Clause 3 - Designation: procedure

Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill – in a Public Bill Committee am 2:30 pm ar 18 Tachwedd 2021.

Danfonwch hysbysiad imi am ddadleuon fel hyn

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:30, 18 Tachwedd 2021

I beg to move amendment 4, in clause 3, page 2, line 37, at end insert—

“(5) Prior to consulting persons under subsection (3)(g), the Secretary of State must publish a statement setting out why it is relevant to consult those persons.”

This amendment requires the Secretary of State to indicate the relevance of the people he is consulting on the designation of a nuclear company.

The amendment, and another couple that relate to clauses further down the order paper, need not detain us for long. They essentially seek to improve the effect of the text of the Bill and are not controversial.

Amendment 4 applies to clause 3, on page 2 and requires the Secretary of State to

“publish a statement setting out why it is relevant to consult those persons.”

That refers to the list of those people who are to be consulted upon the designation of a nuclear company. At the bottom of that list is the phrase

“such other persons as the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

I appreciate that is often seen in Bills and I am sure hon. Members have seen it in their time in other Committees, but I suggest that it is rather loose arrangement if we want to have a Bill that will stand the test of time. While it is a catch-all arrangement, one could almost ask why the other categories are listed. One might as well just put, “Those persons who the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

Surely, where the Secretary of State is considering consulting other people, in addition to those listed, those people ought to be relevant to the designation of the nuclear company. As the Bill stands, it is just people

“the Secretary of State considers appropriate.”

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

I am slightly confused about why the hon. Member seems to be suggesting that it is a bad thing for the Secretary of State to undertake more consultation. Surely more consultation is a good thing. Generally, the Opposition call for more transparency. If the Secretary of State feels that it is necessary to consult more people, I am not hugely convinced that there is a point to making him justify that.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I hope that the hon. Member will forgive me if I have not made myself clear. I am certainly not saying that consultation is a bad thing or that there should be less of it; I am saying that the Bill appears to provide for consultation with all the people named in it and anybody else the Secretary of State feels like including. One may think that that is a good thing, but I would have thought that anyone else the Secretary of State feels like including ought to be relevant to the designation of the nuclear company. All the amendment asks is that, when and if the Secretary of State decides that people other than those who were already on the list be consulted, he publish a statement to say why the people he has selected for additional consultation are relevant to the issue in hand. Otherwise in principle it would be possible for the Secretary of State simply to choose a random number of people off the street and consult them. That would not serve the cause of further consultation and transparency.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

May I check that an alternative amendment could have been to change the last word in subsection (3)(g) to “relevant” rather than “appropriate”, which would mean that the Secretary of State would be able to consult all the other people he considered to be relevant, rather than appropriate? Is that the direction in which the hon. Member is trying to go with his amendment?

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Indeed. The hon. Member has drafted her own, perhaps more succinct, amendment on the fly. I would welcome hon. Members tabling amendments if they feel that they can do it better, or more succinctly, than we can. She is right that it is a test of the relevance of the consultation process. Her suggestion does not quite cover the point because I would like the Secretary of State to say why those people are being consulted. Essentially, the amendment requires the Secretary of State to not just think that people are relevant but tell us why. It is not a big point, but I think that would improve the Bill a little were it to be accepted.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I thank the hon. Members for Southampton, Test and for Greenwich and Woolwich for amendment 4, which amends the clause governing the process by which the Secretary of State can designate a company. As part of the process, the Secretary of State must consult a named list of persons, including the authority, Ofgem, the Office for Nuclear Regulation and the relevant environment agency. The Secretary of State will also be able to consult, of course, such other persons as they deem appropriate at that time. The amendment would require the Secretary of State to publish the reasons for consulting those persons not named in the legislation.

Of course it is important for us to be transparent, and I welcome the intention of the amendment to increase transparency and accountability throughout the process, but it might help if I set out the intention of the consultation requirement in clause 3. The Government have agreed a set of persons that they feel must be consulted: the Office for Nuclear Regulation, Ofgem, the relevant environmental agencies and the devolved Administrations in the event that all or part of one of the plants be located in one of the devolved nations of the United Kingdom. The ones who must be consulted include the key regulatory bodies for nuclear generators in Great Britain.

