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6 Jun 2006 : Column 116

Lorely Burt: In the past few years in areas like mine, Solihull, lovely old houses have been knocked down. Because of the planning rules, blocks of flats and other unsuitable properties can then be built on people’s back gardens. Conservative Members and I have tabled early-day motions on the subject and I have tabled a ten-minute Bill. Will the Minister please urgently consider the implications of this development, which is ruining our leafy suburbs in England?

Yvette Cooper: As I said, we are considering the responses to the consultation. The hon. Lady should raise the matter with her local council if she thinks inappropriate planning permissions are being granted. Local authorities have considerable powers to resist inappropriate development. They have powers to resist on the basis of design, and they can consider a wide range of issues if they think the development is inappropriate. We think it is right to promote new development on brownfield land. Such development has increased from 57 per cent. in 1997 to 72 per cent. now. That is important because it allows us to build more homes for the next generation, which we desperately need, while also protecting greenfield land and green belt land so that we can safeguard the countryside for the next generation.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I invite the Minister to amplify her reference to draft planning guidance 3, and what she said in reply to the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), by stating that the Government presume and intend that in the Thames Gateway there will be building on derelict or brownfield land, not on green belt land? The scaremongering by the Conservative party in and around Essex to the effect that there will be wholesale development and building on the green belt is false and unnecessary—

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): But there will.

Andrew Mackinlay: The shrill voice from the Conservatives is the reason why I am inviting the Minister to set the record straight by saying that the Government are proud of the green belt that they created, that they intend to protect it, and that there will be building on land that requires it—brownfield and derelict land.

Yvette Cooper: My hon. Friend is right. The opportunity in the Thames Gateway is not only to regenerate an area that has suffered significant deprivation over a long period and to bring new jobs to the area, but to build on brownfield land—derelict industrial land—to provide new homes for the next generation. Conservative Members need to face up to what may for them be a difficult truth—that their party’s policy is now apparently to support the building of new homes for the next generation. They also have to face up to where those homes are going to be built. They do not want them on the green belt, they do not want them on brownfield land, they do not want them anywhere in the south—in fact, it is not clear that they want them anywhere. We need new homes for the next generation, and this Government are committed to delivering them.

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Point of Order

3.31 pm

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On Thursday 25 May, I tabled a series of written questions to the Home Secretary about a serious situation that had arisen in my constituency in Ford open prison, where it had become clear that 11 foreign national prisoners had absconded. A day later, 141 of the prisoners were removed back to closed accommodation. I had no opportunity to raise the issue on the Floor of the House because the House had risen for the recess. I wrote to the Home Secretary about this serious matter. No reply has been forthcoming and there have been no
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proper answers to the questions that I tabled, which were due for answer yesterday, but only holding replies. The Home Office has previously taken four months to answer questions that I have tabled in relation to police force amalgamations, using the cover of holding replies. What protection can you give us, when we seek to raise such serious matters, from this incompetent Department, which is also seeking to cover up what is going on in it?

Mr. Speaker: I have said to the House before that replies to hon. Members’ questions should be timely. I have raised this matter with the Leader of the House, who has agreed to assist me in seeing that timely replies are made. The hon. Gentleman has been able to put the matter on the record, and I thank him for doing so.

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Scotland (Oil and Gas Resources)

3.32 pm

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I beg to move,

This is a Bill to repatriate control of the oil and gas industry to Scotland and to the Scottish Parliament. It is timely and relevant to what is happening now, but it is also informed by the past and very relevant to the future.

At present, oil is once again king, at more than $70 a barrel. This year, we are approaching a record for oil revenues to the Exchequer in nominal terms. The Budget estimate was £10 billion, but that was based on $57 a barrel. Since then, oil has been more than $70 a barrel and it is likely that, this year, oil revenues to the Exchequer will reach £12.5 billion—even greater than the previous record of the mid-1980s. I am aware that the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer is constantly expecting the Chancellor of the Exchequer to fall into a black hole. The reason why that has not happened as yet is that, this year, Brown’s black hole has been filled by black, black oil.

In the House, we frequently hear Tory and Labour Members whining about public expenditure in Scotland. It is therefore relevant to note that, this year, while the United Kingdom has a budget deficit of £40 billion, there will be a £4 billion relative budget surplus in Scotland. To put it in the language that English Conservative Members often use, that means a subsidy of £800 for every man, woman and child in Scotland flowing from Scotland to the London Exchequer.

