Orders of the Day — British Coal and British Rail (Transfer Proposals) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:29 pm on 18th May 1992.

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Photo of Mr Raymond Robertson Mr Raymond Robertson , Aberdeen South 6:29 pm, 18th May 1992

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye, so that I may address the House for the first time. It is a tremendous privilege to be here as the new Member of Parliament for Aberdeen, South. It is with great pride that I take my seat as a new Scottish Member of Parliament—and on this occasion if no other, right hon. and hon. Members may allow me to remind them that, yes, I am also a new Scottish Conservative Member of Parliament.

Right hon. and hon. Members who know Aberdeen and Aberdonians will not be surprised to learn that Aberdeen, South is back in the Conservative fold. Mine is a diverse constituency of many contrasts. It has captured the old and blended it uniquely with the new. It can boast a magnificant past, and look forward to a bright and formidable future. My constituency has, sadly, seen in recent times the end of some of its traditional industries, such as shipbuilding and deep sea fishing, but it has not been frightened to reach out and to embrace new industries. Most notable among them are the oil and oil support industries. Aberdeen, South had adapted to change in a dynamic and positive way. The Aberdeen that stands on the threshold of a new century is one of which its forefathers would have been justifiably proud.

My constituency covers the southern part of that great city stretching from western end down to its commercial hub, to the beach, and to Pittodrie—the home of Aberdeen football club. It takes in world-famous Union street, and extends across the River Dee to its southern boundary. Beyond that is the North sea. It includes Aberdeen's buoyant international harbour, which, since a Conservative Government had the courage to abolish the national dock labour scheme in 1989, has enjoyed some of its best years ever.

I am well aware that most new Members of Parliament are haunted by the ghosts of their predecessors. I am not so much haunted by the ghosts of Members of Parliament past as plagued by their reincarnations. I arrived here to find myself elected president of one of the House's most exclusive and select dining clubs. I refer to that patronised also by former Members of Parliament for Aberdeen, South who are still Members of Parliament. Its membership is cross-party and includes the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), who represented my constituency between 1966 and 1970; my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich (Mr. Sproat), who spoke earlier, and who is the longest-serving member of the club—having sat for Aberdeen, South from 1970 to 1983; and my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Malone), who has just arrived, who served the constituency from 1983 to 1987.

I should not be too unkind about my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester, because it has been said to me often that greater love hath no man than this: that he loses his seat so that his friend can win it back. My right hon. and hon. Friends will be pleased to know that membership of that exclusive club is now closed, because I intend to remain its newest recruit for a long time.

Apart from existing Members of Parliament who once represented Aberdeen, South, I must make mention of my immediate predecessor, Frank Doran. I want to thank him on behalf of my constituents for his time as their Member of Parliament, when he represented them in the House and worked on their behalf outside it. It would be wrong and totally insincere of me to wish Frank Doran well politically, but I do so at a personal level. Perhaps his former boss, the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), will convey my best wishes to Frank Doran.

Aberdeen's wealth and prosperity is very much based on the oil and gas industry. The rapid expansion of that and related industries has brought tremendous benefits to the city and to its people. Oil, in common with coal, is one of this country's most precious natural resources. Unlike coal, however, it is relatively new on the British scene. It is little more than 25 years ago that the first significant discoveries of North sea oil and gas were made. Few then could have expected or predicted what would follow—and if they had, even fewer would have believed them.

In just over a quarter of a century, the United Kingdom has become one of the world's biggest producers of offshore oil and gas, creating 100,000 jobs. In the 1990s, North sea oil continues to be an outstanding success story for Britain and free enterprise. The unprecedented investment in, and expansion of, the United Kingdom continental shelf over the past 10 years occurred because the Government allowed the private sector to get to work and to get on with it. I say to Opposition Members who are fearful of a privatised coal industry that they should not be. The challenges may seem great, but so, too, are the opportunities.

Much concern has been expressed, rightly, and will continue to be expressed about the danger of coal mining and the industry's inherent risks. Unlike coal, the greatest obstacle that our oil and gas industry has to overcome is nature itself. The North sea can boast—if that is the right word—some of the most hostile and treacherous conditions anywhere in the world. They are not easy for most of us to imagine—waves up to 80 ft high, freezing air temperatures, thick fog blankets falling at any time, and wild gusts and violent storms daily. In any one year, 250 days will be officially designated as bad.

Those who work in such conditions day after day deserve the highest praise. Just as the North sea is a vibrant, healthy, free enterprise success, so, too, can be the coalfields of Britain. As the Government get down to the detailed job of returning coal to the private sector, I urge them to consider operating a licensing system similar to that which operates in the North sea. I agree with the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) that our traditional coal industry should learn a trick or two from its younger offshore brother.

Private enterprise never flourishes unless the right climate is created by the Government—and they have unquestionably done so in the North sea through their licensing policy. Such an imaginative scheme can do the same for a private coal industry. The purpose of a licensing policy is fourfold, and can be directly translated from the oil fields of the North sea to the coalfields of Britain.

A licensing policy enables companies to compete and to operate commercially; ensures that exploration is undertaken thoroughly, expeditiously, and—most importantly—safely; maximises the economic exploitation of resources; and ensures that a fair share of financial and economic benefits of exploration is enjoyed by the entire nation.

Such a regime, translated from oil to coal, can give this country's proud coal industry a second chance and a very real future. It will enable the industry to look forward to the next century with new-found confidence.