Alongside that, for each designation, there may be other relevant parties that the Secretary of State thinks it is reasonable to consult to inform the draft reasons for designation. That sort of provision is standard practice. The clause is modelled closely on existing consultation obligations in the Energy Act 2013, which allows the Secretary of State to consult other persons without the requirement to publish a justification.

I do not seek to reject the amendment because of concerns about transparency. The designation process takes several important steps to ensure transparency, including the publication of a statement on how the designation criteria will be assessed and the publication of the designation notice.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test says that those consulted ought to be relevant, but I think that the Secretary of State will consult only with those who ought to be relevant rather than, in the terms of the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, a random set of people off the street. The way that governmental processes work is that consultations are supposed to be with people who are relevant. I do not think that including a relatively unprecedented amendment to publish a statement about why it is relevant to consult those persons will help the transparency or the understanding of the decision made by the Secretary of State.

I hope that I have shown hon. Members that the legislation already takes the necessary steps to ensure transparency and that the amendment would go against the established precedent for this kind of provision, which has generally worked well for big Government infrastructure decisions. I therefore ask the hon. Member for Southampton, Test to withdraw the amendment.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I am certainly happy to withdraw the amendment, but in passing I mention that the Minister has drawn attention to the word “must” in clause 3(2), which precedes the people who the Secretary of State is listed as consulting. I am glad that he drew attention to that, because it may reflect on an amendment that I will move later concerning the words “may” and “must”. The Minister will know that a regular concern of mine is that legislation needs to be written in the right way concerning the imperatives on the Secretary of State rather than the allowances. We have made progress from that point of view.

Although this clause contains a fairly standard way of putting things, that may just mean that legislation has been slightly lax in the past, which may be considered less than satisfactory in future. I take the Minister’s point, however, that it is not an exceptional way of putting things, and I take his assurance that a question of relevance would be in the Secretary of State’s mind when he consulted anybody under such circumstances. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Question proposed, That the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Let me lay out the purpose of clause 3, which is to set out the procedure that the Secretary of State must follow to designate a nuclear company for the purposes of the nuclear RAB model. The clause requires the Secretary of State to undertake various transparency and consultation obligations before a company is designated.

The clause sets out the process. By putting the process in the Bill, the Government are showing their commitment to transparency and openness when designating a company. Prior to the designation of any company, subsection (1) requires the Secretary of State to publish a statement setting out the procedure they expect to follow in determining whether to designate a nuclear company and how they expect to determine that the designation criteria are met.

The Government anticipate that a nuclear company with a generation licence, and which thinks that its project should be funded through a RAB, would approach the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State will then assess the project against the factors set out in the statement, before consulting expert bodies on the designation. That provides opportunities for those directly affected by the potential designation, or with special expertise relevant to the decision, to provide their views on the matter. That includes the Gas and Electricity Markets Authority, the governing body of Ofgem—I will refer to it generally as Ofgem in the course of this debate, for the sake of time—whose primary statutory duty is to protect the interests of consumers.

The Secretary of State must publish a designation notice as required by subsections (5) and (6). That notice should include a description of any conditions and the reasons for undertaking the designation. While recognising the role of the Secretary of State in negotiating with prospective projects on behalf of consumers and taxpayers, the effect of the clause is to allow transparency over decision making regarding project designation. I therefore urge that the clause stand part of the Bill.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change) 2:45, 18 Tachwedd 2021

The Minister spoke about transparency, but as I touched on earlier, it seems to me that clauses 2 and 3 still do not provide transparency. Clause 3(1) gives the Secretary of State the power, in effect, to make things up as they go along. Under paragraph (a), the Secretary of State sets out the procedure that they will follow, so they are setting the rules, and then paragraph (b) allows the Secretary of State to confirm whether the designation criteria that they have already set in clause 2 have been achieved. The criteria in clause 2 are simply these: does the Secretary of State think that the project is advanced enough to be designated and is it value for money?

