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Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South): Does my hon. Friend agree that there is also a political risk? He drew attention to the fact that we would depend on gas that

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originated from Russia. As he knows, Russia is a member of the United Nations Security Council and was deeply opposed to the war in Iraq. It would be conceivable for Russia to say that if we went ahead with an invasion, it would cut off our gas supply. Does he therefore acknowledge the political as well as the practical risk of interruption of supply?

Mr. Yeo: I absolutely acknowledge that. My hon. Friend is quite right to point out that exposing Britain's future energy capability to the whim of Governments in countries such as Russia, with whom we might have profound disagreements about foreign policy in relation to different parts of the world, is a reckless policy that only a grossly irresponsible Government would even contemplate.

The environmental picture is also worrying. Britain is already in danger of missing the target of cutting carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2010. Under Labour, carbon dioxide emissions are now actually increasing. The energy industry is central to our progress in honouring this important commitment, but the nuclear power stations—the biggest source of non-carbon-dioxide-emitting electricity generation—are due to be phased out over the next few years. Most will have been decommissioned within a decade, and the Government do not have a clue what to do about this. Their White Paper completely ducked the question of whether the nuclear energy industry should have a future. This indecision means that Britain is likely to lose much of its nuclear expertise quite soon. It also means that meeting our Kyoto targets will become very hard indeed.

Instead, the Government plan a massive expansion of the electricity to be generated from renewable sources. I must stress that I wholly share the view that every possible effort should be made to promote greater use of renewable energy. At a time when the need for sustainability is widely recognised, the importance of exercising great care over how the world consumes finite resources, including fossil fuels, is obvious. But that need should not involve the unquestioning assumption that renewable energy is always and automatically environmentally superior.

Wind power is a technology particularly favoured by the Government and, in theory, by the Liberal Democrats. I say "in theory" because, in spite of their slavish endorsement of more wind farms in general, it is almost impossible to find a specific proposal for an onshore wind farm that the Liberal Democrats locally are prepared to support. Furthermore, wind power's lack of reliability means that it will usually require back-up generating capacity, and the remoteness of many offshore wind farms from where the electricity is to be consumed will involve very high transmission costs. The case for renewables must therefore be backed by an honest, hard-headed appraisal of their merits and a careful analysis of their total environmental impact, as well as their effect on electricity prices.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby): A large wind farm is about to be sited just offshore near my constituency, and the only people who have opposed that development are the Conservatives. Access to the grid will be approximately half a mile from it. I cannot imagine a more effective use of renewable energy, and I

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am delighted that the Government have announced an extension of the scheme right along the north-west coast.

Mr. Yeo: Our position on renewables is exactly as I have stated. We would like to see greater use of renewables, but we do not approach this in some kind of dreamy fashion, imagining that they will always deliver environmental benefits. In some cases, they will not do so. I am not familiar with the proposal that the hon. Lady mentioned, but I have no doubt that the Conservatives who opposed it locally did so for very good reasons, and could not be accused of hypocrisy in the way that Liberals who oppose wind farms locally can, because their whole energy policy is based on a massive and unquestioned expansion of wind power.

We have called this debate for two reasons. The first is to highlight the need for action now, to reduce the risk of repeated power failures in the coming winters. The second is to expose the risks that Ministers are running with Britain's longer-term energy policy. We want to find out what the Minister intends to do about these issues.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Did I understand the hon. Gentleman to be giving an undertaking that local Conservatives will not oppose nuclear power generators when they are proposed in their areas? That seemed to be the logic behind the point that he was making.

Mr. Yeo: I am grateful to be given the opportunity to repeat for the third time our position on these issues. It obviously requires quite a lot of repetition for the Liberal Democrats to understand it. When a party says that the energy problems of Britain can be solved only by a massive expansion of wind power, but opposes every single measure designed to achieve that national objective, that party is not fit to be considered seriously as a political organisation. That is the position of the Liberal Democrats on energy.

