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Volume 113: debated on Monday 30 March 1987

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Combined Heat And Power Schemes


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received on progress in promoting combined heat and power schemes.

I have had several representations about progress on lead city CHP schemes, including of course, questions from hon. Members.

Will my hon. Friend look urgently at the three problems still preventing private sector CHP from competing fairly with the public sector: a rating assessment that is equitable with public utilities, legislation that allows private utilities to have the same powers as public utilities and, above all, a fair price for electricity produced in the private sector? The Central Electricity Generating Board still pays 25 per cent. less for electricity than it charges the private sector for that same electricity, and the new tariffs are likely to reduce that still further.

Yes. I will look again at all three of the points raised by my hon. Friend. The level of the bulk supply tariff is a matter for the CEGB, and responsibility for rating policy rests with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. However, I am in touch with my colleagues at the Department of the Environment on this matter. On the matter of legislation, one of the objectives of the lead city studies is to identify possible legislative requirements. The Government have commissioned a study to review and consider the adequacy of existing legislation and, in the light of the results of that study and those of the lead cities, the Government will consider the need for legislative or regulatory changes.

Will the Minister accept that the cause for great public antipathy towards combined heat and power—individual metering for heat—has now been resolved and that metering expertise has managed to overcome the problem? In the light of that, will he consult further his right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment to find some way of encouraging local authorities to move down that road now that their inhibitions with regard to metering have been overcome?

Metering is just one of the many aspects of CHP. I stress once again that the Government want CHP district heating to go ahead where it is economically viable. However, the Government consider that the main responsibility for taking CHPDH forward lies with the private sector.

I assure my hon. Friend that the Leicester combined heat and power consortium, now known as Leicester Energy Ltd., is raring to go. It believes that cheaper heat will be distributed by 1991. It needs only three years for construction and the contracts. Reducing the rates, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mr. Rost), is the only thing holding it up. May we please have as much support as possible?

I compliment my hon. Friend and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Spencer) on their strong support for the Leicester CHP consortium. I was most encouraged by the fact that the consortium had agreed to form a heat utility company to take the project through to the next stage. I must pay tribute to my hon. Friends' contributions to that and to making Leicester an energy action city. I was delighted to see a special edition of the Leicester Mercury dealing with that.

Some time last year the Minister made a clear statement that we would have the rating assessment problems resolved. Time is now passing. Please may we have a commitment from the Minister that there will be a statement in the near future about the position of the rating assessments of CHP schemes?

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the Government accept that CHP schemes should be rated on an equal footing with the rest of the electricity supply industry. Therefore, we have been considering, with colleagues at the Department of the Environment, whether an early statement can be made to clarify the practical implications for CHP operators of the Government's decision in principle.

Coal Imports


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what assessment he has made of future trends of imports of coal for the remaining months of 1987.

Surely the hon. Gentleman must agree that it is nonsense to import foreign coal in the light of the fact that we have plenty of coal of our own and since the miners in this country are breaking productivity records every week? The Minister must also be aware that much of the foreign coal coming into this country is very unfairly heavily subsidised.

In 1979, when we inherited the coal industry from the Labour Government, the United Kingdom was a net importer of 2 million tonnes of coal every year. By 1983 we had converted that position and the United Kingdom was a net exporter of 2 million tonnes. Sadly, the strike destroyed that position. However, the best protection against imports for the United Kingdom coal industry lies in it achieving full production at prices that are competitive on the world market.

Will my hon. Friend assure the House that the Government will take no steps to prevent the import of coal? May I also inform him that the jobs of more than 600 men in my constituency depend on the import of coal? The constant attacks by Labour politicians aimed at banning coal imports would put a great many people in my constituency out of work.

I am happy to assure my hon. Friend that there are no restrictions on coal imports. However, judging by the productivity figures coming from the pits in the United Kingdom, the miners and management of British Coal have nothing to fear from the future.

British Coal


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he or his fellow Ministers last met the chairman of British Coal; what were the issues discussed; and if he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet the chairman of the Coal Board; and what subjects he expects to discuss.

