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19 Nov 2002 : Column 560—continued

6.39 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): I wish to speak about the rural economy, and in particular about the developing jobs crisis in the oil and fishing industries in Scotland. I am delighted that the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, who is the Minister responsible for fishing, has returned to listen to my remarks from the biodiversity conference in Rio, where he has been toiling on our behalf, and at our expense.

The indifference that the Queen's Speech shows to the major issues that I wish to raise reflects the indifference of the Prime Minister to the serious jobs crisis developing in Scotland. Tens of thousands of livelihoods are now at stake.

First, however, I want to deal with the incredible speech by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis). For the benefit of those fortunate enough not to have listened to it, let me set out what he said. He argued that London and Scotland have high unemployment and low growth because they have an Assembly and a Parliament respectively. The same logic applies to saying, XThe cat sat on the mat, and as that animal sits on the mat, that animal must be a cat." It is, of course, total and utter nonsense.

The London Assembly and the Scottish Parliament have been in existence for three years. No economist in the world—whether Austrian school, Keynesian, left-

19 Nov 2002 : Column 561

wing, right-wing or somewhere in the middle—would attribute an impact on economic growth over three years to anything other than one of three things: fiscal policy, interest rate policy or exchange rate policy. Over a generation—or 10 years, perhaps—education, the labour market or the micro-economy might have an influence, but over three years, the factors would have to be interest rate policy, exchange rate policy or fiscal policy. Where are those three things controlled? Here. They are not controlled in the London Assembly, the Scots Parliament or the Welsh Assembly.

When the leader of the Conservative party was elected, I thought that the Conservatives had gone a long way towards reaching the bottom, certainly as far their ability to communicate was concerned. I now see that they had a lucky escape. Indeed, although the former leader of the Conservative party described himself as an elder statesman, on the evidence of other speeches, he should be the coming man—the young hopeful. He told me a few minutes ago that he was coming back; for a second I thought he meant to the Front Bench, but he meant to his seat at the back. The Conservative party is not going in the right direction if the speech by the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden is anything to go by.

As for the developing crisis in the rural economy in Scotland, the crisis in oil jobs was manufactured in Downing street. I do not know whether No. 10 or No. 11 was responsible, but the oil industry in Scotland was looking forward to a substantial period of prosperity at the start of the year, until the tax change in the Budget. Even if we did not expect a boom, we went from expecting a period of sustained expansion to the drilling of a mere 12—one dozen—exploration wells in the North sea this year. That is the lowest total on record—less than half of last year's total, which itself was not a great year. The fundamental reason for that is the change in attitude and confidence as a result of misguided tax changes in the Budget.

I did not mind the Government trying to reap some of the enormous assets that the harvesters of the North sea were themselves reaping. But if that is the strategy and the policy, there has to be a way to reward the new investors that we want to take over the assets and make the investments that the bigger established companies are not keen to make. I do not take sides with BP or Lord Browne when he argues about the Government's lack of consultation. Lord Browne's company does not consult local communities when it takes dire decisions that affect them, such as those made in my community recently and in the communities of other hon. Members.

I want a coherent strategy for keeping the North sea show on the road and maintaining the tens of thousands of jobs that depend on it. If it can be argued that it is necessary to tax companies such as BP and Shell, which have grown rich on the back of North sea resources, it can also be argued that it is necessary to give the new incoming companies an opportunity to take over investments, and make the investments required to ensure the future of the North sea oil industry.

Let me mention two or three ways of doing that. The North sea acreage is held by a few companies. Unless that acreage is relinquished to companies that are prepared to invest, nothing substantial will be achieved. Companies must use it or lose it. We must make it possible for people to invest in fields that other

19 Nov 2002 : Column 562

companies want to abandon. I spoke to the company that has taken over the Argyll field, which was abandoned. It has invested in that field, which has a new lifecycle and a new name. The company told me that that was the 12th proposition it had made to a major company before any company would accept the idea. It should be part of the procedure for any company that wants to abandon a field to offer it to the marketplace three years beforehand, to see whether anyone wants to take it over.

There should be an insurance system against abandonment. The new smaller companies cannot carry the same insurance liabilities as the older companies, which are not investing. The money that we give back to companies as a royalty rebate should be attached to future investment plans. Otherwise, the Government will end up giving back money to companies that will promptly spend it in west Africa or the Gulf.

In addition, we need to get rid of the ridiculous situation that allows some North sea infrastructure assets and pipelines to be taxed at more than 70 per cent. Some are taxed at 40 per cent., and if a company takes gas to Zeebrugge in Belgium and then transports it over the interconnector, it will be taxed another 30 per cent. That is ridiculous. We need a coherent strategy, because thousands of jobs are at stake.

Her Majesty's Government have been the biggest harvester of all in the North sea. They have reaped #150 billion, which is #30,000 for every man, woman and child in Scotland. Those on the Conservative Front Bench should remember that next time they whine about Scottish public spending levels.

A crisis is enveloping my constituency and those of many other hon. Members around the coastline of Scotland. The town of Fraserburgh has a 55 per cent. employment dependency on fishing. That means not just the people who catch or process fish. It covers all the jobs in the harbours, including electricians, plumbers, joiners, and those who work in ice factories. In Annan, the dependency is more than 30 per cent. In Oban, Kirkcudbright, Banff, Newton Stewart, Skye, Ullapool, the Western isles, Campbeltown, Argyll, Keith, Buckie, Berwickshire, the Shetland isles and Peterhead, which is also in my constituency, there is a dependency of 10 per cent. or much more. All those communities around Scotland face utter devastation in a crisis that, if it was not manufactured by the European Commission, is being made a great deal worse by it.

