Prime Minister Gordon Brown was under fresh fire last night – over the way he treated the vital North Sea oil and gas industry in his government shake-up.
He has handed the key minister of state for energy portfolio to part-time peer Lord Hunt of Kings Heath, who will be helped in the Commons by Stafford Labour MP David Kidney – a new, unpaid junior minister.
Former NHS chief Lord Hunt’s other post, as deputy leader of the Lords, involves the painstaking work of getting government business through without a majority.
The appointments take the number of changes of energy minister since Labour came to power in 1997 to 11.
Last night, industry bosses and opposition politicians accused Mr Brown of treating the offshore sector in a “cavalier” manner and criticised the lack of continuity in the government department.
West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine Liberal Democrat MP Sir Robert Smith said: “This is a crisis reshuffle with Mr Brown doubling-up ministerial jobs because he has run out of loyalists.
“It is another example of the prime minister’s neglect of Britain’s most important industry.”
Sir Robert added: “To put it in the hands of a part-time peer and an unpaid junior minister is a disgrace.”
The final line-up was confirmed by 10 Downing Street last night.
The Department of Energy declined to confirm the share-out of ministerial posts, but a government source revealed what they will be.
Douglas Craig, managing director of global shipping and energy services firm Craig Group, said: “If the country was run like a plc, a division which contributes so significantly in terms of revenues, export sales, intellectual capital and jobs would have its own directorate.
“The UK energy industry needs a full-time minister who is able to get to grips with this complex industry and is committed to engaging with it to secure the UK’s energy supply and representing us on the world’s stage.”
He added: “The lack of consistency with energy ministers over the last 10 years or so is a very real frustration for the industry.”
Aberdeen City and Shire Economic Future chairman, