This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.

1 December 2005

Future Energy Needs (Scotland)

1 Dec 2005 : Column 151WH

Westminster Hall

Thursday 1 December 2005

[Mr. David Amess in the Chair]

Future Energy Needs (Scotland)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Watts.]

Mr. Mohammad Sarwar (Glasgow, Central) (Lab): It is nice to see so many colleagues from different political parties, particularly the million man from Scotland, the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell).

I thank colleagues on the Liaison Committee for supporting my bid for a Westminster Hall debate. Given the reports in recent weeks that we face the harshest winter for decades, energy crises, possible power cuts and strikes by gas engineers, and the small matter of the Prime Minister's speech to the CBI, the debate is timely. I pay tribute to my predecessor as Chairman of the Scottish Affairs Committee, Baroness Adams. The day after our report was published, a letter from Alan Wilson, chief executive of the Scottish Council for Development and Industry, was printed in The Herald. It stated:

    "Anyone doubting the continuing usefulness of the strong Scottish voice at Westminster should read the excellent report . . . by the Scottish Affairs Committee".

The fact that our strong Scottish voice produced such an excellent report was due in no small part to the leadership of Baroness Adams.

I thank members of the Select Committee in the previous Parliament, some of whom are present today and who may try to catch your eye, Mr. Amess. I wish to mention former Committee colleagues such as John Lyons and Peter Duncan, both of whom demonstrated a keen interest in energy and other key issues that face Scotland. Perhaps they will be returned to serve at Westminster in future, although I do not know for which constituencies. As always, I am grateful to our Clerk and his hard-working team for their tremendous support of the Committee. The inquiry on energy needs was typical of inquiries held by the Scottish Affairs Committee—it was short, sharp and highly effective. We took formal evidence on four occasions and undertook two informal visits.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and I should declare an interest in that I receive support from the Sustainable Energy Partnership for my current private Member's Bill.

I accept that the general election got in the way of proceedings, but does my hon. Friend agree that the report might have carried more weight if the Committee had called more than one independent witness who is well known for having a particular view in favour of nuclear power? Professor Lovelock is a well known
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 152WH
 
scientist, but I am not sure that he is an expert on the economics of the energy industry, which, after all, is what the report should have been about.

Mr. Sarwar : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. His views, along with those of other members of the Committee, will be taken on board.

I have an apology to make on behalf of the Committee. At paragraph 7 of the report, we listed those whom the Committee met in Sacramento, but omitted to mention the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. That was an oversight and I am happy to rectify it. Hon. Members who are attending the debate will have read our report and the Government's response. I thank the Minister for that response and look forward to his contribution today. I shall not repeat the arguments that are set out in the report, but will seek to move the debate forward. I shall be brief so that other hon. Members have time to speak.

We identified three fundamental issues and produced 12 recommendations. The first point is the job prospects for people employed at the Dounreay plant when it is finally decommissioned. We are pleased to note that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will continue to work closely with local communities. That will lessen the impact of decommissioning and the ultimate closure of sites such as Dounreay. Although not a recommendation, we suggest that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority might usefully make contact with the authorities in Zion City in Illinois. They impressed the Committee in relation to tackling problems similar to those that face Dounreay. Shortly after the publication of the report, UKAEA wrote to confirm that it had followed our suggestion and looked forward to learning from the Zion City experience. I welcome that positive response to our comments. UKAEA is making every effort to look after its work force.

Dounreay contributes approximately £80 million to the highlands through salaries, pensions, contracts and subcontracts. Help must be given to Caithness and the rest of the highlands to overcome the problems that might be faced in a few years' time.

The second issue tackled by the Committee is the long-term strategy for the management of radioactive waste, with a focus on intermediate-level waste. Until people feel that existing waste has been safely disposed of, the matter could affect their views on any option to generate electricity through nuclear power stations. We hope that next July's target date for a final decision on how to manage such waste is not allowed to slip. The Government's response confirmed that that target date will be met.

The Committee also comments on disturbing reports that radioactive waste was not dealt with properly at Dounreay. Unfortunately, our timetable meant that we were unable to ask UKAEA for its comments. It accepted that, but was disappointed that it did not have the opportunity to set the record straight. If there had been time, it would have advised us that the stories related to things happening decades ago and lacked relevance to current practices at the site. I am pleased to put that rebuttal on the record now.

The report's final strand asks how the energy shortfall can be met once nuclear power no longer provides for Scotland's energy needs. There is no single solution, and
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 153WH
 
no "silver bullet", as the Government put it. It is fair to suggest that nobody seriously advocates sole reliance on either renewables or conventional energy. Scotland has tremendous potential for renewable energy. In the Committee, hon. Members championed diverse forms of energy production. Some favoured wind power; others favoured wave, solar, coal or nuclear power.

