Leaders: Brown’s revolution faces obstacles

Brown's analysis of the deep problems facing North Sea oil industry is widely shared. Picture: JP
Brown's analysis of the deep problems facing North Sea oil industry is widely shared. Picture: JP
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Gordon Brown clearly has no intention of bowing out quietly. In one of his final speeches as an MP he will today lay out a North Sea oil rescue plan, and proposals for an “economic revolution” in Scotland, together with an ambition to create 100,000 new jobs to help end youth unemployment.

Setting aside political rhetoric, there is much here to applaud. His analysis of the deep problems facing North Sea oil exploration and development, as well as those facing a fast-changing wider economy with the decline in manufacturing, is widely shared.

The long-term decline in oil revenues is of urgent concern. These are set to fall from last year’s £6.5 billion to £1-2bn this year and next – barely enough, Brown will point out, to pay the pensions bill of 10 per cent of our pensioners and not enough to pay even one month of the annual NHS bill in Scotland.

The problems are not just of a volatile oil price but ones that are structural and enduring. The question is how to encourage the extraction of the billions of barrels of oil that remain and avoid closure of the remaining fields. He suggests an oil reserve – not a subsidy paid to operators but a pool to keep fields in existence by sharing production costs. Far more details will be required to see if such a proposal is workable. In the meantime, the initiative is with chancellor George Osborne to provide both immediate tax relief in his budget on 19 March and guidance on future Conservative policy to secure maximum extraction.

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On proposals for wider economic development, Mr Brown’s analysis is familiar: in ten years’ time, he warns, manufacturing, once accounting for 40 per cent of the Scottish economy, will account for just seven per cent of Scottish jobs. If we are to avoid lower-paid, less-secure, often ­zero-hours contract jobs, “we must aim to create high-quality, well-paying, hi-tech, secure jobs based around medical, information and environmental technologies”. He seeks to create 100,000 new “quality” jobs and launch a major house-building ­programme.

In a key respect, Mr Brown is riding an incoming tide. There is greater awareness and appreciation of the benefits of transport and energy infrastructure spending to help ensure our economy remains competitive. Ambitious plans for a north of England regional hub are a case in point.

But there are formidable obstacles to the “revolution” he has in mind. The first is to build and sustain a powerful commitment to this priority, both over other spending ambitions of government and over the political cycle. The second is to improve our productivity where performance is problematic. And the third is that we face the headwinds of high government debt and annual debt interest in excess of £40bn a year. This will act as a continuing anchor on ambitions unless spending priorities radically change. So far there has been little sign Labour intends to campaign on such a platform, doggedly committed as it is to spending (and taxing) in other areas.

Menopause need not be last taboo

Not for the first time, Ros Altmann has raised an amber flag on an issue of widespread concern in the workplace. In her role as government tsar for older workers, she warns that many women are being forced out of the workplace because employers are ignoring the effects of the menopause.

In a set of recommendations to the government this week, she calls the issue “the last taboo”. Many women find themselves being “performance-managed” out of their jobs.

The issue, she points out, is “not on the work radar … But pregnancy is, childbirth is, bereavement is – many other life phases are, but [menopausal women] get no support in the workplace.”

Scientists recently found the symptoms of menopause, which in the UK typically begins at 51, last 7.4 years on average, with some women experiencing side effects for up to 14 years.

Attitudes have changed in many other issues affecting women. And few would dream of making comments in an office today about a woman’s “time of the month”. Not all that long ago, this was widespread. But greater understanding of the menopause has not kept pace.

The transition to a non- reproductive state is not normally sudden. And for some the transition years and the accompanying effects can be powerful enough to disrupt their daily activities and sense of wellbeing.

But in such cases various different treatments can be tried to ameliorate these. And they should certainly not be a barrier to preventing women in later years enjoying a full sense of well-being – and from making an important and valued contribution to work and to society.