Lord Avebury would never have been this complacent over Hinkley Point

Parliamentary Business

Mark Leftly@MLeftly
Wednesday 09 March 2016 02:28
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The Lord Avebury went by many names. He was born Eric Reginald Lubbock, but became better known as “Orpington Man”.

In 1962, Mr Lubbock pulled off one of the most startling by-election victories this country has ever seen, stunning the Conservatives by taking true blue Orpington in Kent with a 26.3 per cent swing. After decades in the doldrums, this was the first significant sign that the Liberal Party could stage a revival and, arguably, was the start of a rocky, half-century rebuilding process that eventually took Nick Clegg to deputy prime minister.

Sadly for Orpington Man he was not to be part of the revival – in the House of Commons, at least – for very long. On losing his seat eight years later, he said: “In 1962 the wise, far-seeing people of Orpington elected me as their member; in 1970 the fools threw me out.”

Having inherited his title in 1971, he struggled with his conscience over whether to renounce the peerage and turn down his place in the House of Lords, an institution he argued was undemocratic. However, he decided he could best fight his many causes, such as reforming British democracy and fighting human rights abuses in far-flung corners of the world, by becoming Lord Avebury.

Sitting in his south London home two Christmases ago, Lord Avebury was slowly dying of a blood cancer called myelofibrosis. Although well into his 80s, his mind was sharp and there were no obvious signs of his illness, but he wanted the Assisted Dying Bill to be passed so he could choose the timing of his death.

Even if successful, getting this on to statute couldn’t happen before his death, which he predicted correctly as this year. I asked whether he might end his life at Dignitas in Switzerland when he became gravely ill.

His youngest son, John, 29 at the time, shouted over: “He’s too tight to do that.” Lord Avebury, who died last month, suggested this was correct with a knowing grin.

Lord Avebury knew the Liberal Democrats were going to be trounced at the general election and said he wanted Ed Davey, who was the energy secretary at the time, to succeed Nick Clegg. This was the preferred choice of many LibDem peers, but the now Sir Ed lost his Kingston and Surbiton seat as part of a near wipe-out that saw the party reduced to the sort of MP numbers it suffered when Orpington Man was in the House of Commons.

Lord Avebury’s support of him is a more than good enough reference to be certain that Sir Ed is a decent man. He was definitely an underappreciated member of the Government during the coalition years and I found him to be one of the Commons’ nice guys.

But Sir Ed has since taken on a part-time role at MHP Communications and one of the PR firm’s clients is EDF, the French giant that is supposed to be building Hinkley Point C. This reactor would cost £24.5bn and is supposed to herald a generation of civil nuclear reactors that will bridge the UK’s yawning energy gap.

The plans are on the verge of collapse. EDF said it will make a decision on whether to go ahead with the investment later this year and, despite the financial risks, many of us who watch the sector thought it was certain the French would press ahead.

We’ve been too complacent. This week, EDF’s finance director, Thomas Piquemal, quit over fears the company is risking its future on a power plant on the Somerset coast. Britain’s plans for a civil nuclear renaissance, which Sir Ed was still pushing through less than a year ago, could collapse.

Regular readers of this column will know that I have been highly critical of the way the revolving door between business and Government is inadequately guarded by the virtually powerless Advisory Committee on Business Appointments [Acoba]. Although MHP insists Sir Ed is not working with EDF in any way, there is huge potential for conflict of interest here, no matter how closely monitored his work might be.

The demise of Hinkley Point C will badly deepen our looming energy crisis, but hopefully the media coverage about Sir Ed’s MHP role will finally convince Government to give Acoba far greater powers. Although there are potential issues with freedom of trade, it is simply not good enough that Acoba is limited to demanding a short gap between someone being a minister or senior civil servant before joining a company relevant to that previous work.

Lord Avebury, who died last month, was hugely concerned by the UK’s legacy of nuclear waste. He also wanted an incorruptible democracy. Reforming Acoba because of a nuclear failure would be a fitting tribute to a noble man.

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