It is generally accepted that a mix of energy forms will be needed. The debate now rests on three vital questions: which energy forms should be the market leaders? What mix of energy forms is most appropriate? Is there a future for nuclear power stations? I hope the Minister has time to address some issues on which the Government's position is not immediately clear.

The response to our second recommendation states:

    "It is not for Government to reserve particular shares for individual technologies."

That is true, but I would welcome research on which emerging technology is most appropriate for Scotland and which is the most costly for taxpayers and consumers. If such information exists, it would be useful for it to be published.

It also seems that the Government could have replied more fully to our recommendations on demonstrating their commitment to the UK coal industry. Will the Minister confirm that the Government believe that the industry has a future and that they would underwrite the costs of installing sulphur and carbon dioxide capture equipment? Is the £25 million mentioned in the response all that the coal industry would receive?

Finally, the most contentious aspect of the report is the suggestion that it might be time to consider the rehabilitation of nuclear power. As we say in the report, nuclear fusion seems

    "a . . . benign and efficient way of producing electricity".

It offers one solution to global energy needs, but it could be decades before such a reactor is available. The decision must be taken urgently as to whether the Government should build new advanced gas-cooled reactors or pressurised water reactors, or even update existing reactors. I hope the Minister addresses the pressing concerns about that.

The Scottish Parliament and the Executive would be responsible for granting planning permission for the building of any new power stations. Such permission could not be assumed. What would the Government's approach be if they decided that new nuclear power stations were needed? Would they legislate for new stations and be optimistic that Members of the Scottish Parliament would pass a Sewel motion to allow Westminster to legislate on a devolved matter? If it was decided to update existing nuclear stations, would consent still be needed from Holyrood? What if no consent was forthcoming from the Executive? Would the Government close down Hunterston B in 2011, as planned, and simply rely on electricity from England or Norway? Although we are discussing Scotland's future energy needs, this issue is of pressing relevance to much of the UK.

Mr. Brian H. Donohoe (Central Ayrshire) (Lab): I commend the report to all our colleagues: it is excellent
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 154WH
 
and one that should have been produced some time ago, given the circumstances. However, is it not also the case that, with the recent advent of increasing prices, there is a place for a further report to update us on Scotland's energy needs? In my constituency, about 400 jobs were recently lost as a consequence of high energy costs. A survey was undertaken by three of the biggest users. One, Caledonian Paper, is the single biggest user of electricity. Its costs have increased by some 120 per cent. over the last year.

Mr. Sarwar : I agree with my hon. Friend that the price increases to domestic consumers and to industry are unwelcome. If we want to secure the future of industry in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom, we must have a proper consultation on our future energy needs and whether they can be met through nuclear power, coal or other means. We should have a proper debate on the issue and meet the challenge head on.

Mr. Alan Reid (Argyll and Bute) (LD): The hon. Gentleman is right to say that more consultation and investigation are required. Will his Committee undertake to carry out an inquiry to find out the total cost of generating electricity by nuclear power? Decommissioning and dealing with the waste should be included so that we know the cost, with all aspects of nuclear power involved.

Mr. Sarwar : I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there needs to be proper costing so that we know the affordability and competitiveness of sources of energy. It is easy to say that nuclear energy is probably a cheap option, but when decommissioning and waste management are taken into consideration, they increase the budget. We must take all those factors into account before we make a final decision.

Mr. Jimmy Hood (Lanark and Hamilton, East) (Lab): If the Committee decides to carry out such an inquiry, which I would welcome, will it also—to be even-handed—look into the cost of importing 70 per cent. of the gas that our country will need in another 10 years and make the comparisons? There are also the issues of security of supply and where the gas comes from to consider.

Mr. Sarwar : I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Of course, it is important to remember that when we make ourselves dependent on other countries by importing gas as a source of energy and in order to produce electricity, that factor, as well as the reliability of the source, must be taken into consideration.

Mr. Mike Weir (Angus) (SNP): I am listening intently to what the hon. Gentleman is saying. I am particularly interested in what he is saying about security of supply and cost. However, if he is talking about a nuclear future, can he tell us about the security of supply and cost of uranium?

Mr. Sarwar : All those issues must be discussed properly, which is why we are urging that there should be a proper debate and consultation. I will probably not agree with the hon. Gentleman on his point, which is
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 155WH
 
that even if we have to live in the dark, with no electricity, and even if our industry has to pay double or triple prices, we still should not go for nuclear energy. I will not rule out nuclear energy, but I stress that we should explore all the options available to us.

