15th December 2015

1Yes, it’s that time again; yet another parliamentary fracking battle.  Tomorrow the The Onshore Hydraulic Fracturing (Protected Areas) Regulations 2015 are to come before the House of Commons and we’re urging MPs to call for a full vote and to oppose them.

This is a continuation of the farce which began in January with the final vote on the Infrastructure Bill.  As you may remember, the government made a few weak concessions which forestalled its own backbench revolt and led the Labour Party and the Guardian to crow that there had been a ‘U-turn’.  Of course, there was no such thing, but it was enough to get the bill passed, and Caroline Lucas’s amendment, calling for a complete moratorium on fracking, to be defeated.  Only fifty-two MPs voted for the amendment, of whom only twenty-two were members of Labour or the SDLP.

Even those fragile promises made by the Coalition government have, of course, been broken, and the vote tomorrow is the cementing of that break.  The assurance that fracking would not be allowed in National Parks or designated groundwater source protection zones has been simply circumvented by redefining what fracking is in the first place.  For more details of this, please read the Friends of the Earth link here.

In January, of course, our MP was Michelle Gildernew who though opposed to fracking, did not take her seat at Westminster and was therefore unable to take part in the debate and vote.  We are now represented by Tom Elliott, who campaigned vigorously on the promise that he would take an active part in Parliamentary business.  While the regulations do not directly apply to Northern Ireland, they will of course be strongly persuasive in guiding the decisions to be taken at Stormont.  I am therefore assuming that Tom, whose party, the Ulster Unionists, eventually decided that it was not to be pro-fracking, will vote against the regulations tomorrow.

If you would like to urge your MP to do likewise, please follow the Friends of the Earth link above, or this one from Greenpeace.

11th February

Tanya and DanielleLots more going on today.  We had a great meeting of the Fermanagh & South Tyrone Green Party this evening.  In all the busy conversation, I completely forgot to take a photograph, so here’s one of Danielle, one of our new 2015 members, and me on our way out canvassing recently.  We had a lot of positive things to discuss, including the motions that we’re going to put forward at the forthcoming Green Party in Northern Ireland AGM.  There will be two of them (motions from us, that is, not AGMs) – watch this space for details.

We got home to find our optimistic mood plummeted by the news that that the notorious ‘bedroom tax’, famous for its cruel imbecility across Britain, has now been imposed in Northern Ireland.  It was voted for by Sinn Fein, the DUP, UUP and Alliance, with only the SDLP, independent MLA Claire Sugden and the Green Party opposing it.  Earlier in the evening, benefit sanctions up to eighteen months had been voted for by every MLA in the chamber except for Basil McCrea and our Steven Agnew.

We’re in a pretty unusual position here in Northern Ireland at the moment.  We’ve watched, across the Irish Sea, the terrible effects of the coalition attack on the easiest targets: of the ‘bedroom tax’ that particularly penalises disabled people and single parents; the arbitrary ‘benefit sanctions’ that deprive people, often for no rational reason, of even the barest income; and the idiotically-administered ‘work capability tests’ that drag seriously, often terminally, ill people through months of needless anguish.  We’ve seen the enormous growth in the need of ordinary people for foodbanks, the most shocking indictment of a brutal and heartless regime.  And, having seen all this, the Northern Ireland Executive parties, including those who once claimed to speak for the poor and disadvantaged, have voted to bring in exactly the same cruelties here, unleavened by the slightest compassion.

And the political betrayal isn’t even over yet.  When I got in, another debate on the Infrastructure Bill was taking place in the House of Commons.  You’ll remember, if you read my previous post, that at its last vote in the Commons, the Bill was amended at the behest of the Labour Party to include a few tweaks.  These, minor though they were, gave Labour MPs a semblance of excuse for not voting in favour of a moratorium on fracking, as proposed by Caroline Lucas and others.

What happened next could no doubt have been predicted, and probably was, by the fossil fuel industry and its willing Parliamentary pawns.  The Bill went to the House of Lords, where the most important concession, that fracking should not take place in land which is located within the boundary of a groundwater source, was amended to allow that:

4)     The Secretary of State must, by regulations made by statutory
instrument, specify—

(a)   the descriptions of areas which are “protected groundwater
source areas”, and

(b)   the descriptions of areas which are “other protected areas”,

for the purposes of section 4A”

In other words, a ‘groundwater protection zone” would now mean, as Humpty Dumpty would approve, whatever the government chooses it to mean.

It was the crucial debate on these amendments for which, as Caroline Lucas pointed out, a measy hour of Parliamentary time was allowed.  And upon which, as I have been writing this, the Commons has voted by a smallish majority (257 to 203), to follow the Lords, and remove all semblance of special protection for our drinking water from the clear and demonstrable threat of fracking contamination.

