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21 July 2009 : Column 787

21 July 2009 : Column 788

The Deputy Speaker put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order 83F).

Motion made, and Question put, That this House agrees with Lords amendment 1.-( Mr. Straw).

Question agreed to.

Remaining Lords amendments agreed to.

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Summer Recess Adjournment

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-( Mr. Roy).

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I am looking for the hon. Member I was going to call, but that may be more difficult than I thought. [ Interruption. ] The hon. Gentleman almost begs too much. I call Mr. Hoyle.

5.54 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley) (Lab) rose-

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Overcome by the excitement of the moment, I should have reminded the House that it is reasonable to lift the limit on Back-Bench speeches from five to seven minutes.

Mr. Hoyle: Excellent!

Mr. Deputy Speaker, thank you for giving me the chance to raise some important issues affecting my constituency and others.

A review of the Forensic Science Service is taking place and I would be failing if I did not mention that. We are talking about 200 scientists, and the scientific base within the north-west, who are solving the most hideous crimes. There is a proposal to close the service within the north-west, meaning that we will be reliant on Birmingham or Yorkshire to sort out the problems.

If we were talking about London-the No. 1 crime hotspot-we would not think of closing such a service. However, we are talking about closing a service in what is-because of the great cities of Liverpool and Manchester-the No. 2 crime hotspot. The proposal makes absolutely no sense. We have some of the leading forensic scientists. The university of Central Lancashire is second to none and has world-class status in forensic science degrees. We should be looking at the service being brought together between the university and the Forensic Science Service in the north-west. It should be the last facility that we should consider closing.

It is a rather strange situation and I believe that common sense will prevail and that a review will show that it would be silly to close the facility. I have had an Adjournment debate on the subject and have made these points clearly. I met the Prime Minister to make sure that he was aware of the sensitivities of the matter and how crass that decision would be. We have quality people, solving crimes and working for many police forces, including Cheshire, Greater Manchester, Liverpool, Lancashire, Cumbria, North Wales and even Staffordshire. A huge service is being provided at Chorley and we cannot allow it to close, as that would be a further attack on our science base within the north-west. We have already seen the synchrotron go from Daresbury and we do not want to see any more closures or attacks on our scientific base.

The other big issue facing the north-west is jobs and there is great concern about Jaguar Land Rover, which has announced over 300 redundancies at its plant at Liverpool. That is bad news. I want manufacturing to be put on the front foot and for it to receive more support from the Government. Manufacturing has had support but I would like to see even more. That could be done through the short time working subsidy. We have
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seen that operating in France, Germany and even Wales. I would have thought it was time for the Government to bite the bullet. I do not believe that we should be subsidising people through the jobcentre to be unemployed when, for the same amount of money, we can support them within their job. That is why the subsidy would make a real difference to people within manufacturing and would keep those companies ticking over.

When we come out of the recession, we want to be best placed to ensure that the skills are there. We want to train people when they are in employment and make sure that they have a future. I cannot see a better way of doing that and we ought to back it up with a national jobs summit, at which we could bring together the employers, trade unions and bodies such as Federation of Small Businesses to make sure we deliver on the future of jobs. Following that, we could have regional jobs summits to bring people together. Manufacturing is the future of the country and should be its backbone. We should learn from previous Governments, and from this Government, who have wanted to believe in the service industry and the banking industry. We have learned a costly lesson that manufacturing is important and it ought to be No. 1 again.

In my constituency, there is a good charity called Derian House that was about to lose £350,000 to Customs and Excise. I believe that there is good news today and that Derian House will get that money back from Customs and Excise. Common sense has prevailed. We won the moral argument and we have now won the argument completely. That is good news in which all constituents throughout the north-west can share.

It is right that we are under attack at present. We had an Equitable Life statement earlier today, and a lot of my constituents are affected by that. We were disappointed in the question and the answers. What we want from the Government is action, not words, so that our constituents get the compensation they deserve. We must ensure that that is done sooner rather than later.

I have touched on the Forensic Science Service in Chorley and the attack on jobs, but I also want to mention the tax office in Chorley. There is an award-winning tax office there, and another in Hyndburn. The office in Chorley is in a purpose-built building. It was never down for closure. In fact, it was held to be an example of the best way to run a tax office: the staff were second to none, and, as I have said, the office was award winning and purpose built. Although it was not down for closure, guess what happened? The tax office in Blackburn was down for closure and so was the one in St. Helens. Suddenly, however, although we were not down for closure because we had an award-winning office, there appears to have been some interference. The office in Blackburn is no longer going to close and neither is the one in St. Helens, but those in Hyndburn and Chorley are going to close. How can that be right? Has there been political interference? If there has, that is unacceptable. I hope that the Treasury is listening, and that it will reopen this tax office and let common sense prevail, because although it is down for closure, it is not closed yet. We could bring in other work. As we know, increasingly people are applying for tax credits. We want to be able to ensure that they get their credits right. Why do we not bring that work into Chorley, and into the office in the constituency of my hon. Friend the
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Member for Hyndburn (Mr. Pope) as well? We can deliver on these things, and it is important that we do so.

