On the Politics Show, Sunday 20 May 2006, Jon Sopel interviewed Alistair Darling, Secretary of State for Trade & Industry.
INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT: ALISTAIR DARLING, MP, Secretary of State for Trade & Industry
JON SOPEL: And I'm joined now by the Secretary of State for Trade & Industry, Alistair Darling. Alistair Darling, welcome to the Politics Show. It's been reported that Gordon Brown is going to support the building of new nuclear power stations in the papers this morning, when you announce your White Paper this week. Can you confirm that?
ALISTAIR DARLING: I believe that nuclear ought to be part of the mix, but as you said, I think it's important that we concentrate on the two big challenges we face. One is climate change, where the science and the knowledge of the science has advanced very rapidly in the last few years.
The other is security of supply; for the last thirty years, we've depended on North Sea oil and gas. In the future, we could be 80% dependent on imports. Now, I firmly believe that we need to have a mix of energy generation. I think that over the last few years, many people have changed their mind on this.
I certainly started off as a sceptic, as far as nuclear was concerned, but I think that if we don't keep that open as an option, then we're not going to be able to reach our targets to reduce the amount of carbon going in to the atmosphere, and we have run a grave risk of not having our electricity when we need it.
JON SOPEL: You used the word an option, isn't it more than that? Don't you want to build new nuclear power stations?
ALISTAIR DARLING: No, I think they ought to be part of the mix and of course it will be the power companies that come forward with proposals. The government isn't going to build nuclear power stations, but at the moment, about 20% of the electricity that we get, comes from nuclear.
That will steadily decline because the power stations will become older, they'll go out of commission. If we don't replace them, the chances are they'll be replaced by gas or coal with all the carbon and of course, we do want more renewables, and my colleague Alan Whitehead is quite right about that.
But for everybody who tells you they don't like nuclear power stations, you'll get a whole lot of other people, including Liberal Democrats by the way, who then object to wind farms when they come up for planning permission.
JON SOPEL: Let's just stick with nuclear. You say it gives us about 20% of the energy that we have at the moment. Do you want it to stay at 20% or because of the twin issues that you've talked about, about climate change and security of supply, would you like that to go up?
ALISTAIR DARLING: I, you know, I think that it had been higher in the past, it's been up at about 30% and I don't have a fixed idea in my mind as to what the proportion ought to be. What I do know is this, that as we try and reduce the amount of carbon going in to the atmosphere, as we ensure that we've got secure supplies, we need the proper mix of generation.
I think nuclear needs to play it's... whether it's 20%, whether it's a bit higher or a big lower, that's something that the power companies have to decide. But to rule it out, to say no, we're not having nuclear under any circumstances, does mean you are very heavily dependent on renewables, which of course do have their own difficulties.
There is a carbon footprint there, you've got to get planning permission and of course, you know, as I said to you, you know, people will say they don't like nuclear, the same people will then say they don't like marine power, they don't like wind power - they say it's environmentally damaging, we've got to strike a sensible balance and I think including nuclear as an option, would do that.
JON SOPEL: Okay, and one of the figures I've seen is that there could be eight new nuclear power stations built within the next fifteen years.
ALISTAIR DARLING: Well, you, you need less plants to replace the new - the old power stations, simply because they're more efficient but what we're doing is...
JON SOPEL: But that figure itself that I've just quoted is not off the wall?
ALISTAIR DARLING: It, it, it certainly, it certainly - er not something that you żas I said to you, I don't have a firm number in my mind as to the actual proportion or the number of power stations. What I do know is that you do need a mix and of course there's another reason too.
The trouble with renewables is they're very good in providing you with low carbon electricity generation, but of course on very hot days or very cold days, if the wind doesn't blow, then you would have a big problem, and that's where nuclear has provided a base load of electricity for many years now.
JON SOPEL: What about the, you know, Peter Hain, who's running for the Deputy Leadership, we've just heard about the hustings taking place in Coventry. He said, 'there are serious concerns must remain about nuclear, the financial costs are impossible to estimate, security implications are vast, it's label is clear is unwarranted.'
ALISTAIR DARLING: Well, I think you'll find that Peter is in complete agreement with the policy that publish this coming week.
JON SOPEL: Doesn't sound it from a quote like that.
ALISTAIR DARLING: Well, I've spoken to Peter lots of times and you know, Peter like me for example, is also keen that we should look at marine generation, using the tides and so on. It's in its infancy here, but it's something we should look at.
JON SOPEL: Sorry, but it's possible that you might be electing a Deputy Leader of the Labour Party who, well from that quote, there are serious concerns must remain about nuclear, the financial costs are impossible to estimate, security implications are vast, it's as clean is unwarranted. That doesn't sound like he agrees 100% with you at all.
ALISTAIR DARLING: Well, I think you will find that when I publish the White Paper and the consultation document on Wednesday, Peter will be in complete agreement with it and I've talked to him about it. It is the case and if you look at nuclear, of course people have their concerns, they have their doubts, I told you, I started off as a nuclear sceptic if you like but the facts have changed in two respects.
One is climate change is a very real problem, secondly, in relation to security supply, we do have a margin now, quite a significant margin between what we produce in electricity and what we use. In another fifteen, twenty, twenty five years, we will come perilously close to a situation where if we don't replace the plant, the generating capacity we've got, then we'll be too close for comfort and I don't want to see that happen. People take it for granted that when they put on the light switch at home, the electricity comes through. We don't want to run the risk of that not happening.
JON SOPEL: You're advocating very very strongly the case for nuclear. Why don't you say it should be more than 20%. Why don't you say - aim for higher?
