a reserve power. It is the intention of the Government that any public expenditure incurred in relation to the vesting of land for a private sector power station should be recovered from the private generator concerned. This has merely to do with obtaining a compulsory purchase order. This is a matter for lawyers and the noble Lord will know that it is necessary to go to court. But certainly there should be no expenditure from the public purse so far as Article 7 is concerned.

I stress that one would want to facilitate private generation in Northern Ireland, but this draft order does not place any obligation on NIE to acquire such power. Consequently, we envisage that Northern Ireland Electricity would do so only when the terms of supply of power from a private generation source were favourable to Northern Ireland Electricity and above all to electricity consumers in Northern Ireland.

I apologise for missing out one question of the noble Lord, Lord Prys-Davies, when I explained the arrangements by which we might provide for the purchase by Northern Ireland Electricity of power supplied by a private generator. Quite rightly, this would be the subject of a separate legally binding contract between the two parties concerned and such a provision is not appropriate for inclusion in this draft order. The order seeks simply to remove the present statutory bar to the private generation of electricity in Northern Ireland.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I have been following closely what the noble Lord has said. Am I to understand him now to be saying that the Northern Ireland Electricity Service would be the sole judge of whether privately generated electricity which it bought would be better than publicly generated electricity? Is the service the sole judge of that or will the economic department come into this in any way at all?

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I think that the overall criterion would be which is cheaper. My noble neighbour Lord Mackie, if I may call him that, asked whether it would be better. I think he is asking whether the terms would be cheaper for the supply of current over two megawatts. I think that Northern Ireland Electricity would be empowered by this order to use privately generated electricity if it wished, which up until now it has not been able to do.

The order does not in any way oblige Northern Ireland Electricity to take up this privately generated power. The criteria about which the noble Lord asks would be quite clear. I am sure that his colleague will be able to advise him on that point. I shall write briefly to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, on the criteria for Northern Ireland Electricity taking power from a private source. That may be the wish of your Lordships, rather than going into all the criteria this evening. The noble Lord used the word "better". As a true Scot I am sure that he would agree that it is better if it is cheaper to the consumer. So far as I am aware that means Northern Ireland Electricity.

Lord Prys-Davies

My Lords, may I interrupt to state what I believe is the position? Is it not the position that it is for the department to decide whether or not the lignite-based power station contract will be given to a private contractor or to the electricity service? Secondly, whatever terms are agreed between the electricity service and the generator they will have to be approved by the department and we do not know upon what criteria the department will give or withhold its consent.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, the answer to both the noble Lord's queries is that the department is still undertaking studies as to what the possible benefits of future power generation that the province would be concerned with may or may not be. I stressed, and I repeat, my opening remarks where I covered the possibility of expanding Kilroot, both phase 1 and phase 2 and the production of lignite. That is certainly one of the options that we are discussing. I stress to the noble Lord that no firm decisions have been taken.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, made one other point about the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland interconnector. It is the Government's intention to restore the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland interconnector and to maintain it in use as soon as it is practical to do so. I am afraid that I cannot go further than that this evening. The noble Lord raised one more query about the Camlough pump storage scheme. I am sure that South Armagh will be pleased that it has been mentioned this evening. The answer that I can give the noble Lord is no. The private sector has not expressed an interest in that particular scheme.

The noble Lord, Lord Blease, finally raised a point about the happily named FUSE. He will not be unaware of the excellent journal the Belfast Telegraph, which apart from covering a whole lot of information contained the following: Shane's Castle sets scene for record Game Fair Turn-out". On the same page it has an article stating: Debate set to shape energy strategy". I do not think that I am quoting out of context but there is a sub-heading entitled "Victory".

The article continues: The Federation of Unions Supplying Electricity has welcomed changes made in the draft order as a victory for its organisation". The FUSE secretary, Mr. Pat McCartan, finishes by saying that legislation will be similar to that in Britain and FUSE has no reservations about NIE competing with the private sector on an equal basis.

