HC Deb 10 December 1974 vol 883 cc435-41

  1. (1) This Act shall remain in force until the expiry of the period of five years beginning with the passing of this Act and shall then expire unless continued in force by an order under this section.
  2. (2) The Secretary of State may by order pro vide that all or any of the provisions of this Act shall continue in force for a period not exceeding one year from the coming into operation of the order.
  3. (3) A statutory instrument continuing an order made under this section shall be laid in draft in each House of Parliament and not take effect until such draft shall have been ap proved, by resolution of each House of Parlia ment.— [Mr. Buchanan-Smith.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Chairman

With this new clause we may discuss new Clause 2—" Duration of Act".

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The purpose of new Clause 1, and of new Clause 2, in a slightly modified form, is to put a limit on the period over which the Bill will have effect.

The Bill, which is required for a special purpose, confers extensive powers on the Secretary of State for purposes that will not necessarily continue. Therefore, a limitation should be written into it.

We have done this in two ways. First, we have set the life of the measure at five years. That is an arbitrary figure. It may be argued that the period of exploration and exploitation could last longer, but the figure is more or less in line with the number of years the Government have forecast over which new platforms are necessary. However, I am prepared to reconsider the matter on Report if a different period is suggested.

Our second point, covered in more detail in new Clause 2, is that it may be necessary that certain powers be continued at the end of five years. For example, while it may not be necessary to go on acquiring sites to build production platforms, it may be necessary to retain the power for reinstatement. But it is right that the Government, whichever party is in power, should have to obtain an extension for one year at a time. I am open to argument that one year might not be enough.

Although I am open to persuasion on the periods involved, I am much more enthusiastic about the principle of imposing a limitation. There is a precedent for the new clause in Section 2 of the Acquisition of Land (Authorisation Procedure) (Scotland) Act 1947, which included temporary powers for speedy acquisition of land in urgent cases. The parallel is not exact, but the Bill is urgent because of the national need to get the oil ashore as quickly as possible. In that section the Government of the day set a limit of five years.

I feel strongly about the matter, because the provisions proposed by Gordon Campbell, as Secretary of State, nearly a year ago were for special circumstances, and we saw them as being for a limited period.

I hope that the Government will see the Bill in the same way, and accept the spirit, if not the letter, of the clause. It is reasonable, and it has a precedent.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

I support the provision contained in new Clause I but prefer to concentrate on new Clause 2 which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friends. New Clause I suggests that the baby should be thrown out with the bath water. There are certain good things in the measure. Certain consequences flow from the first five years or so of its operation.

The difference which we have with those who support new Clause I is that we take exception to the expedited acquisition procedure. It is that proposal which should be allowed to fall at the end of five years, unless there is some special reason for continuing it; otherwise, the remainder of this measure, much of which will relate to reinstatement of things of value to the community, should be allowed to continue.

[Mr. GEORGE THOMAS in the Chair]

Mr. Millan

I take full account of the arguments used by the hon. Members for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) but I could not recommend to the Committee that either of the new clauses should be accepted. It is true that there is a precedent in the 1947 Act for a limited period of compulsory acquisition. I am not sure that we want to draw too close a parallel with what may have seemed to be right at the end of the Second World War. That is rather less relevant than the effect that a provision of this sort would have upon the Bill.

If I were disposed to accept either of the clauses, I would prefer new Clause 2, if only because it is more limited in its application. The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns admitted that there are certain powers in the Bill which it would be undesirable that we should lose in any way—on a much longer time scale than envisaged. I refer to the powers of reinstatement among others.

We could not provide that the Act, taken as a whole should last for only five years. If we were to adopt new Clause 1 as a basis for changing the Bill, it would require such substantial amendment that it would become an entirely different clause. It is important that we do not cause uncertainty. It may be argued that if we limited the operation of this measure we would assuage people's fears about it. I think such fears are basically unfounded.

If we were to suggest that the provisions are required for only five years there would be a strong implication that we were looking on North Sea oil as being a short-term development for Scotland. That is not our understanding of the position, nor is that the Government's intention. What is more, that is not the hon. Gentleman's intention. It is part of the Government's policy to see that there is a long, continuing and sustained benefit to be obtained for Scotland from the exploitation of North Sea oil, particularly in the provision of onshore activities.

1.30 a.m.

If we were now to write into the Bill any provision, however limited, that suggested to people that we were concerned only with short-term developments, we should cause uncertainty and confusion among developers and among local authorities. It is significant that although the proposition of a limited life for the Bill has some considerable support in Scotland, that does not extend to the local authorities, because they would not wish to see a limited Bill. What is even more important is that we should create uncertainty and confusion among the Scottish people.