It is extraordinary that any reputable group of scientists should propose that it is all right to take a million tonnes of sand eels out of the North sea, including a 50,000 tonne by-catch of quality fish, by fishing with a tiny mesh, while simultaneously proposing that there should be no fishing for human consumption in the same waters. I am sure the Minister will understand that, because he has often stood at the Dispatch Box to argue against industrial fishing in the North sea. The proposition is incredible. I want the Prime Minister to give priority to the fishing issue. If President Chirac faced the same crisis in the French fishing industry, he would bang the phones, making sure he mobilised European concerns.

David Burnside: Will the hon. Gentleman break the habit of a lifetime? When he refers to the Scottish

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industry in the North sea, will he add the west of Scotland fishing industry and the Northern Ireland fishing industry in the Irish sea?

Mr. Salmond: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's intervention. I appreciate his concern for the industry in Northern Ireland and around the coastline elsewhere.

We need the Prime Minister to give priority to the issue. He will bang the phones for George W. Bush to deal with an international crisis. We want him to do the same thing for the fishing industry in Scotland, Northern Ireland and around the coastline. He should make it a priority, so that we no longer face the indifference of the highest office in the land.

6.48 pm

Mr. Eric Martlew (Carlisle): The Queen's Speech is excellent. Having said that, there are some flaws in it, and I shall concentrate on three or four of the 19 Bills and three draft Bills announced in it.

The Communications Bill is necessary. There is no doubt about that, because technology has moved on. Digital television and satellite mean that we need to change our practices, which is fine, although I am worried at the prospect of Channel 5 being purchased by, for example, Rupert Murdoch. That in itself might not seem a problem, but I am concerned about the future of ITV. Some people may say that that reflects normal competition, but I am sure that hon. Members need no reminding of the fact that ITV has to provide regional broadcasting. Channel 4 and Channel 5 do not have to do that. There is no doubt that a system in which a successful Channel 5 took revenue from ITV might cause the collapse of regional broadcasting.

The area that I represent is covered by Border Television. We have very good regional television, so I hope that, when we come to the details of the Communications Bill, we will accept the need for some safeguarding of regional television. We should either say that international companies cannot buy Channel 5, for example, or require by mandate that those companies provide regional broadcasting. I hope that that point is not lost on the Minister.

The Community Care (Delayed Discharges etc.) Bill is excellent and long overdue. I have been banging my head against a brick wall with regard to Cumbria county council for a while. I am not saying that just because a Conservative-Liberal alliance runs it, because similar problems have arisen in the past. Last week, at my local hospital, the Cumberland infirmary, there were 34 delayed discharges, the vast majority of them due to the fact that social services were not providing the resources to get people out of hospital and into nursing care or back home. That same hospital is cancelling operations because of a shortage of beds. I am sure that throughout the country social services look on someone staying in hospital for an extra fortnight as #400 a week saved. The expense goes on the NHS bill, not the social services bill. There is very little regard for the individuals who are imprisoned in hospital, but the practice saves money.

Last year, the Government made a lot more extra money available to local authorities to help to get people out of hospital, and that worked for a while. If the

19 Nov 2002 : Column 564

searchlight is turned on social services departments, they will respond, but as soon as that searchlight is moved, we are back to the bad old days. Given that nursing home owners in my constituency are telling me that they have vacancies and are in danger of going bankrupt while some of my constituents are imprisoned in hospital and others are having their operations cancelled because of the shortage of beds, something has to be done. The Government are completely right about that, and the sooner the Bill is introduced the better. I accept that more intermediate care beds might have to be provided; I do not think that that is an issue.

I see no advantage to my constituents in the proposal for foundation hospitals. Our problem in what we call north Cumbria is that, of necessity, we have two different district general hospitals. They are 40 miles apart; one is in the Copeland constituency and one is in mine. There are not adequate resources for both hospitals. We need extra money because we need those two hospitals. Foundation hospitals will do nothing for my constituents, and I will find it very difficult going through the Lobby to vote with the Government on that.

I come to the Regional Assemblies (Preparations) Bill. I am in favour of regional assemblies; they are long overdue. I disagree with the Government about which region north Cumbria should be in. I strongly believe that we belong with the northern region. There is no argument about that; I am quite sure that that is the case. None the less, we hear comments such as, XThere's no point in debating this because the Deputy Prime Minister has said that we are in the north-west." The boundary commission is to look at local government reorganisation. Why does it not take into account the views of people in the area? Then, if it is decided that we fall into the north-west region, fine. If that route is not taken, we will still have some disagreement.

I worry about the fact that we will have to reorganise local government if regional assemblies are established. I say as a former chairman of Cumbria county council that we have been crying out for local government reorganisation regardless of regional assemblies. The two-tier system is not working any more. Representatives of senior businesses in my constituency are angry about the red tape. They tell me, XThe county council does this, but the district council does that." We need reorganisation of local government regardless of regional government, and we need a unitary authority.

It is nonsense for the Government to tell people, XVote in a referendum for regional government and we'll get rid of your county council." My hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham (Mr. Steinberg) is present. The argument in Durham is about whether to preserve the county council, not about whether to have regional government. I hope that the Government will reconsider and decide that local government should be reorganised to form a single tier.


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