[Mr Gary Streeter in the Chair]
(Aberdeen North) (Lab): It is a pleasure to operate under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. We are here to discuss United Kingdom oil and gas, which is in severe difficulties, partly because of a substantial drop in the world oil price. In these debates, it is always important to get the facts right. One key thing about the industry is just how important a part it plays in the UK economy. According to Oil & Gas UK, the industry body, the industry supplies 73% of the UK’s primary energy: oil for transport and gas for heating. The UK balance of payments benefited from oil and gas to the tune of £30 billion last year. The oil and gas supply chain achieved sales of £20 billion outside the UK. The total expenditure in services and infrastructure investment from oil and gas companies in 2013 was £20 billion. Since 1970, the industry has invested £500 billion.
In recent years, the expenditure has been particularly high. In 2014, the industry invested around £14 billion of capital investment in UK oil infrastructure, following on from investment of £11.4 billion in 2012 and £13.5 billion in 2013. Across the industry there is a total committed expenditure—that is, projected future expenditure—on projects in production or under development totalling £44 billion. Figures like these have not been seen since the 1980s. They are massive figures: there is no question about that.
The industry claims to support 450,000 jobs in the UK. These break down as follows: 36,000 employed directly by offshore operators; 200,000 in the supply chain, providing goods and services to the industry; 112,000 jobs in services such as hospitality, taxis, and so on; and 100,000 jobs in the export of goods and services. It is difficult to visit any foreign oil base or complex without hearing a Scottish or English accent. We are operating throughout the world.
Many of these jobs are now under threat because of the collapse of the oil price. Major companies—Shell, Chevron and, last week, BP—have announced redundancies. Some of these have been expected for some time and were part of company restructuring as well as the downturn in the oil price. More announcements are inevitable.
I can find no reliable figures showing the numbers so far made unemployed, but I know from union sources, for example, that roughly 600 people have been made redundant in companies where there are recognition agreements. However, most cuts are likely to be made to the self-employed, who comprise a large number of offshore and onshore employees; they are the easiest and cheapest to remove. At the moment it is estimated that there will be around 2,000 job losses in total. I think that is a fairly realistic projection.
How things will proceed from here on is difficult to judge at the moment. Many jobs lost so far have been lost onshore and it may take time before large numbers of offshore jobs are put at risk. Everyone will be mindful of the need to retain skills for when the upturn arrives, whenever that might be.
In the history of the North sea oil and gas industry there have been at least three serious downturns. The worst and most damaging was the downturn in the mid-1980s, when 20,000 jobs were lost in Scotland, most of them in Aberdeen and the north-east. Some 50,000 jobs were lost in the whole country. The fact that the job losses were higher in the rest of the UK than in Scotland reflects the fact that, although the industry is centred in Aberdeen, the supply chain and the work force is spread throughout the UK.
There is a risk that this year’s downturn could be as serious as the one in the 1980s, but I think it is possible to take steps to mitigate that. In the first place, the industry has changed substantially from the industry we had in the 1980s. For example, it is much more widely spread with fewer of the majors involved. I believe that with the right sort of focused support from Government and the industry, this very difficult time will not develop into the tragedy that we saw in the 1980s. Of course, there is very little we can do about the global price of oil, but we can look at the other issues that have faced the industry for some time now and consider how we can soften the blow and minimise damage.
Exploitable oil and gas are proving harder to find, and discoveries that are made are often in places that are difficult and expensive to exploit, particularly if there are issues around access to infrastructure. Some of these problems will be addressed when the recommendations of the Wood report are fully implemented, but that is likely to be some time away, although there are moves to accelerate the process.
Then there is the skills shortage. Until relatively recently, few companies offered apprenticeships in technical skills. In the 1970s and ‘80s, the industry attracted engineers, welders, boilermakers and others from the collapsing smokestack industries: mining and shipbuilding, and so on. That supply has been exhausted and the work force are ageing. Trainee and apprenticeship programmes have been introduced in recent years, but those take time to make an impact. In the meantime, labour costs have risen enormously and companies have poached skilled staff from each other, driving wages to high levels. With my trade union background, I am the last person to complain about that, but it has a serious impact on costs offshore.
Oil & Gas UK says that contracting prices have doubled since 2010. One executive from a major company told me recently that the cost of scaffolding alone—there are 6,500 workers working on scaffolding in the North sea—has tripled in the last two years. It is obvious that a slice of the money that previously would have been spent on research and development, exploration and appraisal, which are all things to take the industry forward into the future, has been diverted into meeting these wage costs.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this timely debate. He is making some important points. Does he agree that if we—the industry and the Government—get this right, and indeed make the industry more efficient, as and when the recovery happens we will be much more competitive than we have been? The point he is making is that we have been in danger of pricing ourselves out of the business.
That is the sole point that I planned to make in this speech. [Interruption.] No, the right hon. Gentleman is right to raise the issue. It is important that Government and industry work together to try to tackle the problems that we have all identified.
In addition to labour costs, there are real issues about the way in which equipment is purchased by companies operating in the North sea. In Norway, for example, there is standardisation of equipment. The state is a more engaged regulator and Statoil, the state-owned company, has by far the largest stake in the industry, with a share of around 60% of production. Its purchasing powers are enormous and most companies will buy the standardised equipment developed or ordered by Statoil at much cheaper prices than bespoke equipment. Our largest operator in the UK has only 10% of production. There is no company that can lead standardisation in the way that Statoil can in Norway, so everyone purchases to their own requirements.
One example I heard about recently was the purchase of light switches. That may be an odd place to start, but it is relevant. In Norway, the norm is standardised plain light switches. In the UK, company insignia or another unique requirement is demanded by many operators, usually at double or more of the cost. Scale that up through the requirements of offshore operators, from light switches to drilling rigs, and you have very expensive processes that I think are holding the industry back. Of course, this has an impact on Government, too. Every bespoke item has a higher cost than a standardised one, which reduces profits, which reduces taxes paid.
The sooner the Wood review recommendations are fully implemented, the better. I do not think that that will affect the price of light switches, but I hope it sends a clear message. I know that the industry is developing a strategy at the moment, but it will take time to put that in place. Cutting costs that are incurred at present is a must if any progress is to be made.
Probably the major issue for the industry is the tax system. Every Government since oil was first discovered in the North sea have treated the industry as a cash cow. Tax increases, occasionally unannounced, are the norm. The tax system is complex and expensive. The Government are anxious to protect their income from the industry, but that will become more and more difficult if current problems persist. Profits have to be made for taxes to be paid. I understand that in the last financial year the overall performance of the industry was negative—this year might be even worse.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing today’s debate, which is on an issue of deep concern to all of us from the north-east of Scotland, where so many jobs are dependent on the oil and gas sector. I want to add to his point about taxation. Does he agree that we need those tax changes now? I have no doubt that we will see more announcements of job losses in the coming weeks. We need changes to the fiscal regime now, not a couple of months down the line.
