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9 Jan 2003 : Column 377—continued

4.6 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Privy Council Office (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I am very grateful to the hon. Members for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) and for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for raising this matter earlier in a point of order, because that gave me the chance to consult with my officials and the Clerks of the House. I think that the House agrees that this is a sensible motion in principle. It deals with the strange anomaly that, until now, the House has been unable to receive Lords messages when it is not sitting. That contrasts with the other place, which can do the reverse.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove has identified a potential problem, which I shall briefly describe as the possibility of a hostile takeover of a private Member's Bill coming from the other place. Following conversations with my own officials and, through them, with the Clerks of this place, it has become clear that the author of the motion does not in fact consider it defective. It is true that he has identified a potential problem, but I hope that, in the light of what I am about to say, the hon. Gentleman will feel able to support the motion.

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, but there are a couple of caveats. First, the provision will apply only if a Lords message arrives when the House is not sitting—a point that is obvious to all of us. Secondly, it is already possible that two or more Members might vie to take up a Bill arriving from the Lords, so the theoretical problem already exists. The hon. Gentleman's prime concern appeared to be that the Standing Order applies no starting date for a notice in writing of a Member's taking up a Bill. The House authorities assure me that they would not accept notice way in advance in the manner that he suggested, nor would they accept any attempt to set down a Bill for Second Reading at a far off date—the other hypothetical example suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

I should say in all honesty that no Standing Order in this place is utterly safe from some kind of abuse, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members that, were problems to emerge in practice as a result of this motion, we would make changes. In the light of

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those assurances, I hope that he and other hon. Members will feel able to support the motion. I commend it to the House.

Mr. Stunell rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. If the Minister has sat down he cannot take an intervention, and the hon. Gentleman is not allowed to speak again.

Question put and agreed to.


Mr. Deputy Speaker: With the leave of the House, I shall put together motions Nos. 5 to 7.


Food Supplements

4.9 pm

Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): The petition from Consumers for Health Choice and its supporters declares:

To lie upon the Table.

9 Jan 2003 : Column 377

9 Jan 2003 : Column 379

Oil Industry

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Woolas.]

4.10 pm

Mr. Eric Joyce (Falkirk, West): A great deal has been said and written in recent months about employment in the North sea and elsewhere off the UK coastline. As far as I am aware, virtually all of that debate has been about the fishing industry, which I understand accounts for about 5,000 jobs. It is certainly true that the fishing industry is going through a challenging time and I know that the Government and the Scottish Executive are working hard to ensure the best possible deal for workers in that sector, but it would be wrong to allow the imperative edge of recent debate in that field to obscure the fact that more than 30,000 people in this country are employed offshore in the oil and gas industries, and many more related jobs exist on the UK mainland, including around BP's Grangemouth refinery. That refinery is located in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty), but it employs more people from my constituency, in places such as Falkirk, Camelon, Denny, Banknock, Bonnybridge and Larbert, than from any other constituency.

We cannot take those jobs for granted, nor the immense contribution that the industries make to the UK Exchequer. A key role for the UK Government is to ensure that relationships with employers and trade unions are in good order, and that fiscal and other policies achieve the best returns for as long as possible to both the Exchequer and workers, while at the same time ensuring that the UK remains a profitable and attractive place for major oil and gas industries to invest in.

I want to take this opportunity to raise three important issues that relate to the near and medium future of the oil and gas industries. The first issue is that of the European working time directive, which was adopted by the European Council of Ministers on 23 November 1993. For entirely defendable reasons, this important directive has not yet been implemented in respect of UK offshore industries. However, following the endorsement of a horizontal amending directive by the European Parliament on 18 May 2000, the working time directive will apply to UK offshore workers from 1 August this year.

I know that the Government are engaged in discussions with employers and trades union representatives about exactly what form the application of the working time directive will take. Naturally, many of the issues are complex, especially in logistical terms, and all parties will no doubt accept an element of compromise.

I have been impressed by a number of arguments to do with matters such as travel to work time that were raised during a recent lobby of the House by members of trade unions such as Amicus-AEEU, the T&G, the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers and the GMB. I have been impressed, too, by the efforts over the past few years of the offshore industries liaison committee in respect of the working time directive. I should also say that both of my brothers have worked offshore for many years. They have given me considerable assistance in respect of my perspective

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on the matter. Of course, industrial employers have presented strong balancing arguments. I note that both sides have placed great emphasis on health and safety, which is very welcome.

In the time available today, however, I wish to single out the issue of paid leave. Crucially, I understand that the original exclusion of the working time directive for the offshore sector was granted on the basis of the entirely understandable difficulties that surrounded shift patterns. It was not accepted that the nature of offshore working had any implications per se for the right of workers to paid leave. Employers will understandably balk at any legislative measures that will raise their costs, so I expect them to fight a rearguard action in this respect. In a sense, that is their job. Kvaerner employs one of my brothers on a Talisman rig and, for the first time in 25 years offshore, he now receives paid leave. That, I believe, is a response by an employer to the increasing scarcity of skilled workers offshore, and it represents good employment practice.

The exploitation of our assets is not served best by unhelpful speculation about the long-term future of United Kingdom-based oil and gas industries. It sometimes serves to constrain entry to employment and makes it less attractive to jobseekers. That, in turn, drives up the average age and increases the scarcity of those workers in the field. I hope that all North sea employers will take the same line as those who have already recognised the right to paid leave in contractual if not legal terms.

In many ways it is preferable for changes to occur according to the natural equilibrium of the markets, but the working time directive has proven its worth elsewhere. It is now in order for it to be applied in this respect to the offshore sector. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister will respond specifically to the issue of paid leave.

Mr. Michael Weir (Angus): Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is an important health and safety element in respect of travel time to and from the rigs, and that workers offshore are concerned that that should be included in the current negotiations on the working time directive? Does he agree that travel time should be included in the total working time for those working offshore?

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