Roll Up! Roll Up! Perry’s Amazing Unravelling Circus Has Come To Town!
Westminster Hall debates are strange events where, for half an hour, MPs get to grandstand by poking sticks at a minister who responds by reading out whatever policy line the civil servant sitting behind passes to them. At the end of the time allowed, the debate generally lapses and nobody wins or loses.
The government web site describes them, more prosaically, thus: “MPs also debate in the Grand Committee Room just off Westminster Hall. Here they can raise issues which are important to them in a series of Private Member’s general debates.”
With each side being allocated 15 minutes there is not a lot that can be said, especially as parliamentary convention appears to require those speaking to give way to whichever MP feels he wants to get his words on record for his own website. Mr Rowley struggled valiantly and made two main points. Firstly that:
The proposals before us for permitted development and NSIP do one main thing, and one main thing only: they take people out of a process that it is vital for them to be part of so that they have their opportunity to speak and to highlight why things are appropriate or inappropriate for their local area and why their environment will be so affected if these things go ahead.
and secondly that:
The consultation itself seems to confuse major shale gas production with shale gas production, but I have not seen a definition of major versus minor. Ultimately, the point about shale gas is that it happens in many places. Either we are defining a single well pad as major and sticking individual well pads into the NSIP regime…” (He was interrupted here but later said “the NSIP regime was not designed for this project and we should not use it.
Fundamentally, if we have a problem of a lack of public consent for fracking, which we do—we clearly do in some parts of the country, such as mine—we should treat the problem either by not bothering with the policy or by trying to change people’s views. My view is that it should be the former, not the latter. We should not try to treat the symptom by taking people out of the process. I hope that, at the end of the consultation, the Government will listen and this will not go forward. Taking people out of the process is why the proposals for permitted development and NSIP for fracking are fundamentally wrong, and I hope that they do not go ahead.
This was all well and good. None of this is new or surprising. Indeed it will surely be included, in some shape or form, in nearly every response to the Government’s consultation on the Permitted Development and NSIP questions. However, it is good to see the issues being ventilated in parliament, and it is especially heartening to see the number of Conservative MPs who lined up to get their twopence-worth in.
Now however, we were treated to a bravura display of arrogance, ignorance and downright mendacity by minister Claire Perry Minister for Energy and Clean Growth at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Ms Perry began by telling the assembly that “We put together an extensive, long-running consultation so that all views, which are profoundly held on both sides, had an opportunity to be expressed.” and then ignored the subject of the debate for the first 8 minutes (which Mr Rowley eventually politely pointed out to her). Instead she attempted to make a case for the government’s support of fracking and why fossil fuels should not stay in the ground, which is a rather odd position for a minister with “clean growth” in her title.
She presented the MPs listening to her with a choice
We have a choice: we can continue to import increasing amounts of foreign gas and effectively be at the behest of other nations that do not share our interests, or we can soberly, calmly and scientifically assess whether we can develop the shale gas industry.
There are two problems with this false choice. Firstly there is no scenario in recent government forecasts which suggests that a domestic shale gas industry has any part to play in securing energy security for the UK, and secondly those “other nations who do not share our interests” like, for example the USA, Qatar or Saudi Arabia are the very countries that those who Ms Perry describes privately as “swivel-eyed” Brexiteers are placing so much reliance on for trade deals when we exit the EU.
She told the room “I refer all Members to our superb Committee on Climate Change, which will tell them that, in every single scenario for reaching our carbon dioxide reduction targets, gas is in the mix.” but she failed to mention that neither government report in the last year into our energy security incorporates gas from fracking in its forecasts.
She then loftily proclaimed “I am happy to debate the safety and responsibility of the industry in terms of doing that correctly, but I will not set this country’s energy policy based on an ideology premised on using 100% renewables now, which cannot be delivered at the right price“. This straw man gets so many outings that it is starting to look rather worn by now. Nobody sane is suggesting government policy should be based on an immediate switch to 100% renewables. The fact that an Energy Minister can come out with such drivel in a serious debate demonstrates the depths to which our political discourse has sunk. It would appear that the concept of reducing our reliance on gas as swiftly as is possible to meet our climate change obligations is too nuanced a position for an Energy Minister to consider.
Moving on she was not going to miss the opportunity to misinform.
Members will have received data today suggesting that the vast majority of the British public are opposed to shale gas exploration. That is not true. The data suggest that 13% of people strongly oppose it, almost 50% of people do not have a view, 15% support it and 2% strongly support it. Most people do not have a view on this because they understand that being at the behest of a foreign gas provider is probably not great for British energy sovereignty.
