Leader: Falling oil price a dangerous threat

"There is a conflict between short-term political gain and long-term economic stability". Picture: PA
"There is a conflict between short-term political gain and long-term economic stability". Picture: PA
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THE low oil price poses the biggest threat to Scotland’s industrial base since the Grangemouth crisis of October 2013. In fact, it could be argued that it puts the Grangemouth episode in the shade, as far as the risk of job losses goes.

The scale of the impending crisis is hard to overestimate. Sir Ian Wood, the respected tycoon who has been at the heart of the North East’s oil industry for more than 30 years, was last week quoted as saying some predictions about the ­demise of the North Sea sector were overblown.

And yet he went on to say the scale of lob losses could be in the region of 37,500. Everything is relative. If his is a realistic assessment, this is a very dangerous moment not only for Scottish industry, but also for Scotland’s engineering skills base and for the economic future of the area. This is a corner of Scotland that in recent years has often been cushioned against harsh financial winds, and may find itself ill-prepared to cope.

Labour this weekend called on the Chancellor to bring forward tax measures aimed at encouraging new exploration, on which the future of this mature oil field depends. There is no doubt there is still oil there to be brought ashore – the issue is whether it can be done economically.

The low oil price, coupled with the fact that the remaining oil is in locations that are hard to get at, casts a very real doubt over whether this oil will be extracted in the foreseeable future. Unless, that is, the taxation regime governing the industry can be changed to such an extent that the low oil price – some analysts expect it to go even lower than its current $61 a barrel – can be offset.

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• You can also follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Google + Achieving this is a considerable challenge to politicians at both a Scottish and UK level. And this is where efforts to prevent an economic ­calamity in the North Sea may run into choppy waters. Because the crisis falls at a point where there is a perfect storm of competing political imperatives. First, we are less than six months away from one of the tightest general election campaigns in modern times, at a watershed ­moment for Britain’s traditional two-party ­structure. Second, we find ourselves in Scottish politics with two newly elected leaders trying to establish themselves at the heads of Scotland two biggest parties. In Holyrood last week, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, for the SNP, called on Labour to find consensus with her so that Scotland was united in how it approached the oil issue. But beyond the warm rhetoric, neither she not Scottish Labour’s new leader, Jim Murphy, can afford to allow the other an inch of political advantage over this, the most pressing issue of the moment.

Political considerations may well figure in the Treasury’s calculations, too. Low oil prices mean low inflation, cheaper fuel, cheaper consumer goods, and a reduced chance of a rise in interest rates in the early part of 2015, before the ­general election. For a Conservative party chasing voters in Middle England, this is an undreamt-of ­political windfall.

Can George Osborne be expected to move swiftly to reverse these positive trends, with a general election looming? True, he needs a boost in oil production to help balance his books, as North Sea revenue falls off a cliff. But most of the short-term political damage inflicted by an oil industry crisis will be in a corner of Scotland where the impact on the Tories’ haul of MPs next May will be precisely zilch.

This is the political climate in which those in the North Sea industry are looking to their ­political leaders to save their jobs. It is one where, arguably, there is a conflict between short-term political gain and long-term economic stability. And also, conceivably, a ­conflict between the UK interest and the ­Scottish interest. All at a time when there is a tense battle going on for Scottish political ­supremacy. The political climate, in short, could hardly be worse.

Doctors must put needs of patients first

THE front doors of the country’s GP surgeries are currently plastered with warnings not to enter if you suspect you may have Ebola or the winter vomiting bug. Soon, for a number of days over Christmas, the message will be simpler: “Closed.” This is not a time of year to get ill. A National Heath Service of which we can be justly proud at other times of the year tends at Christmas-time to be barely recognisable as the comprehensive and accessible institution we know and – mostly – love. But as our news story today makes clear, in some parts of the country, just how well Scots are served by their GPs is an issue at all times of the year and not just at Christmas.

The phrase “postcode lottery” is an overfamiliar one, a state of affairs for which we journalists must shoulder much of the blame. What it means in practice, however, when it comes to health provision in this country, cannot be easily dismissed.

A parent’s concern about an alarmingly sickly child; a son’s concern about an ailing elderly parent; a pregnant woman’s concern about a change in how she is feeling – all of these are scenarios where a patient’s likelihood of getting the attention they need should not be dependent on whether they live one side of a health board boundary line or the other.

And yet all too often that is exactly what happens. In the survey we highlight today, the chances of getting an appointment with your GP range from the ability to see someone on the same day, to a wait of six weeks. Where a surgery offers extended hours beyond the normal working day, this varies enormously – as does the public’s ability to find our when those extended surgeries are available. Barely one in three surgeries advertise these extra sessions on their websites. In fact – and this is hard to believe in 2014 – one in three GP surgeries in Scotland do not even have a website. No surprise, then, that only one in ten GP surgeries in Scotland offers an online booking facility.

Dr Alan McDevitt, chair of BMA Scotland’s GP committee, rejects the charge of a “postcode ­lottery”, saying disparity across the country reflects “local flexibility”.

The problem here is that the flexibility is there to meet the needs of the GPs. What we need is flexibility that meets the needs of patients.

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