Westminister Comment - Growing signs of a downturn..

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I was buying fuel for the car recently and remarked about the drop in price at the pump.

The person behind the counter replied with concerns about the impact of the current fall in oil price on local jobs given so many of them are involved in oil and gas production.

Clearly here in the North-east we are most aware of two sides to the price drop in oil. Motorists and those paying heating bills will be feeling relief at the price reduction, but will want to be reassured they are seeing the full benefit passed on.

Even before the collapse in price there were growing signs of downturn in employment opportunities as the current phase of projects come to maturity.

The rising cost of operating in the North Sea and the maturity of the area are both challenging investors. In particular, the lack of exploration means there are not the new finds coming forward.

This made the timing of the Government’s Autumn Statement all the more important for the future prospects of the North-east economy. On the day I welcomed the important signal the cut in the special North Sea profit tax sent to investors about the change of approach to the industry. To make such a move at a time of economic challenge reinforces the message that we want to see greater investment.

The headline cut is not enough in itself to maximise new investment so there were, also, improvements in the allowance system that helped make marginal fields more attractive.

On the morning after the Statement I attended a meeting in Aberdeen where Treasury Ministers Danny Alexander and Priti Patel encouraged the industry to engage in developing further incentives for inclusion in the Budget in March.

One of the benefits of being part of the wider UK economy is the diversity of the industrial base means those industries that benefit from low energy prices can help balance the Nations books.

On the Friday I was back at Westminster to vote for my Liberal Democrat colleague Michael Moore’s Bill to enshrine in law our international commitment to deliver 0.7% of our gross national income as international development aid.

If agreed to by the House of Lords it will implement our manifesto commitment. By setting this example we can help encourage other donor nations to meet their commitment.

The UK has a reputation for effective aid projects that help make a real difference to poverty in the developing world. Such intervention can help bring stability, reducing the pressure for migration as well as reducing the unrest that comes from economic hopelessness.

Last Thursday we debated the future of fishing. There has long been a frustration at discards of edible fish so on the face of it the coming ban on discards looks like a popular move. However in a mixed fishery with different quotas for different species it can mean you accidentally catch the wrong mix of fish.

I called for a more phased introduction of the ban so that a more flexible approach can be established.

This Tuesday there was good news for the future of the Post Office. My Liberal Democrat colleague Steve Webb announced that the Department of Work and Pensions had agreed to extend the contract for the card account that allows people to collect their pensions or benefits from the Post Office. This is a £250million, seven-year contract for the Post Office card account (POCA) that will help to safeguard the future of the Post Office network The service was due to be withdrawn in March 2015, but will now be available until at least November 2021. This is certainly a positive piece of news for our important rural Post Offices.