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5 July 2007 : Column 1078

The hon. Gentleman is concerned about a genuine problem, and we must all want the current wave of industrial action that is affecting Royal Mail to end quickly. We all hope that that will happen. It is not in the interests of the company or the business for the industrial action to continue. Talking, not strikes, resolves disputes. I hope that that is clearly understood.

On the wider point in the question, the hon. Gentleman said that at least 1,000 sub-post offices needed to close. Perhaps it would be helpful in the course of our exchanges if he could assist us to identify them.

Nuclear Power

4. Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde) (Con): If he will make a statement on the future contribution he expects nuclear power to make to the production of electricity in the UK. [147638]

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): Nuclear power stations provide about 18 per cent. of the UK’s electricity, but most of them are set to close over the next two decades. The only way in which to meet the dual challenge of climate change and security of supply is by ensuring as wide a choice of low carbon options as possible, which, in the Government’s preliminary view, should include nuclear. We are currently consulting on that proposition.

Mr. Jack: May I, too, add my words of welcome to the Secretary of State to his post and for the positive nature of his answer? However, welcome the consultation exercise is to those who produce most of the nation’s nuclear fuel at Toshiba Westinghouse in my constituency, there is concern about what happens from 2008, when the results are made public. The Government said that, in 2008, they will announce a call for applications to justify new nuclear power stations. To give certainty to those companies that are now expressing genuine interest in investing in new nuclear facilities, will he undertake, as part of the response to the consultation exercise, to set out a clear set of milestones that map out the decision-making process from now on?

Mr. Hutton: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman and I know exactly where he is coming from on the issue. We have conducted a preliminary review of the role of nuclear. It is important in the current circumstances for a full and proper consultation to take place on the right way forward. I agree that it will be important for the industry—and all of us—to have a clear sense of the timetable. I hope to set it out later this year.

Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I echo the sentiments of the right hon. Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack) because planning is crucial. I want to encourage my right hon. Friend to examine the educational provision for nuclear training because, as he and I know, there is currently little capacity for technical or academic competence in nuclear matters. To get it right, the institutions with competence in the subject need early advice and support to develop the courses that we need.

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Mr. Hutton: I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments and I agree with her about the importance of skills to the energy sector. Clearly, that is now a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, but I assure her and the House that we shall work closely with him on finding the right way forward.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I welcome the Secretary of State to his new role and look forward to helping him and the Government do a better job in the new Department than they would do without the sage counsel of the Liberal Democrats.

My father was a nuclear physicist but he never convinced me of the case for nuclear power. What is the cost per kilowatt of nuclear power when decommissioning operations and the management of nuclear waste are taken into account?

Mr. Hutton: We have set out a range of information and details about all those matters in the recent consultation document and other publications. The document made it clear that, if there is to be new nuclear, the industry must meet the costs of decommissioning and waste management. There is no question of the taxpayer being involved.

I generally welcome the hon. Gentleman’s comments. We now have a star gazer as spokesman for the Liberal Democrats and that is a huge improvement on the usual navel gazing that we get from them.

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton) (Lab/Co-op): There remains considerable public concern about the storage of nuclear waste. What progress is my right hon. Friend making in establishing the scientific case that such storage is safe and secure? What further consultation is he carrying out with the public to reassure them that this can be done at a cost that is reasonable for the country?

Mr. Hutton: I agree with the points that my hon. Friend is making. He will be aware that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has recently published a consultation document on precisely these issues. I have no doubt that they will also surface as we take forward the consultation on the nuclear document for which my Department has responsibility. All these issues have to be fully aired and addressed in the consultation exercise, and we should proceed only in the light of the information and the best evidence about what is in the best interests of our country for the long term.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): What importance does the Secretary of State attach to energy security, which he mentioned in his initial comments? In particular, will his Government firmly make the case that we need to be less reliant on oil and gas from Russia and Ukraine and on oil from the middle east?

