Monday 9 March 1998

Tony Benn

Rt Hon Tony Benn MP (Lab. Chesterfield)

Former Minister of Technology and Secretary of State for Energy

I think first of all there should be a planned energy policy. There is no energy policy at the moment; the Government has accepted market forces and allows them to determine everything. The dash for gas is market forces. The rundown of the mining industry is market forces. The fact that there is a lot of poverty is market forces. The fact that we might well be at war in the Gulf would be about defending with military force the oil interests of the United States, which is about money and power.

So there is no sense of planning of any sort or kind. Oil has been privatised. Everything is determined simply by what is called the globalised economy, and of course, as we are an energy rich country, it is an act of lunacy to allow our own natural resources to be determined, controlled, owned and used in the interests simply of market forces.

The policy I would pursue

I think the first to do would be to re-establish the Energy Commission, which I set up in 1976. All the various energy producers and energy users and the Trade Unions involved and the consumers would come together and discuss the choices in energy, whether it be about the future of nuclear power, whether it be about fuel poverty, whether it be about development and conservation of our resources, and then take the necessary powers to see that what was broadly agreed there was put into effect. That's all been abandoned.

The kinds of fuel we should concentrate on

We've got a thousand years of coal under our territory, if you include oil under the North Sea. We've got three hundred years of coal under our land, with present technologies. With new technologies of fluidised bed burning and the "scrubbing" in coal burning stations, so that it doesn't pollute the environment, with the conversion of coal to oil, and using coal as a chemical feed stuff, it's an act of lunacy not to protect that, because it was coal that gave us the original industrial base in the 19th century and it will be coal probably more, even than oil, that gives us some future in the next century.

I think undoubtedly we will have to go back to mining, it will be done in a more modern way, although mining always was a high-tech industry. We have the cheapest deep mined coal in the world. Open cast, particularly in mining areas where the pits are closed, completes the massacre of the communities by first of all killing their jobs, and then destroying their environment. The free importation of coal – since you can get coal from cheaper sources – completes the destruction of your own industry. Then you pay the costs of that in redundancy pay, and in the breakdown of the social fabric.

Global warming

I am concerned about global warming, and I think everybody ought to be. There is no doubt whatever that if you have the scrubbing plants you can enormously reduce the risk of power stations polluting the atmosphere in one sense, but there are other uses of coal. It is an immensely valuable resource and it doesn't necessarily follow that you have to burn it. I mean, you can convert it to chemicals, and the waste of that and the waste of the skills associated with it means that in effect many of the revenues that we get from the oil have now been devoted to redundancy pay to miners.

Energy democracy

I think in many respects decisions relating to energy ought to be taken not only locally – I don't think any open cast should be approved if it hasn't got the support of the local community – that is decentralisation of decision making. I think the whole question of whether fuel poverty isn't a major problem should be addressed. I had a scheme over the winter of 1978-9, which was that everybody on benefit had 25% of their fuel bills paid by the Government, regardless of the temperature. And that made a huge difference to people.

Now there's an absolutely trifling sum paid only if the temperature falls below freezing for more than seven days, which doesn't take account of the wind chill factor, and the points where they measure the temperature may be miles from where the people actually live. So I think that the idea of people dying of hypothermia in the winter and unemployed miners having benefit because they haven't got work is again just a total ideological absurdity, which is never discussed because nowadays anyone who doesn't believe the market is best is treated as if they were slightly strange.

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