I think there is a case for what the hon. Lady says, but I disagree with her. We will have a Budget in two months’ time, and announcements will be made then. In the meantime, we know that the Treasury is working on the position. As she will see from the rest of my contribution, I am more concerned about how the tax cuts are made, rather than that tax cuts are made. I want focused and targeted tax cuts, not just a chop off the supplementary charge that was introduced in 2011.
It is important to look at the responses that should be made to the current situation. In the 1980s, there was virtually no Government response. There may have been one behind the scenes, but it was not visible to those of us who were involved at that time and were concerned about what was happening in the industry. We have the opportunity to mitigate substantially the impact of the collapse in the oil price. Members would expect me to say this, but I was pleased when Councillor Jenny Laing, the leader of Aberdeen city council, announced in December her plan to host a summit in Aberdeen to consider the challenges facing the industry. That summit will be held on 2 February. It is supported by Oil & Gas UK and will be attended by the UK and Scottish Governments, as well as by industry experts. That announcement caused the various other bodies with an interest to consider their reaction. Since then, Government Ministers and MPs have been queuing up to visit Aberdeen. My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran) has made her trip there. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was there last week. The issue is being taken much more seriously than it was in the 1980s.
To go back to the question from the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford), tax reliefs are back on the table. The Chancellor has made it clear that they are being considered, which suits the oil industry, because it has been asking for them. Since the collapse in the oil price, industry representatives and others have insisted that there needs to be a tax cut. Oil companies are still angry about the increase in the supplementary charge made in the 2011 Budget, and they would like to see it removed completely. The Chancellor has met them a small part of the way by introducing tax reliefs for brownfield sites and for high-temperature and high-pressure fields, and after his much hailed tax review last year the mouse of a 2% reduction in supplementary charge was announced.
Regardless of the 2011 increases, both field reliefs are important and have resulted in extra activity from the industry, even in these difficult times. The lesson from that is that it is in the interest of the industry and the taxpayer that any tax reliefs that are given should be focused and not random. There are many areas where more targeted and focused tax reliefs would create a win-win situation for all sides. For example, an investment allowance would encourage more activity and create more income and thus more tax revenues. Investment in research and development has slowed significantly in the industry, yet that is crucial in the search to find and produce oil and gas, whether by enhanced recovery techniques, better infrastructure to improve recovery or whatever other area that could improve the industry. The Government should also consider targeted reliefs to protect jobs and skills. Health and safety is a major issue for me. For many years, I have been heavily involved in that issue offshore. It must remain a priority. The Government should consider a specific targeted relief to support the continuing maintenance of infrastructure and the improvement of health and safety systems and equipment.
The consequences of the 1980s downturn were not only job losses. All projects that were in progress were stopped. The platforms that were producing oil and gas carried on producing, but many costs were cut to the bone. In particular, areas vital to safety, such as fire safety equipment, deluge systems and others, received little or no maintenance. The consequences of that approach were not immediately apparent, but on the night of 6 July 1988 they were there for the whole world to see. The Piper Alpha platform exploded with 167 deaths. It is still the most serious loss of life from any incident anywhere in the offshore oil and gas industry. If there is slippage in maintenance through the downturn, the dangers for offshore workers will increase significantly.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this important debate. On safety, is he as alarmed as I was to hear from a constituent who runs a business in my area and who came to my surgery on Friday—he offers safety courses to oil firms operating in the North sea—that he has seen a significant reduction in the number of people that firms are placing on those courses and on refresher courses for safety?
I think my hon. Friend is talking about the sort of work on offshore that I mentioned at the beginning of my speech. Those who are self-employed—probably with their own companies where they are often the sole employee—are the first to be removed. I am concerned to hear that people operating in safety are part of that process, and we should all be concerned by that.
For offshore oil workers, working on offshore platforms is dangerous, but the dangers do not stop on the platform. The only realistic form of transport offshore, because of the distances involved, the difficulty of access to platforms and the hostile weather conditions, is by helicopter. In the UK sector of the North sea, there have been 13 helicopter-related incidents, in which 118 people have died. The most recent one, just 17 months ago, saw four deaths. For most of the history of the North sea oil and gas industry, helicopter transport companies have been treated in exactly the same way as other contractors and subjected to often severe cuts in contract costs. That might suit the oil industry accountants, but it makes no sense to companies that have to keep helicopters flying safely. I hope that the oil industry is taking a much more cautious and sensible approach this time round, and that the Government and the regulators will strictly monitor how health and safety standards are maintained on both sides of the industry.
There are difficult times ahead, but they need not be as damaging as the downturn in the 1980s. The industry has allowed costs to spiral out of control and needs to address the problems it has created. Everyone—the industry and the UK and Scottish Governments—should be focused on maintaining employment, jobs and skills. The economic climate will change, and it is important that the oil and gas industry is capable of getting into gear as quickly and safely as possible when that happens. A key player will be the Chancellor, and I urge him to consider seriously further tax reliefs, which, in the interests of the taxpayer and the industry, should be focused on maintaining employment, training in skills, research and development and investment that will ensure the future success of the industry.
Colleagues, the winding-up speeches will begin at 3.40 pm. Six colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, and we have 50 minutes. By my calculations, about eight and a half minutes each should do the trick.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take part in this debate, Mr Streeter.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on bringing this timely and important debate to the House. He has set out how important the industry is to the north-east of Scotland and the whole of the UK. I declare an interest recorded in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests to do with the oil and gas industry—a shareholding in Shell—but I am participating in the debate because mine is one of those north-east constituencies and many of my constituents are affected by what is happening out in the North sea, and because of how important the industry is to the country.
It is not only the specialist jobs that are at risk; in fact, some of those jobs might well not be so much at risk in the long run, because of the skills shortage and the need for people globally to sustain oil and gas production. I worry about the cascade effect on jobs: as companies reduce their use of catering facilities, for example, those who work in catering will lose their jobs locally, and they will not be able to go to Angola or Azerbaijan to find other employment. I have written to the Department for Work and Pensions to find out what it is doing to gear up its facilities and resources to tackle that challenge in the local economy. Perhaps the Minister will chase up the Department for a reply.
The hon. Member for Aberdeen North mentioned 1986, and some people have said, “We’ve been through this before. We’ve had downturns. We had one in 1986 and we bounced back.” He was right to say that there was a difference going into this downturn, but even without the cut in oil price, a restructuring was needed in the industry and there were concerns about the cost base and the profitability of the North sea, as it was becoming more challenging. In 1986 the platforms were younger; the neglect of maintenance showed through only later on in their life. Also, in 1986 the finds and the reserves were bigger, so the temptation was to hang on, see through the trough and still be there when the upturn came.