Mr. Weir : Is the hon. Gentleman assuming that we can survive only with nuclear? We have not had that discussion yet. Is that not the point of this debate?

Mr. Sarwar : No one form of energy production is perfect. There are drawbacks to each system, whether coal, nuclear, solar, wave or biomass. We should debate such issues in the larger interest of the community and consider what the views of industry and domestic consumers would be if prices were two or three times higher because energy or electricity was being produced from one source.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): One trigger for the report was the concern about the United Kingdom's declining gas supply. Was there any reason for the Committee choosing not to consider what could be done about the industry on our own doorstep, to ensure that it maximised its benefits and contributions to the UK economy? It may be reaching its peak, but there is still a long future to be had if it is managed properly.

Mr. Sarwar : We had to have a cut-off date because we did not know when the election would be called. That is why we could not produce a comprehensive report. We did not even ask UKAEA to get involved. There were some negative stories in the media, and we did not have time to ask its opinion on those issues.

I thank hon. Members for listening to me and for their many interventions.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. David Amess (in the Chair): Order. There is a large attendance this afternoon. I want to call everyone who wishes to speak, but, as I am entirely in the hands of the House, all I can do is ask for speeches to be brief.

David Mundell (Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale) (Con): I have a strong constituency interest in the energy industry. My constituency encompasses most of the issues that are covered in the report. In the northern end are some of the largest open-cast mining developments in Europe, and clean coal technology should not be forgotten in the debate. I am not, as sometimes portrayed, against open-cast mining. I welcome SPP16, the Scottish Executive's new planning policy on open-cast, but those, such as Scottish Coal in my constituency, who operate open-cast mining must pay more attention to the concerns of residents and communities such as Douglas, Glespin and Rigside.

The Lockerbie area in my constituency is about to get the largest biomass station in the United Kingdom. E.ON is at present constructing it, and I welcome that station and the power that it will produce. The plant will provide for the needs of some 70,000 homes and displace
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 156WH
 
the emission of 140,000 tonnes of greenhouse gas annually. I very much welcome such renewable developments.

What I do not welcome is the industrialisation of the Scottish countryside by large-scale wind farm developments which, regrettably, are the obsession of the Scottish Executive. Because my constituency borders the M74, which is the line of the national grid, we are inundated with applications. In fact, there are currently applications for 421 turbines, which are each of the scale of Big Ben, within a 15 km radius of the latest proposed development at Limmer Hill in South Lanarkshire. That is simply unacceptable.

Fortunately, in this House we do not have the lunacy that we had from the Green politicians in the Scottish Parliament. I condemn Greens for not speaking out against the large-scale wind farm developments that industrialise the countryside. The proposed Clyde wind farm near Abington in my constituency, for example, would have required more quarrying and concrete than the construction of the M74 motorway. I am at a loss as to how that can be regarded as environmentally friendly.

Our Green friends believe that the production of those massive turbines is a physical manifestation of their progress in making the Green argument. At least they are consistent, unlike the Scottish National party, which always tells us of its support for Scotland becoming a hub for renewable industry in Europe and the world, but opposes every single wind farm development that comes along. That is simply unsustainable. Those of us who represented the south of Scotland know that Christine Graham, of whom I am a great admirer, is one of the most redoubtable opponents of wind farm policy in the south of Scotland.

Mr. Weir : I am interested to hear what the hon. Gentleman says, but he must realise that throughout all parties there has been some opposition and some support for wind farms. Since he is telling us about the Tories' opposition to wind farms, will he tell me why, of the three wind farms proposed in Angus, the Tories strongly opposed two, and about the third, which happens to be on land owned by a prominent local Tory, they have not uttered a word?

David Mundell : I am not familiar with the individual circumstances of the hon. Gentleman's constituency. We have made it clear that we are not opposed to every wind farm development, but we are absolutely opposed to large-scale wind farm developments. We are dispelling the metropolitan belief that wind farms somehow provide small communities with cheap or free electricity, when in fact their scale overwhelms small communities to no economic benefit.

I may feel on my own as the sole Conservative Scottish MP at Westminster, but I felt very much on my own six years ago in the Scottish Parliament, as one of the few proponents of the nuclear industry. In the Scottish Parliament it was an unpopular stance. Then, as now, I believed passionately in the nuclear industry, and I made that case.

