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Energy: Government Department

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 27 February 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they are considering the creation of a separate department, at Cabinet level, to deal with energy in all its aspects.

My Lords, there are currently no plans for the creation of a separate department to deal with energy in all its aspects.

My Lords, does the noble Lord recall that, when the former Department of Energy was abolished in 1992, there was an abundant supply of oil, coal, gas and other energy sources, prices were low and the environment was not a major item on the agenda? Is not the situation now entirely different? We face a serious threat of energy insecurity, prices are high, fuel poverty is a serious social issue and the environment is very high on the agenda. In those circumstances, should not the Government seriously consider, along with other apparent changes in departmental responsibilities, the re-creation of a Department of Energy at Cabinet level to bring a focus to those crucial issues, as cogently argued by the noble Lords, Lord Whitty, Lord Patten, Lord Palmer, and others?

My Lords, the noble Lord is right that the energy position is vastly different from that in 1992. The Government recognise that in their policies on energy supply and its guarantee, and environmental issues. The noble Lord will not mind if I say on this occasion that not all issues are reducible to the machinery of government, but he will recognise that collaboration between government departments is important in this area, and a Cabinet committee chaired by the Prime Minister deals with energy and the environment.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that, as the last Secretary of State for energy, I agree entirely with his answer? It is not the reshaping of portfolios that is required but the right decisions. There are some very tricky decisions to be made, and it is about time that the Government got on and made some of them.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for his first comment. These decisions are a little more than tricky; they are very difficult indeed. The future and well-being of our people and the future of the wider environment in terms of world climate change depend upon our following the right strategy. That is why the Government are making the environmental dimension such a high priority. The climate change Bill will be brought before this House in the very near future. However, I agree with the noble Lord wholeheartedly that the issue revolves around accurate and correct decision-taking by government.

My Lords, with renewable energy being so important and, rightly, now at the top of the Government’s agenda, four different ministerial departments currently have to deal with renewable energy issues. Given that, does the Minister agree that the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has great merit?

My Lords, the noble Lord will recognise that, because of the diverse nature of renewable energy sources, the issues will always span more than one department. So the issue is the overall strategy that the Government need to pursue and the targets they need to hit rather than the creation of specific government departments.

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord can help me. In our recent debate on the electricity industry, I referred to the appointment in the DTI of Mr Mark Higson as head of its nuclear consultation and liabilities team. I believe that his role will be to remove the barriers to new nuclear build. Does the noble Lord recognise that this includes responsibility for radioactive waste management policy? With the Select Committee studying this issue, we recently saw a Defra Minister. Who is now actually responsible for radioactive waste policy? Is it Defra or is it Mr Higson in the DTI?

My Lords, the Government draw on expertise wherever they can in tackling these issues, but the lead department with responsibility for nuclear waste management policy is Defra.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned the climate change Bill. Can he confirm that a substantial climate change Bill will be brought forward during this Session rather than having, as was reported in the press recently, just a pre-legislative session as opposed to consideration of a full Bill? Can he confirm that the full legislation will come before Parliament during this Session?

My Lords, the noble Lord’s Benches are the most enthusiastic about pre-legislative scrutiny of any government Bill. I can at least promise him that there will be pre-legislative scrutiny, so he ought to be entirely satisfied.

My Lords, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, identified, Mr Higson’s role is in the Department of Trade and Industry.

My Lords, I am answering questions for the Cabinet Office on the machinery of government, so it is not entirely surprising that I do not have itemised in my brief the contribution made by every civil servant to this issue. Although I have the greatest respect for that official’s role and the contribution he will make, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, asked me about the responsible department, and I answered that question accurately.

My Lords, does the Minister believe that there is any virtue in the suggestion that when someone, even in the Cabinet, proposes the creation of a new department, they should simultaneously nominate a department that should be got rid of instead?

My Lords, I wish to follow the point made by my noble friend Lord Teverson. The Minister said that the climate change Bill would be before the House “in the very near future”. Will he confirm that that is what he meant by those words, and will he define “the very near future”?

My Lords, I was describing the process of pre-legislative scrutiny, on which the noble Lord had questioned me. I merely indicated that we would be engaged in that process in the very near future. I recognise that we are not as far advanced with the climate change Bill as we had once hoped, but there is no doubt about the importance that the Government attach to this legislation. It is equally important that we get it right, and pre-legislative scrutiny will contribute to that.

My Lords, do the Government prefer arrogance or incompetence as the explanation for their role leading to the High Court’s decision on the nuclear energy case last week?

My Lords, the Government have recognised the High Court decision; we are abiding by it and are therefore extending the consultation. The whole House will recognise the enormous pressures on the Government on energy decisions—much of it from many parts of this House with regard to nuclear development. Nevertheless, the High Court indicated that the consultation had not been as extensive as it might have been. The Government will ensure that extensive consultation takes place before decisions are taken.