It is important to get over to people in Scotland that this is a long-term development, that the benefits are long term, that the Government's approach is long term, and that we want to see controlled development offshore and onshore. The Bill is part of that control, and therefore we should not impose an artificial life on it even though that life could be extended by a year at a time. It is unusual to impose that sort of restriction in a Bill, and I think it would be widely misunderstood if it were done here. Even the second new clause, which is much more restricted in its impact, would have such serious consequences and be so psychologically wrong that I could not recommend the Committee to accept these proposals.

If, as the hon. Member for Dundee, East believes, the necessity for expediting acquisition procedures, and so on, for production platforms, for acquiring sites and for other developments will run out after a certain number of years, that part of the Bill will fall into desuetude in any case, but I do not take the view that that will happen, and I could not support the proposals on the assumption that it would. For those reasons, I hope that neither of the new clauses will be accepted.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Without necessarily wishing to protract the discussion, may I ask the Minister whether he accepts that if the expedited acquisition procedure is sought by the Government to deal with an emergency situation, to deal with the lack of production platforms to get the oil out of the North Sea as quickly as possible, the object of the emergency will largely have been taken care of within five years if the Government's plans are agreed, and therefore that argument will fall?

I am arguing particularly for new Clause 2 because I agree that there is a need for the Bill to take care of all the consequences that it will have initiated.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I reject the argument put forward by the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) because, as he said, once the period is up the whole reason for urgency should have been taken care of.

What worries me is that the Minister seems to be more concerned with the cosmetics of what he is doing, and he does not want anybody to think that the Government are treating oil development as a short-term operation. That seems to be the hon. Gentleman's main argument. The Minister thinks that a false impression will be created if the duration of the Bill is limited. I think that people in Scotland are realistic enough about the oil prospects, and I do not consider that limiting the Bill will create the wrong impression. If we have not managed to deal with an urgent situation over the next five or seven years, or whatever is considered to be a suitable: period, the whole Bill will have failed, and therefore it will not have been worth while having it on the statute book. I urge the Minister to think again about this.

The Department of Energy has made known the number of platforms that are likely to be required, and the rate at which they will be required. If there are a certain number of sites—and at this hour of the morning I am not sure of the exact number being built each year—each site will produce more than one platform.

If we get the necessary number of platforms built up over the next five years, it is likely that the output from those production sites will be adequate for the required rate of development of the oil industry, particularly in the light of the statement by the Secretary of State for Energy that, once we reach a state of self-sufficiency and when the present licences expire, in relation to new licens-ings consideration will have to be given to the rate at which oil comes ashore.

It is the next five years that are absolutely vital. Given that we have the capacity to produce the platforms, it may be that the capacity we can create over the next five years will be adequate for the longer term. The emergency powers may not be anything like so necessary after, say, five years—or, perhaps, eight years. I am open to persuasion as to the number of years.

The practical arguments carry far greater weight than the Minister's argument about giving people in Scotland the wrong impression. If the powers will not be necessary after a certain time, it would be better to set a date for ending them. I am prepared to go along with new Clause 2, because I agree that there are aspects of the Bill that one would want to continue for very much longer, possibly to an indefinable future date.

Mr. Millan

I have listened carefully to what has been said. The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) basically admitted that his new clause is drawn too wide. As for new Clause 2, I still think that the basic argument I used is valid. It is very important not to give the impression in Scotland that we are dealing with a short-term situation.

The provisions of Clause 1 and the subsections which are provided for in new Clause 2 are not in any sense mandatory on the Secretary of State. It is simply a matter of his having the power to use the expedited acquisition procedure as a matter of urgency. It is not a particularly easy thing for him to do, because he would then have to justify his use of that procedure and he would have to do that by the affirmative resolution procedure in both Houses of Parliament.

Therefore, there are safeguards in the Bill—that if the sense of urgency gradually dies down, first there will be no disposition on the part of this Secretary of State, or indeed of any other Secretary of State, to use a procedure which in those circumstances may be very unpopular and, secondly, if he attempted to do that he would have to pass the barrier of parliamentary approval, and that would be a safeguard against his behaving in an irresponsible way.

On balance, I believe that it would be a mistake at this stage to write into the Bill limitations which we may subsequently regret. For the reasons I have given, I prefer to leave the Bill as it stands. I have heard from local authorities about a number of matters, but this is not a matter which worries them, as far as I am aware. I have had no evidence that it worries them, and none has been presented tonight. This is a provision which seems to be generally accepted by local authorities.

Question put and negatived.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

On a point of order, Mr. Thomas. Is it possible to take the new Clause 2 for a Division rather than new Clause 1, which seems to be generally disapproved of?

The Chairman

It is possible for the hon. Member to move new Clause 2 formally. We have had a discussion on it. If the hon. Member wishes to move it formally for the purposes of a Division he may do so.

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