Yes, indeed. There has been a uniformly positive response from the industry, and I am confident that it will now be pressing ahead with plans for a number of new developments as a direct consequence of the new reliefs for future fields.
Is my right hon. Friend aware what good news that is for British industry? Does he realise that the passing of the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act, which he pushed through the House with great success, opens up new opportunities in the southern basin, but that at the moment there is a question mark over development because of the royalty dimension? If the Finance Bill is to be truncated — or otherwise — does he realise that clarification of the matter would greatly benefit the development of that basin?
I am glad to say that as a result, to a large extent—as my hon. Friend was kind enough to say—of the passage of the Oil and Gas (Enterprise) Act, there is greatly renewed interest in the southern basin and in gas prospecting in the North Sea. For example, 17 new exploration and appraisal wells were drilled last year. That was more than in the previous seven years put together. Moreover, there is considerable interest in the eighth round in connection with the southern basin gas blocks, and I hope to be in a position to announce the results of that round shortly.
Our best expectation is that new developments are likely to come to my Department over the next few years at the rate of one every six weeks. The right hon. Gentleman will have noted that only last week BP announced that it was intending to reappraise the Andrew field.
Is it really the wisest use of the revenues from this valuable and irreplaceable source of energy to pay 4 million people to stay at home doing nothing? Would not the revenues be better used in providing jobs as a result of increased public investment?
I deeply regret the present unemployment, which is a consequence of the world recession. The use to which North Sea oil revenues have been put has reduced the very high public sector borrowing requirement that we inherited from the Labour Administration, and it has enabled us to get interest rates down substantially and the rate of inflation down to 4½ per cent., which is the lowest figure since the 1960s. That has benefited the whole country.
In view of all the activity off the coast of Bournemouth, and onshore in the county of Dorset, will my right hon. Friend balance the need for plentiful supplies of oil, natural gas, and nuclear power with the realisation that this is a holiday and tourist area of quite outstanding merit?
My right hon. Friend is perfectly right. Environmental considerations should always be given proper weight. On the question of onshore oil exploration, my right hon. Friend will be aware that although I have the power to give licences to drill, it is still a matter for the local planning authority to decide whether to give planning permission, depending on the full evaluation of the environmental circumstances of the case.
The forecast that I gave is anything but meaningless. The hon. Gentleman should at least have the courtesy of commending the Government for having made the changes in North Sea oil taxation, because they are changes of the kind that he said were required. He will have noted the extremely positive response of the oil companies, and of course, that response will inevitably give a tremendous fillip in due course to the offshore supply industry.