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Shale Gas

Volume 590: debated on Wednesday 14 January 2015

1. If he will make it his policy that responsibility for licensing shale gas extraction should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. (906918)

That is already Government policy. As the hon. Lady will be aware, the Smith commission heads of agreement stated that the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction should be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Government are committed to publishing draft clauses in that respect by 25 January.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to that part of the Smith agreement, to which my party is also committed, not least because it will put an end to the attempts by some people to suggest that without the devolution of licensing, the Scottish Government are powerless to stop fracking if they want to. They already have powers over planning and regulation, but I hope that this change will close that argument down, to everybody’s benefit.

The hon. Lady is right to say that the Scottish Government have planning and environmental regulation powers that would enable them to block any fracking project they wanted to block. It is sensible, in the circumstances, that they should be given responsibility for the licensing of such activities as well. That will be done as part of the Smith process.

The Scottish Government and the Scottish National party have been pressing for the devolution of all powers over fracking for some time. Why have the UK Government ruled out devolving power over fracking licences until after the general election?

That is part of the timetable to which we are all committed. Until I heard the Deputy First Minister speak at the National museum, I had thought that the hon. Gentleman’s party was committed to it as well. We are proceeding with that speedy and tight process. I will publish the draft clauses before 25 August—sorry, I mean 25 January, which is, incidentally, before 25 August. With 25 January being a Sunday, we might even meet the deadline with a few days to spare.

Until now, the UK Government’s position has been to remove the right of Scottish householders to object to unconventional gas or oil drilling underneath their homes. What will the position be between now and the full devolution of powers over fracking? Will the Department of Energy and Climate Change give an undertaking that it will not issue any fresh licences?

The position will be as it is at the moment, which is that if there is any fracking project in Scotland, the hon. Gentleman’s colleagues in the Scottish Government will have the power, using planning or environmental regulations, to block it. They should not seek to push the blame on to anyone else.

11. I welcome what the Secretary of State has said. Recently, I wrote to the Minister for Business, Energy and Tourism in the Scottish Government to ask whether it was their policy to block such developments. He wrote back to say that he endorsed the principle of robust regulation, but gave no answer on what their policy was. Will the Secretary of State enlighten us as to whether he has heard anything from the Scottish Government on this matter? (906928)

No, I am afraid that I cannot assist the hon. Lady in that regard. All I can do is point to the fact that the Scottish Government seem to be desperate to speak about the powers that are held by others, rather than about the way in which they will exercise the powers that they already have. Her constituents and others will doubtless draw their own conclusions.

The Secretary of State will be aware that, following the amendments that I moved in the Committee stage of the Infrastructure Bill yesterday, there has been movement from the Government, which we should all welcome. Will he help the House by clarifying the fact that having a licence does not enable somebody to undertake any extraction or exploration activity? It has been suggested that it does, but that is absolutely not the case.

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his efforts on this matter and, in particular, for tabling his amendments. As was made clear to him yesterday in Committee, the Government will return to the matter on Report. We will table an amendment that we believe will achieve the same end, which is the carving out of Scotland from those provisions in the Infrastructure Bill. He is absolutely right that licensing is just one element—it provides no overall entitlement. For fracking to go ahead, the Scottish Government have to give consent on planning and environmental grounds.

Labour recently called for immediate devolution in this area, and we welcome the Government’s response, which as the Secretary of State has said is part of the ongoing commitment to the Smith agreement. Where appropriate, the Government should move immediately to devolve the powers agreed by the Smith commission.

Today, the leaders of Scotland’s three largest cities, home to a quarter of Scotland’s population, have joined us in calling for job-creating powers to be devolved too. Will the Secretary of State bring forward a section 106 order so that those powers can go to Scotland as soon as possible and we can start the work to reverse the failure of this Government’s Work programme?

The hon. Lady and I discussed a section 106 order when we met recently, but I have to tell her that the route that she has identified—a section 106 order followed by a section 63 order—is not, in our view, the appropriate one to honour the commitments in the Smith programme. That would devolve competence to the Government in Scotland, not the Parliament, which would need a section 30 order. I just do not see how we will achieve that end in the time available to us in this Parliament, but we are determined that where there is a need for joint working between the two Governments to achieve a better transfer of power, my right hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I will be engaged in that process.