Oil Revenues and Taxation

Part of Petition – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th November 1977.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr John Lee Mr John Lee , Birmingham Handsworth 12:00 am, 25th November 1977

That is true. That was in the days when we were relatively far richer. Most of the investments, certainly in fixed assets, some of which are of long duration, go back to before the Second World War. That was a war in which we lost about one-quarter of our total capital assets. Investing overseas is a different matter nowadays.

I do not say that there are not some ways in which it is of benefit for us to invest overseas—social reasons apart, I accept the need for overseas investment—but to invest in our economic rivals does not seem sensible. Within the Common Market it is not unknown for us to try to sell washing machines to people in Dusseldorf who already make them. What is the logic of investing in competing industrial nations? There should be a greater realisation of our overseas investment, which is sometimes referred to as the third line reserve.

Happily, at the moment we are not in a financial crisis. North Sea oil is one of the reasons why we are not involved in such a crisis. Sooner or later one would expect many of the resources to be appropriated by a local General Amin. It might therefore be as well to sell some of them, to realise them and incorporate them in our reserves, to be used as part of the debt repayment exercise. But I do not feel that we should devote this bonus to debt repayment when there are more worthy demands on our resources. The Government, but not the Opposition, would regard direct investment in industry as the most important alternative. Although that is an attractive idea, I do not believe that it is the most desirable use for these resources.

We start from the premise that the resources will be of a comparatively limited duration, with perhaps fewer years elapsing before the amount of oil trails off drastically than have elapsed since the end of the Second World War. There has been a chronic lack of investment in industry since the war. If one recognises that, one sees that it is not desirable to anchor the re-equipment of British industry to a resource which has a known limited duration.

I represent part of a deprived inner city area. Unemployment is acute, and unemployment amongst young people is particularly bad. Unemployment amongst young black people is conspicuously worse than it is among white youths. It is an area which is in many ways bleak and unattractive. It lacks many amenities, and is certainly in dire need of beautification. It is an area in which there is a great deal of crime, as one might expect, and a great deal of social tension. But the constituency is no worse than those of many of my hon. Friends who represent inner city areas, and I suspect that it is more fortunate than some.

It is against that background that the Secretary of State for the Environment has decided not to increase the rate support grant. I was disappointed to learn of that decision. In the light of that observation, I plump for investment in inner city areas and urban rehabilitation. If there is a single area in which the impact of the investment of a bonus resource will be proportionately greater, it is in such places as I have the honour to represent.

The other day I asked for an estimate of how much it would cost to bring all the substandard housing in the country up to acceptable standards. That might be a difficult question to answer, but we all recognise what is substandard and what is tolerably acceptable.

I was told that the total cost would be £9,350 million. The total cost of dealing with outstanding repairs would be £8,350 million. The cost of providing amenities such as parks which are essential for the quality of life would be £1,000 million.

The estimated peak revenue from North Sea oil in the next five or 10 years is between £3,000 million and £5,000 million. If one matches one sum against the other over a period of four or five years, one can see what a really dramatic impact that revenue would have on the last really acute social problem in the country.

I do not say that complacently, but if one compares the present quality of life for most people with what it was 40 years ago, there is no doubt that it has improved dramatically, in spite of all our failures and disappointments.

Before the war two-thirds of our people lived in poverty and many in abject poverty. That is no longer the situation, but a submerged percentage still live in poverty. Clearing the slums and beautifying areas of social decay would make a larger impact on that situation than on anything else.

During the debate on the Address the hon. Member for Chelsea (Mr. Scott) said that such action would help to counter the National Front and other extremism which brings about social tension, and would help to deal with the problems of racialism which are so often the side-wind of social deprivation. My plea to the Government is to spend the lion's share of the oil revenue upon the inner city areas.

A few days ago I asked the Secretary of State for the Environment to what extent Birmingham would benefit from his new monetary measures. I learnt that it was the not very princely sum, initially, of £11 million on construction. Bearing in mind that housing construction and road construction in the inner city areas are highly labour-intensive, his measures will also strike a blow at unemployment, because the two go hand in hand.

To hear people talk about cutting Government expenditure on the urban programmes beggars belief. I cannot understand how anyone with any sense of social responsibility and social conscience could contemplate such a policy. Whatever criticism I may have of the Government, and whatever their failings may be, I am sure that they will disregard such callous Poujadiste nonsense. The only question that must be settled is how urgently and vigorously they will take the opposite course.

I wish to discuss briefly one other way in which part, but a much smaller part, of the money should be spent. Here I agree with remarks that the hon. Member for Gosport made before he decides to join in a routine piece of Tory flag-waving. He referred to alternate energy sources, and mentioned geothermal sources. I agree with him that research into geothermal sources would be of great benefit. He was right to refer to the time scale involved in these matters. Geothermal energy will last far longer than the human mind can comprehend. We sometimes forget that we are standing—fortunately it is miles away—on a raging inferno. The whole of the centre of the earth is a molten bowl.

But we also forget, less excusably, that since Roman times, and before, in some measure, that source of energy, through hot springs, has been used. It is extraordinary how little attention has been paid to the question of harnessing it on a much greater scale. In such countries as Iceland and New Zealand, where hot springs are dramatically in evidence, very much more has been done; but even we have had Bath hot water for a long time. To drill into the crust of the earth and examine hot rock structures for further sources of energy should excite people's imagination more than it does.

Such energy sources have an advantage over nuclear sources, with which so many people are obsessed, in that they are not accompanied by appalling problems of waste and pollution, and security risks. I cannot understand why they should have been overlooked. One does not have to be completely sold on the outlook of the ecologist magazines. How can we disregard so attractive a source, not immediately available in any quantity but there for the taking if there is sufficient investigation and forward planning over a period of, say, 20 years, while we irresponsibly build up mounds of toxic nuclear waste for future generations?

I asked in a Question the other day, purely out of curiosity and not with any particular thought in mind, what was the longest estimated radioactive life of any nuclear fuel being produced. I was told that for thorium 232 it was 14,000 million years. The mind boggles at such a figure. That is the worst, but we know that we are dealing in periods of millions of years. It is not right that we should present generations yet to come with a Pandora's Box of this kind. We should rapidly turn away from it. We have the opportunity of searching out other sources.

If the bulk of the money should be spent, as I believe it should, on urban rehabilitation, and if a small proportion should be spent on seeking out other sources of energy—and I agree with the hon. Member for Gosport on the question of conversion from solar energy —a little could be spent on the examination of the accessibility of other undersea resources. Most of the earth's surface is covered by water. We are only just beginning to address ourselves to the extraction of undersea resources. The oil is there and it is accessible. Thirty years ago people had hardly thought about it. There are obviously many other sources to be extracted. Manganese is one. Potassium nodules are said to be on the ocean bed, well within a feasible extraction depth, and the ocean bed is certainly worth exploration for other minerals.

I therefore echo the plea of the hon. Member for Gosport that some of the additional resources should be spent on research. If we apply our minds to these matters, and, above all, if we apply ourselves with imagination to the windfall that has come to a nation which for so long has been beleaguered, we shall have made it worth while.