Now we have much smaller finds, but we still need the larger hubs to be sustained and maintained throughout the downturn. It is not only a matter of price; there is still a future. BP is coming forward with investments that will last for 40 years, and that is before they get an extension of life—almost every field seems to last longer than originally planned. It is the scale of the future that we need to be worried about, as well as the size of the tail and how it is to be sustained.
As the hon. Gentleman said, it is very important to deal with tax incentives and the implementation of the Wood review. That review should result in swifter and more independent regulation, and bring the industry together to co-operate in maximising production from the North sea. The crucial message to the Treasury is that it does not have the skills to produce oil and gas from the North sea; with the Treasury acting alone, there would be no oil and gas production. It needs to incentivise skills so that tax can be taken off the profits that come out of the North sea, and we need a cross-party consensus.
The hon. Gentleman highlighted some of investment incentives needed. We need to build on the work that the Treasury has already done. The 2% cut was small, but it was symbolic of the fact that the Treasury is beginning to understand how important the long-term signals are to the industry. The wider investment allowance will be helpful and investment in more seismic will encourage greater exploration, but the current negotiations to see what else can be done to encourage exploration are extremely important. We still need to look at the message that a cut across the board in the supplemental tax would send to investors. If they can see that more of the profit will be retained by them after an investment, they will see that this country wants to see us through this trough and come out the other side.
An important message to the Treasury is that a smaller percentage of a real cake is better than a bigger percentage of no cake. It is crucial to optimise those signals to the industry, not just for the benefit of getting more of our energy out of the ground rather than importing it, or for the jobs in the north-east of Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom, but to sustain that jewel in the crown of the industry: the export potential of the skills that we have developed in the North sea, particularly in subsea engineering, where we are world leaders. By keeping the North sea as vibrant and as active as possible, we maintain the anchor that keeps those industries here in the United Kingdom, exporting and earning us considerable amounts of revenue and keeping many people in employment.
We have a Budget coming up that can be used, following the negotiations, to produce the best signal and incentive to see us through this trough and through to a brighter future, when we can maximise the jobs, the energy production and the tax take for future generations.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith). I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this debate. It is perhaps a sign of the times that we have decent turnouts in debates only when a disaster or something bad has happened. I congratulate my hon. Friend on the work he is doing in his constituency, along with his fellow Members of Parliament in the area, and I thank the shadow Chancellor, who, along with the new leader of the Scottish Labour party, is in Aberdeen today to help to fight for jobs. I do not want to make a political point about it, but it would be a lot better if the Secretary of State for Scotland and the First Minister and various others were with them, putting up a political united front to help the industry and jobs.
According to Oil & Gas UK, about 450,000 jobs are associated with the oil and gas industry. The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Dr Whiteford) asked about jobs and the number of people who have been hit in the north-east, but only 202,000 of the jobs are actually in Scotland; the rest are outside Scotland. With 130,000 jobs in the Aberdeen area and all these other jobs, the whole country is suffering. It is not just one small area.
I fully accept that many jobs throughout the UK depend on the oil and gas sector. The difference in the north-east of Scotland is the concentration of jobs. It is not just the direct oil jobs that depend on the oil and gas sector; it is not even just the jobs in the wider supply chain. It is the small shops, our retailers, our service providers, our construction companies—our whole economy is heavily dependent on oil and gas, so the ramifications of this go far further than simply just jobs in the oil and gas sector.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right, but a small company in my constituency that makes goods that are used up in Aberdeen also uses local shops and local people. If the jobs of 450,000 people in the United Kingdom are in danger, we can multiply that by goodness knows how many, but it would probably be millions of people who could be affected.
We know from previous times in the North sea that there will be losses. It has happened before and, sad to say, it will probably happen again, but the fact of the matter is that the North sea is in a particularly unusual position now. It is not what it was back in the ’80s, when we were getting oil and gas into the country. We are still getting oil and gas, but we are getting it from other places. We are not self-sufficient any more in these commodities; we now rely on other areas, so we have to fight to keep these jobs.
At a time when America has been diversifying into shale and is now the biggest seller of oil in the world, rather than the middle east, we have to look at where we are going in the future, but as the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan and my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North said, we also have to look at skill shortages and how to increase our knowledge of how to work in these areas. Some of the experts I have talked to tell me that this depression in oil and gas will go on for at least two years. If it lasts that long, that might be fair enough and we could recover, but I have a horrible feeling it may last a lot longer than that. The price of oil is now down to less than $50 a barrel and the middle east countries are talking about continuing to supply oil and gas at the same rate, to ensure that the price remains low. That will have a knock-on effect for the North sea.
As my hon. Friend—we are on the same Select Committee—the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine said, oil and gas jobs have a knock-on effect for everyone. The rigs and everything else out in the North sea grow old and rust; they have to be maintained, but there will be no point in maintaining them if they do not get used. We have to find something like £40 billion over the next 30 or 40 years to clean up the North sea. That is not so bad if it is still in operation, but if the North sea is not in operation, we have to find that money from somewhere else.
My point is that we are talking about only the North sea at the moment. Some jobs in various companies have been lost already, but if we, the politicians of this nation, do not get our act together and do not work together to preserve jobs, not only will Aberdeen and the areas where the other 200,000-odd people are working suffer, but the whole nation will suffer. All the parties should get together and we should all fight for those jobs.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) for securing the debate. As has already been remarked, his timing is appropriate. Although the fall in crude oil prices is good for the UK generally, it has serious implications for this important industry, which provides highly skilled jobs and forms an important part of the UK economy. Much of the sector is concentrated in Scotland around Aberdeen, but the industry is important in East Anglia as well, employing approximately 105,000 people directly and in the wider supply chain.
The immediate problem was caused by the dramatic slump in the price of crude oil, but that served to highlight the challenges facing the North sea oil and gas sector, which Sir Ian Wood considered in his excellent report. They include the growing difficulty and escalating associated costs of finding and extracting oil and gas from what is now a mature basin. In a sector that is globally footloose, most investors have no particular allegiance to the UK—they will do business wherever in the world conditions are most favourable. Our fiscal and regulatory framework is now not fit for purpose and does not encourage them to come here. It is in need of a major overhaul.
We have a regulatory regime that Sir Ian Wood noted was appropriate for the industry in the early days, but it is no longer suitable for a basin that now has more than 300 fields, much smaller new discoveries, many marginal fields and much greater interdependence in exploration, development and production. That model needs to be updated for the 21st century. In addition, a complex, unfriendly and outdated tax structure makes today’s smaller fields a riskier bet.
