Gordon Brown appears determined to press ahead with a legal framework for new nuclear power stations in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech without waiting for the outcome of an official complaint that could derail the whole process.
The complaint concerns a consultation designed to gauge public opinion on nuclear energy, conducted by Opinion Leader Research, a polling company with close links to Labour.
Greenpeace, the environmental campaigning group, has lodged a complaint about alleged bias in the OLR public consultation. The Market Research Standards Council told the FT it was unlikely to decide whether to launch a formal investigation into the complaint until the new year.
But ministers will not wait for the council’s decision before issuing the energy bill, the government has signalled.
Officials told the FT that, should the government decide to go ahead with replacing Britain’s ageing nuclear power stations, there was no reason the bill – expected by the end of the year – should be delayed until after the ruling.
Greenpeace has already legally challenged the government over its perceived pro-nuclear bias, winning a High Court ruling in February that an earlier consultation was “manifestly inadequate and unfair”. The pressure group’s lawyers are now considering whether to issue another legal challenge while waiting for the MRSC ruling.
“I don’t see the connection with the complaint,” a spokesperson for the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform said.
“We have undertaken what we believe is the fullest consultation [to date] on the issue of new nuclear. This was one aspect of it, to gauge public sentiment.”
The bill will set the legal framework for an independently run fund into which companies operating new nuclear power stations will have to pay hundreds of millions of pounds to cover the future bill for disposing of radioactive waste.
The Queen’s Speech will also help to pave the way for new nuclear plants by including planning legislation designed to fast-track big infrastructure projects.
The level of government work given to OLR – in contracts worth more than £2m in the last couple of years – has already attracted adverse comment.
Deborah Mattinson, the company’s former chief executive, is known as Mr Brown’s personal pollster and has links to Labour going back to the 1980s. Ms Mattinson resigned after Mr Brown became prime minister but chairs the research division of Chime Communications, OLR’s parent company.
The Tories attacked the £772,626 cost of the consultation contract given to OLR. Alan Duncan, shadow business secretary, told the FT: “This seems like a staggering amount of money. It needs serious investigation and explanation.”
OLR said it “completely” rejected any suggestion that political links played a part in it winning the contract, or in the other government business it had been awarded.
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