The Conservatives believe in diverse sources of energy supply. We believe that there is a role for renewables, but that it needs to be justified on environmental and economic grounds. We also believe that there is a role for gas, and that it will involve some imports. There is a role for coal, and, in my view, almost certainly a role for nuclear power. We are not slavishly saying that all energy has to be generated from a single source. Because of that, there will be some areas in which it is suitable to invest in new power stations—of whatever sort—and some in which it is not. I am confident that the attitude of Conservatives in those areas, whether they are for or against the proposals, will be honest, will respect local concerns and will be entirely consistent—unlike that of the Liberal Democrats—with the position that their party takes from the Front Bench in the House.

Mr. Robathan: My hon. Friend has already referred to my enthusiasm for renewable energy. Does he agree that the Government's target of 10 per cent. of electricity generation from renewable sources by 2010, as stated in their manifesto in 2001, is almost impossible to meet?

Mr. Yeo: That is certainly my view, and the view of almost any objective analyst with a serious record of

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studying the industry. The Government go further than that target, however. They also want 20 per cent. of electricity generation to come from renewable sources by 2020. In case the Minister does not wish to refer to this later, I should like to point out that he recently said of the 20 per cent. figure that it was not some pie-in-the-sky figure, but a realistic expectation.

Mr. Forth: Or target.

Mr. Yeo: Indeed.

I hope that the Minister will now explain to the House what practical steps the Government are proposing to address the risk of repeated power failures. Will he increase the mandatory compensation payable by the industry to the victims of power cuts? Will he tighten up the conditions under which such compensation becomes payable? Does he agree that energy efficiency could still make a much bigger contribution to alleviating the security problems that we have been debating? Will he review the remit of Ofgem to see whether changes are needed to give greater emphasis to ensuring security of supply? Does he recognise that there are serious flaws in the Government's White Paper? Will he remedy them by publishing as soon as possible—ahead of the Bill that we have been promised in the next parliamentary Session—a revised version of that White Paper that addresses the issues of excessive dependence on gas imports, unrealistic expectations for renewables and the damaging indecision over the future of nuclear power?

By their nature, decisions about electricity generation are very long term. Enormous lead times are involved in planning, building and bringing on stream new capacity of any kind. It is not good enough to say that these decisions can be put off until the next Parliament. Dither and delay put British consumers at risk, harm the environment and increase the cost of the measures that will eventually have to be taken. That is a particular anxiety in the light of reports this week that more and more consumers are having trouble paying their bills.

The Minister must know that the figures are not going to change. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry is not going to return from her fruitless sojourn in the sun like a fairy godmother with a magic wand. The Minister should face up to his responsibilities even if his colleagues are unable to do so. Families, businesses and commuters are all looking to him for answers. Every man, woman and child is a consumer of electricity every day of their lives. What the Minister tells the House today, and what he decides to do or not to do tomorrow, will affect the comfort and safety of every citizen. I commend this motion to the House.

1.9 pm

The Minister for Energy, E-Commerce and Postal Services (Mr. Stephen Timms): I beg to move, To leave out from "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:

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I welcome the opportunity that this debate gives us. As the House will know, on 14 August a large area of eastern Canada and the north-east United States, including New York, was hit by cascading power cuts. Sixty million people were affected, trains and subways in New York ground to a halt, thousands were left stranded, and some people slept in the streets. No one expected that to happen here, but in the early evening on 28 August electricity supply was lost to parts of south-east London and Kent. What followed was not comparable with the failures in the United States. Here, power was restored everywhere within 41 minutes, but there were serious consequences: disruption to overground and underground rail in particular, but other disruption as well. I agree that it was a powerful reminder of how dependent we all are on electricity. That is why we placed maintaining the reliability of energy supplies at the heart of the energy White Paper in February. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr. Yeo) made some disparaging comments about the White Paper, but people in the energy industry to whom I have spoken have warmly welcomed it, not least for the coherence of its analysis and the fact that it has provided us with a coherent energy policy, which the party that he represented in government never did.

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