From my perspective, I am interested in the specific problems of the southern North sea. A significant number of potentially attractive gas prospects could generate much economic activity, create jobs and improve the country’s energy security, but their exploration is not viable, due not only to rising costs and the falling wholesale price of oil but to the relatively low price of gas in relation to oil. That is having a negative knock-on effect on East Anglian businesses, resulting in investment in new facilities and assets being deferred or postponed; a reduction in business investment in advance of the anticipated growth in the offshore wind sector; and a reduction in the ability to attract investment into an area in which many of the larger businesses are owned by overseas companies.
It is necessary to reflect for a moment on the vital importance of the industry to the UK economy. Sir Ian Wood himself drew attention to the industry’s substantial contribution to energy security, the economy and employment. In 2012, production on the UK continental shelf met 67% of the UK’s demand and 53% of the gas demand, and the sector directly supported the employment of 450,000 people throughout the UK. Moreover, in 2012-13, the industry paid £6.5 billion in corporate taxes on production. Despite the challenges and the downturn in production in recent years, Sir Ian points to significant momentum from current production and major investments in capital expenditure over the past two or three years enabling the industry to continue to play the key role that it has been playing over the past 50 years. In that time, many skills and considerable expertise have been developed in the industry and its supply chain, resulting in thousands of well paid jobs and the generation of significant export earnings.
Another advantage is that those skills are largely complementary to the ones needed in the emerging offshore renewables sector. If the potential jobs in that industry, whether in the construction of wind turbines or their subsequent operation and maintenance, are to be fully realised for the benefit of the UK and not exported to foreign yards and ports, it is vital that we retain the skills and develop them further. As a country, we have built up considerable expertise and experience that we must now build upon and not lose or squander.
The Government’s announcements in the autumn statement show that they recognise the importance of the industry and its challenges. The industry must reduce costs and improve efficiency so as to ensure its long-term sustainability, but the further reductions in crude oil prices since the autumn statement in early December mean that more action by Government is now required. There is a pressing need to change the tax regime and to address the industry’s regulatory shortcomings, and the recommendations of the Wood review must be implemented as quickly as possible.
Looking at the industry in East Anglia, an early priority action for the new regulator should be the development of a regional plan for the southern North sea. As Sir Ian Wood himself pointed out, the southern North sea is the most mature region on the UKCS, with first production from the West Sole field in 1967. It is a gas-producing region, now vulnerable to rapid decline, but still with great potential, which has been illustrated by the recent Cygnus development and the Tolmount discovery. Wood commented that the southern North sea is especially vulnerable to premature contraction and decommissioning. He emphasises the pressing need to prepare a regional plan to address all the challenges that the area faces.
In conclusion, the North sea has produced significant benefits for the UK economy over the past 50 years—we must all wonder where on earth we would be without it. With the right stewardship, it can continue to play a similar role for the next two decades and, in doing so, increase GDP, sustain jobs and facilitate the transition to a low-carbon economy. Time is very much of the essence. There is now a need for immediate action.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) on securing this timely debate.
Despite current difficulties, the North sea oil and gas industry remains vital for Scotland—north-east Scotland, in particular. The industry makes a huge contribution not only to the Scottish economy, but to the economy of the whole UK: since its inception, it has contributed more than £300 billion in taxation to the Treasury. We have built a world-class industrial cluster in the North sea, and we now export the skills and services required to support it around the world.
In my constituency, for example, many people work in the oil and gas industry, increasingly not only in the North sea, but in various parts of central Asia, Africa and the far east. Many companies in Angus are also part of the supply chain for the North sea industry. The low level of oil and gas prices and the difficulties that that is causing are obviously of great concern. Clearly, we have experienced such falls in prices before; the previous time it happened was as recently as 2009, when the price plunged from $144 to $40 a barrel. Nevertheless, the current low price is of concern, and action must be taken to ensure that the industry is assisted through such a turbulent period.
Despite the rather dramatic headlines in some newspapers and other media reports, the North sea oil and gas sector continues to have a bright future. Indeed, when I spoke to BP about the job losses that it announced last week, it emphasised that it remained committed to the North sea, with the Kinnoull field coming on stream and the Clair field due to continue operations well into the 2050s. We should not, therefore, get too downhearted about what is going on. Immediate action is needed, however, to ensure that employment and exploration continue.
We need to realise that we face quite a large challenge. There is an undercurrent of jobs going, and that is not necessarily being reported. Contracts are being lost, especially by subcontractors, but that does not necessarily show up straight away in unemployment figures.
I accept that. This is going on throughout the industry—in direct employment and among subcontractors.
Within their limited powers in this area, the Scottish Government have taken action. The First Minister has announced a new taskforce to focus on supporting jobs across the energy sector, with an initial emphasis on the oil and gas sector, and to secure an employer apprentice guarantee, under which firms would commit to taking on apprentices facing redundancy to ensure that they completed their training. That commitment would be supported by the Adopt an Apprentice recruitment incentive—currently, there is a one-off grant of £2,000, which is to be increased to £5,000—and by Skills Development Scotland staff.
If we are to protect Scotland’s vital oil and gas sector, however, the UK Government, specifically the Treasury, need to step up to the plate and to make immediate tax changes. We have already called on them to take urgent action to support investment and exploration. The Scottish Government have consistently called for measures to be implemented without delay, including an investment allowance to provide support for the development of fields that incur higher costs. That would support technically challenging, high-cost fields and sustain future investment. Professor Alex Kemp, a respected oil economist at Aberdeen university, estimates that an investment allowance could increase investment by £20 billion to £36 billion to 2050 and boost production by 1.2 billion to 2.2 billion barrels. Scottish Government estimates suggest that it could support between 14,000 and 26,000 jobs per year across the UK.
The Scottish Government have also called for a reversal of the increase in the supplementary charge implemented by the UK Government in 2011. The high overall tax burden faced by the sector is damaging its international competitiveness. The supplementary charge was increased by 12% in 2011, and the 2% cut announced so far does not go far enough in the current context of falling prices. Professor Kemp estimates that a reversal would increase production to 2050 by 500 million barrels and boost investment by £7 billion. Scottish Government analysis suggests that such a move could support up to 5,600 jobs per year across the UK.
In addition, the Scottish Government have called for the introduction of an exploration tax credit to help increase levels of exploration and sustain future production. As most of us are aware, levels of exploration in the North sea are low, which will inevitably reduce future discoveries. An exploration tax credit would help to increase exploration and, in turn, sustain future production. A similar approach was adopted in Norway in 2005. In the three years following its introduction, the number of exploration and appraisal wells drilled in the Norwegian North sea increased fourfold.
We have previously highlighted and backed industry concerns about the speed with which the new Oil and Gas Authority is being established, and we have called for appropriate resourcing of the new OGA to be put in place swiftly. The industry is concerned that the investment allowance the Chancellor is expected to announce in the March Budget will not be nearly enough at current oil prices, and we share that concern.
