Does my hon. Friend agree that that is a remarkable figure? Can he confirm that it is the highest since North sea exploration began back in 1964, and will he also confirm that the only threat to this expansion comes from the prospect of a Labour Government, who might again start intervening in the North sea with state-run corporations and set back the magnificent achievements of 1990?
I entirely accept the thrust of my hon. Friend's argument—not least because the success that led to what he rightly described as the highest number of exploration well starts since the 1984 record of 109 is evidence of continuing confidence in the United Kingdom continental shelf. That confidence is wholly dependent on a stable fiscal regime, a comprehensive licensing regime and the opportunity for the private sector to excel where it excels best—in the marketplace for the development of oil and gas within the UKCS, and in exports. Any interventionism or return to state-owned control would be extremely damaging to that success story.
If the Minister thinks that the Tories' record in the North sea is such a wonderful success, how does he explain the fact that, last year and the year before, we were net importers of fuel?
First, we were not net importers in cash terms. Secondly, as I have already told the hon. Gentleman—I am surprised that he did not take the point in my response to his last question—safety considerations had to lead to shutdowns and to working conditions for production that were less than optimal for maximum recovery. An example is the present need to handle dead rather than live crude. It was vital that Lord Cullen's recommendations be implemented as matter of urgency, and that the all-party agreement on topside valves be put in place, even if that meant that production would not reach the levels that the hon. Gentleman would have liked. I am surprised that he does not know the answer to his own question.
Let me reinforce what I said to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson). We were not a net importer in cash terms: furthermore, given the total activity on the UKCS, there is no doubt that we can and will increase production. Our net position will not be under threat once the essential safety work is completed. We shall then have not only high levels of production, but a safer North sea in which to operate.