Tuesday saw the first shipment of fracked shale gas arrive from America at the INEOS plant in Grangemouth. This has brought in to sharp focus the debate as to whether or not fracking should be permitted in Scotland. This is a highly controversial area and the subject matter attracts very passionate debate.
There is certainly no easy or simple answer and this blog will not attempt to find one.
We have an absolute obligation to ensure the ecological survival and prosperity of our planet. We have the right to retain the, many way would say unrivalled, beauty of our countryside. For both economic and reasons of geopolitics every nation must strive for security of energy through internal production. In that respect I have always believed in the benefit of a mixed basket including renewables. And security of employment, opportunities and wealth for all, including 100% employment, should in my view, be at the top of every Government’s list of priorities.
As the ship rolled in to Grangemouth dock today it was security of employment that Jim Ratcliffe, INEOS chief, argued most forcefully in his interview on Good Morning Scotland. While everyone would agree that the 10,000 jobs that rely upon the INEOS plant are vital to the economy of the country and to the families that those 10,000 people support; some people might, nevertheless, take Ratcliffe’s comments with a pinch of salt given that he was so willing to close the plant at the cost of thousands of jobs over an industrial dispute only a few years ago.
It is that one issue that I want to look at – security of employment. As I have said, I am a firm believer in 100% employment as a legitimate government objective. I therefore think that everything should be done to ensure that the plant at Grangemouth will be a major employer and in turn therefore a major contributor to the Scottish economy for generations to come. Security of employment includes, perhaps as its most important component, safety of employment: fair terms and conditions; and a safe workplace.
The big question today to my mind is therefore would those employed in a future Scottish fracking industry be safe and would they enjoy fair terms and conditions?
I confess that I was troubled by several comments made by Jim Ratcliffe on the radio. On several occasions he said that “the world was not perfect”. The entire thrust of his argument was that some accidents are unavoidable and and what we have to think about, and what is certainly most important to him, is "investment."
The Tories have done everything in their power (and of course they will have even more powers on this front when we Brexit) to dismantle workers’ right to a safe workplace.
Nevertheless, I do not accept that workplace accidents are inevitable. That is particularly the case in new and heavy industries such as fracking. It is the typeof industry where, I have little doubt, if something went wrong it would do so catastrophically. If the industry is to be built from new in Scotland it is essential that workers’ safety is at the heart of the design of the system.
For now, we have health and safety regulations. From a pre-emptive and protective perspective the problem with our health and safety regime is not the Regulations but is instead with the way they are policed. The old adage that the Health & Safety Executive are stretched to their limits is no truer than in relation to the heaviest industries such as fracking will be. The HSE of course have an essential role but we need a change in the law that places the power of policing safety in the workplace into the hands of the people who are best placed to see dangers before they cause accidents – the workers. The law needs to be clarified to confirm that where workers see such dangers they can use the courts if necessary, through interdict and declarator, to force employers to make things safer and to make every employer realise that no accidents are inevitable or acceptable.
If we were to get such a change in the law then it wouldcertainly go a long way to making me happier about fracking taking place in Scotland notwithstanding the glib comments of Jim Ratcliffe.