Does my hon. Friend accept that it is the Government's duty to lay down guidelines on the rate at which oil and gas should be consumed, in order to ensure that there are adequate supplies for future generations, and that a good starting point for such guidelines would be net self-sufficiency—in other words, not using more oil and gas than is needed for this country's own needs?
My hon. Friend is correct. It will be the Government's intention to try to extend the period of self-sufficiency as far forward as possible. We expect to reach the level of net self-sufficiency in the latter part of this year, and in formulating our policy for depletion in the future we shall take account of my hon. Friend's remarks. It will also be necessary to take other relevant factors into consideration.
I accept that the seventh licensing round is not, perhaps, as large as the industry would have liked, but, taken with the increase in world oil prices, which has made existing acreage still very attractive, we believe that there is considerable incentive for the industry to explore to the full.
The Varley assurances were given in good faith and the present Government will continue to honourthem, but we must bear in mind that in the changing situation to which the oil industry is constantly subject we must review the position from time to time.
Will my hon. Friend make certain that, whilst listening to the voices of conservationists, he does not adopt a policy that will preclude further extensive exploration, because it must be realised that companies which put large sums of money into exploration wish to obtain a reasonable return from the gas or oil that they find?
I can accept what my hon. points out. We have frequent consultations within the industry, and as a result of these consultations we shall devise a policy that will be beneficial to the nation and also give fair opportunity to those who invest money in our continental shelf.
May I suggest that when the Secretary of State offers shares in the British National Oil Corporation to employees of the BNOC and the British public he should make clear the policy on depletion, as that will be of extreme interest to anyone wishing to invest in BNOC? In those circumstances, would it not be wiser to be a little less coy now and tell us more about the Government's depletion policy?
I think that my hon. Friend would agree that the term "depletion policy" is somewhat misleading, and that what we are really talking about is "resource management". Bearing that in mind, we shall take account of what my hon. Friend has said. In due course my right hon. Friend will make a statement to the House, in which he will clarify the position about BNOC and the future rate at which we shall deplete our resources.