When I first switched on the BBC Parliament Channel this evening, Anne McIntosh, who would have been our MP, had we stayed in Yorkshire thirteen years ago, was speaking.  She said, of the fracking and groundwater issue, that “the detail should appear on the face of the Bill” and that not to do so was to offer a “hostage to fortune”.  It is true in relation to fracking, and it is just as true with regard to the NI Welfare Reform Bill, as Steven pointed out yesterday.  If our elected representatives cannot be trusted to speak and vote on primary legislation that affects the most basic and essential needs of ourselves and our children, how on earth can we expect them to give proper scrutiny to secondary regulations, far outside the public gaze?

Of course we cannot.  What events on both sides of the Irish Sea have shown is that only a very few are prepared to speak and vote for what they know is right.  Steven Agnew and Caroline Lucas are among those few, and we in the Green Party are proud to stand beside them.

27th January

0127So, what happened yesterday?

I managed to watch quite a bit of the debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday (via its website; not in person) though I missed the actual vote, as I was teaching by then.  All went well, and Steven Agnew’s bill passed through its second stage unopposed. Congratulations to Steven and all those who have worked so hard on this.

I also watched some of the Infrastructure Bill debate in the House of Commons but again had to go (to an Erne Integrated College governors’ meeting) before the messy bit.  Basically what happened was that the government made a few apparent concessions (this site has a good summary) which were sufficient to stem most of its own threatened backbench revolt, and to allow the Labour Party to claim that it had achieved something. Within moments, Labour MPs were tweeting that the Tories had made a ‘U-turn on fracking’, a line enthusiastically taken up by the Guardian.

This was no U-turn.  This wasn’t even a change of gear.  At the very most, this was a brief glance in the rear view mirror before accelerating ahead.  As the Department for Energy and Climate Change has said:

Labour’s proposals are already Government policy, carried out voluntarily by industry or as part of Environment Agency or HSE every day working practice. We have agreed to accept this amendment, to provide clear reassurance in law, and to give this nascent industry has the best possible chance of success.”

All this left no time for the moratorium amendment by Caroline Lucas and others to be debated.  It went to a vote, and was defeated by 308 votes to 52.  The list of those voting in favour comprises:

20 Labour

14 Lib Dem

6 Conservative

5 Scottish National Party

2 Social Democratic and Labour Party

2 Plaid Cymru

1 Alliance

1 Green

1 Respect

Readers of this blog may be interested to know how MPs representing Northern Ireland constituencies voted (or didn’t).  All of the NI members must by now be fully aware of the issue, of the effects of fracking and of the importance of this vote. Here they are:

1 Belfast East Naomi Long Alliance – voted for moratorium
2 Belfast North  Nigel Dodds DUP – didn’t vote
3 Belfast South  Alasdair McDonnell SDLP – didn’t vote
4 Belfast West Paul Maskey SF – didn’t vote
5 East Antrim Sammy Wilson DUP – voted against moratorium
6 East Londonderry  Gregory Campbell DUP – didn’t vote
7 Fermanagh & South Tyrone Michelle Gildernew SF – didn’t vote
8 Foyle Mark Durkan SDLP – voted for moratorium
9 Lagan Valley Jeffrey Donaldson DUP – didn’t vote
10 Mid Ulster Francie Molloy SF- didn’t vote
11 Newry & Armagh  Conor Murphy SF – didn’t vote
12 North Antrim  Ian Paisley DUP – didn’t vote
13 North Down Sylvia Hermon Ind – didn’t vote
14 South Antrim William NcCrea DUP – didn’t vote
15 South Down Margaret Ritchie SDLP – voted for moratorium
16 Strangford Jim Shannon DUP – didn’t vote
17 Upper Bann David Simpson DUP – didn’t vote
18 West Tyrone  Pat Doherty SF – didn’t vote

Within the fourteen ‘didn’t votes’ I haven’t distinguished between any who might have been present but abstained (unlikely), those who have anachronistic ideological reasons for not taking their seats, those whose ‘double-jobbing’ kept them busy elsewhere (though Sammy Wilson managed to play an active part in the Stormont debate and to get to the House of Commons in time to cast his vote firmly in favour of fracking; a fact his Carrickfergus constituents will no doubt wish to note) and those who simply didn’t care, or not quite enough.  In the end, it hardly matters.  They let us down just the same way, no matter what their excuse.

castle

26th January

TJ at BelcooA hugely exciting day today, with Steven’s Children’s Services Co-operation Bill being discussed and voted upon in the Northern Ireland Assembly.  (See my post from Friday for more about this).

And if that wasn’t enough, the government’s Infrastructure Bill has its third reading in the House of Commons this afternoon.  The session is likely to be dramatic, with reports of a likely backbench revolt against the proposed changes to the trespass law (allowing fracking beneath homes without permission) and in favour of the amendment by Caroline Lucas and others calling for a moratorium on fracking.