Fortunately, Scottish Parliament Labour Members such as John Home Robertson and the Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Allan Wilson,
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 157WH
 
came on board. Even Liberal Democrats such as Jamie Stone made the case for nuclear power. I am pleased to see the emergence of a Scottish Parliament nuclear group. The dinner held jointly by the Westminster all-party nuclear energy group and the Scottish Parliament group was a positive step forward.

One of the main impediments to the nuclear industry in Scotland comes sadly from our First Minister, Mr. Jack McConnell, who only last week in the Scottish Parliament was back to his more negative pronouncements on the nuclear industry. I do not know whether it has something to do with keeping the Liberal Democrats happy, but I do not think that many people in this Chamber would regard it as a priority. Nor do I know whether it is to do with newspaper talk of a possible coalition with the Greens after 2007. However, Mr. McConnell must present a more positive tone in his discussion of the nuclear industry.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): I want to make a point from south of the border in support of my hon. Friend's contribution. Is it not the case that Scotland has played a leading role in the development of Britain's nuclear industry, and that Britain's nuclear industry has played a leading role in the world development of nuclear technology? Scotland should hold its head up high and be proud of its involvement in this technology.

David Mundell : I agree with my hon. Friend. I have evidence for that in my constituency at the Chapelcross nuclear power station, which has been a centre of expertise, not just for the nuclear industry, but in terms of the amount that it has contributed to the local economy and development in that area.

When people ask, "Where will we build the new nuclear power stations?" I have a clear answer, as do my constituents and the Nuklear 21 trade union group. We will build them on existing sites, such as Chapelcross, Torness or Hunterston, where the communities clearly understand the benefits that these stations have brought the community. For example, some £29 million a year over the equivalent of 50 years has been brought to Lower Annandale. It is clear that my constituents, reflecting broader public opinion on this issue, would welcome new nuclear development at the Chapelcross site.

One of the things that I should like the Minister to take forward from today's debate and convey to the Prime Minister is that although I welcome his review—it is a pity that we are constantly in a cycle of reviews and that some of these decisions were not taken six years ago—I want him to be clear that despite what he may hear from SNP members, who are determined to use this issue as a constitutional bulwark, and despite what he might hear coming out of the Scottish Parliament, many people in Scotland are positive about future nuclear development. If we are to have further nuclear power in the United Kingdom, at least one of those sites should be in Scotland.

Mr. Tom Harris (Glasgow, South) (Lab): I am grateful to the shadow of Secretary of State for Scotland
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 158WH
 
for giving way. [Laughter.] I did not want him to continue with his speech without making something clear.

The hon. Gentleman seemed to misrepresent the view of the First Minister, as far as nuclear power is concerned. The First Minister has been clear that there would be problems with the planning permission for new nuclear power stations, but only while there remains a question mark over the safe disposal of nuclear waste. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman made that clear. Jack McConnell has not said an absolute no to nuclear power in Scotland.

David Mundell : Indeed, the hon. Gentleman is right, and if he had listened carefully to what I said, he would know that it is the tone of Mr. McConnell's approach to the nuclear issue that needs to change. Mr. McConnell needs to make it clear that if the UK Government determine that we will have future-generation nuclear power, such a power station would be welcomed in Scotland. That is what I want to hear Mr. McConnell say.

It is a red herring to suggest that we cannot proceed with planning for new nuclear power stations at the same time as the waste committee is meeting and making its deliberation. That is wasting time on these issues.

We have a debate, which is welcome. I would welcome a further report by the Scottish Affairs Committee on all the issues that are likely to come up today. However, as the Committee identified in its original report, we face the danger of the lights going out. It would be unacceptable to the public in Scotland and throughout the UK if politicians were still debating this issue as the lights went out.

Mark Lazarowicz : The hon. Gentleman has a great deal of passion about this issue, and people have been passionate about it in different parts of the debate. However, it is important for all of us to try to be dispassionate in analysing the facts and figures.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that anyone could build a nuclear power station now, if they thought that it was a financially sensible thing to do. That is not happening, so it is widely accepted that the development of nuclear power would require some sort of subsidy or intervention in the market to make it possible. Can the hon. Gentleman, being—from time to time—a good right-wing Tory, tell us which type of market intervention or how large a subsidy he would want to see to make nuclear power possible?

David Mundell : Mr. Amess, I am being characterised in all sorts of ways this afternoon, and being given designations that are not necessarily accurate.

The reason that no-one is proceeding now with nuclear development is that it clearly does not have general Government support. Indeed, in Scotland it clearly does not have Scottish Executive support, because noises are not being made to support and promote the industry. As I have just said, if Mr. Jack McConnell stands up and says that he would welcome and, indeed, encourage new nuclear development in Scotland—with all the jobs and economic development
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 159WH
 
that such a station would bring to the area in which it was located—then we would see a seminal change regarding the industry.

