Orders of the Day — Petroleum and Submarine Pipe-Lines Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 30th April 1975.

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Photo of Mr John Hannam Mr John Hannam , Exeter 12:00 am, 30th April 1975

They are still wrong and they are out of date. The country is suffering because they are out of date.

We are sinking into the worst economic crisis in my memory and yet we have an administration drifting aimlessly with no tight controls on the economy and no productivity incentives. Yet the same Government seem hell bent on ignoring these facts of life. They continue to bring before us such irrelevant and damaging proposals as those for the National Enterprise Board and this Bill, with its State oil company.

What is interesting about the Government is that they give the impression that they always listen to advice and to warnings given by the experts. It is only when a Bill appears that—presto—we realise that all of the sensible representations have been ignored and that we are presented with a dangerous piece of legislation. We have seen this in recent weeks through the representations made to the Chancellor of the Duchy and to Treasury Ministers. Delegations representing the arts, owners of boatyards, small businesses, shipbuilding firms have pressed their case against a multi-rate VAT or State takeovers of their industries. They left those meetings with a sense of well-being, feeling that they had had a pleasant chat with the Ministers concerned. Then, crash! On the day the Bill is presented it is found to be as tough and as hard line as the Left wing wanted and as the rest of us feared.

In Committee we battle through days and weeks of detailed amendment and debate. Sometimes, as with the recent Oil Taxation Bill, we achieve substantial concessions from the Government and a more satisfactory measure emerges. During those sittings we have had to endure accusations of being hand in glove with the oil industry. If any piece of legislation affects a part of the economy of our society it is surely right to expect the Opposition to express the views of that group, to express its fears and to try to produce the arguments necessary, if the case is not to go by default. I found that that was what happened when I was sitting on the Government side in Committee.

This five-part Bill proposes to alter another major sector of the British economy, probably in the coming decade our most vital economic sector. The fascinating aspect of the Labour Party's approach to our present economic crisis is the totally contradictory element in its legislative programme. At a time when our nationalised industries are under severe financial strain and the burden of producing real industrial and balance of payments profits is falling on private industry so the greatest attacks on the investment and profit confidence of these industries are being made by the Government.

No one can deny that the oil crisis of 1973 has presented the oil-consuming Western nations with the need to restrain demand for high-cost imported oil as well as with the need to pursue the maximum exploration and development of their own energy-producing resources.

The immense discoveries in the North Sea appeared to be our salvation for the 1980s. It was a stroke of unparalleled good fortune that in our hour of need Britain should find herself surrounded by a potentially rich area of oil and gas. It appeared that all we had to do was to tap the riches by attracting the oil experts from outside and the necessary investment through the oil companies which would be able to raise the colossal sums of money required to provide the rigs and the pipelines.

The previous Tory Government's policy ensured such rapid development. In contrast, today we see declining activity, and confidence gradually ebbing away from the oil sector. All seemed well a year ago. Exploration continued to gather speed, and there was a high rate of success in productive wells with good reserves. The high, world oil prices revolutionised the economics of offshore production. Even the small, marginal field seemed attractive enough to commercial investors and bankers.

Then we had this love-hate relationship developing between the Labour Party and the oil companies. It meant that the companies were easy meat for political or populist attacks during two elections last year. Labour was certainly able to harvest a certain number of votes by promising all sorts of tough action to sort out the wicked oil barons—Who happen to be millions of small investors in this country and abroad.

First we had the Oil Taxation Bill with its PRT and field by field restrictions. Now there is this 51 per cent. participation and the coming into existence of the State oil company. As usual, the "divisive" Ministers and their Civil Service advisers are basically a year behind in their thinking, because all dreams of the bonanza profits which were to be attracted have burst.

The past year has seen an unprecedetented escalation in capital costs. If we add to those the uncontrolled inflation which the Government have allowed we can see a totally different picture emerging in the North Sea. The Government's tax terms and control regulations combined with the threats and uncertainties of participation have, in addition to soaring costs, produced a sharp decline of confidence and interest on the part of the oil industry.