Mr. Hutton: This is an enormously important issue to which we attach great significance. We need not only to take into account the threat of climate change but to make absolutely sure that future generations of people in this country have confidence in the security of our
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energy supply. There is an increasing role for renewables, and we will aggressively pursue that. The hon. Gentleman mentioned fossil fuels; let us take gas as an example. Some people think that we can significantly increase the use of gas as a source of energy, but that would clearly expose us to energy security risks in the future, because it would have to be imported. These are important issues, but, for the moment, it is best to leave them to the consultation exercise that is now under way. I will ensure that all right hon. and hon. Members are kept fully informed of what is happening and of the events that are going to take place during the consultation.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood) (Lab): Replacement nuclear power will require considerable investment over a long period of time. Does the Secretary of State recognise that that investment will not be forthcoming if nuclear power is seen as a last resort? Should not we encourage investment by having a high carbon price that is sustainable through a new, revised and robust European emissions trading scheme?

Mr. Hutton: I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. Carbon pricing is an important ingredient in the mix, and we must take it into account. I also agree that it is a mistake—and, dare I say it, an abnegation of responsibility—for us to see nuclear power only as a last resort. That would be to pre-empt and pre-judge the issues and, in particular, would take no account of the important question of energy security that the hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Field) has just referred to.

Alan Duncan (Rutland and Melton) (Con): May I welcome the Secretary of State and his entire ministerial team to their new positions? I particular welcome the Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks) to his post. The departmental photo gallery will show him to be the seventh Energy Minister of this Government, and also the ninth. May I ask the Secretary of State how many qualified staff at the nuclear installations inspectorate are specifically employed to oversee the licensing of reactor designs?

Mr. Hutton: I do not know the answer to that question, but I will find out.

Alan Duncan: I am grateful to the Secretary of State, because this is a crucial question. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said that

How can the Secretary of State justify that bold assertion when potential investors are dismayed that very few people in the NII are allocated to the licensing process? We can see now that there will be delays in building new power stations because, right from the start, there will be a licensing bottleneck. Is it not true that the Government have not yet given the NII permission to start recruiting the extra staff that it needs even now?

Mr. Hutton: I will look into those matters. We are making sensible contingency plans, particularly in the area of pre-licensing that the hon. Gentleman has just
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referred to. It is necessary to keep those wheels turning while the consultation on nuclear power is under way, but in no way, shape or form should that be seen as pre-empting the outcome of the consultation document. I can assure the hon. Gentleman and the House that the Government and the NII are taking sensible steps forward. The NII is ultimately the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive and the Department for Work and Pensions, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are keeping in close contact with it.

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) said, has the Secretary of State seen the recent report published by the Royal Academy of Engineering, “Educating Engineers for the 21st century: the Industry View”? It reached one alarming conclusion:

Given that we are heading towards nuclear power as the one option that we are going to follow, what measures is he taking to ensure that we have nuclear engineers for the future? They need to commission, build and run those power plants. What effort is he making to ensure that we have that sort of engineer in 10 years’ time?

Mr. Hutton: I welcome what my hon. Friend says and will repeat what I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby. We have to address the skills base of the energy sector. That is primarily a responsibility for my right hon. Friend the new Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills. I will work closely with him and his new Department in ensuring that Britain has the engineers and technical experts we need if we decide to go down the nuclear route. I want to make one other point clear; it is the Government’s preliminary view that companies should have the opportunity to invest in new nuclear, but that will be alongside a range of diverse energy supplies, including renewables and gas.


5. Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): What support has been allocated to increasing exports of British goods and services in 2007-08. [147640]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. Gareth Thomas): Resources allocated to UK Trade and Investment this year totalled some £250 million, of which some 70 per cent. is devoted to overseas trade development. In addition, the devolved Administrations and the regional development agencies allocate resources to trade development too.

Mr. Evans: I am grateful for that response. UK Trade and Investment does a very good job with the resources that it has available in a competitive global world. It employs 2,300 people, many of them in embassies, high commissions and consulates throughout the world. Is it not true, however, that some have been asked to extend their duties to cover global warming and the environment generally? That is an important subject
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and we need to keep its profile high in the rest of the world, but will the Minister review the responsibilities of our staff working abroad to ensure that they are properly focused on assisting British companies?

