Energy Bill (Second Stage)

The Deputy Chairperson of the Committee for Enterprise, Trade and Investment (Mr Neeson): I welcome the Bill. As the Assembly is well aware, the Committee has demonstrated a great deal of interest in energy policy. Indeed, the Committee’s second very detailed inquiry was into energy, and we welcome the many provisions in the legislation that reflect the Committee’s deliberations and recommendations.

I do not intend to go over old ground and rehearse earlier debates. Suffice it to say that the Committee’s recommendations covered five broad areas: the cost of electricity; improving energy efficiency; renewable energy; the extension of the gas network; and the development of the all-island energy market. Most of those areas are covered to a greater or lesser extent in the detail of this very complex piece of legislation. Of course, the Bill also deals with other issues that were not in the Committee’s report, and the Department has agreed to consider certain matters that were in that report for future legislation.

In the few minutes for which I am allowed to speak, I hope to concentrate on the areas of concern that we have identified in the Bill as it stands and give a commitment to the Assembly that those and all areas within the Bill’s scope will be scrutinised in the detail that one would expect from a responsible Assembly Committee.

The most fundamental concern of the Committee is that electricity prices in Northern Ireland are still too high. Not only that, but a disproportionately high number of people experience fuel poverty. Although the question of fuel poverty is primarily the responsibility of the Department for Social Development, and tackling fuel poverty requires a fundamental belt-and-braces approach from across the Government, the Committee will scrutinise the Bill in fine detail and explore whether it can be amended in any way with the result of reducing prices for the consumer. There are ongoing deliberations between members of our own Committee and members of the Committee for Social Development to see whether a joint approach might be made on the issue.

That will include giving consideration to whether the Department should be instructed to make provision for the issue of consumer bonds. The Committee believes that the option for such a provision should be in the Bill, and we may well introduce an amendment on the issue. Regardless of whether the Department takes such a course, we believe that the opportunity should be provided in the legislation. As the Minister said, certain organisations will meet him, and they will meet me soon to discuss those issues.

The Committee has given its full support to extending the gas network in Northern Ireland, which means, in the first instance, that the gas pipeline will be extended to the north-west. The Committee will closely scrutinise the Bill’s provisions that legislate for the postalisation of gas supplies. The Committee intends to confirm that proposals that are designed to ensure that gas costs are the same for all consumers mean exactly that — that those who live and work in outlying and disadvantaged areas pay no extra charges. That is why I welcome the Minister’s commitment. I am aware that he has come under pressure from various quarters on that, but it is an issue that the Committee feels very strongly about.

The Committee’s advocacy of the greater use of renewable energy is on record; in practice, that means the extensive development of wind farms. The Committee feels that the Department is not being ambitious enough in its attempts to meet the targets that were set by the Kyoto Protocol. The Committee will consider whether to propose amendments to the Bill that will enable Northern Ireland to take its rightful role as the pacesetter in generating renewable energy throughout these islands. That was reflected in the Committee’s report on energy.

The Committee will also examine whether the Department has followed the provisions of Great Britain’s Utilities Act 2000 too closely. There are arguments for and against following “parity legislation” word for word in Northern Ireland after laws have been passed at Westminster. However, there can be no dispute that the energy market in Northern Ireland is different from that in Great Britain. We have higher electricity prices, a greater reliance on oil, and a rudimentary lasting gas infrastructure. Despite the interconnectors, Northern Ireland’s electricity industry has what amounts to a monopoly on electricity supply. Is slavishly following Westminster legislation appropriate in those circumstances?

There is, of course, much to be applauded in the Bill. Without wishing to prejudice further deliberations by the Committee, I can give a guarded welcome to the new Northern Ireland Authority for Energy Regulation and to transferring certain responsibilities in that field to the General Consumer Council for Northern Ireland. The Committee recommended that in its report. Although welcoming that, I can give the Assembly a commitment that those parts of the Bill will undergo the same detailed scrutiny as the more controversial areas.

Finally, facilitating the establishment of an independent transmission system operator should be welcomed. It will mean that in future responsibility for the transmission of electricity will be divorced from responsibility for the generation of electricity. That removes a potential conflict of interests, which should benefit the consumer. The legislation does not detail how the transmission system operator should operate. The Committee will probe departmental intentions on that matter.

The Bill is laudable legislation, which, I suspect, the Committee will generally support. In many ways, it reflects the changing nature of the energy market in Northern Ireland, in the island of Ireland, in the British Isles and in Europe. However, the Committee intends to scrutinise the legislation thoroughly. It has already publicly advertised for submissions from all interested bodies.

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