Effectively, by my logic, the Secretary of State states that the project is advanced enough and is value for money. Then, under clause 3(1), the Secretary of State affirms what rules will be applied to confirm what has already been confirmed—that the project is value for money and suitably advanced. It is a kind of circular argument. If the Secretary of State is determined to sign off on a new nuclear project, which they are, and they are setting the rules that they are going to apply and then they will publish the rationale as to why it has been signed off, that, to me, does not provide proper transparency. It is not things that can be challenged; it is actually just the Secretary of State giving their reasons for why they have signed off.

As I touched on earlier, paragraph 50 of the explanatory notes still does not give enough information, either. It actually gives too much wriggle room for a Secretary of State to be able to sign off, so that is also not robust enough. The Minister challenged me to table amendments, and I can table a new clause at a later date, or we can challenge further, but it is really hard to table amendments to clauses that are so fundamentally flawed. It is hard to actually improve them.

Turning to value for money, the cost to consumers is one of the items that has been suggested, but the Government are also good at saying that a new nuclear power station will add only £x a year to a consumer’s electricity bill and therefore it will have minimal impact on bills. That is a very neat way of trying to argue that a new nuclear station involves minimal cost to consumers, but of course we are talking about a 60-year contract.

In the same vein, the letter from the Minister to all MPs on 26 October stated that a nuclear project starting construction in 2023 will add only a few pounds to bills during the lifetime of the Parliament and only £1 per month during full construction. I will leave to one side the fact that 2023 is a fanciful construction date, but let me break down what the cost of £1 per month per consumer means. According to the Office for National Statistics, there are now 27 million households in Great Britain. According to the Bill’s impact assessment, the construction period for unit 1 is estimated to be between 13 and 17 years, plus another year for unit 2, so let us call it a 15-year construction period. That £1 a month per household is circa £5 billion up front. It can be argued that £1 a month is a low cost for consumers, but something like £5 billion is actually being committed. That is why we need more robust ways to evaluate what is the actual cost to consumers and what is value for money.

Let us work backwards from some of the figures in the impact assessment. It is suggested that, under RAB, the capital cost and associated financing for a new nuclear power station could be £63 billion. If we work backwards over a 60-year period, that is still only a few pounds a month, but it is actually £63 billion that we are talking about. That is a huge sum, which could be invested much better elsewhere in other forms of renewable energy. I hope that demonstrates how much wriggle room the Minister and Secretary of State have given themselves with the Bill. In fact, looking at the cost and impact assessment that the Government have quoted, it almost undermines their argument about the justification for new nuclear.

I turn now to subsection (2). Truthfully, it adds little more in the way of transparency. The Secretary of State must provide

“draft reasons for the designation” and consult stakeholders, but the subsection does not detail how the statutory consultation will be undertaken, the timescales applied to it or, more importantly, what happens to the consultation feedback from the stakeholders whom the Secretary of State consults. Paragraph 54 of the explanatory notes states that a final reasons determination must be published as part of the designation notice, and subsection (5) covers that too. With the way the Bill is currently framed, however, this has the potential to simply be a tick-box consultation exercise. The Secretary of State can consult and stakeholders respond, then the consultation is dismissed out of hand and the final reasons are printed.

Subsection (3)(f) states that the Secretary of State may consult the Scottish Ministers and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for Scottish projects, so what protection is there for the Scottish Government if they say no? We are implacably opposed to new nuclear, as is current SNP policy and the policy of the Government who have been elected by voters in Scotland since 2007. At the moment, the Scottish Government rely on the national planning policy framework to block new nuclear, but will the Minister confirm that, despite market failure, if somehow a proposal came for a new nuclear project in Scotland, the Bill, along with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, will not be a way for the UK Government to ram it through? How valid would the consultation with the Scottish Government be? It is not clear in the Bill.

Again, clauses 2 and 3 do not do enough to provide transparency and hold the Government to account. As I say, I would like to amend the clauses and be helpful to the Government, but given that I am opposed to the Bill and that I do not think the clauses are robust enough, it is very difficult to do so.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

It is a pleasure to be able to take part in this Committee. Thank you very much for your excellent work in chairing today’s sitting, Ms Fovargue.