I have always held that there are three great lies in life. The first is, “The cheque’s in the post”; the second is, “Darling, I’ll respect you in the morning”; and the third is, “I’m from the London Treasury and I want to help Scotland.” I hear from Conservative Members the explanation that the Chancellor is Scottish. Indeed, some people think that he is too Scottish. Let me reassure hon. Members that he is morphing into an Englishman. Even now, the Chancellor spends long hours at the Treasury trying to memorise the names of the England football team. He has planted a Union jack in his garden in North Queensferry. He says that Paul Gascoigne’s goal against Scotland in 1996 was his favourite football moment. He has the songs of the barmy army almost off by heart. The Chancellor may have been born Scottish, but he is desperate to become an Englishman. Greater charity hath no man than this, to lay down his nationality for a job application form.

The Chancellor, however, whether Scottish or new-born English, like his predecessors, wants to keep his mitts on Scotland’s resources. The Bill is informed by the past. Recently, through precise and detailed questioning under freedom of information legislation and what has tumbled out under the 30-year rule, we can examine the real story of the 1970s, which one or two hon. Members present can remember. Guess what skeletons have tumbled out of the cupboard?

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Professor Gavin McCrone, who was then economic adviser to successive Scottish Secretaries, both Tory and Labour, wrote in a secret memo:

The explanations tumble not only out of the Scottish Office but from down here under the 30-year rule. Sir Kenneth Berrill, then head of the central policy review staff for Harold Wilson, said that it would be hard to fight Scotland’s economic case for independence because

An unnamed civil servant stated:

in case the Parliament got its hands on oil revenues. Another civil servant stated:

That civil servant was Mr. Bernard Ingham, who went from spinning oil to spinning Thatcher.

Revelations are tumbling out from the past and Tory and Labour Members of Parliament must therefore forgive people in Scotland if we show some scepticism about their bona fides when they explicitly express concern for the Scottish economy. In the past 30 years, we have witnessed perhaps the greatest act of international larceny since the Spanish stole the Inca gold.

When the economic adviser to the Scottish Office said that Scotland would be richer than Switzerland, Labour politicians were telling the Scottish people that they would be poorer than Bangladesh. The difference between advice and reality was the same then as it is now. If people were prepared to lie then, why should they tell the truth now?

The Bill is about the future—“the undiscover’d country”, the thing yet to be determined. [Interruption.] I thought that I would quote an English poet. We are halfway through the North sea oil story. Thirty years have gone and there are more than 30 years to go; 30 billion barrels of oil have been produced and perhaps there are more than 30 billion barrels to come; £200 billion has gone in revenue to the Exchequer and perhaps there is that and more to come. Indeed, at current oil prices, the value of the resource is equivalent to £170,000 for every man, woman and child in Scotland, which is even more than the annual expenses of the average Labour Member of Parliament— [ Interruption.] I was not looking at the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, North (Jim Sheridan) in particular. He should not get so nervous when I make remarks like that.

Oil has been the milch cow of successive Chancellors and that has damaged investment in the industry. This year alone, there is a supplementary tax of £2 billion that threatens future exploration. Yet experts in the industry estimate that, with modest exploration incentives, an oilfield could be developed every three
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weeks for the next 10 years. We are told that there is a gas shortage in this country, which is somewhat surprising, given that Scotland produces seven times the amount of gas that it requires, and that there are 20 undeveloped gas fields off the west of Scotland awaiting development.

English Members of Parliament frequently whinge about Scots interfering in English business. Let me assure the House that I have no territorial designs on ruling England. I believe that, despite all evidence to the contrary, it is perfectly capable of self-government. England is a great nation and could go it alone, despite what the doubters say.

The Bill is not just about the repatriation of oil but about two different visions of the future. Instead of the moaning and groaning of English MPs, or indeed of Scottish Members of Parliament, why do not we have a vision of two nations, equal before each other, each standing on its own two feet, reaping its own harvest and ringing its own tills—two nations, each taking charge of their own economic destiny? Would that not be a much healthier relationship than the one that we have now?

When I was a lad in Linlithgow, my next-door neighbour—a Mrs. Borthwick—was a very wise woman. She had two favourite sayings. One was from Abraham Lincoln, but the other is the one that concerns us here. She said that someone once told her that if Scotland became independent, England would lose a surly lodger and gain a good neighbour. I believed that then, I believe it now and I know that the House will want to give resounding support to this Bill to make that prospect a reality.

Question put and agreed to.

Mr. Speaker: Who will prepare and bring in the Bill?

Jim Sheridan (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab): Sean Connery.

