The government wants to be able to turn land over to shale gas companies without our permission, says MICHAEL MEACHER
It is scarcely credible that the government is including in the Queen’s Speech on June 4 the right for the shale industry to drill on your land without your consent.
Such a gross infringement of the rights of private property would be unthinkable, especially for a Tory government, were it not to secure a bonanza industry.
For the Tories private land is inalienable — until it is wanted by the oil and gas industry, at which point private property rights get trampled on all over the place.
After heavy lobbying from the shale industry the government is changing the trespass laws so that companies can drill without permission in return for only minimal compensation to landowners.
Following the demonstration at Balcombe in Sussex, this can be expected to become a focus for all-out resistance against the Tories, perhaps with a similar political impact to the poll tax riots which did for Thatcher.
Already a nationwide network is operating across Britain, well organised and effectively connected via social media as well as by a shared passion overriding political divisions.
Shifting the law to suit business is not new. That is what the whole deregulation drive under free-market capitalism in the last 30 years has been all about.
Environmental, health and labour standards have all been honed down for precisely the same reason, to pave the way for highly profitable business.
In the same way the agrochemical industry enabled genetically modified crops to take off in the 1990s by getting the US Congress to accept the utterly spurious doctrine of “substantial equivalence” between GM products and their non-GM counterparts so that GM products did not need to be tested for their impact on the environment or human health and could be regarded as safe.
One unseen consequence however of this rush to drill, removing any obstacles in its path, could well be a surge in legal redress.
A month ago a case was reported in the US where a Texas family who fell ill after fracking operations began near their home were awarded $3 million in damages against Aruba Petroleum.
There could be widespread ramifications since 15 million US citizens live within a mile of a fracked well.
One of them, a 45-year-old woman, initially experienced headaches, nausea and dizziness, but then later had a rash spreading across her body with open sores that wouldn’t heal.
Her daughter suffered severe nose-bleeds, her husband developed memory problems, calves on their ranch were born malformed, and all their pets died.
The jury concluded that the illnesses were linked to contaminated ground water, solid toxic waste and airborne chemicals generated by natural gas fracking operations.
If fracking goes ahead as the government now recklessly intends, then what is happening in the US today to resist this curse can surely be expected to redouble in Britain in the near future.
Pfizer’s defeat in its bid to take over AstraZeneca is the best news for British industry for a very long time, but it still leaves a lot of unfinished business.
In particular there are three issues that urgently need to be determined now, well before the next crunch comes about Britain’s strategic industrial assets.
The first is obviously that we need a proper and adequate definition of the public interest written into statute in order to safeguard the key elements of Britain’s national economy.
At present the government can only intervene on the basis of the criteria set down in the Enterprise Act 2002, namely on grounds of national security, media plurality and financial stability.
In the AstraZeneca case it was an open question whether the “national security” criterion could be used to cover the function of the public interest, and anyway it would have required the approval of the EU Commission under its State Aids rules to agree that the existing legislation could be used in that way.
That room for doubt is not acceptable and clearly new legislation is urgently needed to end the uncertainty.
A second requirement is a full-scale debate about who should have the right and responsibility for deciding a company’s fate in the case of a takeover bid.
The only reason that AstraZeneca was saved was that the board put up determined resistance, particularly the chairman and chief executive, and at the end rejected Pfizer’s final offer without consulting any shareholders.
Pfizer implored the AstraZeneca shareholders to rise up in rebellion against the board, but in vain.
Two big investors, the investment firm Axa and fund manager Jupiter, did condemn the board’s decision, though other big asset management investors took a different view.
The obvious question however is whether the shareholders should have the last word anyway when their sole interest is short-term profit.
They care not a fig for the wider public interest or the viability of the British economy as a whole.
It makes no sense to leave Britain’s economic future in their hands. At the very least both the government and the workforce should have a clear and significant role in deciding the final outcome.
The third requirement is that the “tax inversion” motive which was such a strong driver of the Pfizer bid should be reformed.
At present the US government has decreed that any profits made overseas by US multinationals will have to pay 35 per cent corporation tax on any of those funds repatriated to the US.
Several US companies — and Pfizer is only the latest in a lengthening list — have therefore decided to shift their tax domicile to Britain or some other appropriate haven in order to get access to these overseas earnings without paying US taxes.
That leads to takeover bids of key British or European companies driven by tax benefits rather than industrial common sense or national gain. That is a perversion of any sensible industrial strategy.
Michael Meacher is Labour MP for Oldham West and Royton. For more of his writing visit www.michaelmeacher.info/weblog