Mr Peter Lilley (Hitchin and Harpenden) (Con): My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench will probably be relieved to hear that I do not
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intend on this occasion to dispute the wisdom of the renewables targets that we have imposed on ourselves or had imposed upon us by the European Union. If we take those targets as given, we must accept the need to tax or ration fossil fuels and to subsidise or set quotas for renewables if we are to meet them. However, I dispute the premise that appears to underlie contributions to the debate from both sides of the House: that the move from low-cost energy to high-cost energy can generate jobs or growth. Such a move might be necessary, but we delude ourselves if we imagine that it will have either of those effects.
Subsidies can boost employment in the area that is subsidised, just as taxes can reduce employment in the area that is taxed, but the suggestion that subsidies can produce a net increase in additional jobs, as the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) suggested, is a delusion. It is self-evident nonsense and involves abolishing the rules of arithmetic, because we would destroy as many jobs with the taxes we would have to levy to pay for the subsidies as the subsidies given at other points would create. That is essentially the green version of the old broken windows fallacy, according to which we can create jobs by breaking someone’s windows because the householder would have to employ a glazier, who would have to employ glassmakers and the people who produce the other raw materials. That fallacy was destroyed ages ago and should not be reproduced by Members on either Front Bench.
Mr Lilley: We have absolutely no desire to have what is essentially a sub-prime bank in our area. The idea that we can boost-[Interruption.] It will be a sub-prime bank, because the Government have said that it will not accept prime investment opportunities, which will be left to the market. The bank will be able to lend only to those opportunities that are not attractive to industry-despite huge subsidies, quotas, publicity and fashion. In short, it will be able to lend only to the sub-prime opportunities, so let us hope that it is a long time coming. We do not want it in Hitchin.
The idea that we can boost productivity by replacing competitive sources of energy with uncompetitive sources of energy is so ludicrous that it is strange it has passed without comment today. We have a need for electricity generation. If we invest a certain amount of money in wind, which is four times as expensive as gas turbines, we will get for a given investment only one quarter of the electricity that we would if we relied on gas turbines. With onshore generation we will get half the electricity that we would from gas, so the idea that we can boost growth through low-productivity, high-cost industries is nonsense, and we should cease deluding ourselves that we can. It has been suggested that we might be able to generate jobs in the supply industries for those forms of energy, but it is nonsense to suppose that subsidising the use of renewable technologies automatically results in an increase in the domestic production of equipment for them. It manifestly has not; there is no reason to suppose that it should; the Government are not allowed to give subsidies to those equipment suppliers under
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EU rules; and in any case the record of Governments trying to pick winners is lamentable and miserable, so it is probably just as well that they cannot.
David Mowat: The thrust of my right hon. Friend’s comments-that we cannot generate jobs with lower-productivity activities-is right, but if we accept that the Climate Change Act 2008 is right also and we have to decarbonise, we reach a position whereby we ought to decarbonise ruthlessly with the cheapest option in front of us, which takes us to nuclear power rather than to some of the others.
Mr Lilley: As one of the five people who opposed the 2008 Act, I do not necessarily accept my hon. Friend’s premise, but I will for the purposes of debate, and if we are going to meet those targets we should do so as efficiently as possible. Nuclear is one of the best ways, but the cheapest of all is gas turbines, and gas might become cheaper in this country if we exploit the potential for shale gas, which has halved the cost of gas in the United States.
Zac Goldsmith (Richmond Park) (Con): On subsidies, can my right hon. Friend name a single nuclear power plant in the history of the sector that has not existed on the back of vast public subsidies? Has there ever been an unsubsidised nuclear power plant?
Mr Lilley: I am not sure whether some of the early ones were subsidised, but nuclear power is more attractive economically-the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington South (David Mowat) made-than some of the very high-cost renewables.
As Harold Macmillan remarked, when both sides of the House are agreed, they are usually wrong. They are wrong on this occasion, they invariably end up scratching each other’s backs and intellectual rigour goes out of the window. It is time that we looked rigorously at what is involved. It may be necessary to do what is under discussion, but we should not kid ourselves that it is going to create an industrial revolution, green growth or green jobs. It is going to cost a lot of money, and we are going to be worse off so that future generations can have a better climate.