Fuel duty is a big issue for constituents such as mine, who live in an urban-rural area. The constituency covers 80 square miles and it has many parishes. People are reliant on their cars. They also expect items to be delivered, because we live in a rural community. We are a farming area as well. We need the 2 per cent. escalator to be scrapped. All it will do is add to inflation and stop us coming out of recession early. I plead with the Government to listen to what we are saying about the fuel escalator. It must not go ahead in October. That would help to ensure that the recession ends sooner.

6.2 pm

Sir Robert Smith (West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine) (LD): It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle). He raised a range of issues. The last of them was the fuel duty, which is extremely important in rural areas, and I echo his message to the Government to listen on that.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned Equitable Life. We have had an oral statement from a Minister in response to an urgent question. The hon. Member for Chorley said he did not like the question. I thought the question was very good, but the answers were somewhat lacking. If we are going to have an ombudsman service and if we want to encourage people to save, when the ombudsman highlights maladministration and a remedy is identified, the Government should look very carefully at that remedy, because if people are going to invest in future, they will need to have confidence that there will be proper regulation. The Government want to encourage greater saving, but that will not happen if regulators fail and then there is no compensation. People are not going to be encouraged to save if we do not have a system that gives them confidence that when things go wrong there will be compensation.

Mr. Hoyle: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Robert Smith: As I am a Front-Bench spokesperson, I am fortunate in not having a time limit on my speech, so I shall give way.

Mr. Hoyle: I would like to put it on record that there was nothing wrong with the question on Equitable Life; it was the answer that I was disappointed with. I thank the hon. Gentleman for allowing me to clarify that.

Sir Robert Smith: I am pleased to have done that. Although I am aware that I am not subject to a time limit, I am also conscious that many Members wish to speak and it would be unfair of me not to take time into account. I therefore want to concentrate on a key constituency issue by highlighting the first report of the Energy and Climate Change Committee, which, appropriately, was on the UK offshore oil and gas industry.

I must at this point declare an interest that appears in the Register of Members' Interests: I have a shareholding in Shell. I am also vice-chair of the all-party group on the offshore oil and gas industry, which paid a visit to the Offshore Northern Seas conference in Stavanger, which was funded by various oil companies. A more
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recent entry that is about to go in the register is a visit to the carbon capture and storage pilot project in south-west France that was funded by Total.

My real interest, however, is that of a constituency MP representing the concerns of many constituents whose livelihoods depend on the health of the oil and gas industry. That is an interest I have not just as a constituency MP; I am an MP for the north-east of Scotland, which has been fundamentally tied up with this industry for many decades. Moreover, this interest involves the whole country; it may be unheard of in the rest of the country, but what has been achieved in the North sea has involved a golden opportunity for the whole country. It has delivered many jobs-between 350,000 and 400,000 at present. It has contributed massive revenues to the Chancellor-a third of his corporation tax last year came from the North sea. It also made it possible for this country to meet its Kyoto commitments by the use of gas as a more environmentally friendly fuel than coal. The North sea has therefore delivered a lot for this country, including a period of great energy security when we were an exporter of energy. However, that is now changing.

There are challenges facing the North sea now, which the Select Committee highlighted. The specific challenge is that facing any province reaching greater maturity: the big finds have long ago been identified, and now we have moved on to the smaller fields, but they have to compete for investment in a global financial market. They need to be competitive in that global financial market and they need the Government to recognise the challenges they face.

As the Committee made clear, the industry is looking not for a subsidy, but for a fairer and more effective tax regime that takes less tax up front and thereby offers more incentives to invest, and in the long run brings in more tax to the Chancellor, because with that investment more oil and gas will be produced, which will earn more revenue for the Chancellor. Any oil and gas left in the ground produces no tax revenues. It belongs to the country, but we only get it out of the ground by engaging with the private sector. It is that sector's skills and expertise that get it out of the ground. We need a regime that encourages that future bold move to get more out of the ground.