Several hon. Members rose—

David Mundell : I am seeking to conclude my remarks, to allow others to speak on this important topic, but I will take an intervention from the hon. Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr. Brown).

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): I am delighted that the hon. Member for Dumfriesshire, Clydesdale and Tweeddale (David Mundell) has given way. As he is my local MP, I would have been disappointed if he had not. He has given a clear indication that there has been delay in all this. What part within that did the failed privatisation of British Energy cause?

David Mundell : I must advise my constituent that it has not been as significant as the failure of the Government, since 1997, to back the industry fully. But I assure the hon. Gentleman, and all my constituents in Annan, that I am in the front line of making the case for the nuclear industry. I hope he will continue to work hard within his own party to persuade the doubters. I also hope that proceeding with new nuclear power across the United Kingdom, including Scotland, will not fall foul of certain members of the Labour Party not being keen on that development. I am sure that we will hear a positive endorsement of the nuclear industry from those Members, which the Minister may take back to the Prime Minister.

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Thank you, Mr. Amess, for allowing me the opportunity to speak. It is important that we do not have a misrepresentation of the facts, and that we stick to what is true, in order to have an informed debate rather than a slanging match between people whose names I am unsure of. But I digress.

At this point, I should declare that I am chair of the all-party nuclear energy group. Over the past few weeks, the question of nuclear build has become a major news item and been given considerable time in the media. The Scottish Affairs Committee, in deciding to hold its review of Scotland's energy needs, looked at all forms of energy. Scotland, in particular, has been extremely fortunate in its rich abundance of oil and gas, but it is recognised that all those reserves are in decline. We are now a net importer of gas, and it is estimated that we will depend on gas imports for around 70 per cent. of our future energy needs. Those imports will be from Russia and countries in the middle east, which may be regarded as less than stable.

Other problems have become apparent in a world that uses more and more natural energy resources. While living in a market economy, we will have to compete with the US, China and India—and even those within the European family—for energy supplies. In a market-driven economy, what price gas and oil in a world vying for diminishing energy sources?
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 160WH
 

Some say that we previously depended on imported energy, but surely we all recognise that world energy demand is increasing at an alarming rate. We will have to compete in a free-market economy for our gas supplies, which will result in the highest bidder winning the supply. What price gas and oil in those circumstances? At a time when we are looking to make poverty history, what chance does Africa have?

Another factor is that in Scotland the largest contributor to our energy supply is nuclear power—the 2003 figures show that the relevant figure is more than 37 per cent. The industry has an outstanding safety record. That is why I welcome the recent media attention. If such interest leads to a grown-up, open and informed debate about nuclear energy, security of supply and our future energy needs, the media will have done this country a real service. It is about time they stopped seeking sensational headlines and represented the facts about our energy future to the nation.

Mr. Weir : The hon. Gentleman has made a valid point about the need to import gas and the security of supply, but does he accept that if we opt for new nuclear build we will also have to access uranium? There is a finite supply of uranium in the developed world, which means that if we have nuclear power stations requiring uranium, we will end up importing it from unstable countries of the sort that we now rely on for natural gas.

John Robertson : I am sure that the unstable position of Canada will come as an extreme shock to the people there. I am quite happy to bandy around the facts. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is more than enough uranium to last quite a few lifetimes, never mind his and mine. If he does not agree, I am happy to furnish him with the information so that he might become a convert somewhere on the road to Damascus.

Mr. Hood : Is it not the case that new build nuclear facilities will produce a tenth of the waste of the existing nuclear power stations?

John Robertson : My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is even better than he says: if we had 60 power stations for 60 years, we would be talking about a tenth of what we have already used. The waste in question is not part of the argument. The waste we currently have and what we do with it is where the real argument lies.

Sir Robert Smith : The hon. Gentleman talked about the market and predicted high prices, long-term, for energy. Why is the market not saying, "We will build new nuclear power stations now."? The Prime Minister triggered an argument with his review. He will be considering what extra incentives have to be given and what financial burdens have to be put on users to achieve viability, because there is no physical impediment to building new nuclear power stations. The impediment, currently, is economic.

John Robertson : I disagree with the hon. Gentleman, because I see part of the impediment straight across the Chamber from me: parties such as his have caused so many problems in the planning area that it has become practically impossible for anybody to have a new build anywhere in this country. Perhaps planning and how we
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 161WH
 
go about arranging whether planning permission should be given are issues that we need to examine in relation to new build.