It has also become evident that an early commitment to reduce the supplementary charge rate would have the benefit of instilling confidence in operators and the sector, while discouraging premature decommissioning, which is obviously important for future work in the North sea. To significantly enhance the industry’s long-term competitiveness, we have recommended that, at the very least, the industry requires a reversal of the supplementary charge increase implemented by the Government in 2011.
That substantial package of measures should be announced without delay to safeguard investment, jobs and the long-term sustainability of the North sea. If it is not forthcoming, UK Government policy on the industry will be found seriously wanting once again. Despite what other Members say, reform of the fiscal regime must not wait until the Budget, but must be implemented now, and that should include a commitment from the UK Government to a substantial reduction in the supplementary charge rate.
I have a genuine question on a point of interest. Is Scottish Enterprise putting together a taskforce at this time? I understand what the hon. Gentleman says about the fiscal measures that may be needed, but what is Scottish Enterprise doing right now in terms of practical help on the ground?
I have already referred to that; the hon. Gentleman should listen a bit more carefully. I did mention the First Minister’s announcement about what the Scottish Government were doing.
The Scottish Government have endorsed the findings of Sir Ian Wood’s review on maximising recovery on the UK continental shelf and particularly his recommendation of a stronger, more effective regulatory body, and so, too, did the UK Government. We welcomed the long-awaited announcement of the appointment of the OGA’s chief executive. However, it is imperative that progress is much quicker so that we can start to reap the benefits that an effective, well resourced authority has the potential to bring the industry and the nation.
Has the hon. Gentleman taken into consideration the fact that the Saudi Arabians and the Russians have enormous resources in this field, which we are trying to maintain? If they wish to keep undercutting us, the policy he outlines will become useless.
In a way, I am surprised by that comment from the hon. Gentleman, because it seems to be a counsel of despair. We must do what we can to keep our industry going. Unfortunately, we cannot influence what the Saudis or anybody else do with their oil prices. As far as we can, however, we must take the action necessary in the UK to make sure that the North sea industry, and particularly the employment that it provides, survives.
Even if the Saudis do try to do what the hon. Gentleman says, they cannot do it for ever. At some point, oil prices will start to come up again; indeed, the International Energy Agency has predicted—obviously, this is only a prediction—that the price will probably return to about $80 a barrel in the current year. We will have to wait and see whether that happens and, if so, how fast.
The OGA is particularly important, given the pressures being felt by the industry. The Scottish Government were pleased to see Aberdeen confirmed as the location for the OGA’s headquarters in June, and the suggestion that there will be an increase from 59 to 145 full-time equivalent staff by 2019 is welcome, because it might help to address the serious understaffing identified in Sir Ian Wood’s review.
The challenge is to ensure that the appropriate level of expertise and knowledge is secured, but it is critical, given present circumstances, that appropriate resourcing is put in place swiftly at the new OGA, with the correct level of industry experience and expertise. Industry is clearly concerned about delays in the process. As Malcolm Webb, the head of Oil & Gas UK, has pointed out, it looks as if it will take until summer 2016 before all the processes involved in setting up the OGA are completed. I agree that that is far too long, and I would appreciate an explanation from the Minister of why the process is taking so long and what action will be taken to speed it up.
The Wood review must be implemented effectively and with increased speed and resources, in the light of the growing challenges facing the industry. On the website Energy Voice, on 6 January, Malcolm Webb said:
“Years of confused and confusing energy policy, not helped by a revolving door approach to the appointment of ministers (we’ve seen a total of 35 different Energy and Treasury Ministers given responsibility for our industry in the last 14 years), have raised serious questions about our politicians’ awareness and understanding of this industry and its vital importance to the UK economy.”
I agree, and the UK Government need to take urgent action to assist the industry at this difficult time.
I congratulate my neighbour, the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), on securing this debate at a critical time.
I have been connected with the industry since I first arrived at the North-East Scotland Development Agency in 1971—two months before BP announced the discovery of the Forties field. We have certainly had ups and downs before, but my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) was right to point out that we are much more vulnerable in a mature province than we were in the early stages. That is why it is much more important that we take appropriate and considered action—not panicky action—to get ourselves to a place where the industry has a secure future. One thing that we all have to accept is that the UK has no control over the world oil price. We must deal with it although it is, as all commodity prices are, erratic and unpredictable. It is certainly not a good basis for planning economic policy.
The other thing that we should recognise is that the good thing about our mature province, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen North pointed out, is that we have created a centre of excellence and a critical mass that are incredibly valuable to the UK domestic economy, and which sustain a £10 billion export industry; that industry, however, depends on an active domestic market and levels of activity, which we must secure. It is interesting that Sir Ian Wood, who inevitably has been quoted several times, is taking a characteristically calm and considered view of the situation. He has explicitly said that the Budget is the entirely appropriate place in which to determine the tax cuts and the timing, and he recognises that they need to be balanced and considered.
Having mentioned Sir Ian and the Wood review, I want to commend my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, whose initiative it was to invite Sir Ian to conduct his review, on the basis of discussions with the industry and in the wake of its reaction to adverse tax changes in 2011. My right hon. Friend wanted to see how we could better co-ordinate the infrastructure and future development of resources, which the industry admitted were being undermined by its commercial rivalries; unusually, an invitation was issued to partnership with Government, to try to create a framework to secure and unlock a lot more resources than would be done if the industry was just competing within itself. That was a powerful initiative, and although I agree about the importance of establishing the new authority as quickly as possible, we should recognise that it would not exist at all without the initiative of the Secretary of State. I think we all agree that the sooner it can be set up with the right mix of people—who might just be available now—the better it will be able to get on with its important work.
Oil & Gas UK made the point that, with $50 oil, 20% of North sea activity is uneconomic. There are perhaps too many projects in the North sea that have become conditioned to looking at $70 to $90 oil as the essential basis. Frankly, from every discussion that I have had with an oil and gas economist, that is not a wise basis for planning. It has partly been necessitated by the escalating costs that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North addressed. We have a unique opportunity to tackle several problems at once.
Like the right hon. Gentleman and, I think, everyone else present for the debate, I received an Oil & Gas UK briefing. It deals with the immediate problem in the sector, but there is no mention of how it arose, with the downturn in China and India, and oil and gas fracking in the United States. That is a longer-term issue. Something of a quick fix may be required, but in the longer term we must take cognisance of what is happening globally.
That is a fair point; I would say only that I have never yet met an oil economist who was any good at anything other than explaining why prices did what they did, rather than what they would do next. Yes, the hon. Gentleman may be right, but people have told me many times that the oil price would stay low, and then it has gone up. When they have told me it would stay high, it has gone down. We have to live with that.
Those of us close to the industry, and the taskforce, of which many of us are members, are aware that in recent years prices have escalated unrealistically and unreasonably on the back of the high oil price. I want to make it clear to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North that that is no excuse for a slash and burn response on employment; it is, however, a recognition that a lot of fat has built up in some of the contractual arrangements.
