Fracking and the Infrastructure Bill

I’ve received a number of emails regarding the Infrastructure Bill, which was debated in the House of Commons yesterday, and the consequences this could have for fracking in Scotland. I have reproduced my response – which I’ve just sent out – in full below:

Thank you for writing to me regarding shale gas extraction and the related Infrastructure Bill.

On Monday 26 January, Labour proposed an amendment to the Infrastructure Bill to stop fracking going ahead unless a series of tough conditions are first met. Labour’s amendment included establishing 13 specifications, without which no shale gas extraction could take place anywhere in the UK. Provisions within our amendment were supported by a number of organisations, including the National Trust, RSPB, Friends of the Earth, Local Government Association, Unite and GMB trade unions. The conditions are as follows:

  1. Prohibit shale gas extraction in groundwater protection zones.
  2. Require shale gas operators to individually notify residents of activity, rather than publishing a generic notice.
  3. Put the payment of community benefit onto a statutory footing.
  4. Introduce a presumption against development in Protected Areas.
  5. Prohibit the use of “any substance” in the frack fluid, as in current legislation.
  6. Ensure that decommissioned land is returned to a state required by the planning authority.
  7. Place an obligation on operators to monitor and report fugitive emissions.
  8. Empower local planning authorities to consider the cumulative impact of multiple developments in their area.
  9. Ensure that there is independent inspection of well integrity.
  10. Require 12 months of baseline assessments.
  11. Require all shale gas sites to conduct Environmental Impact Assessments
  12. Make water companies statutory consultees in the planning process.
  13. Extend the depth at which fracking can take place from 300m to 1000m.

At the last minute the Government accepted Labour’s amendments, and these robust regulatory conditions and protections are now in the Bill. This is the largest single overhaul of shale gas regulations to date, and if the Bill receives royal assent before the dissolution of Parliament, then we will have succeeded in stopping fracking until the robust regulation and comprehensive monitoring we have argued for is in place.

I abstained on New Clause 9, which would have introduced a temporary, 18-30 month suspension of shale gas development. New Clause 9 would have led to a pause in the process, but wouldn’t actually have obliged the Government to make any changes – normal service could have resumed after this period had elapsed. This is a much less robust position than Labour’s amendments, which establishes concrete conditions without which no development can take place at any time, and provides real protection in relation to water supplies, areas of natural beauty and fugitive emissions.

In Scotland, the Scottish Government already has responsibility for planning and environmental legislation. Following pressure from Labour, the UK Government has agreed to devolve all remaining regulation related to shale gas to the Scottish Parliament. The Government agreed to exempt Scotland from changes to underground access for mineral rights in the Infrastructure Bill, meaning that this legislative area becomes the responsibility of the Scottish Government, and so is effectively devolved.

The UK Government has also agreed to devolve the licencing process for shale gas extraction to Scotland. During Monday’s debate, Labour forced a vote on the immediate devolution of licensing to the Scottish Parliament rather than waiting until a Scotland Bill after the general election. Unfortunately this was defeated. We also argued that the government should suspend the current licensing process so that no new licences are issued for Scotland until this responsibility has been devolved. However, it is again important to stress that the Scottish Government still has an effective veto over fracking through its planning and environmental regime.

Scottish Labour has already announced that it would introduce a triple-lock system to halt any onshore fracking taking place in Scotland until environmental and health safeguards are in place. This involves:

  • A local referendum before final planning approval is given
  • Halting any fracking in Scotland until the lessons of fracking in the rest of the UK are learned
  • A comprehensive review of the baseline conditions before any planning application is granted

Scottish Labour leader Jim Murphy has called on the SNP Government in Edinburgh to use its existing planning powers to stop any onshore fracking in Scotland immediately. He has also argued that the UK Government should suspend the current fracking licensing round in Scotland until new powers are devolved through the Smith Agreement process.

Thank you once again for writing to me.

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Today’s debate on Trident

I’ve received a number of emails regarding today’s House of Commons debate on Trident and have reproduced my response – which I’ve just sent out – in full below:

Thank you for your recent email regarding today’s debate about investing in a new fleet of submarines armed with trident nuclear weapons.

It is no great secret that I am sceptical about the merits of this course of action. Since I was elected in 2010 I have been a member of the Parliamentary Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and in each session I have signed a succession of Early Day Motions to this effect:
http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/110
http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/909
http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/1477
http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2010-12/1924
http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2012-13/96
http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/150
http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2014-15/37

However it is equally well known that my party’s official position is to support trident renewal, albeit subject to consideration as part of a Strategic Defence and Security Review to be held if we are successful in the upcoming General Election. This would consider both cost implications as well as strategic necessities, recognising the role of the defence sector to the UK economy, and concerns around protecting and develop a highly skilled workforce. Our final position would then be put to a vote of parliament in early 2016, which is commonly referred to as the ‘Main Gate’ decision (both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are also committed to a vote at this time).

Today’s vote has been initiated via an ‘opposition day’, whereby one of the parties not in Government gets to choose the subject of the debate, and is not part of any official decision making process. As a consequence this vote will not be interpreted as a substitute for the Main Gate decision, and parliament would have to return to this issue in early 2016 regardless of its outcome. I have therefore chosen to abstain on the vote, and will continue to make the case against renewal to my party colleagues in advance of the Main Gate decision.

