HL Deb 19 February 1988 vol 493 cc856-7

11.13 a.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will refer all future acquisitions by major oil companies of independent British exploration companies to the Monopolies and Mergers Commission on the ground of national interest.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Lord Young of Graffham)

No, my Lords. Each acquisition will be considered on its own merits under the provisions of the Fair Trading Act.

Lord Williams of Elvel

My Lords, I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his response. Can he tell the House what the Government policy is towards the independent oil sector? Do the Government wish to preserve it or do they wish to see it go under and be taken over by multinationals?

Lord Young of Graham

My Lords, I am very glad to be able to confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, that this Government do not consider they have to have a policy for each and every narrow sector in both the industrial and the commercial worlds. What this Government do is to ensure that the climate for enterprise and commerical decision-making is right. That is why the nation is prospering.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, may I ask my noble friend a supplementary? First of all I should declare an interest as a director of a United Kingdom subsidiary of a multinational company which, having funded the North Sea pipeline, the Frigg line, has since reinvested £1,000 million in further development. May I ask the Minister whether he agrees that the Government have ample powers in the licensing system for defending the national interest?

Lord Young of Graffham

Yes, my Lords. I am very glad to assure my noble friend that the Government do have such powers. What the Government want to see is a profitable and economic North Sea oil sector, and we are engaged in so doing.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, in spite of the courtesy with which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, thanked the Minister for his reply, it will be considered in general extremely disappointing. May I ask the Minister what the purpose of the golden shares is if not to protect the national, and not simply the economic, interest? When considering the national interest, will the Minister particularly take into account the Scottish national interest? The takeover of Britoil means that the largest company now operating in Scotland is no longer a Scottish company. That may have serious effects on unemployment generally and it will certainly have very serious effects indeed on the top level of employment which is constantly skimmed off in Scotland. The effects will be not only an economic disaster, but also a social disaster.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, since the Act of Union we have taken the national interest to include that of Scotland, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, in the United Kingdom. I am not aware that any independent British exploration companies, to which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, referred, are in possession of a golden share.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, will my noble friend recognise when considering this issue that British international oil companies are some of the biggest international investors right across the world? If countries were to start pursuing narrow nationalist policies in this regard, we should be one of the biggest losers.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am very glad to say that I can agree completely with my noble friend.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the development of the North Sea has brought something like 100,000 jobs to Scotland? Of course many of the companies overseas are led by Scotsmen; they are our most priceless export.

Lord Young of Graffham

Yes, my Lords, it has brought many jobs to Scotland and we hope that those jobs will continue for many decades to come.