For the record Hansard recorded her as saying that 30% of people strongly oppose it, but the figures she quotes are clearly from BEIS wave 25 which show 13% strongly opposing and a further 19% opposing. On the audio record she quite clearly says 13%.
So where did that other 19% go in her forensic analysis of government polling? She seems to have totally forgotten to mention them in her haste to show that the vast majority of the British public are not opposed to shale gas exploration. Was this a mistake? I think to be fair to Ms Perry we have to look at what she said later to judge this. However, the suggestion that nearly half the population do not express an opinion because “they understand that being at the behest of a foreign gas provider is probably not great for British energy sovereignty” is simply fatuous. Presumably, if she really could look inside their heads and they genuinely believed what she tells us they do, then they would support shale gas extraction. Clearly, on the basis of even her own flawed submission here, they do not.
Perhaps sensing that her overbearing and patronising manner was not winning her audience she now began to address the issue.
It is in no one’s interest—in Government, in local government or in a community—for the planning process to be where it is today. We are stuck in a morass of protest and countervailing information. Frankly, I pity any local councillor who gets an application on their desk, because they will shortly have a travelling circus of protesters to deal with, most of whom do not hail from the areas where these sites are located. We then have policing issues and protesters blocking roads and preventing young children from getting to hospital. That is an entirely unacceptable way to express democracy in our country.
It does seem odd that this government minister is under the illusion that it is local councillors who get applications landing on their desks, rather than the planning officers, but it seems that her main intention here was to take a cheap shot at the “travelling circus of protestors …, most of whom do not hail from the areas where these sites are located“. Of course she has no evidence that this “travelling circus” actually exists or that most protesters “do not hail from the areas where these sites are located“. Whilst there are environmental protesters from all over the country who do visit sites and provide support, a visit by her to Preston New Road on any day of the week would put paid to the lie that most protesters at the roadside are not local.
Then she shamelessly repeats the accusation which was invented by industry front group “Lancashire For Shale” that protesters have blocked roads “preventing young children from getting to hospital“.
Freedom of Information requests have shown that this accusation cannot be supported by any evidence from the North West Ambulance Service and in any case it is hard to see what relevance this has to a debate about permitted development or NSIP. It would appear that she is trying to suggest that the existence of protest justifies the removal of local democratic scrutiny.
Blustering on and continuing to ignore the issue of the debate, she now turned to the wonderful things she is doing
I will shortly appoint a shale gas commissioner, who will have deep and extensive constituency knowledge of the issue and will be out there, helping local residents to understand some of the challenges that exist.
How, one has to ask, can a single shale gas commissioner have “deep and extensive constituency knowledge of the issue”, given that fracking will be taking place in a large number of constituencies, and why would local residents, planning officers and councillors need him or her to help them, having as they do, rather deeper knowledge of their own constituencies than any outsider appointed by Ms Perry could ever hope to have? This isn’t just patronising it is idiotic.
However, all is not apparently lost as “we are not overriding local decision making; there are plenty of opportunities for decision makers to express their views in the pre-consultation stage“. How this equates in the real world with local decision making is not made clear.
Clearly feeling she was on a roll she now went on the myth-busting trail. One could almost hear the strains of Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance” as she cried out:
There is another myth I want to bust, after which I will be happy to take some interventions. Some talk as if we are not in a country that prides itself on environmental regulation, but we have the strongest environmental regulatory regime for offshore oil and gas production in the world. I find it perverse that political parties north of the border promote offshore oil and gas and those regulatory controls with gusto, but when it comes to applying exactly the same—indeed, more rigorous—regulatory standards onshore, those parties suddenly turn a blind eye to energy sovereignty and cheap sources of fuel that are entirely consistent with Britain’s global low-carbon leadership. We will not have energy policy in this country set by politics and ideology; we will deliver cheap energy, low-carbon energy, and energy that is consistent with energy sovereignty.
Perhaps somebody should take Ms Perry on a helicopter ride to a North Sea Oil platform where she can count the houses and then compare the population density to onshore Lancashire. Perhaps they can also explain to her the difference between a seagull and a person (or a “receptor” as we are now all know in planning terminology)
But wait – this is now all about “energy sovereignty”. And what is “energy sovereignty”? Well it is defined here thus:
Energy sovereignty is the right of conscious individuals, communities and peoples to make their own decisions on energy generation, distribution and consumption in a way that is appropriate within their ecological, social, economic and cultural circumstances, provided that these do not affect others negatively.
Somehow I doubt this is what Ms Perry actually means. I suspect she meant “energy security” but she seemed to have got carried away with all of the tub thumping that she had been doing up until this point and sovereignty is all the rage as we approach the Brexit cliff edge.