I have regular meetings with the chairman of British Coal to discuss all aspects of the coal industry.

I am most grateful to the Secretary of State for his reply, although it was very brief. At the next meeting that the Secretary of State and his Ministers have with the chairman of British Coal, will they seek the chairman's views on the production of coal in the north-east of England relative to the possibility of establishing a new coal-fired power station in the area?

Most certainly. I discuss all the regional aspects. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is already a considerable demand for coal from existing industries in the north-east. I hope that that will continue.

My right hon. Friend will be aware that output at the Nottinghamshire coalfield reached an all-time high of 4·02 tonnes per man shift the other day and reached 5 tonnes per man shift in the Sherwood area. When my right hon. Friend has his discussions with the chairman of the Coal Board, will he suggest that the headquarters of the Coal Board are moved to the Nottinghamshire coalfield, as that is quite clearly where the future lies?

I endorse what my hon. Friend said about the remarkable production figures in north Nottinghamshire. The location of the headquarters of the Coal Board is a matter for the Coal Board. However, I know that the existing management is endeavouring to ensure that much of the existing management is devolved to the regions, where it would be thoroughly welcomed.

Will the Secretary of State discuss with the chairman of British Coal how, as a result of the real achievements in productivity resulting from the closure of a lot of the capacity and of continuing investment, British customers can be persuaded to buy British coal rather that develop a dependency upon dumped coal from overseas or insecure supplies from South Africa? In addition, will he ask the chairman of British Coal to be quite buoyant in his assessment of the situation, not least because in my constituency in the Kilnhurst part of the Manvers complex, which a few months ago British Coal was talking about closing, records are currently being broken?

I know that the hon. Gentleman has a keen interest in the coal industry. He should reflect on an industry which now has 42 per cent. fewer people than it had prior to the commencement of the overtime ban before the strike and is producing 97 per cent. of the coal—

As for any suggestion that they have been put on the dole, I am glad to say that many took early retirement and not one suffered compulsory redundancy. If there is a hope for coal now it is because of this Government's actions.

Has the Secretary of State discussed with the chairman of British Coal the progress that British Coal Enterprise Ltd. is making in creating jobs in areas hit by coal mine closures? Can he assure the House that British Coal Enterprise Ltd. has sufficient resources to do the job?

Yes, I can assure the House that, not only does British Coal Enterprise Ltd. have the resources to do the job, but when it runs out of the existing resources, those will be increased. It is doing a marvellous job of work and I am pleased to tell the House that we have heard that it has provided its fifteen thousandth job since it started.

As the Secretary of State knows, the chairman of British Coal undertook to review the question of sacked miners. Has he discussed this with the chairman and has he anything to report to the House?

Yes, the matter was discussed recently and I am told that there will be an announcement shortly.

Coal-Fired Power Stations


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what recent representations he has received from the Central Electricity Generating Board regarding requests to build coal-fired power stations.


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he has recently received any new applications from the Central Electricity Generating Board regarding construction of new coal-fired power stations.

The chairman of the CEGB has informed me that the board has concentrated its investigation of possible locations for new coal-fired power stations on five sites which it owns. Subject to the satisfactory completion of site investigations and other work, the board expects to select West Burton and Fawley and to make formal applications for consent to these stations by the end of this year. My intention on receiving such applications would be to consider each decision as quickly as possible.

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply. Is he aware that West Burton is in my constituency and that there will be no problems from the county or district council with regard to planning permission for a development that will be eagerly welcomed? As unemployment is now touching 20 per cent., is the right hon. Gentleman further aware that if he can speed up his decision and give it full force he will receive the maximum backing from the area?

I am pleased that the project will be of benefit to the area in terms of jobs and everything else. It also reflects the availability of coal in the area, where all productivity records are being broken. I believe that the feasibility of coal-fired power stations has resulted from the massive improvement in productivity under this Government.