I think that Mr. McCartan is a fair-minded judge of these matters and I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Blease, will accept that the fears of FUSE in this particular matter can be set at rest.

We were grateful that the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, stayed to take part in the debate. I shall address the noble Lord by saying that the fundamental difference between the Energy Act 1983 and the draft order before us this evening is that unlike the Energy Act 1983 this draft order does not place any obligation on NIE as an electricity undertaking to purchase privately-generated power which is offered for sale. It permits that but it in no way obliges NIE to purchase that power. Also, the Energy Act goes on to provide that every offer by an electricity board to purchase privately generated electricity should be on such terms and conditions as to ensure the board's control so that the system is not impaired. Your Lordships will find that in Section 5(4).

Such terms and conditions as may be necessary to ensure that NIE's operation of the electricity system is not impaired will be provided for in any contract between Northern Ireland Electricity and any private generator. I stress that certainly Northern Ireland Electricity's marginal costs would be based on either coal-or oil-fired generation. That would be a factor in the cost of electricity in Northern Ireland.

The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, raised one other inquiry concerning whether Northern Ireland Electricity was involved in any discussions with the Antrim Power Company. Certainly the provision of any new generating capacity by privately owned lignite-fired power stations is one of several options which we are currently examining. We seek the lowest cost to provide any new capacity and we have promoted competition between Northern Ireland Electricity and private sector interests. We wish to respect the confidentiality of each proposal. But it is necessary in any competition like this for the department to take the lead.

The noble Lord also asked briefly about the situation regarding Kilroot 2, if I may call it that. I think that the noble Lord understands that that is the filling of the two extra sections of the Kilroot power station. We are considering proposals submitted by Northern Ireland Electricity involving the provision of additional dual oil- and coal-fired capacity or, alternatively, mere coal-fired capacity at Kilroot power station. I stress once again the possibility of interconnection with Scotland. We are also examining that option.

The noble Viscount, Lord Hanworth, referred to what he called the stalking horse of privatisation. I made passing mention in my opening remarks of the privatisation initiative upon which this Government have embarked. I went on to explain that the order is not connected with that particular initiative. It simply removes the present statutory bar to private generation being incorporated in Northern Ireland Electricity's supplies. It brings Northern Ireland legislation further into line with the rest of the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Fitt, asked why there was such urgency in the case of this particular order. The order is merely permissive legislation which updates the 1972 order to which he referred and takes into account the passing of the Energy Act 1983. I suggest that 15 years have elapsed since the 1972 order and that certainly this amending order is, if anything, overdue. I mentioned consolidation, but perhaps that can wait for another night.

I shall now attempt to answer the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, whose patience and fortitude in staying through the debate this evening I salute. He asked whether NIE would be the sole judge of whether they did or did not take power from a private generating source. Any decisions concerning future generating capacity in Northern Ireland will be taken by the Government. However, the main criterion will be to seek the cheapest possible electricity. I hope that when the noble Lord says "better" he will accept that that means the cheapest possible supply to the consumers of Northern Ireland.

I hope I have covered most, if not all, of the points raised by your Lordships this evening. The draft order that I have moved seeks to remove the present statutory bar to private sector generation which we feel is an unnecessary constraint on the future development of the electricity supply industry in Norther Ireland. In this and in many other respects the order is intended to bring Northern Ireland legislation more into line with that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, though fairly modest, the order is important to the future development of the electricity industry in Northern Ireland.

The Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, he has been very patient with me, for which I am most grateful. I thought in his first answer he said that the judge of whether to purchase electricity from a private source would be the Northern Ireland Electricity Service. Now in his subsequent reply he says that the judge must be the department. I am assuming that the second is correct and that the department will be the judge, not the service.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I have to admit, and I am proud to admit to a Kirriemuir man, that I was wrong the first time. The noble Lord is quite right; it will be the Government who will be the judge as to which is the cheapest form of electricity. I am glad to confirm that. Once again I salute the noble Lord for his fortitude in sitting through the debate. I commend the draft order to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House adjourned at two minutes past ten o'clock.