All this is against the background of a report from the cross-party Environmental Audit Committee which was released at midnight last night, and which concludes that:

Shale fracking should be put on hold in the UK because it is incompatible with our climate change targets and could pose significant localised environmental risks to public health.”

Meanwhile a leaked letter from George Osborne to his Cabinet colleagues published by the Guardian today has shown that he:

“requested that ministers make dozens of interventions to fast-track fracking as a “personal priority”, including the delivery of numerous “asks” from shale gas company Cuadrilla.”

The lines are drawn, and the eyes of many will be on UK MPs today to see which side they choose.  After nearly four years of hard work by the frack-free movement, it feels as though we’re on the brink of something special.  Such a shame we have no MP for Fermanagh & South Tyrone taking her seat today.

25th January

6There are important Bills being discussed and voted upon in both Stormont and Westminster tomorrow (which, incidentally, demonstrates why it’s a really bad idea for the same person to be both an MLA and an MP).

In Stormont it’s Steven Agnew’s Children’s Services Co-operation Bill – please read Friday’s post to find out how you can help.

Meanwhile in Westminster it’s the Infrastructure Bill, which I wrote about previously here.  This is a crucial vote, and a fantastic opportunity to let your MP (if you have one who takes her seat) know how you feel about fracking.  A very useful guide has been produced, with all the information, links, hashtags etc. that you need for the final push before tomorrow’s vote.  Here it is:

URGENT CALL TO ACTION – FRACKING VOTE

Please read it and take whatever action you can.  We only have one voice each, but together we can roar!

1st January

At the borehole site in August

What I’d really like to see in 2015:

1. Climate change being taken seriously.

We don’t have any more time to mess around.  We have to make real and substantial changes now, if our children and grandchildren, and the most vulnerable and blameless of the world’s people, are not to pay a terrible price for our stupidity and greed. The best piece of news recently is the anticipation of Pope Francis’s forthcoming encyclical. If he speaks out as trenchantly as we hope, it’s possible that millions of Catholics, the other Christians and people of other or no faith who respect his judgment, and global leaders both political and religious, will take notice and act. That is my first prayer and hope for our new year.

 

2. The departure of this cruel and duplicitous coalition government in the UK.

David Cameron and his cronies, facilitated by the spineless LibDems, have succeeded in overseeing a massive shift of resources from the poor to the rich, an increase in fear, suspicion and selfishness, the destruction of hopes for a sustainable future and the worsening of every measure of the common good.  Their friends in the media, fellow beneficiaries of the Tory Robin-Hood-in-reverse, have gone along with every step, setting up only the straw Farage as a pseudo-opposition.  My second hope, therefore, is that the people of the UK will come to their senses before May and choose a genuine alternative.

 

3. The Green surge continuing throughout the British Isles.

This isn’t mere party loyalty.  The growth in membership and support of the Green Party has been the only effective counterbalance to the media-fuelled rise of UKIP and will serve not only to bring more much-needed Green MPs into Parliament but also to remind parties such as Labour that there are people out there who respect principle, know that ‘aspiration’ means more than a fatter wallet and that our children’s futures are not to be gambled for a cheap soundbite.  Without the Greens, I fear we’d only have shades of blue.

 

4. Northern Irish politicians acknowledging their mistakes and seeking a wider vision.

Between Sinn Fein, whose wafer-thin progressive credentials were accidentally exposed by Gerry Adams this year, and the DUP, who increasingly glory in having none, politics in Northern Ireland is increasingly petty, bad-tempered and out of touch with external standards of behaviour.  The results aren’t just embarrassing; they’re positively retrograde and damaging to our hopes of a positive and prosperous future for this beautiful and gifted region.  It is no coincidence that Steven Agnew has won numerous independent awards for his integrity, professionalism and hard work as a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly.  If other MLAs followed his example, our shared future would be a real prospect instead of a ragged hope.

 

5. An end to the threat of fracking in Fermanagh and beyond.

2014 has brought great successes to the frack-free movement both locally and worldwide, with Tamboran forced to postpone their plans for Belcoo, increasing evidence of the futility and destructive nature of the technique, and bans in the most unexpected places, including New York and the ‘fracking capital’ of Denton, Texas. It would be foolish, though, to think that we have won.  The UK government is more keen than ever to subsidise its friends in the fossil fuel industry, Tamboran are bringing judicial review proceedings to try to recover their licence, and more areas of Northern Ireland are under threat from the experimental process.  Nearly all of our politicians here in Northern Ireland, and especially those standing for election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone, claim to be ‘anti-fracking’ but few, apart from the Green Party, have taken any action to stop it (1).  And with political funding still secret here (2), we have no way of knowing what might be in their interests during the months and years to come.