Will my right hon. Friend accept the congratulations of all who believe in a balanced energy programme? Is he aware that his announcement will be greatly welcomed by the hard-pressed power construction industry? Are there any proposals in the pipeline for a coal-fired power station in the far south-west of England?

On the latter point, I have received no application and I know of no immediate proposal by the CEGB, which has informed me of its likely choices for the first two stations. It has already announced its intention to go ahead with Sizewell and to apply for one further PWR, so I think that that is the programme for the foreseeable future.

Does that exclude the possibility of a coal-fired power station in the north-east, which has the strongest case of all, in having higher unemployment than any other part of the United Kingdom except Northern Ireland? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that British Coal Enterprise Ltd. seems to be having no effect whatever in the north-east of England, and will he give some attention to that?

That is simply not true, as a substantial number of jobs have already been provided in the north-east. I referred to the siting of the first two power stations, but I did not say that the north-east was excluded for the future. The hon. Gentleman, with his great knowledge of the area, will know that orders for power stations, both nuclear and coal-fired, are of considerable benefit to the north-east.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there will be relief in my constituency that he has plumped for one site in Waterside and not for two, although there is still considerable debate as to whether the Fawley B side or the Marchwood side is best? Is he aware that there will also be relief that it is to be a coal-fired station rather than a nuclear one? Will he, nevertheless, give an undertaking that there will be the fullest public debate before the final go-ahead is given, as there are other anxieties, first, about the future of the north Solent area of outstanding natural beauty, secondly, about sulphur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power stations and, thirdly, about the appalling infrastructure of Waterside, which for too long has been a dumping ground for developments in Hampshire that others did not want? Does my right hon. Friend accept that if the development is to get past the planning hurdles as smoothly as one trusts will be the case in Burton there must be some trade-off in terms of improving the infrastructure and in particular the killer A326 road?

I am aware of my hon. Friend's great interest in possible developments in his constituency and the CEGB is anxious to recognise the environmental issues that he has raised. I am sure that in their discussions the planning authorities will not be disappointed at the interest shown by the board in those issues.

Before my right hon. Friend rushes off to approve too many coal-fired power stations, will he bear in mind the problem of emissions and acid rain, which concerns people, not only in this country, but our partners abroad, especially in Europe? Will he bear in mind also the regrettably much higher fatality rate for those mining coal and using it in various ways, compared to nuclear power? Will he bear all those factors in mind before he considers approving too many coal-fired power stations?

Yes. My hon. Friend has raised two important issues. On his environmental point about acid rain, all new coal-fired power stations have the best equipment to ensure that such problems are met as far as possible. The accident and fatality rates in the coal industry are serious problems which everybody hopes to improve in the years to come.

We welcome the proposed development of these new coal-fired power stations, which are long overdue. However, to return to a point made earlier by some of my hon. Friends, can the Secretary of State give an undertaking that British coal will be used in these new stations?

Such power stations would probably not have been possible but for the improved performance of British Coal during the lifetime of this Government. Provided that performance continues, and is enhanced, I am sure that the CEGB will continue to buy the bulk of its coal from the British coal industry as it does at present. It is in its vested interest to do so, provided it remains a safe and secure form of supply.

Conservation Schemes


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received in the past six months about the adequacy of existing energy conservation schemes.

I am announcing today a 33 per cent. increase in the administrative funding for community insulation projects from £296,000 to £391,000. Total funding will increase from £32 million in 1986–87 to £45 million in 1987–88, an increase of 41 per cent.

I hope that in the coming year 200,000 homes in the lower income groups will be insulated, and 8,000 jobs provided.

Can my right hon. Friend estimate the savings that will be effected by the improvements that he has announced?

No, I cannot, because of the diversity of housing concerned. However, we know that in the 300,000 houses that this programme has already tackled, there has been, not only a substantial improvement in cost savings to the families concerned, but a substantial improvement in their comfort. It is the combination of those effects, together with the jobs created, that makes the scheme so attractive.

The Secretary of State is obviously anxious to put a good gloss on the record that he has achieved. However, does he acknowledge that that record falls a long way short of the 20 per cent. saving that he, his Department and the EEC predict can be achieved through energy conservation? What will he do to plug that gap?

