Mr Redwood: I am grateful to you, Mr Benton (Committee Chair), for allowing me to speak in this important debate. I rise because the Committee has tackled at some length, and with great passion, the international issues. I am glad that so many of us feel that this country can—and does—do a lot to help those in poverty and those who suffer from various global policies elsewhere, but the Committee would be remiss if it did not also consider what our electors are asking us to do. I am in no doubt that two overriding concerns arise out of the English debate. I am sure that the Minister has them in his mind and he may like to comment on them briefly before the Committee decides on this issue.
What do English voters want? They want to make sure that the lights will stay on over the next few years, and they are conscious that this country is getting close to the point where it will not have enough energy to sustain itself at all times. If we had a combination of no wind and a strong cold spell, which led to high domestic demand, we could be in some difficulties. We need back-up for our wind energy, and we need to make sure that we have not closed all our coal mines and most of our nuclear stations owing to their age before we have that replacement capacity available, so that we can keep the lights on.
The second thing that our English voters want is affordable energy. For people on benefits or on a low income in our country today, the energy bill is a real shock; they have to consider carefully how many lights they can have on, how often they use the cooker and how much heating they can afford if they have electric heating. The gas bill and other energy bills are not much better from their point of view because all energy is expensive, has got dearer, and is in danger of getting a lot dearer.
I know that the Minister is conscious of that and it is good news that the order takes a small step in the right direction. It is, after all, trying to get the benefits of scale and industrial process improving and technology advancing so that we can get some of those costs down for some of the renewable energies. Of course, I agree with him that any sensible Government must have diversified energy sources. We would not want to bet all on one energy source for the reasons already identified, but we need to bet on enough of them, and we need to bet on enough cheaper ones so that we can keep the lights on and so that people can afford energy.
Graham Jones (Hyndburn) (Lab): What energy sources would the right hon. Gentleman describe as cheap?
Mr Redwood: Quite clearly, the unsubsidised ones —for example, combined-cycle gas—are relatively cheap compared with other energy sources. Every time we go for a dearer energy source, we have to recognise that it will raise the average price. I do not rule out doing some of that; I agree with the Minister’s logic. However, we have to consider the balance, and surely it is right to take into account the final price to the customer. The hon. Gentleman has to face his constituents, as I do, and they will not thank him if he gives no consideration to the total cost and to their bills.
Graham Jones: I am sure they will thank me in 25 years’ time when gas has gone through the roof and we have invested in renewables. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with that?
Mr Redwood: I have just said that I agree with diversification. I have no better insight into prices in 20 or 30 years’ time than the hon. Gentleman, which is an argument for having a diversified set of sources. He should understand that if we deliberately choose too much dear energy now, there are immediate problems. There is the problem not just of his constituents’ energy bills, which he should worry about, but of adding to the de-industrialisation of this country. The Government, fully supported by the Opposition, wish to promote more industry in this country.
A lot of industry is very energy intensive. We are trying to compete with America, whose gas is half the price of ours, and with Asian countries that have a rather different technology mix and are putting in a lot of coal power stations, which will produce cheaper energy than some of the energy we are producing. Our policies will not save the planet if all they do is export high-energy burning industries to other countries. The fuel will still be burned, the carbon dioxide will still be emitted, but it will not be in our country, so we can say, “Isn’t that wonderful?” We tick the carbon dioxide box, but our people will be out of work. This country will have less income, and we will struggle to pay for imports because we have done damage by having dear energy.
I want to press the Minister, as he tries to do the difficult job of getting the balance right, on the immediate prospects of our coal-fired power stations and their possible replacement with wood—I hear we now have to call wood “biomass”, but I will refer to it as wood, because that is a little more intelligible to normal people trying to understand our debates and preoccupations.
The Minister is in a difficult position because he came to office after the previous Government spent 10 years ducking all the big decisions about whether to replace nuclear, and what kind of strategy to go for. Some options are no longer available because there is no longer the time to get the power stations in that we might need. He also came to office after most of the decision-making powers had been given away to the European Union. Most of what we are doing today is implementing superior law from the European Union, and there is not much the Minister can do about that. Even the degree of subsidy will need EU approval under its subsidy-approving mechanism. Therefore, he is quite constrained. However, he does have some options, with which the order tries to deal, on the immediate future of our coal-power stations.
Arguably, the cheapest and easiest way of getting through the period before we have enough renewables and new nuclear power stations—whatever it is going to be—is to run on the coal-power stations. However, I believe that the Minister’s advice will be that that is not legal under European law. I understand that Germany, which has ruled out nuclear as well as some other problems, is going to run more coal stations under the same regulations that we are told do not allow us to do so. Has he investigated what Germany is doing? I believe that Germany already burns an awful lot more coal than we do. Is that not a short-term option while we get better options in place, because of the delays we have been having? If that is not possible, how feasible is it to switch our coal stations to wood burning, how expensive will they be and how quickly can it be done? I fear we need a pretty quick fix. I trust that is the underlying plot behind the amendments that he introduced to the subsidy regime. I had better give him time to answer, because we do not have enough time to have a proper debate on this huge subject. In conclusion, I ask the Minister, please, to understand that we want more energy and cheaper energy. Something has to be done very quickly, otherwise the lights will go out.