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Oil and Gas Fields

4. John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): Whether he has had recent discussions with the First Minister on the development of small and technically challenging oil and gas fields; and if he will make a statement. [271864]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I have had no such discussions recently.

John Robertson: I thank my right hon. Friend for that extensive answer. The financial support promised in the Budget for the oil and gas people and the work that my right hon. Friend is doing with the Scottish Executive deserve congratulations. Will he assure me that the work that he is doing within Cabinet to secure money for Scotland will not be put in danger because of the separatist Administration north of the border?

Mr. Murphy: I will continue to do all I can to support the oil and gas industry in the North sea. I believe that the North sea has a big future not only with its continuing oil and gas industry, but as a world centre for carbon capture and storage. That is why the new investment is so essential. The field allowance has ensured that companies can continue to invest by removing the supplementary charge from up to £75 million of their profits so that they qualify for the small field allowance. That is an important announcement, which will be welcome on both sides of the House.

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): I thank the Secretary of State for his answers so far, but does he recognise that the impact of that field allowance is limited to only very specific marginal fields? The crisis facing the North sea is much bigger now, given the credit crunch and the banking crisis. Will he work with the Chancellor to see whether more can be done to bring forward tax reliefs that will allow new entrants to explore up front during this credit crisis and so that the Government ease the industry’s cash flow?

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Mr. Murphy: Of course I have those conversations with the Chancellor and I have spoken to the hon. Gentleman about some of these issues in the past. As he knows, the fuel allowance has been carefully targeted to ensure that, as far as possible, it supports those projects that would not otherwise go ahead. That is the purpose of the targeted way in which it is being introduced. We continue to look for additional ways to support the industry in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom and I look forward to discussing them with the hon. Gentleman, the Chancellor and the industry in the future.

Sheep Tagging

5. Mr. Henry Bellingham (North-West Norfolk) (Con): When he next expects to meet members of the Scottish Executive to discuss the co-ordination of implementation of policy on sheep tagging. [271865]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Ann McKechin): My right hon. Friend has no plans to meet the Scottish Executive to discuss the electronic identification of sheep. However, the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is in regular contact with his Scottish counterpart on this issue and, on 27 April, he met representatives of the Scottish sheep industry.

Mr. Bellingham: Is the Minister aware that a recent survey carried out by NFU Scotland revealed that 74 per cent. of farmers said they would reduce the size of their flocks if electronic tagging with individual registration came in? Is she aware that these EU proposals could do untold harm to Scottish agriculture? What is wrong with the existing system?

Ann McKechin: The Government recognise the concerns that the costs could well be disproportionate to the benefits. That is why we have been working closely with the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, to seek a number of concessions. In fact, we met the Commission again on 4 May, when it appeared supportive of our new proposals about third party reporting; we very much hope that they will be passed. We recognise that there are additional costs, but this is a mandatory scheme and it must be implemented by the end of this year.

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP): As a crofter, I wonder whether the Minister will do all she can to prevent this daft, unworkable and expensive scheme coming into being.

Ann McKechin: I hear what the hon. Gentleman has to say, but I again point out that the scheme is mandatory. The EU has stated that it is not prepared to review the scheme until implementation. However, we are working very closely with the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations to try, as far as possible, to reduce the impact on sheep farmers. We have already achieved a number of important concessions and we continue to work closely with the Commission to achieve more.

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River Forth (New Crossing)

6. Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): What the outcomes were of his recent discussions with the Chief Secretary of the Treasury and the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Sustainable Growth in the Scottish Executive on funding for the construction of a new crossing over the River Forth. [271866]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I want to see the new crossing over the River Forth built. We had a constructive meeting on 4 March and identified a number of ways of dealing with the funding of a new bridge.

Willie Rennie: I thank the Scottish Secretary for that answer. People in Fife are getting exasperated by the failure of the Scottish Executive and the UK Government to reach an agreement on this. The £1 billion that has been offered is not new money, and not a single penny has been raised by the Scottish Government to pay for this bridge. I know that the Scottish Secretary and the First Minister are not best buddies, but can they please kiss and make up and sort out this problem before it has an effect on Scottish jobs and Scottish investment?

Mr. Murphy: I know that the hon. Gentleman has been campaigning for this bridge for some time, as have my hon. Friend the Member for Glenrothes (Lindsay Roy) and others in Fife. We had that meeting, and we offered a package of support of up to £1 billion for the new Forth road crossing, including £500 million as consequentials from Crossrail. I am disappointed, and I think all of Scotland will be disappointed, that the Scottish Government at the moment refuse to accept this offer of unprecedented support for this Forth crossing, but despite the opposition, the offer still lies on the table.

Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend accept that not everyone agrees that there should be a second bridge going across to Fife? Indeed, many of us believe that it should be a tunnel, because it would last a lot longer. The problem with a second bridge is that in 30 years’ time it will have the same problems as the present bridge, and maybe we should be looking at an alternative and that should be a tunnel—and we could take out some coal at the same time.

Mr. Murphy: I am happy to listen to my hon. Friend’s representations that we should have a bridge, a tunnel, a flyover or any other sort of crossing across the Forth. The important thing is that we make progress. That is why the Treasury offered unprecedented deals to the Scottish Government of up to £1 billion to help to make a reality of the Forth crossing—because it is so important to Scotland’s economy. I repeat, despite the SNP’s opposition to an unprecedented offer, the offer still stands.

Gordon Banks (Ochil and South Perthshire) (Lab): Does my right hon. Friend agree that a funding mechanism is vital, not just for Scotland’s infrastructure but, as we have already heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Mrs. McGuire), for the future of the construction industry in Scotland, which is in decline due to the failure of the Scottish Futures Trust?

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Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend raises an important point. He is an acknowledged expert on the construction industry in Scotland. Of course, the Scottish Government have to get Scotland building again, and it is for them to discuss how they do that. As for the UK Government, stability in the banking sector and the way in which we save savers from the actions of the bankers, the fact that there needs to be additional support for the construction industry in Scotland is generally recognised. However, I am confident that with the stability that the UK Government have ensured in the banking sector, Scotland’s construction industry can have a bright future.

North Sea Oil

7. Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the effect of measures announced in Budget 2009 on North sea oil exploration. [271867]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Jim Murphy): I continue to discuss the issues with members of the Scottish Government, and with those in the oil and gas industry in Scotland.

Mr. Clarke: I thank my right hon. Friend for that reply. Does he agree that as well as economic investment, investment in human resources is important, not least because of the demands of health and safety?

Mr. Murphy: My right hon. Friend raises a crucial point. Business confidence is important, but so is the confidence of those who work in the North sea, following the recent dreadful, high-profile tragedy that claimed so many lives. That is why there is again consideration of the reintroduction of personal locator beacons. However, in the past, those lights interfered with the long-range beacons fitted to helicopters and life rafts. Of course we are looking into the detail of that horrific crash, and are seeing what lessons can be learned. The reintroduction of those beacons is now under consideration.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—


Q1. [272702] Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): If he will list his official engagements for Wednesday 6 May.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Mr. Campbell: Many regions of the United Kingdom, such as Northern Ireland, found it challenging to compete when times were good. In the depths of the current recession, what additional assistance can the Prime Minister offer the devolved institutions to improve the everyday lives of millions of United Kingdom citizens?

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The Prime Minister: I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees with me that the £600 million fiscal stimulus into Northern Ireland, which allows people to have more money to spend, advances public works programmes and gives more help for the unemployed, is the best way to deal with the problems that we have at the moment. In addition, 3,500 businesses in Northern Ireland have been able to defer their taxes to enable them to have better cash flow. We will continue to do everything that we can to make sure that businesses, home owners and individuals who are facing doubts and uncertainty about their jobs come through this difficult recession. We will continue to offer people real help now.

John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab): The Prime Minister will have seen the distressing reports this morning in The Guardian about the trafficking of children, who arrive at Heathrow, are taken into care, and are then trafficked into prostitution and used as child labour. He has always taken a personal interest in the care and safety of children. May I ask him to secure a report for the House on the measures that the Government are taking with the local authority to tackle this problem and prevent this human suffering?

The Prime Minister: Child trafficking is completely unacceptable and inhumane, and anything that we can do to stop child trafficking, we will do. I will investigate, with the Home Secretary, the reports that are in the newspaper this morning. We will do everything that we can to protect these children. We are leading internationally in asking other countries to help us ban the practice of trafficking children. We will do everything that we can.

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): There have been a series of U-turns, defeats in Parliament—even when the Government have a majority—and Ministers, including Cabinet Ministers, openly questioning the authority of the Prime Minister. Does the Prime Minister agree that those are signs of a Government in terminal decline?

The Prime Minister: Once again, the right hon. Gentleman cannot ask questions about the economy, swine flu or the difficult decisions that we have got to take in the world. Once again, he reduces everything to personality. We are getting on with the business of governing.

Mr. Cameron: If the Prime Minister got out and knocked on a few more doors, he would realise that his leadership is the issue. He likes to talk about these issues of substance, but his failure to reform welfare, his failure to deal with the deficit, and his failure to run a united Cabinet all have two things in common: they are failures, and they are his failures. So let us take the state of his Cabinet. This weekend, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government wrote an article calling the Government’s performance “lamentable”. Given that she is openly mocking the Prime Minister and his authority, what is she still doing in the Cabinet?

