HC Deb 12 April 1976 vol 909 cc909-12
31. Mr. Canavan

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether he will make a further statement about his progress in negotiating participation agreements with the oil companies.

32. Mr. Skinner

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster whether he has anything further to add to his recent statement regarding progress in negotiating with the North Sea oil companies.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr Harold Lever)

Negotiations with the oil companies are continuing to make progress, but I have nothing to add at present to the reply I gave my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) on 5th April.

Mr. Canavan

Will my right hon. Friend take a tougher line with such companies as BP and Shell by pointing out the unpatriotic nature of their resistance to entering into genuine participation agreements with the Government, especially in view of reports that they are shelling out literally millions of pounds to Italian political parties?

Mr. Lever

BP has agreed in principle to participation, and negotiations are proceeding, which, I have no doubt, will end satisfactorily. As regards any contribution to political parties, I take it that my hon. Friend is referring to newspaper reports and that he would wish to join with me in the conventional presumption of innocence until the contrary is proved.

Mr. Rost

How can the right hon. Gentleman continue to pretend that participation is being negotiated without arm-twisting when it is becoming evident that BNOC's junior partners will be offered the juiciest first bite at the next round of licensing?

Mr. Lever

That supplementary question is suggestive more of the carrot titan of the stick.

Mr. Skinner

In view of what my right hon. Friend has just said about the business of BP and Shell in relation to the Italian political scene, can he give a categorical assurance that all the oil companies with which his Department is dealing have at no time in the recent negotiations given any back-handers of any description to either politicians or civil servants? Further, does he not agree that, whatever the purport of recent allegations may be, it is only too clear that the best thing to do in the business in which he is currently involved is to insist that Britain controls all her own oil and the operation of it?

Mr. Lever

My hon. Friend can rest assured that to the best of our knowledge there has been no suggestion whatever of corruption here in Britain in relation to the oil companies' activities. Nor, for that matter, has there been any occasion which would have justified such corruption.

Mr. Henderson

Is it not possible that these two companies are dragging their feet because they wish to conclude negotiations with an independent Scottish Government after the next election?

Mr. Lever

I am not sure that that is the motivation of all the companies which have so far held back a little cautiously on this issue.

Mr. English

Has my right hon. Friend read the documented allegations in the Press that political contributions by two of the companies with which he is negotiating were given in return for specific financial "quids" pro quo in Italy, and has he read the oil company executive's statement that they were no different from political contributions to British political parties? Will my right hon. Friend therefore refute, if he can—or invite the Opposition to refute—the grave allegation which the oil companies have made against members of Opposition parties?

Mr. Lever

I am not the custodian of the Opposition's conduct or activities. I can only say that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was strictly correct in protocol in directing his question on this issue to the matter which is relevant, namely, whether the negotiators had received any such encouragement as is alleged to have been given to people in Italy. I can only assure my hon. Friends that there is not the smallest ground for believing that there has been any corruption of any kind whatever in this country.

Mr. Tim Renton

Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster clarify his reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner)? He used words to the effect that he was not aware of any circumstances that would justify corruption. Will he assure the House that he at all times assumes that no circumstances justify corruption?