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Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the answer he gave to the first supplementary question seems to indicate that all that is happening is that it is taking the patient longer to die? I say that because there is a progressive diminution in the tonnage available for the fishing fleet. Are the Government going to stand aside and see the fishing fleet destroyed as they have with the merchant navy?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not believe that that analogy is apposite. Indeed, a better analogy would be a person who has been told to lose weight by his doctor but has not kept up with the weight reduction programme to which he agreed. However, he is losing weight and we do not believe that he will die yet.
The Lord Privy Seal (Viscount Cranborne): My Lords, I believe that I get the sense of the House that it was the turn of the Cross-Benches. We are running very short of time. I hope that the noble Lord will be patient. We must try to be as succinct as we can in order to leave enough time for the fourth Question.
Lady Saltoun of Abernethy: My Lords, in view of the importance of reducing the amount of effort in the British fleet, can the Minister say whether the Government will be willing to consider making a little more money available for decommissioning?
Lord Lucas: My Lords, we have increased the amount of money available for decommissioning. Indeed, that was announced some time ago. However, whether we shall do so further in the future is a matter which must await the results of the current decommissioning rounds.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, is the Minister aware that if there was any rapport between Commissioner Bonino and the fishermen of Brixham and Newlyn it was indeed over quota hopping? The Commissioner appeared to believe that there was a real problem. Judging by the Minister's reply to the original Question, he appears to believe that the Commissioner was, perhaps, wrong. I hope that the noble Lord can deny that.
Lord Lucas: No, my Lords. I hope that we are talking about different aspects of what Mrs. Bonino said. We are enormously encouraged by her acknowledgement that there is a problem over quota hopping. She has said that she thinks it can be solved through various restrictive terms applied to quotas. We are not aware of any way that this can be done but we have immediately commissioned our officials, and she has commissioned hers, to work together to see what might be possible. But the recognition that something needs to be done is something that we are grateful for.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, competition is the best means of ensuring that the nation has access to secure, diverse and sustainable supplies of energy. That is why the Government established a competitive
Lord Dormand of Easington: My Lords, do not the long-term gas contracts give an unfair advantage, in that the cost of producing electricity from coal-fired power stations has been reduced significantly? Does not the Minister agree that electricity from the early gas stations which, as he will know, are almost entirely owned by the 12 regional companies, is now at a level 50 per cent. higher than that produced by coal-fired stations?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the coal producers currently have contracts which in effect guarantee the sale of significant volumes of electricity from coal plant until April 1998. From that point of view they are well favoured. But, more generally, the simple proposition is that, as regards electricity consumers, it is in their best interests and in the nation's best interests that the electricity should be produced at as cheap a price as possible.
Lord Ezra: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that the capital costs of coal-fired stations have long since been written off for the most part, and that therefore their costs of generating electricity--as the noble Lord, Lord Dormand, pointed out--are much less than for any competitive fuel source? Have those factors been fully taken into account in the present situation?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: Yes, my Lords, I believe they have. In the course of the past year, something like 45 per cent. of electricity was supplied from coal-fired plant. In those circumstances it would seem to me that coal is holding its position well and will undoubtedly do so until at least 1998. At some point the volume of gas, and the price at which it is available, may well be such that it will be used more widely to generate electricity. However, if that is the position, I am bound to say that I cannot see that that is undesirable if it will be cheaper and cleaner.
The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, in declaring an interest as a director of a company selling North Sea gas, may I ask whether my noble and learned friend is aware that coal-fired power stations are burdened by the environmental requirement of desulphurisation?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: Yes, my Lords, that is why I indicated that in some circumstances considerably more electricity may be generated from gas-fired plant. I have no doubt that a number of people would consider that to be highly desirable given the lesser impact it has on the environment.
Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, bearing in mind the fact that during the cold spell there was widely reported to be a crisis in electricity supply, is the Minister sure that relying on private industry to build for profit will ensure the supply of electricity?
Baroness Gardner of Parkes: My Lords, is my noble and learned friend aware that before and after privatisation questions have been asked in this House about the interruption of power supply and that the replies given have indicated that there have been fewer interruptions since privatisation?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for recollecting a reply that I have given on previous occasions. I have done so more than once and I decided on this occasion that it would not be necessary to repeat the point as it was so well known. Nevertheless I am grateful to my noble friend for making the point so well on my behalf.
Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, bearing in mind the fact that there are only two forms of energy mentioned in the Question, have the Government any proposals in the long term on what action to take since one of those sources may fail, as supplies of gas are known to be finite? What other alternatives have the Government in mind, having dismantled our coal industry?
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the long-term availability of both fuels is clearly guaranteed. In the course of the past week there has been a significant and satisfactory uprating of the reserves of both oil and gas within the United Kingdom continental shelf and in terms of gas reservoirs to which we would have access beyond our continental shelf. I do not believe that there is any risk, for a long time, of either coal or gas drying up.
Lord Fraser of Carmyllie: My Lords, the future of coal as a source for generating electricity will clearly depend not only on its availability but also on the price at which it is made available to those who produce electricity. I cannot believe that anyone would want to see anything other than the cheapest form of fuel being used to generate electricity for consumers in this country.
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