Mr. Tom Harris : Was my hon. Friend lucky enough to catch the interview with Iain Smith MSP on "Newsnight" the night before last? He perfectly encapsulated the Liberal Democrat position on nuclear energy, which is that the party is perfectly open minded on every option, provided it is not nuclear. Is that not the equivalent of Henry Ford saying, "You can have any colour of car you want, provided it is black."?

John Robertson : My hon. Friend makes a valid point. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael), who sadly was in his place earlier and has now departed, made a similar argument during the launch of the report. He said that he would not accept nuclear, as did the hon. Member for Angus (Mr. Weir). They would not accept nuclear in any shape or form and said that nuclear must not be part of any form of energy policy in the United Kingdom. Such an argument is contrary to the report, which asks for a balanced energy policy for the country.

I will move on. The green lobby has been successful in perpetuating the myth that the media have inadvertently assisted with. Professor James Lovelock, of whom my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) is obviously a fan, has said:

    "I am deeply concerned that public opinion and consequently the government listen less to scientists than they do to the Green lobbies. I know that these lobbies are well intentioned but they understand people better than they do the Earth".

This is a man who was a member of Greenpeace for more than 30 years and who planted more than 20,000 trees in his bid to help the environment.

Under the heading, "How best to meet the shortfall?" the Scottish Affairs Committee says:

    "The most appropriate way of introducing this section of the Report is by quoting from a recent 'postnote' from the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST):

    'The UK's gas reserves are declining. Government . . . analysts estimate that by around 2006 the UK will no longer be self-sufficient in gas . . . and will revert to being a net gas importer.'"

How true is that? It did not take long before that fact was proved correct, which shows how well our Committee did.

Mr. Jim Devine (Livingston) (Lab): I have become a very sad individual since I came to this place, as this week I read "Raising the Standard", a paper issued by the Scottish National party. It says that, for those people in Scotland stupid enough to have voted for independence, it has issued a road map. It will negotiate with the Government, the EU, the BBC, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, the Post Office and the boundary commission, as well as on social security and the currency. The one thing it will not negotiate away
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 162WH
 
are the people who provide gas for this country, so people who vote for an SNP Government will be voting to put the lights out in Scotland.

John Robertson : I say to my hon. Friend that I do not think that the SNP could draw up a street map, let alone a road map.

Mr. Weir : I am sorry that the hon. Member for Livingston (Mr. Devine) is so challenged in his reading. If he were not, he would know that Scotland—it is Scotland's energy needs that we are supposed to be discussing—produces more gas than it uses. The UK is a net importer of gas.

John Robertson : I shall treat that input with the contempt it so richly deserves.

To move on, gas is a large proportion of the UK's energy supply. Gas-fired power plants are the main method of power generation. As I said, the UK will become a gas importer. If we go down the gas road, more emissions will go into the environment.

The Committee's report made 12 recommendations, and the Government provided a response. I again highlight a recommendation that is, in our view, important: the need for an urgent energy audit. That recommendation arose from the evidence available to the Committee. We strongly believe that such an audit would identify the energy sources available. It would also allow an analysis of the effectiveness of our current investment in, for example, renewable energy and show its cost-effectiveness—whether renewable energy sources are delivering consistently, and how effective they might be as a guaranteed source of power generation.

Such an audit would identify our energy strengths and weaknesses. The issue is not a matter of arguing for one source in preference to another, but of identifying our energy portfolio and ensuring that we have the correct energy mix, as well as a balanced energy policy most suitable to the needs of Scotland and the UK. That is what the report is all about.

Mr. Alistair Carmichael (Orkney and Shetland) (LD): I caught the hon. Gentleman's earlier reference to me on the monitor as I left my office. If he had told me that he was going to refer to me, I would have taken care to be in my place during his speech. I must say that he misrepresented my position, and I hope he will correct the record. At no stage during the launch of the report did I say that I am opposed to nuclear power in all circumstances. I said that I would not countenance nuclear power unless and until the waste issue was clarified or resolved. Nothing that he has said—nothing that I have heard, anyway—makes me think that he has any answer to that.

John Robertson : I thank the hon. Gentleman, whom I hold in high regard. Because of that high regard, he should have known that I would mention him. So much for hindsight. On his question, my recollection is more, shall we say, simple. I know what a yes is, and what a no is. He can sugar it up any way he likes, but I know where he is coming from. As for the waste, I tell him, and all Liberal and SNP Members, that if I could solve their
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 163WH
 
waste problem, assuring them that waste could be stored securely and safely, and could be recovered in case of any other emergency, would they be willing to back nuclear energy? If so, I look forward to writing to them to provide that information, and they can join my group as soon as they like.