Mr. Thomas: We always keep under very close review what we are asking UKTI staff to do. The hon. Gentleman may be aware of the recent review of the focal sectors on which it should concentrate. We want to ensure in particular that we help small and medium-sized enterprises to get innovative new products to the market. In addition, we also want to ensure that UKTI staff are doing all that they can to help British businesses sell products into new emerging markets, such as India, China, Brazil and so on.

Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): Does my hon. Friend understand that although the important nuances to which he has referred will remain at the heart of the policy, it is simply a question of putting a darn sight more money into our exporting services? If he compares what we are doing with what the French and Germans are doing, to take just two international comparators, he will see that we are well down in investing in our exporters. I urge him to cherish our exporters in a nation that has to export in order to import those other goods and services that are so important to our well-being.

Mr. Thomas: I will always cherish the work of UKTI staff. They do an excellent job, as the recent record investment figures show. It is also why the Opposition’s suggestions to abolish the regional development agencies are completely and utterly inappropriate. The RDAs’ contribution, alongside the contribution of UKTI staff, is helping British business to sell into new markets. Obviously, there is more that we need to do, and we will keep that under close review.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold) (Con): I welcome the Minister to his new role. I am sure he would agree that Digby Jones has many admirable qualities to bring to export promotion policy, but he has said that he wants a more competitive corporation tax rate. He has also called trade unions “irrelevant”. Indeed, he has said that he will not join a political party. Is the Minister certain, therefore, that we are not going to end up with two trade policies: one announced by his more comradely colleague in the other place and the other announced by his more gentlemanly Ministers in this House?

Mr. Thomas: I think brother Digby has a huge contribution to make. That is the reason why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister asked him to join the Government. We recognise that he has played an important role as head of the CBI. As always, there has been a robust debate between the CBI, the Government and a range of business organisations as to how to move forward. We welcome his experience. I am sure that he will make an important contribution in his new role in the Department. Having seen some of the press reports since his appointment, he appears, if the rumours are true, to have already secured the premier invitation available to Ministers: to appear before the Select Committee on Trade and Industry. I feel a little envy towards him in that regard already.

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Fiona Mactaggart (Slough) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend the Minister recognise that, as a country that exports more per head than the United States or Japan, we depend on exports, particularly to countries such as India, for our future prosperity? What will he do to involve resident communities whose origins are in India to help to push British exports? I am certain that their contribution is a significant reason why we are such a substantial exporter to India.

Mr. Thomas: My hon. Friend makes a good point about the contribution that people from the Indian diaspora are already making to improve trade relationships between our country and India. We continue to work on that through UKTI. As I indicated in answer to a previous question, we have shifted the focus of UKTI and asked it to do more to build trade relationships with countries such as India, China and Brazil. We will continue to work with diaspora communities in that regard, too.

WEEE Directive

6. Angela Watkinson (Upminster) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of in-store take-back facilities that will be created as a result of the waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations. [147641]

12. Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): What estimate he has made of the number of in-store take-back facilities that will be created as a result of the waste electrical and electronic equipment regulations. [147647]

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Malcolm Wicks): The introduction of the waste electrical and electronic equipment directive in the UK from 1 July is a positive step for the environment, given that Britain produces and disposes of some 2 million tonnes of such electrical waste every year. The new arrangements will reduce toxicity and the volume of waste going to landfill, as well as encouraging both resource productivity and sustainable development. All retailers of electrical and electronic equipment are obliged to offer in-store take-back, unless they are members of the distributor take-back scheme. So far, over 2,500 retailers have joined the scheme. That accounts for more than 75 per cent. of such sales.

Angela Watkinson: The local economy in Upminster depends heavily on the success of its many small businesses. I am concerned about the disproportionate effect of the regulations on small electronic producers and retailers. What assessment have the Government made of that impact and of the likely barrier to new entrants to the market?

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