With the right approach, it would be possible to slim down and maintain skills and capacity for the future. The wrong approach means, of course, making people redundant and losing their skills, so that if and when there is an upturn we will have lost capacity as well. I argue that we need to manage things proportionately. The industry has been rather late in tackling that problem. Quite a few of the redundancies that have been announced since the oil price fell were part of reviews that took place because of the escalating costs before we knew that the price was going to fall.
One of the lessons of history is that if downsizing in the current crisis is inevitable, the way it is handled and the way people are treated, so that they are still interested and willing to come back in the good times, are important. There is a lesson for the industry about the way it behaved in the past.
I completely agree.
Finally, I want to set out what things the Government must consider—for which the Budget seems to be the appropriate place. First, the investment allowance that has been announced needs to be confirmed in the Budget. Secondly, there must be a review of the supplementary charge. In my view the Government will get none of it anyway in the present climate, so getting rid of it would not cost much.
There should also be a review of the petroleum revenue tax for the future. The industry has traditionally been taxed at about double the rate of any other sector. Perhaps that was all right in the good times, but in a mature province, in the present situation, asking for a review is not asking for subsidy; it is asking for a realistic tax regime that can secure an industry that has made a massive contribution to the balance of payments and contributed 25% of our fixed industrial investment every year for the past 40-plus years, and which has a great future if we manage it now. If we do not get it right, there is an existential threat to the industry—certainly to an industry on the scale that we have looked for. We do not need to score points off each other. We need to work together and come up with a systematic package of measures that will restore confidence.
I accept that one thing that has damaged the industry is constant change. It now needs a clear, simple, strategic regime that says that the UK wants its investment and will provide a climate in which, provided it can make itself competitive, the Government will work with it to enable it to secure jobs, exports and investment for the future. If we can do that, whenever the oil price turns up, the industry will be much stronger than it would have been if the crisis had never happened.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship once more, Mr Streeter. I draw Members’ attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests, as I believe in clarity. I received some hospitality from ExxonMobil last year.
I have a strong constituency interest, because not only is FMC Technologies a major employer in my constituency, but in the neighbouring seat, represented so ably by my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown), is Mossmorran. I want primarily to talk briefly about them. However, I want to pick up on the point ably made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway (Mr Brown): Members may be interested in the fact that today the executive director of the International Energy Agency, Maria van der Hoeven, has been quoted as saying that there can be no expectation of a quick fix on oil prices—that the situation we face is a long-term one. Therefore, my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) is right to draw the conclusion that we need to move away from Governments blaming each other and work together to achieve a sustainable future for the industry, across the United Kingdom and more specifically for interests in the North sea.
I have mentioned two companies working in West Fife and the points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) are right: there is, rightly, a great deal of focus on the north-east of Scotland, but we should not forget that across Scotland and the United Kingdom the North sea industries are significant employers. To take FMC Technologies as an example, it employs 1,000 people across Scotland, a couple of hundred of whom are based at two sites in Dunfermline in my constituency. It has going on for 250,000 square feet of fabrication plant and engineering facilities in Dunfermline and it supplies the North sea market, among many others. It is located in West Fife because of the ready access it provides through the port facilities at Forth Ports and elsewhere, so the company can send around the world.
The company is fortunate in that it has a diverse market share and operates right around the world, so the North sea is not its critical life-support system, but without doubt it will be facing challenging times in the coming weeks, and I will seek to provide whatever assistance I can. However, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West was absolutely right to remember the knock-on effect that such industries can have in the communities where they are based.
Specifically on that point, which has been made by others, that is also the case for places such as Tyneside and the north-east of England, where there are fabrication companies such as OGN. It is currently providing 2,000 jobs, but they will dry up next year. There is bound to be a massive knock-on effect across the whole of Britain. Our region has the highest unemployment rate and cannot afford to lose more jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight the diversification of interests in this important sector across the United Kingdom. These are highly skilled engineering jobs, which are highly regarded and greatly sought after. She is also right that such jobs are particularly sought after in areas of relatively high unemployment. I used to work in the nuclear industry, and I was based in what was then part of the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway and is now in the Minister’s constituency. Unlike in the south-west of England, where the engineering and scientific industries were in competition with other companies, there was almost a monopoly on the work force in places such as Dumfries and Galloway. To an extent it is the same in the north-east of England and the north-east of Scotland, where there is not the same diversification in jobs. It is important that the two Governments recognise their responsibility to work together.
I was in Belfast yesterday, right beside where Harland and Wolff used to be. There are some oil rigs sitting there that are now being fitted out because the contracts are signed, but what will happen to the companies that have invested in that kind of industry if we do not start getting work back in the North sea?
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend. That is why I was genuinely asking the hon. Member for Angus (Mr Weir) what practical steps Scottish Enterprise will be taking. Many of us have had a slightly cynical or bitter experience of Scottish Enterprise as being great at putting out the initial press release, but when it comes to taking tangible, practical measures to help communities—I do not need to tell my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and Galloway or the Minister this—it comes into such situations with great promises but 10 years later everyone is scratching their heads and looking for the diversification it is supposed to have delivered.
I am conscious of the time and the important contributions that will be made by the two Front Benchers. On the other issue I mentioned, Mosmorran plant, which sits just over the border with the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year. Natural gas is brought ashore at St Fergus, primarily from the Brent field and from the Goldeneye field in the North sea, and is brought down from there in a pipeline that is about 140 miles long—my calculation might be slightly off—to Mossmorran, where it is split. The ethane goes across from the Shell plant to the ExxonMobil part of the plant, where it is heated to 800° so that it can be cracked, to use the scientific term, and turned into ethylene. Of course, ethylene is a daily part of our lives, as it used in a huge variety of products—perhaps even in the cups we are using today.
That work sustains jobs for more than 200 people, many of whom are my constituents. They will be looking to see that when we talk about long-term sustainability for the oil and gas industry we make sure that those crucial scientific jobs, which are also highly sought after, often by graduates—in both Parliaments we talk so much about encouraging those sorts of jobs—are protected. We need to see genuine substantive steps to do that for the sake of our constituents and their families. I hope that the two Governments will set point scoring aside and get on with standing up for all of our communities, whether they be in Aberdeen, Glasgow, my own area of Fife or across the border.
Mr Streeter, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairpersonship—I do not know whether I am permitted to use that word, or whether that is a precedent, but I have done it now, so so be it. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran), whose contribution demonstrated his depth of knowledge of the industry and his enduring commitment to it and the people who work in it, which is greatly respected in this House and throughout the country.