This scheme has made a 3,000 per cent. improvement on the record of the Lib-Lab Government.

While any improvement is to be welcomed, will the Secretary of State confirm that, even with that improvement, our position will still be by far the worst in western Europe?

Whereas our position became worse and worse under the previous Labour Government, it has become better and better under this Government.

What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with his colleagues in other Government Departments to ensure that the public sector, such as the Health Service, does a little more to cut public expenditure by improving energy efficiency?

I am glad to say that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services has personally pursued a major campaign with the regional hospital boards to ensure that the colossal savings that can be obtained by them are achieved. Likewise, my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Secretary of State for Defence are doing the same in their Departments. Those are three areas of big energy usage and I am glad that there are signs that considerable improvements in their performance will be achieved.

Will the Government's proposals not reduce and remove grants from millions of householders who do not have effective or adequate standards of home insulation? Is the Secretary of State aware that, in another Government Department, the MSC is cutting some community programmes that will affect the viability of some of the community energy projects, on which the Government, and all of us, depend?

No. The time should come when, if there is a dramatic improvement in a programme with which hon. Members on both sides of the House agree, Opposition Members should pay tribute to it, instead of carping. I suggest that the hon. Gentleman goes back and looks at the appalling record of the Labour Government.

British Coal (Investment Programme)


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what is his latest estimate of Government support for the investment programme of British Coal since 1979–80; and if he will make a statement.

Over £5,500 million has been invested in the coal industry since 1979.

While I thank my hon. Friend for that reply, which shows the Government's commitment to the mining industry, including Asfordby, may I ask him whether he will give priority to the miners of the south Leicestershire coalfield—99 per cent. Of whom live in my constituency—for the jobs in the future development of Asfordby?

I am pleased to assure my hon. Friend that the development at Asfordby is on schedule in terms of time and cost. I know how hard he and other hon. Friends have been lobbying on the future for the miners of south Leicestershire and I am pleased to tell him that the south midlands area management has assured me that such miners will have priority in transferring to Asfordby.

Can the Minister please say when pits other than Asfordby are expected to be opened, bearing in mind that the existing pits in Leicestershire are closing and the huge reservoir of extremely valuable and necessary coal in the Vale of Belvoir? Will it be before all the miners' skills have disappeared from those pits, which are emptying of people?

I wish thatthe hon. and learned Gentleman would cease his negative attitude towards the future of the men in this area. There is a marvellous prospect at south Warwickshire and a tremendous development at Asfordby. Provided that the miners in the area continue the tremendous advances in productivity, their future is extremely bright.

British Coal Productivity


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement about the latest available productivity figures for British Coal.

I am pleased to say that for the week ending 20 March average deep-mined revenue output per man shift was at the record level of 3·72 tonnes, compared with the provisional figure of 3·70 tonnes. Clearly this underlines the potential of our great coal industry.

Does my hon. Friend agree that the constantly improving productivity record of British Coal is a vindication of the Government's policy of investment in the industry and of the miners' attitude in accepting responsible and flexible working practices to justify that investment? Does he further agree that the single greatest obstacle to the continued progress of the industry is the attitude and actions of the president of the National Union of Mineworkers, currently evidenced by his attacks on his members in south Wales?

I agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend said. The Government are providing the investment needed to secure future productivity growth. I am pleased to say that we are now beginning a £2 billion further investment programme over the next three years, which is an important expression of confidence in the industry's ability to improve its productivity still further. As I have said previously, the only power left to the president of the NUM is control over the Opposition's energy policy.

Does the Minister accept that productivity is calculated in many ways, including loss of manpower, and that the loss of 70,000 men has contributed to increased production? Is it not a fact that if he does not keep track of imports of coal and plans carefully, increasing productivity, the possibility of increased shift time and increased investment could lead to colliery closures?