I have just been on the Subsidy Control Bill Committee, and the Subsidy Control Bill has an incredible lack of information. We spend a huge amount of time asking for more transparency in that Bill, but this Bill is significantly worse than the Subsidy Control Bill in the lack of information that has been provided. To be honest, I cannot believe that the Bill is actually considered appropriate for primary legislation, because there is a totally stunning lack of info and an absolute lack of transparency.

The Secretary of State has to publish the reasons for the designation. What does that mean? What does the Secretary of State actually have to say in their reasons for the designation? Do they just write, “I think it’s a good idea. Let’s go for it.”? There is not enough information. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun asked earlier, does the Secretary of State have to take into account whether there is planning permission in place? Does the Secretary of State have to take into account the licences that have been put in place? It is totally unclear how this is likely to work.

I have a specific question for the Minister in addition to my general dismay at the clause. Subsection (3) talks about the people who have to be consulted. It says that if part of a site is in Scotland, the Scottish Ministers and SEPA have to be consulted. It also says something similar in relation to Wales and England. We know that if something is to be built in a border area, it will likely have cross-border environmental effects, so two environmental agencies could be involved should a project be fairly close to a border.

I would like the Minister to give me some comfort by saying that he would consider consulting more than one environmental agency, because if a project were to be on the border between England and Wales but slightly more on the English side, it might still have environmental impacts in Wales. It would be relevant, therefore, for the Minister to ensure that the consultations are slightly broader than simply where the footprint of the site is, because we know that any large thing that is built—whether it is something as potentially likely to cause massive environmental problems as nuclear or something much less of a potential environmental risk—has wider environmental issues than simply its footprint. It would be useful if the Minister could confirm that he would give consideration to that happening in the event that it is really pretty close to a border.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I thank the hon. Members for Kilmarnock and Loudoun and for Aberdeen North for their contributions on clause 3. I will try to deal with their points.

It is important to understand the different parts of the process and the transparency involved in the process. The rules are published first; then comes the rationale for the designation, which is consulted on. It is standard practice in a consultation, of course, to take into account the results or the responses made to the consultation. Perhaps the hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun was trying to characterise it as superfluous or part of a process that would not add any additional information, but a Government consultation is there specifically to seek out and find more information. We then publish the final rationale for the designation. I hope that is helpful in setting out a little of the process involved.

The question about stating the length of the consultation is one that would be appropriate to the project itself. Let us not forget that we are trying to design a process here that would take into account a number of different possible future nuclear power stations. It would be difficult for us today to be prescriptive about the length of time that a consultation should take. We have set out those who we think must be consulted, and we have also left it open for the Secretary of State to consult other interested parties, which is quite reasonable considering that this legislation is supposed to encompass various forms of future nuclear power plants. We would be in danger of becoming too prescriptive about things such as the length of the consultation and the earlier amendment about stating reasons for particular people to be consulted.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I do not want to be accused of trying to be too helpful to the Minister but, as I understand it, this part is about the designation of an existing nuclear company for the possibility of receiving RAB payments for a project it has not yet undertaken. That is it. It seems to me that what we are concentrating on in this part of the Bill—although not later on in the Bill—is just the designation process. I hope the Minister will agree that that is not the project or the RAB process itself, on which we would expect considerable transparency as it goes through, but not necessarily at this particular stage.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point, and he is right that that is the purpose of this clause. None the less, the purpose of the clause is also to allow designation for a potential variety of timeframes within those projects, so it is still important not to be over-prescriptive, for example with the suggestion that we lay out today what the length of time for a consultation should be.

In terms of the costs, the whole purpose of the Bill is to reduce costs. The hon. Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun is probing on the costs and what they actually mean, but the point is that this is a reduction in the costs that would otherwise be the case under a contract for difference model. That is ultimately getting to the heart of the Bill. I appreciate that he is against nuclear power, but he would surely have to recognise that the Bill is about reducing the costs of nuclear power. That is the purpose of the Bill. He says it is going to be very expensive—we acknowledge that it can be very expensive, and the purpose of the Bill is to make it less expensive.