The entire debate has demonstrated the magnitude of recent events and the sweeping impact of such a significant decline in oil prices. As we speak, oil is currently trading at below $50 a barrel. In July 2008, the price stood at $145 a barrel, and as is well known in Scotland the White Paper that was used by the Scottish National party during the recent referendum was based on financial planning with an oil price of $110 a barrel. This debate is therefore a significant one.
It may not have been said today but it will certainly be said in other forums that although the price might offer some relief to Scotland’s motorists it has significant impacts on the oil and gas industry. Many Members have referred to the key facts and figures, which I will emphasise once more. The production of oil and gas contributed £30 billion to the UK balance of payments; the supply chain, which has been a focus of the debate and is of great importance throughout the country, generated over £20 billion in the past year and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) said, the industry supports 450,000 jobs across the United Kingdom.
It is an industry of international importance that is vital to the UK and iconic for Scotland, and has particular significance for Aberdeen and the north-east of Scotland—the effects of the fall in oil price will be felt throughout the country, but most deeply there. We heard about the loss of 300 jobs announced by BP but know that there are more to come.
In the past half an hour or so, while we have been having this debate, a further 300 job losses have been announced by Talisman. I have stressed the importance of urgency and am worried that there will be further similar announcements between now and March. The Government need to give confidence to the industry that they will cut taxes. Does the hon. Lady share that view and will she urge the Government to act with more haste rather than waiting for announcements of yet more job losses in the North sea industry?
I will indeed emphasise that very point when I come to it later. I will begin by addressing the hon. Lady’s primary point about job losses. We are deeply concerned about them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North made clear, operators and trade unions are warning about job losses and their impact. Of the 30,000 jobs directly linked to the industry, 23,400 are in Aberdeen itself. One can only imagine the conversations taking place not only in companies but around kitchen tables in Aberdeen and the north-east. Jake Molloy of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers drew parallels with 1986, when the fall in oil prices led to long-term job losses and a very significant impact on the industry. We certainly do not want that to happen again, and need to take action. Sir Ian Wood, who has featured in many contributions this afternoon, indicated that there could be between 30,000 and 40,000 job losses. It would not be surprising if that were the long-term impact.
The Scottish Parliament information service said that 15,750 jobs could be lost in Scotland as a result of what is happening. The core question we must ask ourselves is, can we be assured that the Government and the Scottish Government get the magnitude of what is happening and what needs to be done? The trade unions have said that it would be the largest loss of jobs since the Ravenscraig steel works closed its doors 23 years ago in Scotland—23 years later, we still remember the impact of Ravenscraig. Let us take action now to ensure that does not happen again. The message of this debate must be that we have to work together on a cross-party basis to properly challenge the Government when they are not doing enough. The oil and gas industry is a strategic industry of critical importance, and it needs a long-term, predictable context in which to operate.
I congratulate, as one Member did, Jenny Laing, the leader of Aberdeen city council, who took immediate action, called for an oil summit and managed to get all the key players together. That was the right thing to do, and I expect that it will be successful, but the UK and Scottish Governments must take decisive action.
The UK Government’s 2011 tax reforms created difficulties and undermined confidence—I hope the Minister will acknowledge that. In the autumn statement, the Chancellor indicated the difficulties that it caused, and he hinted that there must be a new strategy for oil and gas. I concur with the hon. Members who said that we need action now. I hope the Minister will indicate that the Government will take action and respond to the industry’s call for support.
I ask the Minister to use his good offices to put pressure on the Scottish Government to publish the oil and gas bulletin as soon as possible. Scottish National party Members have said that they are looking for a range of actions, but we are asking the Scottish Government to provide the evidence on which they based their recommendations. They previously published a number of oil and gas bulletins and figures showing the impact that the industry will have on their revenues. I hope they will publish another one as soon as possible so our approach can be evidence-led, and so we know the basis on which we can take action.
My right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) called for a resilience fund to help strategic industries and to enable us to address local needs, including issues affecting local companies, local industries and the devastating impact the downturn will have on local communities. He has also talked about reducing business rates to help people through the downturn. As my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North said, my right hon. Friend is in Aberdeen this afternoon with my right hon. Friend the Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls). They are calling for profound, strategic action to address these issues. We need a road map—a strategic plan—for the industry that is not about short-term changes but comes to terms with the profound shifts that we are seeing. It must create certainty so the industry can be sure about the tax rates over a Parliament and firms can invest in the long term. It must be about sustainability, and it must put oil revenues in a UK public finances framework so we can protect ourselves against oil price volatility. It must not create high levels of risk that could jeopardise Scotland and our public finances.
We must ensure transparency. We must not make short-term, ill-thought-out tax changes, but consult with the industry to ensure a transparent regime. We must have the flexibly to meet immediate challenges. As many hon. Members have said, we must implement the Wood review. Will the Minister tell us when the new Oil and Gas Authority will be established? That demand is coming straightforwardly from the industry.
This has been a very good debate, and we have covered a lot of ground. Hon. Members have demonstrated a great depth of knowledge about the industry’s demands. We need to tell people—not only those in the north-east, but those in Scotland and elsewhere in the United Kingdom—that we understand the scale of the job losses that may be imminent, and that we can take action to address that. We must let them understand that, as we gather here together, we will challenge the Government, who must stand up and do more. That is what the industry is asking the UK and the Scottish Governments. We are prepared to work together to support our iconic oil and gas industry, of which we are so proud in Scotland, through this challenge to prevent job losses and to ensure that it has a healthy, sustainable future. We do that best when we recognise the true depth of what is happening and do not try to duck it. Government action can have results, but we need to see it now.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Streeter. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Aberdeen North (Mr Doran) not only for securing the debate but for his well known support of the sector and, as his time in Parliament draws to a close, for his contribution to politics in the north-east over many years. I welcome his considered contribution. Many other Members also made valuable contributions. I apologise for the absence of the Minister for Business and Enterprise, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), who is currently overseas and would otherwise have responded to the debate.
The Minister is apologising for the absence of his right hon. Friend; I should have noted the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Dame Anne Begg), who is with my right hon. Friend the Member for East Renfrewshire (Mr Murphy) in Aberdeen, but would otherwise have been here.
I echo the comments of all contributors, who pointed out the importance and timeliness of the debate, given the challenges faced by companies operating in the North sea and all those who work in the sector in the United Kingdom; that was emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney (Peter Aldous) and the hon. Member for North Tyneside (Mrs Glindon).
The Government are committed to the long-term future of the sector in the North sea. We recognise that the sustained fall in oil prices presents real challenges for the sector. Announcements of job losses, such as those we have heard about this afternoon, are a real concern and particularly affect Aberdeen and the north-east. The effects will be felt not only in the north-east of Scotland and by big international companies, but by the hundreds of small and medium-sized businesses that are an integral part of the supply chain. Those businesses work across the UK to service the sector, and they play a role in the whole of the UK economy.