The hon. Gentleman, too, is expressing a pessimistic view that flies in the face of the facts. Although manpower has been reduced in the coal industry, output has not, and that is a remarkable tribute to the achievements of the men. Productivity is measured by output per man shift, and that measurement showed that productivity fell each year between 1974 and 1979 under the Government whom he supported.

Can my hon. Friend relate productivity to capital investment? That is a measure of efficiency, without which a false impression may be gathered.

The evidence is that a great deal of the increase in productivity is due to investment, particularly in heavy duty machinery for new coal faces. Of course I shall give my hon. Friend the information that he seeks.

As south Wales had its highest ever level of productivity last week, will the Minister confirm that, if the Margam project were operational, £41 million would be saved in coking coal imports and £15 million in domestic coal imports? Therefore, will he give every encouragement to the Margam project and make sure that the necessary grants and loans are made available as soon as possible?

I join the hon. Lady in congratulating south Wales miners on achieving an output per man shift of 3·29 tonnes. It is a remarkable achievement. Indeed, south Wales has demonstrated its confidence in the future by entering into discussions and agreeing six-day working at Margam. The line taken by the Leader of the Opposition in welcoming that decision is again in stark contrast to the line taken by the president of the NUM.

Sizewell B


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received since he announced his decision on the Sizewell B nuclear power station.

My right hon. Friend and I have received 36 letters about Sizewell B following the announcement of his decision.

Notwithstanding that answer, does the Minister accept that there is widespread public concern about the safety aspects of PWRs? Many people are not convinced that the project is in the best energy interests of the country and also do not believe that the economic case is correct.

I regret to say that the hon. Gentleman is quite wrong. The decision has been broadly welcomed. The effect that he mentioned was not evident in our debate on nuclear power last week, when the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) was alone on the Labour Benches and made Horatio on the bridge look like a team player.

In view of my hon. Friend's interesting answer, does he agree that either the information provided by the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike)—namely, that there is widespread public concern about Sizewell—is incorrect, or that concern is expressed only among the illiterate?

Does the Minister accept the view put forward by the chairman of the Central Electricity Generating Board that the Sizewell decision has opened the way to a family of PWRs, or does he accept the Layfield view that Sizewell presents an opportunity to test the claims made on behalf of PWRs?

As yet, my right hon. Friend has received no further applications. He will consider each one on its merits.

Electricity Supply (Privatisation)


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received in favour of the privatisation of the electricity supply industry; and if he will make a statement.

I have received a number of representations on this matter. The Government have no present plans to privatise the electricity supply industry.

In view of the remarkable success of the privatisation of the gas industry and the benefits that have stemmed from it for the industry and the consumer, is there not a sound case for pressing ahead with the privatisation of the electricity industry as speedily as possible? Will the Minister consider the possibility, not of a blanket share issue, but of separate stock for separate area boards?

I agree with my hon. Friend. British Gas has been an outstanding success, as 5 million ordinary people are willing to validate, including many customers and virtually all the employees of British Gas. In any consideration of the future of the electricity supply industry one must consider the lessons to he learnt from British Gas.

When considering any representations that are made to the Secretary of State regarding the privatisation of the electricity supply industry, will he assure the House that thermal nuclear power stations will not be operated by the private sector?

As we have no plans for privatisation, I have no comments to make on any details of such a scheme, should it take place in the future. I can only assure the hon. Gentleman that, we took great care and made a great success of British Gas, and we shall do the same in any future privatisation of any other industry.

Coal Industry (Productivity And Investment)


asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will arrange to meet leaders of the National Union of Mineworkers to discuss productivity and investment in the coal industry; and if he will make a statement

I am always happy to meet the representatives of unions in the coal industry to discuss matters of mutual interest.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. In view of the widespread welcome that there appears to be on both sides of the House for the decision in south Wales, would it not be appropriate for my right hon. Friend to meet the NUM and to remind it of the fruits that can be available to it if it accepts new working practices? Does my right hon. Friend agree that no other Government could possibly have achieved the present situation unless the rule of terror practised by Mr. Arthur Scargill had been broken by the Government's persistence?