ALISTAIR DARLING: Yes, I advocate the case for reducing our demand for energy, for having more wind farm capacity, more renewables and I'm going to be announcing changes that I think will encourage even more renewable electricity but I also think there ought to be a mix.
The reason I'm not saying there ought to be such and such a percentage of that mix, is because at the end of the day that has to be up to the power companies. But the question actually, this week is, do you say no to nuclear under any circumstances and I don't think that's a sensible policy.
JON SOPEL: And on renewables, do you think you can hit this target of 20% by 2020?
ALISTAIR DARLING: Yes, it's going to be tough though. At the moment there's something like twelve hundred planning applications, bunged up because of various objections and you know, I've - this is of great interest to the Liberal Democrats spokesman, if her councils would stop objecting to some of these applications, we might get more of them.
The Tories are just as bad. Last December I approved one of the biggest off shore wind farms this country has ever seen and it's stuck because the local council has objected to where the power lines come ashore. So yes, we need more renewables, yes, we need more to reduce our demand for energy, but as far as generation is concerned, you need a good and balanced mix.
JON SOPEL: Is there a good argument for taking energy out of the DTI and giving it, I don't know, to Environment say, if it's such a big issue.
ALISTAIR DARLING: Well, I think there is an argument for refocusing the DTI and I've said this before. I've been at the DTI just over a year now and I've a fairly clear idea of where it does need refocusing.
JON SOPEL: Oh, tell us.
ALISTAIR DARLING: To answer your second question, I'm afraid you're going to have to wait for about six weeks and then, you know, Gordon will make his decisions as to what Whitehall looks like, under his Prime Ministership but yes... (interjection)
JON SOPEL: Hang on. Sorry, I've got to stop you there. I've got to stop you there because that sounds fascinating. Are you saying it's going to look very different?
ALISTAIR DARLING: No, I'm not. What I'm saying to you is that I think I can see where the DTI needs refocused. I think changes are necessary. Take energy for example.
JON SOPEL: Do we still need a DTI?
ALISTAIR DARLING: Yeah, you certainly, certainly need a department that is looking out for the interests of industry, of business - remember half of what the DTI does, half of its money is spent on science and technology.
JON SOPEL: Do we still need a DTI?
ALISTAIR DARLING: Whether it's called DTI or not, you know I think is of secondary interest. What is important is that you've got a department, in Whitehall that is there to make sure that we respond to the changing business climate, that we deal with the challenges of globalisation.
As I said, half the money that we spend goes on Science & Technology and you mentioned energy - you're right, five years ago energy had very little political interest outside you know, the specialist. Now, it is one of the biggest challenges that faces any government.
JON SOPEL: Right, let's just talk about the events of the past week. There is now not going to be a contest for the Labour leadership. Is that a victory for democracy?
ALISTAIR DARLING: Well, I don't think there was any point in trying to create a contest for the sake of it. And indeed, the very fact that you know, Gordon has come through, I think perhaps demonstrates that whereas there were ideological battles to be fought at the last leadership election, when Tony Blair won, because there was a different view the.
Tony was clear, the Labour Party had to reform, it had to change and that wasn't universally held to be true at that time. Now, that isn't the case. I think you know Gordon for some time has been the obvious successor to Tony Blair. I think he will be extremely good for the Party, but more importantly, he will be very good Prime Minister for the country.
JON SOPEL: Apparently when people do focus group research and they say, what sort of vehicle would you describe Gordon Brown as, they say a tank that everything gets steamrollered. Hasn't he got this by steamrollering the opposition, so that everyone was too fearful of not being with him.
ALISTAIR DARLING: No, look, if anyone had wanted to stand and they could have got the support of forty five of their colleagues, they could have thrown their hat in the ring and there would have been a contest. I think most people in the Labour Party you know, have known Gordon Brown for a long time.
They have known, you know, I think he would be the obvious successor to Tony Blair. You know, he's a thoroughly decent guy. He is someone who's got the interests of this country at heart. I think he will be an exceptionally good Prime Minister.
JON SOPEL: And you know him better than most. Tell us what he's like because I think a lot of people watching still don't know the real Gordon Brown. We've seen him smiling a lot in the past week and I read in today's paper one of his former press aides, long serving press aides say, for goodness sake stop smiling, be yourself, be grumpy, let the British people get to know you as the person you are and they might like you the more for it.
ALISTAIR DARLING: Gordon, who I have known for a long, long time, you know, is a smiley person, as well as sometimes as the austere Chancellor, giving a different image. As I said, he is a thoroughly decent man. He's got a very clear sense of what's right, what's wrong.
He's got a very clear sense of fairness right from, you know the time he was growing up, he's always been very clear that it was the job of government to encourage people to do the best they can for themselves and their families, to get on. And you know, I've known Gordon, you know for many many years. He is really good company, he's good fun to be with. You know, I think sometimes when you're Chancellor, you do have to be grumpy and he was a very good Chancellor.
JON SOPEL: So he's been very good at being grumpy you're saying.
ALISTAIR DARLING: Well to be, to be the Chancellor you have to be grumpy from time to time, er but you know, I think you also you know, have to smile, have a smile on your face. I think you know sometimes people get a little bit obsessed about these things about politicians, do we smile too much, are we you know, grumpy, do we look boring, you know - I think you know most people have got more sense than that.
JON SOPEL: Alistair Darling, thanks so much for being with us. Thank you.
ALISTAIR DARLING: Thank you.
END OF INTERVIEW
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The Politics Show Sunday 20 May 2007 at 12:00 BST on BBC One.
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