The Prime Minister: What would be unacceptable is if we were to follow the policies of the Conservative party. What would be lamentable is if we were to adopt the Conservatives’ policy of doing absolutely nothing. Once again, the right hon. Gentleman has nothing to say about the big issues of the day; once again, he has nothing to say about unemployment; once again, he has
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nothing to say about the help that we are giving people for housing; and once again, he has nothing to say about help with businesses. Talking about U-turns, this is the man who promised to support the Government through the economic crisis; within a few days, he had abandoned that promise with his U-turn.

Mr. Cameron: I am afraid this just won’t wash. The Communities Secretary—she has appeared; I am glad she is still here—did not write an article about the NHS. She did not write an article about unemployment. She did not write an article about the recession. She wrote an article about the Prime Minister’s leadership and his failure of authority. Let me read out what she said:

How much more mocking can one get than that? She also wrote:

Having just made a big speech, who on earth does the Prime Minister think she is referring to? Does he not realise that his Government simply cannot go on like this? Let me ask him again: why is she still in the Cabinet?

The Prime Minister: What we are doing is taking action on the recession. We are helping the unemployed get back into work—opposed by the Conservatives. We are helping people with their mortgages—opposed by the Conservatives. We are helping people with cash flow for their businesses—opposed by the Conservatives. We are going to give a September schools guarantee to every school leaver that they will get work, training or educational support, which is also opposed by the Conservatives. Let us talk about the real issues in government. It is about making big decisions in difficult times. The right hon. Gentleman is not up to the task.

Mr. Cameron: The big issue in British politics today is the fact that the man who is meant to be leading our country shows such appalling judgment. That is the reason he is losing his authority. Let us look at the string of misjudgments that we have seen. The Prime Minister has made U-turns on Titan prisons, the internet database, MPs’ expenses and that humiliating defeat on the Gurkhas. Why does he think he got so many judgments so badly wrong?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman wants to talk about U-turns, the biggest U-turn is his supporting public spending, and now saying that he will not match our public spending. The biggest U-turn on education is to support money for education, and then to say that he will cut it. The biggest U-turn is to say that he was supporting us on the police and is now planning to cut police expenditure. Let us remember that he was the “hug a hoodie”, which was another of his big U-turns. Compassionate Conservatism—it has gone, gone and gone.

Mr. Cameron: I am sure that sounded just great in the bunker, while the mobile phones and printers were flying round the room. The biggest U-turn of all is that of the Prime Minister, who fought the last election accusing us of £35 billion in spending cuts. On his own
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arithmetic, he has cut £85 billion from his own spending. If he is so confident of his arguments and his judgments, and if he thinks he is on the right side of these arguments, why does he not do what Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair did after four years of a Parliament and call a general election?

The Prime Minister: The reason I am confident about what we are doing is that there is nobody in the world supporting the policies of the right hon. Gentleman’s party. Go to America, Germany, France or Italy—he has no supporters in Europe. He is completely isolated because he wants to cut spending during a recession, and everybody else recognises that we cannot cut our way out of recession. We have to invest our way out of recession. The Conservatives are in the dark ages on policy. They have to think again.

Mr. Cameron: The Prime Minister talks about isolated. He is isolated in his own Cabinet—he is the only one who thinks he is any good. What is it about this Prime Minister and elections? He would not fight an election to win the leadership of the Labour party; he did not fight an election to become Prime Minister; and he does not have the courage to go to the country now. Is not the truth that Britain needs a strong Prime Minister with a united party capable of taking long-term decisions? Instead, we have a wasted year with an utterly busted Government. No one doubts that he might have come into politics for the right reasons, but is it not clear that he is just not up to the job? The public know it, his party knows it, and now the Cabinet knows it, so why not do the last bold thing left and call an election?

The Prime Minister: I have listened to the right hon. Gentleman’s six questions, and not one of them has been about policy. He has not raised the cause of the unemployed in Britain once; he has not mentioned mortgage holders or home owners once; he has not mentioned small businesses once; he has not mentioned the state of the economy and what we can do to improve it once; he has not mentioned the public services once; and he has not mentioned health and education once. He is completely out of his depth when it comes to the big issues in this country.

Mr. Parmjit Dhanda (Gloucester) (Lab): Is my right hon. Friend aware that in just a fortnight’s time, a £120 million designer outlet will open at Gloucester docks, with the creation of more than 1,000 local jobs? Will he call on the regional development agency to continue to invest in urban regeneration companies? It is creating jobs and investment in communities such as mine, and that is a real contrast with when the Opposition were in power.

The Prime Minister: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who fights very hard for the interests of his constituents. More jobs are coming to his constituency as a result of what he is doing, and he knows that the Conservative party would abolish the regional development agency. We will support it, we will invest; they would make cuts. That is the dividing line between the parties.

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