Mr. Alan Reid : Will the hon. Gentleman give us the information now?

John Robertson : No. [Laughter.] Having said that, I think the information may be further on in my speech. It is, so I am being a bit cheeky. I shall come to that suggestion.

Although the debate seems to have turned into a debate about nuclear energy, I am trying to tell Opposition Members and my hon. Friends on the Government Benches that the Select Committee report is not about nuclear energy; it is about a sustainable energy policy for the needs of Scotland. We—apart from two Members—thought that nothing should be excluded. That was sensible, and it is probably why the report has been well received in several quarters, and not only the nuclear lobbies. Other lobbies consider it balanced, and I commend everybody who took part and who gave evidence to the Committee.

There has been a mad dash down the wind farm route. Many Members have mentioned that, and I am sure that many Opposition Members shall mention it. At the moment, we cannot make wind farms work effectively. I am being generous, but wind power is intermittent at best and will be only about 30 per cent. effective. There are a substantial number of wind farms, and an audit is under way to establish their contribution. It would be beneficial if we assessed their value and obtained the figures.

Mark Lazarowicz : I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again, given the number of interventions he has taken. No one suggests that wind energy can meet all the energy needs of Scotland or anywhere else, but on the question of wind energy should he not bear in mind the latest figures from the Department of Trade and Industry, which suggest that the cost for onshore wind is now significantly lower than that for new nuclear build? The projection for offshore wind is that its cost, too, could fall below that of nuclear by 2020.

May I suggest to my hon. Friend that the report is a little too critical of the possibility of renewable energy, which it describes as somewhat uncertain? That contrasts with its description of nuclear fusion as a possible major source of power in the not-too-distant future, which is somewhat optimistic to say the least.

John Robertson : It all depends on what my hon. Friend means. If 30 or 40 years is in the distant future, that possibility is in the distant future. However, we have a short time in which to secure the world's climate, so we may not be able to wait for fusion. Costs move all the time, and I shall come on to them. I accept what he says, because I do not have the figures to hand. I am happy to receive them, if he wishes to send them to me.

I am aware that other Members want to speak and I am trying to cut out parts of my speech, but I want to mention the Royal Academy of Engineering. It
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 164WH
 
conducted an excellent study of price comparisons, and nuclear energy came out favourably. Renewables cost approximately double, and there were concerns about safety. The nuclear industry has some of the highest safety standards in the world. We should continue to ensure that there are supplies worldwide.

More than 30 new reactors have been built. Russia is building nuclear power plants in order to sell its gas and oil to us. I wonder why. Finland, rather than depend on its neighbour Russia for gas, is building its fifth nuclear power plant. China has built six of which I know, and many more are being built. France, our near neighbour, depends on nuclear energy for more than 70 per cent. of its energy. I am aware that none of these arguments will change the minds of the energy troglodytes today, but we must try to educate them.

Our energy policy should not become subject to party politics; it is much too important for that. We need to develop an agreed energy policy framework, and it should have cross-party support. Unfortunately, the Liberals and the Scottish National party will continue to endanger the future energy policy of the country. Their rejection of the nuclear option would mean dependence on imported gas for the bulk of our energy needs. They will argue for other forms of energy, knowing that their policies are simply a leap in the dark because those forms of energy currently represent neither a core source nor a proven technology on the scale we require to maintain our security.

Sweden voted to phase out its nuclear industry some 25 years ago. It now recognises the folly of that decision. It found that the alternatives were not as cost-effective as it first thought, and it is now Europe's third largest consumer of nuclear-generated energy.

This week, it was reported on Teletext that Ofgem had asked for an inquiry into why the rest of the European Union is not selling more gas to Britain, when prices have been so high. We should remember that when we start talking about importing gas from places such as Russia and the middle east, and about a pipeline that crosses the whole of Europe. There have been claims that rules in other EU countries mean that gas held in storage is not released for export. According to the BBC, Ofgem has asked the European Commission for an investigation into the recent high prices.

Mr. Carmichael : I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way again. Please can he explain this to me: if Russia is such an unstable nation that we should not buy our gas from it, why is it stable enough to be trusted with nuclear power stations?

John Robertson : The hon. Gentleman knows that the Russians have their own technology and have built their nuclear power stations themselves. It would have been very difficult to stop them doing so, particularly as Russia used to be one of the most powerful countries in the world, but that is not to say that I would not have liked to have done that.

