Leaders: North Sea survey double-edged sword | Better together on bedroom tax

BOTH sides in the independence referendum debate can take comfort in a key finding of the poll of North Sea oil workers we publish today.

It finds an overwhelming degree of confidence in the future of the industry, with 74 per cent registering a positive response to a question on prospects for the future. That confidence reflects in large part the fact that firms are now investing additional billions of pounds into oil and gas extraction in the North Sea.

But confidence in what the SNP describes as “the second oil boom” sets something of a Catch-22 for supporters of independence. If prospects are that good, and confidence so high, it is perhaps not surprising that the same survey should find little appetite for a change to independence.

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The replies from some 2,500 engineers, technicians, oil rig workers and managers found that only 16 per cent felt they would be better off if Scotland voted for independence next year. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” would seem to sum up many responses. While the pro-independence camp will continue to stress the billions of pounds of new investment going into the Scottish sector of the North Sea, indicating no nervousness or apprehension among oil companies over the prospect of independence, the campaign appears to have its work cut out in convincing oil and gas workers themselves as to the benefits.

Among the reasons given by those who responded negatively to the question on independence were concerns about “unrealistic taxes” falling on oil companies, lack of certainty around investment and a belief that a new independent country would not have enough skilled people to drive the industry forward.

This worry over the lack of skilled staff should be of particular concern to the Holyrood administration given the plethora of skills agencies and the commitment of extra funding for skills training in recent years.

Those in the survey backing independence cited Norway as an example of how a future Scottish government could gain a “tighter grip” on the industry and ensure profits were distributed better. They also believed that independence would give drilling firms more incentives.

However, with or without independence, let us take the positives from this survey. It clearly indicates a high level of confidence among North Sea workers, and that has to be a good thing. And, as Kevin Forbes, managing director of Oil and Gas People points out, it is vital for the oil and gas industry that its skilled staff believe there is a long-term future.

Both sides of the argument have every incentive to ensure that policies on North Sea oil development and taxation do not prejudice a capital investment programme predicted to rise to more than £13 billion this year. More immediately, the challenge to the pro-independence camp is to show that it can win over the confidence of the thousands who bring the oil ashore.

Better together on bedroom tax

Pressure is growing within the Labour and SNP camps at Holyrood, or at least among some back-bench MSPs, for a joint front to challenge the Westminster coalition’s bedroom tax. Both parties are clearly opposed to this measure. The hope is that the Labour and SNP leaderships can set aside their deep differences over independence to mount a joint campaign.

Such a development would be sensible and welcome. But this welcome needs to be tempered with caution. The bedroom tax is a poorly researched proposal riddled with practical difficulties and with consequences that may do little to alleviate the plight of younger, larger families while penalising many on low incomes or who are in retirement. It is a compelling focal point and a specific campaign would draw broad support. And there is precedent. Andrew Burns, who heads Edinburgh council’s Labour-SNP coalition, is urging the Labour and SNP leaderships to back an alliance similar to that agreed between the two parties in the capital.

However, it is not clear at this stage whether a wider joint platform can be agreed against the coalition’s welfare reforms in general. Even if such a common front can be agreed between the two parties, it runs the danger of weakening support for a specific campaign which would stand a greater chance of success, while creating hostages to fortune for both Labour and the SNP.

But despite these difficulties, and the lukewarm reception for the idea from the party leaderships, there must surely be a way for some unity to be achieved. The public does not like partisan political squabbling and some joint approach could do both parties some good if, and it is still a big if, it can be achieved.