“Energy Sovereignty” and “Energy Security “are two very different, if related, things.
“Energy security casts energy planning at the national level. In contrast, energy sovereignty brings energy questions close to people’s homes” (https://online.liverpooluniversitypress.co.uk/doi/abs/10.3828/idpr.2017.9)
So Energy Sovereignty is the absolute antithesis of the position being expounded here by Ms Perry. She insists “We will not have energy policy in this country set by politics and ideology” whilst doing precisely that and then she describes what she should be doing but is not – “we will deliver cheap energy, low-carbon energy, and energy that is consistent with energy sovereignty“. Her apparent suggestion that shale gas is going to provide cheap, low carbon energy in a way which is consistent with the real concept of energy sovereignty is so far from reality that she might as well have been rambling about pink unicorns here. Remember, this is an energy minister talking. She doesn’t have any excuse to be so misinformed.
All of this proved too much even for Conservative MP Lee Rowley who now interjected “she has spent the first eight minutes of her speech not talking about planning. The reality is that people need to be heard, and people are not being heard with this speech.”
Ruth George MP then took Ms Perry to task:
A vast majority of respondents to the consultation on the national planning policy framework were opposed to fracking, as the Government’s own response set out, yet you are going ahead regardless. How can anyone have faith in any consultation process that this Government launch on fracking?
Ms Perry’s flip response “The hon. Lady has been in politics for a while, and she will know, as we all do, the click-and-paste nature of so many responses to consultations.” showed her dismissive attitude towards participatory democracy as well as her lack of understanding of IT jargon. When Ms George shook her head disapprovingly, Ms Perry got back into her rather shaky analysis of government polling
As I have set out, based on the public polling data, the vast majority of people do not have a particular view on this issue.
The vast majority? Why only 5 minutes before it had been “almost 50% of people do not have a view“. Less than half the population had now become inflated to a “vast majority” as her argument swivelled around the bollards or reality. It would appear that she really doesn’t understand numbers so her omission of nearly a fifth of the population earlier was probably more due to ignorance than a deliberate attempt to mislead. However, she was now on a roll and was eager to spread a few more of the government’s favourite myths.
Many people understand, especially after the “beast from the east” and the Salisbury poisoning, that being reliant on foreign energy sources is not a great place for us.
Actually, many people understand the temporary nature of the problems caused by the “Beast from the East” and that (as her own department has stated on record) less than one percent of UK gas demand is supplied by the foreign power she is presumably referring to with the “salisbury poisoning“.
When a government minister has to resort to bare faced scaremongering in a debate we are entering a very dangerous time for democracy.
But wait! There was more!
If the hon. Lady shares my faith in the Committee on Climate Change and its view that gas is an important part of a low-carbon future, she will know that many responses come from organisations that are profoundly opposed to ever burning a molecule of fossil fuel. That is not a sensible place for our energy policy to be in.
Again she wheeled out here the same straw man she used before – that those opposed to fracking and in favour of a low carbon future want gas and coal switched off today. It would indeed not be “a sensible place for our energy policy to be in” and yet our energy policy remains resolutely in a place that is not “sensible” with the government she is part of going all out for fracking whilst hamstringing the renewable industry and failing to support Carbon Capture and Storage. The NGOs she is presumably referring to here keep telling her this but she doesn’t appear to be in listening mode.
What else did we have to suffer? There was a bit of flummery about how “shale gas exploration could bring high-value jobs and economic development safely to parts of the country that have been left behind by successive Governments.”, We had the obligatory comparison of earth tremors from fracking with something banal (in this case a roller coaster in Blackpool) and the suggestion that “Frankly, if anyone in this room believes that the UK, with its proud history of environmental regulation, would want to do anything to endanger its green and pleasant lands, they need to go away and have a nice cold drink.” At this point several people will no doubt have reached for a large glass of iced water. It is likely that her reference to our “green and pleasant lands” may come back to bite her at a future date if this industry gets its claws into Lancashire and beyond.
The rest of her contribution to the debate failed to address the issue at hand until she concluded:
“The challenge in this space remains that there are far too many people shouting fact-free nonsense about the process. … In this country, we make energy policy to drive down our emissions, keep costs down for consumers, and create a competitive advantage and energy sovereignty. That is why we are going through the process of consultation.”
After 15 minutes of fact free nonsense from this minister it was a relief when “Motion lapsed (Standing Order No. 10(6))”.
Ms Perry’s own unravelling circus then moved on to present its dazzling show of desperation and deception to another audience somewhere else.
Post Script – For a great take on Ms Perry’s contribution to this debate I recommend you watch this video from David Kesteven.