HC Deb 15 January 1981 vol 996 cc1134-5
7. Mr. McCusker

asked the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement about the review of future electricity and gas supply arrangements in Northern Ireland which he has commissioned.

Mr. Adam Butler

The interdepartmental committee has almost completed its work of reviewing future electricity supply arrangements for Northern Ireland. Its report will shortly be submitted to Ministers.

The Government's policy on piped gas supplies in Northern Ireland remains that set out by the previous Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in his statement of 23 July 1979. Further information has been requested from the Republic of Ireland to enable us to evaluate whether natural gas can be economically supplied to Northern Ireland from the Kinsale field.

Mr. McCusker

Does the Minister accept that a 25 to 35 per cent. differential in the cost of fuels in Northern Ireland and on the mainland represents an intolerable burden, not only on domestic consumers, but on our manufacturing industries and on the intensive livestock sector of our agricultural industry? Would it not improve the deplorable employment statistics, to which he referred earlier, if that differential were removed? How would his constituents feel if they were paying between 25 and 35 per cent. more for their fuels than were constituents in a neighbouring county?

Mr. Butler

The hon. Gentleman is more aware of the reasons for this than I have been. The matter needs to be examined seriously, but it should not be over-exaggerated. The position for industry is that the cost is 7 per cent. above the average for the United Kingdom, but nevertheless it is an extra cost for industry. Equally, as the hon. Gentleman is well aware, substantial subsidies are given to the electricity supply industry in Northern Ireland in order to keep that differential at the present rate. We have to be aware of that extra cost and of the implications elsewhere.

Mr. Stephen Ross

Does the Minister agree that it is important that negotiations on energy supplies across the border should be speeded up? If there is a chance of getting to the Kinsale gasfield, surely that should be taken advantage of in the North?

Mr. Butler

The hon. Gentleman is right in principle. I should not like to make any comment on the prospects for the supply of natural gas from the Kinsale field, at least until we have answers to some of the questions that we have put to the Government of the Republic.

Mr. Kilfedder

Is the Minister aware that the people of Ulster are suffering because of the discrimination in the cost of coal and electricity in Northern Ireland, and that many families are experiencing hardship as a result of the cost of those two essential elements? Will the Government look at this matter again and ensure that something is done to resolve this unfair situation?

Mr. Butler

A great deal is being done in subsidising industry to keep the differential in tariffs where it is. I ask the hon. Gentleman to bear in mind where that money has to come from. It might be at the expense of employment in the Province. We are keeping matters under review, but I cannot promise any early decision.

Mr. Pendry

Now that the Minister is ensconced in his office, will he recognise that it is not simply his questioners this afternoon, but the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland, who expect an early end to the pussy-footing around on the question of a sensible energy policy in the Province? High energy costs act as an albatross around the necks of industry and commerce, where, as has already been stated, energy costs are far higher than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. What has happened to our suggestion for a public body to co-ordinate energy supply and prices for the Province?

Mr. Butler

I reject the suggestion that my predecessors in the Northern Ireland Office have been pussy-footing around. The statement of July 1979 was positive and took some difficult decisions which, had the hon. Gentleman listened, he would have realised were shirked by his Administration. With regard to electricity supply, we are awaiting the report of the interdepartmental committee—which I shall have on my desk within a week or two. That will enable us to see whether we can take further decisions about the future.

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