 

There are a few more things on my long wish list, including new brakes for my bike and the loss of the few pounds I’ve put on in mince pies, but these will do for a start.  Very best wishes to you all for a peaceful, happy and hopeful New Year.

 

 Notes:

(1)  At the recent vote on the government’s Infrastructure Bill, which will change the law of trespass to allow fracking under people’s homes against their will, only ten MPs voted No, including Caroline Lucas of the Green Party.  Sinn Fein MPs do not attend the House of Commons and so did not take part in the debate or the vote.

(2) The Green Party does not accept corporate donations, and publishes details of all donations over £500.

 

7th December

Reindeer, by Brian 0918, used under Creative Commons licence.
Reindeer, by Brian 0918 [Wikipedia] used under Creative Commons licence. You’ll have to read to the end to find out why it’s here.
Tomorrow, the House of Commons is due to debate the Infrastructure Bill. I can see you yawning at the back. Yes, you, the one pretending to be doing jaw exercises. It’s not as dull as all that. Actually, much of it probably is, though in the now customary manner of British governments, quite a bit of not-so-dull stuff is being sneaked in on the quiet. If the good people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone elect me as their MP (I can dream as well as the rest of you) then perhaps I should present a Private Members Bill stipulating that any piece of government legislation has to have a name telling us what it actually does. In which case…..

Tomorrow, the House of Commons is due to debate the Enabling Fracking (Under Your House Without Your Permission) and Miscellaneous Provisions Bill.  There, that woke you up a bit, didn’t it?  Yes, this is the coalition’s plan to change the longstanding (centuries old) law of trespass so that oil and gas companies can drill under properties (including people’s homes) without the owners’ consent. It’s being brought in because a case a few years ago, Bocardo v Star Energy, confirmed that drilling for fossil fuels under someone’s land (in this case the someone was Mohamed Al-Fayed, who could afford the extensive court case) was indeed trespass if permission was not sought and obtained.  The  legal question which took up most of the considerable court time in the case (which ended up in the Supreme Court) was about the amount of damages, but the legal principle was just as important.

A fascinating article by Calum Stacey about the case appeared, shortly after the Supreme Court judgment, in the University of Aberdeen’s Law Journal (Aberdeen being, of course, a provincial centre of the oil industry).  I recommend reading the whole of it to anyone who would like to know more about fossil fuel extraction and the law.  But the really interesting part is this:

“The potential inadequacy of the current statutory framework in light of the
Supreme Court’s decision has been highlighted by a letter from the United
Kingdom Onshore Operators Group (UKOOG).* This emphasises the potential
cost of the Supreme Court’s decision both in time delays and the viability of
projects when applied to the current legislative provisions. UKOOG has
summarised the procedure into six steps:
1. Determine the expected well path, allowing for margins of error should the
well deviate from its planned path
2. Identify the landownership under which the well is expected to pass
3. Enter into negotiations with the landowner with a view to obtaining the
necessary grant of rights to drill under their land
4. If the landowners are too numerous, refuse the grant or demands
unreasonable terms, apply to the Minister (the Department of Energy and
Climate Change (‘DECC’) for ancillary rights
5. The Minister will review the case, including consultation with the
landowners and, unless he considers that a prima facie case is not made out,
refer the matter to the Court
6. The Court will set a date and hear the case and, if it is satisfied that the
requirements of the legislation are complied with in the case of the applicant
licence holder, grant the compulsory purchase rights.
UKOOG estimate that where a landowner refuses to grant the required rights
or attempts to impose terms that the applicant licence holder considers
unreasonable, the process would take eighteen to twenty-four months. Such a
delay and uncertainty may make future projects unviable. This may become of
particular importance if there is an increase in onshore oil and gas activity. Such
an increase may occur as a result of the development of shale gas and other
unconventional hydrocarbon resources.

*Letter from the Chairman of UKOOG to all of the onshore licence operators (obtained via
personal communication).”

Indeed.  Faced with two-year delays, all this hassle plus the necessity of paying compensation for all those ancillary rights, it’s hardly surprising that the fledgling fracking industry asked its friends in government to change the law.  And, given the nature of their relationship, even less surprising that the coalition agreed.

So, what can we do about it?  Well, Friends of the Earth have produced an excellent briefing and there’s also a great action page on Facebook.  Of course, contacting your MP is only any help if your MP actually takes her seat in Westminster, to join in these debates, to speak and to vote on your behalf.  Although the trespass provisions of the Infrastructure Bill do not directly apply to Northern Ireland, we can be pretty sure that, if they are passed, similar legislation is likely to follow here.  We need everyone we can, especially those who claim to be ‘anti-fracking’, to work together to stop this Bill.

Finally, for some of the other provisions of the Bill, see this article by George Monbiot.  It explains why the reindeer is not only seasonal but also sadly appropriate.