There is another North sea challenge in the current period. Many of the platforms are reaching an age when they might usually have been decommissioned: their maintenance is getting more expensive as they were not designed to last this long, but-fortunately-they were over-engineered so they are still in active use. The current pipelines and platforms are, however, crucial hubs to future exploration. The finds that are now being made are too small to justify stand-alone production. They need to be linked back to the existing platforms and pipelines in the North sea. Once those platforms and pipelines have gone, whole areas of the North sea will be sterilised from future investment and production. Timing is vital to maintain them, and to encourage those hubs to be there. The Select Committee felt the Government should go further in their tax incentives to bring in more activity on the existing platforms so that they continue to be economic and to be invested in and so that future developments can be tied back to them.

In a mature province such as the North sea, such smaller future developments are not attractive to the big global companies that have their own cash reserves
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to invest. The tradition is that smaller and more nimble companies move in to take over that investment and that exciting exploration. However, those smaller and more nimble companies rely on the financial markets to unlock the investment, and the credit crunch and the recession have hit them as much as they have hit the rest of the economy. The Select Committee has therefore proposed to the Government that the tax relief that will come to these smaller companies when they get into production should be paid up front and then taken back later when the production comes in. That would assist their cash flow.

Another exciting prospect highlighted by the Committee is the future gas finds west of Shetland. There are still large fields there, but it is a very challenging environment in which to operate: it is very stormy and there are very deep waters. Again, we think the Government should incentivise activity in that whole west of Shetland province, because if some of those major fields west of Shetland are developed, that will provide a great psychological boost to the oil and gas community and will produce more excitement in the markets about the potential of the North sea. All this is about security of supply for our energy needs, future tax revenues from those fields and-above all from a constituency point of view-the jobs that come from that work.

The jewel in the crown of maintaining an efficient and vibrant home market is the growing export market that the UK has built up around the world. We are now world leaders in the frontiers of deep sea oil and gas exploration and production-subsea engineering-and we export our skills around the world. The fact that we still have a base in the UK means that that big manufacturing and industrial sector remains in the UK, bringing money back to the UK economy. For all those reasons, I urge the Government to respond boldly to the Select Committee's recommendations and create a brighter future for the North sea and for the security of this country's energy supplies.

As we enter the recess-

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): Long recess.

Sir Robert Smith: It is a long recess, which our leaders say we should not be having. As we enter it, I should make the point from this Front Bench that the House carries on, and many functions will take place here and much work will be done by many staff of the House. I wish, again, to place on the record a thank you, through you, Madam Deputy Speaker, from Liberal Democrat Members to the staff of the House for all they do to support our work throughout the year and to make it possible for Parliament to function so efficiently and effectively.

Several hon. Members rose -

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. May I remind right hon. and hon. Members that the seven-minute time limit on Back-Bench contributions now applies?

6.11 pm

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): I do not need seven minutes to say what I have to say, which is about delays in investigating freedom of information complaints.
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Maurice Frankel, the director of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, had an interesting piece in The Guardian exactly two weeks ago entitled "A slow and sluggish trudge to transparency-A backlog of cases and a budget shortfall is making the Freedom of Information Act toothless". That is what he believes, and he tells us that the backlog in the Information Commissioner's Office is such that

to get started. That is just unacceptable.

At the beginning of this month, on 3 July, the campaign published a report entitled "Delays in Investigating Freedom of Information Complaints". It states that

and that

In the long run, we are all dead and a Parliament runs for a maximum of only five years, yet people are waiting for years for the Information Commissioner to come forward with a decision-I am one of those people.

In November 2007, in the Public Administration Committee, I raised the case of Michael Ashcroft with the Cabinet Secretary. I did so because in March 2000, No. 10 issued a press release that said that Michael Ashcroft had given-I paused for effect there-

that he would take up permanent residence in the UK by the end of the year-by the end of 2000. To this day, he refuses to answer the question on that. I, therefore, raised it with the Cabinet Secretary in the Select Committee in November 2007. Sir Gus O'Donnell got back to me, saying that the Cabinet Office has no jurisdiction over either House of Parliament and he did not see a role for him on the issue of the undertaking, as it was really not a matter for him. On the other question of residency, he said that it was exempt information because it involved a conferring by the Crown of an honour or dignity-that refers to Michael Ashcroft's peerage. The second reason the information was exempt was that it related to personal information provided, by Michael Ashcroft, in confidence.

Those reasons were bogus and spurious, so I appealed. My appeal was considered by the permanent secretary at the Cabinet Office and it was turned down in March 2008. At the end of that month, I wrote to the Information Commissioner and the matter has been with the Information Commissioner ever since. To this day, I do not know why there has been a huge delay of 16 months. I am asking only for two simple pieces of information. I do not want to know how much tax Lord Ashcroft is paying, but I want to know the answer to the following questions: to whom did Michael Ashcroft give that assurance and what form did that assurance take-was it oral, in a letter or in an e-mail? I have been denied those two straightforward pieces of information for 16 months.

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