asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the future of the gas industry in Northern Ireland.
I hope to make the Government's proposals known early in the new year, but I cannot commit myself to a date. All the relevant factors must be considered thoroughly first.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the continuing delay in giving access to natural gas to Northern Ireland is having a very detrimental effect on the industry and is putting in jeopardy the 2,000 jobs of the people employed in it? Can the Minister say what success he has had in discussing this problem with his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy?
I shall answer the second question first. I am keeping the Department of Energy well informed. It is well informed of the problems of the gas industry—perhaps I should say the energy industry—in Northern Ireland.It has been often said that I am deliberately delaying giving access to natural gas in Northern Ireland, but I can only tell the hon. Gentleman that the decision I am being accused of prejudging would have been easier some time ago.
Will the Minister confirm that more than 1 million tons of solid fuel is used in Northern Ireland? It is one of our best markets in the British regions for selling coal. Will my right hon. Friend give an assurance that, whatever happens with the gas negotiations, that market will be maintained in order to ensure that British pits are not closed if markets are lost?
I can confirm that 1 million tons of coal is exported to Northern Ireland. I can also tell my hon. Friend that these exports were increased by 13·2 per cent. in the previous year.There is a problem in Northern Ireland, which has no indigenous resources of energy, and we shall have to look at that in the complete context of energy. The problem is causing us great concern.
Does the Minister recall that the chairman of the Northern Ireland Labour Party has just said that, if Ministers continue to dither over the gas pipeline, they will have to accept full personal responsibility for the destruction of the gas industry in Northern Ireland?
I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman knows how the gas industry is organised in Northern Ireland. I do not run the gas industry in Northern Ireland. That is done by seven or eight local councils and a few private enterprises. Furthermore, it covers only one-third of the population of Northern Ireland.Many people have been to see me about this matter. It is important, and it is not an easy question to answer when we have a surplus of energy in Northern Ireland. If one is providing another source of energy which will only add to that surplus, some of the industries there will also suffer.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, whether in Northern Ireland or in this country, the national considerations concerned with fuel energy are likely to be that natural gas will be increasingly used as a feedstock. To some extent it is a waste to burn natural gas in people's fires. Is that not a consideration that the Minister should bear in mind? There will be changes of policy in this country as well as in Northern Ireland and we ought to use coal for heat-creating purposes rather than waste it up chimneys.
This is another of the problems I am facing under this review. We do not have to provide energy just for next year. I shall have to think about the supply of natural gas in the year 2000 and what will be happening to the gas industry then.All the questions thrown at me today—and I hope that the people in Northern Ireland will read and study this—show that the problem is not an easy one to solve.