Satisfactory progress is continuing towards the first detailed agreements with companies that have accepted the principle of majority State participation. Useful discussions are also being held with a number of other companies, and I shall keep the House informed of further progress.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the equity offer today of £76 million for North Sea oil development shows that where the proposition is sound it is possible to raise funds without Government assistance? Is he further aware that he must be regarded as Father Christmas by a number of oil companies that might otherwise have difficulty in raising funds? Will he tell us clearly the amount that the British taxpayer will have to pay for the policy of participation by the time he has finished dealing with the "Riccardos" of the oil industry?
The hon. Gentleman referred, first, to the recent prospectuses. That experience proves—or I hope that it will prove—that private money can be forthcoming in the ordinary way to finance useful development in the North Sea. It should also prove that public participation is not an impediment to the progress of these efforts, contrary to the gloomy predictions of Opposition Members.
Secondly, the hon. Gentleman referred to my rôle as a Santa Claus. It is reassuring to know that I am regarded in such a benign fashion by the oil companies, but nothing I have done on behalf of the Government justifies any belief, even in those impoverished quarters in the oil industry, that they will get any public money for nothing-because it would be wrong to give it to them on such terms. Whatever money is provided, we get value and return for it.
Finally, the hon. Gentleman asked how much it will cost the pulic. The answer is that it will cost the public nothing. The public will gain by reason of the participation negotiations, on the one hand, while the achievements in the North Sea will, on the other hand, be advanced by such measures of intervention as we make, without prejudice to the reasonable and proper commercial interests of the oil companies concerned.
May I say to you, Mr. Speaker, in your last Question Time, that it would not come amiss from me and from my colleagues below the Gangway, to thank you for the part you played in getting my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to come along and answer Questions? While I am about it, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he accepts that what he has managed to achieve in negotiating this participation with various oil companies has been a relatively easy exercise up to now, because he has been negotiating, by and large, with Government Departments directly or indirectly in the name of BP, Burmah Oil, and the NCB-controlled areas? What will he do if, for example, American or German companies refuse to accept participation, in contrast with the cases that he has already dealt with?
I am glad, Mr. Speaker, that any effort you have made has resulted in my being here, and I am also glad that this successful effort is well regarded by my colleagues.
It is not true that we have been negotiating with what are, in effect, Government Departments. The eight companies that have agreed in principle include Deminex, a large German company, Tricentrol, Blackfriars, Ranger Oil, London and Scottish Marine Oil, and Scottish Canadian Oil and Transportation—and BP is certainly not a company that acts as if it were an extension of the Government or a Government Department.
My hon. Friends cannot have it both ways. They cannot argue, on the one hand, that BP should have independence of commercial operation and, on the other, assume that it is a Government Department for the purposes of negotiation. It is an entirely independent company, in the way that has been frequently explained in the House. Apart from the companies that I have mentioned, we are having very promising discussions with a great many other companies. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) will be agreeably surprised, if he can contain himself with reasonable patience, having regard to the crucial character of these assets for the people who are operating in the area and for the enormous sums of money they have to put in. If my hon. Friend will have a little patience, he will give me time to reconcile the legitimate interests of the Government and the British people and the legitimate interests of the oil companies.
Will my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster comment on the letter of 20th January from the Department of Energy to the London and Scottish Marine Oil Company stating that our 51 per cent. participation in the Ninian Field would still not entitle the British National Oil Corporation to take into ownership any assets, and that if the Corporation wanted 51 per cent. of the oil it would have to pay the full market price for it? Is this typical of the kind of participation that my right hon. Friend is negotiating? If so, what is the point of such a sell-out?
My hon. Friend calls it a sell-out. The agreement he has mentioned is certainly one that relates well to the particular circumstances of the companies concerned. The effect is that we will have a vote on the operating committee, an option to buy 51 per cent. of the oil, and a title to 51 per cent. of the operation. If my hon. Friend desires that my negotiations should result in acquiring the right to compel companies to sell us their assets at below cost, he has the wrong negotiator.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that in any future negotiations that he has about participation he will be guided by his own experience and business acumen, and will pay scant attention to the advice that he receives from below the Gangway on his own side of the House?
I cannot say that I find the advice and comment that I get from my hon. Friends below the Gangway wholly unrewarding, but I must tell them, and, indeed, the whole House, that my duty is to conduct these negotiations in a way that will both fulfil the interests of the Government and the British people and reconcile those interests with the legitimate rights and obligations of the oil companies that are engaged in this vast, expensive and hazardous operation.
As the Treasury, mercifully, now appears to have said that there will be no cash for these negotiations, and that the currency for nationalisation is going to be oil options, why does the right hon. Gentleman not admit that the whole business is a sham and that the BNOC ought to be conducting these negotiations in any case, since it will be responsible for managing the botched-up participation when the right hon. Gentleman has finished with it?
The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends cannot have it both ways. If it is a sham, it would be harmless, although repulsive. In fact, it is not a sham and it is not harmful. What we are doing is ensuring that we have a flexible option and ownership rights over a vast amount of oil in the North Sea; that we shall have an effective voice in the operations at relevant points in the North Sea; and that we are adding to the commercial experience of the BNOC for the North Sea future. That is not a sham. The participation agreements that we are reaching will have tangible and real advantages for the British people.