It is remarkable that the great majority of south Wales miners are in favour of the new project for a six-day week. The Leader of the Opposition has come out in support of them, the Welsh TUC also supports them, and seemingly the one great opponent is the president of the National Union of Mineworkers. I hope that the members of the NUM will put appropriate pressure on him.

There is always support for new jobs, but is the Minister aware of the genuine fear that the high productivity now being achieved will mean no jobs for school leavers in coal mining areas, and that the continuing increase in output, plus nuclear power stations, the high price of electricity and giving pensioners only a £5 heating bonus means that ultimately there will be an energy mountain and mass unemployment, in the same way as there is a butter mountain—except that farmers get the subsidy?

Earlier, in relation to a question about whether a power station would be built in his constituency, the hon. Gentleman seemingly rejoiced at the jobs that would be created. He now suggests that we go back to colossal overmanning in the coal industry, which will make it totally non-competitive for such power stations.

Is my right hon. Friend concerned about the recent report, not only about the cost of British coal for producing energy and thereby the cost to industry, but about overmanning in the electricity supply industry?

It is not in the interests of any industry to continue with the practice of overmanning. The coal industry is a perfect example of where we have cut uneconomic pits and replaced them; and so far British Coal Enterprise Ltd., has provided 15,000 new jobs in expanding industries.

Nuclear Power


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what representations he has received concerning the expenditure of public money by his Department on the promoting of nuclear power.

My right hon. Friend and I have received many representations about the importance of informing the public of the facts about the safety of nuclear power and its economic and strategic benefits.

Why are the Government spending considerable amounts of public money on a PR hype for the nuclear industry, including jamborees to Sellafield involving the Flying Scotsman and the Workington brass band, when the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate is grossly under-staffed and under-funded? The Government have asked the CEGB to investigate itself at Hinkley Point, but it has failed to keep Sellafield safe and is miles behind in its 20-year review of Magnox nuclear stations.

Public confidence in nuclear power is vital and will be brought about only through the full knowledge of the true facts. To this end, successive Governments have funded a programme of public information through the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. The authority's task is to provide clear and accurate information on the nature and uses of civil nuclear power. The industry is sometimes wrongly castigated for being secretive. It is extremely unfair to blame that industry when it is being informative. I am satisfied that the NIL is able to maintain safety standards in exercising its statutory role. There is absolutely no question of safety at our installations being prejudiced. The chief inspector has categorically stated that his priority is the safety of operating installations and that he has sufficient staff resources to discharge that essential aim.

Is it not extraordinary that hardly a day passes in this Chamber when the Opposition parties do not whinge about the so-called decline in our manufacturing base, yet they do everything possible to oppose Britain becoming more competitive by opposing cheap nuclear energy that gives a competitive edge to our opponents, particularly to the French?

My hon. Friend is correct. There is no consistency in the Opposition parties.

The Minister has just said that he wants to give as much information and to be as open as possible. Therefore, could he comment on the AGR accident at Hartlepool? Why has no statement been made so far by the Government, and can he tell us the cost of that accident to date?

The CEGB has made a perfectly open statement about that. I shall certainly let the right hon. Gentleman know about the costs when they have been ascertained.

Coal Industry (Six-Day Working)


asked the Secretary of State for Energy what discussions he has had with British Coal about the implications of an extension of six-day working in the industry for United Kingdom energy policy.

Any change in working practices in the coal industry is, of course, a matter for negotiation between British Coal and the mining unions concerned.

I thank my hon. Friend for his answer. I welcome the statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy about the building of two new coal-fired power stations. Does my hon. Friend agree that the CEGB made its commitment to the coal industry because of the decision of the south Wales miners in accepting six-day coaling and the record productivity in Nottinghamshire, making electricity generation from coal more competitive than other energy sources?

I welcome the positive approach by the south Wales NUM to British Coal's proposals for six-day coaling at Margam. My hon. Friend is right. The message coming loud and clear from the pits is that the men and management are prepared to work with this massive record investment by the Government and to produce these fantastic productivity figures.