I want to move on to green matters. We must listen to those who, because of the current serious situation, have converted and become supporters of nuclear energy. An article in The Sunday Times reported the comments of Professor James Lovelock—a pal of my hon. Friend the
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 165WH
 
Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith. He gave evidence to the Committee, and he has impeccable credentials as an environmentalist and a scientist.

Several hon. Members rose—

John Robertson : I will not give way.

Professor Lovelock described global warming as

    "the greatest test humanity has ever had",

and he called for a nuclear programme

    "whose scale dwarfs the space and military programmes".

He also said:

    "I find it extraordinary that the one safe and proven energy source that has minimal global consequences, nuclear power, is so readily rejected."

The same article reported that Hugh Montefiore, former Bishop of Birmingham, had quit the board of Friends of the Earth after coming out in favour of nuclear power. He said:

    "I have concluded that the solution is to make more use of nuclear energy."

The report also referred to Sir John Houghton, a well known and respected scientist and former head of the Met Office. He said nuclear power is "increasingly attractive".

I recognise that environmentalists are used to scientists suggesting that more technology can solve such problems, but I believe that they were shocked when Peter Harper and Paul Allen, leading green thinkers from the Centre for Alternative Technology, made a similar suggestion.

If we are serious about solving the problem of our CO 2 emissions and ensuring security of supply—if we want to avoid the lights going out—we must be bold and have a serious debate to find the best solution to the energy problems we might face in the near future.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): I am delighted to contribute to this discussion about a tremendously important issue for the future of Scotland. The debate on how to meet our future energy needs clearly provokes strong opinions on both sides of the Chamber. However, I believe that there are a number of issues on which we can all agree: our declining gas reserves; the fact that, if current trends continue, the country will miss its targets on lowering carbon emissions; and the absence of a "silver bullet"—as the Committee put it—to solve our energy needs.

We all seem to agree on the problems, but there are different opinions on how best to deal with these truths. In that regard, I have several real concerns about the Committee's findings and recommendations.

I agree with several of the Committee's recommendations. One, which I hope that the Minister can discuss, relates to the importance of the Scottish Executive clarifying their position on whether the target of 40 per cent. renewables by 2020 relates to generation or consumption. Assuming that Scotland remains a net exporter of electricity, a target of 40 per cent. of generation would be much higher than a target of 40 per
 
1 Dec 2005 : Column 166WH
 
cent. of consumption, and vice versa if Scotland becomes a net importer. Clarification would be most welcome.

I am also pleased that the Committee recognised the importance of improving energy efficiency, which is the best way of ensuring that our energy supply is maintained while helping to cut CO 2 emissions. It is also far more cost-effective than investing billions of pounds in new nuclear power stations.

I join the Committee in commending the good work of the Energy Saving Trust and its energy efficiency campaign. Indeed, it helped me cut carbon emissions in my constituency office by recommending a change in heating system. However, the real challenge is to convince people that they really can make a difference. Energy saving on a national scale is vital, and the potential benefits are enormous. I hope that the Government will wake up to the vast opportunities in that regard.

However, there are problems with the report. Although the Committee has made several positive recommendations, I have a number of real concerns. First, I simply do not see the need for another energy audit. There has already been an extensive review of the UK's renewable energy resources, and the state of our gas and coal reserves is well documented. What is needed is an energy policy and mechanisms that allow it to be implemented in a privatised electricity supply industry. Decisions such as the likely Scottish Power closures at Longannet and Cockenzie show how little control the Government and the Scottish Executive have over major decisions about Scotland's generating capacity.

As the report states, no single form of energy production is perfect, but some are less perfect than others. I am sure that I am not alone in my disappointment at the way in which the report seems to rule out the long-term prospects for renewable energy, only to use that as a de facto reason for supporting a return to nuclear power. Clearly, we will face extremely difficult questions on energy generation, but nuclear power is not the answer to any of them.

Although I agree with the Committee that it might be sensible not to rely on emerging renewables for a quarter of the renewables supply, the evidence from the Scottish Renewables Forum was indicative, and renewables technologies are clearly reasonable as an aspiration. Only by encouraging them will we ascertain their economic potential.

Furthermore, while reports of the development of nuclear fusion are certainly interesting, the Committee admits that the prospect of a new generation of nuclear power stations is still a long way down the line. Indeed, it feels as though nuclear fusion has

Related items

Keywords:
environment
energy
electricity
renewables
nuclear power
energy efficiency
climate change
Scotland

Click on a keyword to find other pages with the same keyword.

This website was established while I was a Member of Parliament. The site content is being kept online as a source of information, but all forms / email have been disabled.