We are committed—I hope that the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (John Robertson) accepts this—to working in partnership with others. I welcome the tone of the contribution of the shadow Scottish Secretary, the hon. Member for Glasgow East (Margaret Curran). We are committed to working with the Scottish Government, local authorities and the industry to provide all we can for those affected by job losses. I will pursue the issue that the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Sir Robert Smith) raised about the Department for Work and Pensions. My colleague, the Secretary of State for Scotland, has committed to participate in the First Minister’s jobs taskforce, which was announced last week, and the Aberdeen city council’s oil and gas summit in February.
I apologise to the Minister and the House for not being at the earlier part of the debate; I was at a Committee speaking about, among other things, the issue of autism.
As the Minister was referring to the supply chain and jobs that link to the wider oil industry, may I remind him that in my constituency 30,000 people work in the Bellshill industrial park, and many of them fit that description? All of them are asking for honesty and transparency about the flexibility of the oil market and the oil industry.
I certainly take that point on board; it reinforces the fact that this issue is resonant not only in the immediate area of Aberdeen, but in the whole of Scotland and the rest of our United Kingdom.
At the PILOT meeting in London last Tuesday, industry leaders expressed real concern, but recognised the need and opportunity to work collectively with Government to introduce a range of efficiency measures that would help them through the downturn and ensure that the industry was stronger in the longer term. The right hon. Member for Gordon (Sir Malcolm Bruce) made the point strongly that the industry could emerge fitter from this time, without the necessity for sustained job losses.
The sector is a vital economic asset—one that supports growth and investment and one that we will do all we can to support. There are other events in Parliament today, one of which was the Chancellor’s appearance before the Treasury Committee. Given the signal that was asked for, he has made it very clear that he will take further steps in the Budget. As we heard in the debate, Sir Ian Wood and others in the industry have indicated that they think the Budget is the right time to take such steps. I do not think that that message could be clearer. I will undertake to convey the comments and thoughts of everybody who took part in today’s debate directly to the Chancellor, and I am sure that he and the Prime Minister will continue to engage directly with the industry.
The Government have already taken action in a number of areas. Our recent headline cut of the supplementary charge from 32% to 30% sent an important signal, as some contributors have mentioned, that the North sea is open for business. Last year, we commissioned Sir Ian Wood, one of the world’s foremost industry experts, to examine how we could maximise the North sea oil and gas industry economic recovery. Without being unduly partisan, I am very pleased to hear Sir Ian being lauded again for his contribution to the oil industry; only a few months ago, some people—I do not think they are in this room—were deriding him because he said he did not feel independence for Scotland was in the industry’s best interests.
On this matter, Sir Ian’s response is twofold: get the right regulator in place and get the right fiscal regime. The Government have moved fast to implement his recommendations. We have set up the regulator in the form of the Oil and Gas Authority. It will be up and running this year and based in Aberdeen, under the expert stewardship of Andy Samuel. Since starting in his role as chief executive at the beginning of the year, Mr Samuel has been working at pace to ensure that the authority will be ready to start operating effectively by the beginning of April.
Last week, in light of the recent falls in global oil prices, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change asked Andy Samuel to accelerate work with industry to identify key risks to oil and gas production in the UK continental shelf and what further measures might be taken by Government and industry to mitigate them. In addition, we have carried out the oil and gas fiscal review to examine how we can build on the success of our existing field allowances and put in place a regime that is internationally competitive.
The oil and gas industry has acknowledged that our system of allowances has been transformational in incentivising North sea investment. Allowances were directly responsible for £7 billion of 2013’s record-breaking £14.4 billion investment in the North sea. That investment has supported more than 50,000 jobs in the United Kingdom. At the autumn statement, we announced a new allowance for high-pressure, high-temperature oil and gas projects. That allowance will reduce the tax rate on a portion of the company’s profits from 60% to 30%.
Last year, we also announced further reforms to the fiscal regime—reforms to generate investment. We will be introducing a basin-wide investment allowance to simplify and replace the existing system of offshore field allowances over time. We are also taking action to encourage companies that are already investing by extending the ring-fence expenditure supplement from six to 10 years for offshore oil and gas activities, helping the short-term cash flow of companies looking to invest.
Our third area of reform is exploration, where access to good-quality seismic information has been an issue for the industry. Our commitment to provide financial support for seismic surveys in under-explored areas of the UK continental shelf will help the situation.
We want to reward investment in the North sea. As the UK’s economy grows and our recovery strengthens, our direction of travel will be to implement further measures to increase investment. Of course, decommissioning also has to be considered; in the coming decades, that will be increasingly important as the UK continental shelf moves into the decommissioning phase ahead of many other basins. The challenge here is that the North sea, owing to its maturity, will often have to be the site of pioneering methods. Industry will need to develop new operating models and bring in skills and expertise. However, the opportunity is immense. Get this right and we will develop highly valuable—and saleable—expertise here in the UK and reap great rewards down the line. It will be vital to attract new entrants and specialists into the basin to take on decommissioning work.
The Minister is making an important point about the value of decommissioning, but we really want that to be as far away in the future as possible. The crucial thing is to sustain production. I would be grateful if he took the message back to the Treasury that when people drill for oil, they take a big risk, and if they find something, they would like a larger share of what they find as a reward. The supplemental tax needs serious review.
I think I had set out in my initial remarks that the issue is a combination of ensuring that what future production there can be is maximised and of taking advantage of the opportunities that may arise through decommissioning.
I want to address a point that the hon. Member for Aberdeen North raised on health and safety and the ageing infrastructure. As many of the UK’s onshore installations are working beyond their original design lives and have been exposed to a harsh environment and heavy usage, it is absolutely essential that asset integrity is maintained. Asset integrity is critical to effectively managing and controlling major accident hazards, protecting the work force and maintaining production. Maintaining such arrangements, even during a period of low oil prices, is essential for the two key reasons that he set out: first, to comply with legislation to manage major risk hazards; and secondly, to maintain these assets for use in the future. I assure him that the Health and Safety Executive will continue to inspect thoroughly asset integrity issues and raise those with the industry at every opportunity to ensure that regulatory standards are not compromised.
It is by bringing a package of measures together and by working together—I think that is the sentiment of this afternoon’s debate—that we will maximise the potential of the industry and support vital jobs across the sector and the supply chain in the north-east of Scotland, as well as in areas such as East Anglia, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Waveney drew attention so adroitly. We have been talking about those jobs today; it is because the UK has such a large and diverse economy, of course, that we are able to commit to these long-term support measures.
We can deal with the volatility of oil prices and continue to provide the stable regime that is so important to the industry. The hon. Member for Glasgow East drew our attention to the many predictions that have been made about oil prices, but it is in a country on the scale of the United Kingdom that changes can be sustained. On that basis, having listened to today’s debate and set out the measures that the Government have taken, I conclude my contribution.