I know you may find this response disappointing. I would be more than happy to engage further with constituents on this issue.

Thank you for taking the time to write to me.

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Press release: MP criticises decision of Sainsbury’s not to offer bagless deliveries

Edinburgh East MP Sheila Gilmore today criticised Sainsbury’s policy of charging an additional 40p for every online delivery to cover the cost of carrier bags, without providing the option of a bagless delivery for customers.

Following the recent introduction of a carrier bag charge in Scotland, Sainsbury’s are now charging an additional 40p for every online delivery. The guidance set out by Zero Waste Scotland, an organisation which is funded by the Scottish Government, clearly states that supermarkets should provide the option of a bagless delivery. Sheila Gilmore MP recently wrote to the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s, Mike Coupe, asking him to comment on this. In his response, Mr Coupe confirmed that Sainsbury’s customers will have to pay an obligatory 40p charge for carrier bags during every online shop.

Sheila Gilmore said:

It is disappointing that Sainsbury’s have chosen not to follow the guidance set out by Zero Waste Scotland, and offer bagless deliveries for online deliveries.

The mandatory 40p charge for every online customer will particularly impact upon elderly and disabled people who are dependent upon online shopping. This is worrying at a time of austerity and squeezed living standards.

While I welcome the recent introduction of a carrier bag charge in Scotland for environmental reasons, it is entirely wrong that customers are being forced to pay this charge. The policy was designed to decrease dependence on carrier bags, not to enforce compulsory charges on hard-pressed individuals and families.

I would now like to see Sainsbury’s – as other supermarkets have done – work towards introducing a bagless delivery option for Scottish customers.

Notes:

  • Zero Waste Scotland’s Guidance for Retailers document, which states the need for shopping websites “to offer bag-less deliveries or require customers to actively choose whether to purchase chargeable bags for delivery.” The document can be found here.
  • In the response sent to Sheila Gilmore MP from the Chief Executive of Sainsbury’s, Mike Coupe, Mr Coupe states that ‘we are aware of the preferred options regarding online deliveries as per Zero Waste Scotland’s guidance accompanying the regulations, however we do not believe that we are contravening the regulations by not currently offering a bagless delivery.’
  • Other supermarkets, including ASDA, Tesco and Waitrose provide the option of bagless deliveries for online shopping.
  • For more information please contact Matt Brennan on 07742 986 513 or email matthew.brennan@parliament.uk.
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Christmas Break

My Constituency Office will be closed for the Christmas break from 4.30pm on Tuesday, 23rd December 2014.  The office will reopen at 9.30am on Monday, 5th January 2015. During this time phone calls and emails to my staff will not be answered.

If your enquiry is urgent please email me at sheila.gilmore.mp@parliament.uk.

May I take the opportunity to wish all my constituents a peaceful festive break.

Best wishes

Sheila

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Home truths for new First Minister

In today’s Edinburgh Evening News I’ve called on Nicola Sturgeon to use the Scottish Government’s new borrowing powers to boost investment in building affordable housing. The article is available on the paper’s website but I’ve reproduced it in full below.

Scotland’s Housing Crisis should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

When people hear the phrase housing crisis, they often think of beggars and rough sleeping. However the reality is often less dramatic but much more long-lasting.

Take my constituent John. In his 50s, he’s lived in the private rented sector since his marriage broke down ten years ago. He has neither central heating nor double glazing. His flat was built by the council but was sold off under the right to buy. After changing hands several times, the current landlord now charges double the rent of a similar flat in the same block that remains in council hands.

John’s wages from short-term agency work in the construction industry don’t cover his rent, so he depends on Housing Benefit to make up the shortfall.

He knows he could pay his own way in a council or housing association let but he has next to no chance of being awarded one as he already has a tenancy.

Across Edinburgh, this is an increasingly common problem. Vacancies in the council and housing association sector have halved over the last year or two. Since the summer there have been fewer than 50 available most weeks. And while the council and housing associations completed 1,285 units last year, half were mid-market rent – where a 2-bed property would cost around £600 per month compared with council rent of £400 – and a further quarter low-cost home ownership.

By attempting to get the most out of much-reduced Scottish Government funding, Edinburgh has ended up building affordable housing that, for many, simply isn’t affordable. As a result, waiting times for those who need low-rent homes are growing.

Tackling this issue should be Nicola Sturgeon’s top priority.

The Scottish Government will gain more borrowing and tax-varying powers as a result of the Scotland Act 2012, and these are set to be enhanced once the recommendations of the Smith Commission are put into law after the next General Election.

If these were used to channel extra funds into low-rent affordable house building, this would put downward pressure on rents and push down the Housing Benefit bill.

Unfortunately there was not a mention of this issue in Nicola Sturgeon’s programme for government. And there was next to no increase for affordable housing in John Swinney’s pre-budget statement for 2015/16 – the first year the new borrowing powers could be used.

During the referendum the SNP argued that they needed independence to create a fairer and more equal society. Now that Scottish voters have rejected this option, they should now use the powers of a strengthened Scottish Parliament to invest in affordable housing, so that people like John can pay their own way while living in decent quality homes.

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