I will take you at your word, Mr Benton, and, as it is customary to say, it is a great pleasure and delight to serve under your chairmanship. It is also a great pleasure and delight to follow Mark Menzies, who is my constituency neighbour and who placed the arguments and his position with his usual sense and robustness. I will do my best to follow him.
The hon. Gentleman said what ought to be the theme of this afternoon’s discussion: the regulations must be robust and to the highest environmental standards. He rightly passed a warning shot—if I may put it that way—across the Minister’s bows about the use of language, and I shall return to that later in my contribution. The focus needs to be on “robust”, not on “streamlining”, and I entirely concur with what the hon. Member for Fylde said.
I also agree with what the hon. Gentleman told the Blackpool Gazette—that he would be
“inflexible on the point that there must be a gold standard of regulation reached before any potential move to the extraction phase.”
That is a position with which I wholeheartedly associate myself.
My hon. Friend Tom Greatrex, who speaks for the Opposition, also holds that position. He will speak for himself shortly, but in an article for PoliticsHome, when the survey by the British Geological Survey was published, he warned about too much hype:
“For many who are against renewables, shale is the silver bullet. For some who advocate green technologies, the extraction of unconventional gas is catastrophic for the environment. While it may help generate lurid headlines, an absolutist position does little to ensure a realistic assessment of the role shale and other unconventional gas could play in our energy mix.”
That is an important position to set out.
Coverage in the national media has become extensive, not least since so many people outside Blackpool and the Fylde were alerted to the matter by the famous occasion of the earthquakes, to which reference has already been made. I think that I am speaking for all hon. Members in the Chamber who represent constituencies in or near the Fylde when I say that there is a wide variety of views, ranging from absolutism at both ends to scepticism on either side of the frame. Those views were picked up well in a recent article in The Observer by Robin McKie, a distinguished science editor there for many years, who has dealt with the issues in a solid way.
The balance must be struck between the prospectuses of the companies concerned, which will necessarily be expansive, and the realities of the science on the ground and of the amount of gas that is actually extractable. The amount is a key issue, because, as John Pugh rightly identified, that might affect any arguments or discussions about the amount of money available at a future stage. It is therefore incumbent on the Government to get the balance right. At the end of the day, they will set the regulations—I concur with the hon. Member for Fylde that what DECC has done has been proportionate and measured—but I caution the Minister to continue in that line, not least in the context of the Chancellor’s remarks, because the Treasury’s position to date has been far too gung-ho in cheerleading for the industry.
The hon. Gentleman talked about unwarranted criticism of the Minister for wearing two hats, with his ministerial responsibilities for energy and for business. I am worried not so much about two hats as about the possibility of three—the third one appearing if the Minister were to follow his Treasury colleagues and become simply a cheerleader for the fracking industry. It is important that he remembers his quasi-judicial role as we take forward sensitive decisions. Language, whether emanating from him or from his civil servants, is particularly important.
Community benefit is the frame in which this afternoon’s debate is taking place, but which communities and where? There are communities of interest, reasonably so, in the development and the possible production of jobs, but also in the residents of the area and—not to be sneezed at—in the visitor and tourism industry. When we discuss the benefits or where the jobs will come from, we must look not only at what Cuadrilla or British Gas, which has now joined the enterprise, say about the numbers of jobs that might or might not be created—there can be lots of arguments about that—but at the impact on existing jobs, particularly in tourism, and on green issues. The number of jobs and the effects that those jobs will have on the local area from a positive point of view need to be balanced against the potential—that is all I say at the moment—for things to develop in such a way that tourism, the environment and the continued enjoyment of the Fylde area by residents are jeopardised.
I therefore move on to geographical communities, as well as communities of interest. Blackpool has not thus far been the site of any drilling experiences, but it was Blackpool that got the earthquake. In Blackpool, we were able to provide the definitive answer to the often-asked question, “Did the earth move for you?”, because it certainly did, and in some measure. Seriously, if such things are to have an effect on the reputation, image and attraction of Blackpool, then Blackpool must also be included as a potentially benefiting community, as well as the other areas of the Fylde.
I have mentioned the potential adverse consequences on seaside and rural tourism, and they should not be treated lightly. More independent assessments of the amount of work and jobs that might be created would be welcome. For my part, I so far remain fairly sceptical about some of the numbers produced by Cuadrilla, as I remain sceptical about some of its estimates for the amount of extractable gas available.