If my hon. Friend were sitting closer to me, I would think that he had read my notes, but as he is an honourable gentleman and far enough away, I know that he has not. He is absolutely right. We are in the early days—indeed, the infancy—of the industry. If it goes ahead, we still have questions and uncertainties to get through. It would be wrong to set too firm a percentage level at this stage, but we also need clarity that when a company says that it will pay 1%, or whatever percentage it turns out to be, it cannot renege or change its mind when the ink is barely dry. With the best will in the world, companies change chief executive. They can be taken over. Governments also change. The intentions being set out honourably at this moment in time could change in future.
We also do not yet know how profitable it will be or how much money it will cost to extract the gas, or what future gas prices may be. It is therefore important that the level set is sustainable for local communities and everyone else who has a stake, including the Government and the operators. It is in no one’s interest for the benefits to yo-yo and fluctuate to such an extent that no one knows what they are getting.
Some colleagues have called for a statutory underpinning for the agreement, so that the industry and Government cannot renege. I will put my trust in the work that the Minister is doing at this stage, but I seek assurance that were a company to renege on its commitment, the
Government would not shy from being direct with it to ensure that the community benefit package was not lost to the people whom I represent.
Shale gas is controversial, but the Government are engaging with the issue and taking some tough decisions. I will be a critical friend of the Government. If they are not getting the regulations right or not engaging with the community, I will highlight that to the Minister. Similarly, the industry should not expect an easy ride; my colleagues and I will be emphasising anything that we regard as shortcomings. Any attempts by the industry not to adhere to regulations, not to engage with communities or not to ensure that communities are financial beneficiaries, and we will hold its feet to the fire.
We will return to this subject in many debates to come, Mr Benton, but I thank you for your chairmanship today.