Some reasonable questions were asked about the role of the Scottish Government or other devolved authorities. The Bill does not change in any way the powers of the devolved Administrations in this space. Electricity generation is a reserved matter, so it will be for the Secretary of State to specify a RAB licence for future projects. Officials have also worked closely with their counterparts in the Welsh and Scottish Governments as RAB policy has been developed and the terms of the legislation have been confirmed. We plan to continue consulting with and, where appropriate, involving the devolved Administrations in project discussions, particularly in considerations of regional benefits.

Scotland benefits from a lot of this country’s nuclear infrastructure. I am always a bit puzzled about why the SNP does not seem particularly interested in the jobs in Scotland that are involved in this country’s critical nuclear infrastructure.

Photo of Mark Jenkinson Mark Jenkinson Ceidwadwyr, Workington 3:00, 18 Tachwedd 2021

Is it not the case that the rest of the UK can learn from Scotland’s lead on net zero when we see the low-carbon content of their grid, which is thanks to nuclear technology?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

My hon. Friend makes a very strong point—one made by quite a few people who were in Glasgow just two weeks ago. Ironically, in Scotland, making that argument strongly were not just the UK Government, but countries from all over the world. They were making the argument for nuclear power being part of our low-carbon future.

The powers of the Scottish Government are unchanged. The Bill makes provisions for the Secretary of State to consult named persons and organisations prior to the specification of any project under a nuclear RAB, and to consult those persons or organisations before he or she amends a projects licence to insert RAB conditions. Ministers in devolved Administrations will be captured—in scope, I should say; not physically—by this consultation.

Photo of Alan Brown Alan Brown Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Energy and Climate Change)

The Minister has already said that energy generation is a reserved power. Is he confirming that if the devolved Administrations say no in a consultation, that could be overruled by Westminster, with the imposition of a nuclear power plant?

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

The hon. Gentleman is inviting me to go down a hypothetical road. The devolved Administrations have powers in other areas, and if the devolved Administration was strongly minded about having a nuclear power plant in that particular part of the UK, it is difficult to envisage circumstances in which the UK Government would proceed to do that. I hope that gives him enough reassurance.

I will deal with the point made by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. On the question of a project near a border, it is reasonable then that the UK Government would consider the appropriateness of consulting with the devolved Administration. I return to my earlier point about specifying those who must be consulted and those who the Secretary of State would think it reasonable to consult. That would be within the scope of who the Secretary of State would think it reasonable to consult.

Photo of Kirsty Blackman Kirsty Blackman Scottish National Party, Aberdeen North

I appreciate that really helpful clarification.

A couple of points about the lack of transparency in the clause have not been covered. Subsection (2)(a) states that the Secretary of State has to “prepare draft reasons”. Subsection (5)(b) states the Secretary of State must provide the reasons “amended as appropriate”. We have not heard what those reasons look like. Do they say something along the lines of, “The Secretary of State gives designated status because he feels like it”? I presume not, but there is no information about what those reasons would include. Could we have something in writing about what could be in those reasons? There is no framework here at all—the Bill seems to be quite lacking.

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. The point strikes at the heart of what a Government Minister is doing. I think she is asking what happens if a Government Minister behaves entirely unreasonably. The way our constitutional settlement works is that if a Minister is behaving entirely unreasonably, he or she is answerable to Parliament. If Parliament believed the Secretary of State to be unreasonable or acting in a way contrary to the intention of the Act, people would find ways of getting the Secretary of State to explain. I think the hon. Lady was trying to suggest that the Secretary of State might arbitrarily decide to go through with something—

Photo of Greg Hands Greg Hands The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

I am not going to give way again, because I have set out clearly that the Secretary of State is ultimately accountable to Parliament, and Parliament would find a way of examining the reasons that he or she laid out under this clause.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause 3 accordingly ordered to stand part of the Bill.