Mr. Salmond: He is the first on my list, Mr. Speaker.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Alex Salmond, Pete Wishart, Angus Robertson, Stewart Hosie, Mr. Mike Weir, Mr. Angus MacNeil, Mr. Elfyn Llwyd, Adam Price and Hywel Williams.

Scotland (Oil and Gas Resources)

Mr. Alex Salmond accordingly presented a Bill to provide for the transfer to the Scottish Parliament of competence for Scottish oil and gas resources; to provide for revenues from the Scottish sector of the United Kingdom continental shelf to be paid into the Scottish Consolidated Fund; and for connected purposes: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 20 October, and to be printed [Bill 191].

6 Jun 2006 : Column 122

Orders of the Day

Company Law Reform Bill [ Lords]

Order for Second Reading read.

3.43 pm

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

In a world of change and competition, the Government work to create the conditions for business success, helping the United Kingdom to respond to the challenge of globalisation. We support successful firms by working with business to identify and tackle market failures and to overcome barriers to growth. We promote world-class science and innovation by supporting our science base and by ensuring that those ideas can be turned into high-value products and services. We also encourage a competitive energy market to deliver reliable, sustainable and affordable energy for business as well as for domestic consumers. We ensure fair markets by promoting open markets and creating the frameworks within which companies can compete freely and fairly, giving UK consumers more choice and better value.

It follows that the corporate law framework is a fundamental aspect of all that and the strengths of our company law have helped make this country a prime location for incorporation by companies. Indeed, since 1997, new incorporations have risen by 60 per cent. and the number of EU firms incorporating in the United Kingdom has more than quadrupled in the same period. I note that a recent World Bank survey found that it was quicker and cheaper for companies to set up in the UK than in any other part of the EU.

We want to continue investment in the UK and we want investors to retain their confidence in our system of corporate governance. We have been extremely successful in attracting our share of global business because overseas investors recognise those strengths, as well as our macro-economic stability, our science base, high skill levels, high rates of enterprise and our competitive markets. Our overall objective is to ensure that the country remains an excellent place to do business.

As many hon. Members will know, the Bill is designed to consolidate and update company law. It is the result of a great deal of thinking done by the company law review in the late 1990s and early part of the present decade. It was followed by two White Papers in 2002 and 2005 and a great deal of consultation. The Bill has also benefited from close scrutiny in the other place, which has improved it in many respects. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Alun Michael). When he was a Minister in the Department of Trade and Industry, he made a substantial contribution to the legislation.

It may help if I set out the general approach that we have taken. Over many years, existing company law was built up by layers of additions that often obscure its meaning. Any student of company law will know that it is often less clear than it should be. The Bill thus restructures and redrafts, in clearer language, about two thirds of the Companies Act 1985 and the Companies
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Act 1989, which had, in turn, consolidated the 1948 legislation, including all the provisions most frequently used by small companies.

We said in the other place that we hope to restate without substantive change those parts of the Companies Act 1985 that have not until now been incorporated in the legislation during the passage of the Bill through this House. We do so simply because it has been put to us that it would be convenient for practitioners to have as much of our corporate law in one place as possible. I understand from discussions between the Minister for Industry and the Regions and the major Opposition parties that there is broad agreement with proceeding in that way. If we can—I do not think that it is a matter of any controversy—those who have to implement the law would appreciate it if what I hope will become the Company Law Reform Act before the end of the year codifies as much law as possible in one place.

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): I confirm that the Liberal Democrats certainly support the proposals for consolidation that the Government conceded in the other place. Our concern relates to the Government’s programme motion and whether sufficient time is being given to scrutinise the new clauses that will have to be tabled to get the codification through. Will the Secretary of State elaborate on his thinking? Does he really believe that the House and the Committee can properly scrutinise the hundreds of clauses that will probably be needed between 15 June, when the Committee is scheduled to start, and 13 July?

Mr. Darling: As I understand it—I may be wrong—the timetable was agreed through the usual channels, though they are not always foolproof. I certainly said to the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), who speaks for the Conservative party, that we would like to complete the Bill, which has come so far, in this parliamentary Session. I do not adopt a hard-and-fast rule about the matter and I agree that we need to ensure that there is adequate time for consideration of a Bill that comprises more than 900 clauses.

Mr. Davey rose—

Mr. Darling: I am not the usual channels, but I will give way again to the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey). As long experience tells me, it is a bad idea to fall foul of one’s own Whips too often. If there is a particular problem, I undertake to speak to my Government colleagues who arrange these matters, as it is important that what will be well in excess of 900 clauses are properly examined.

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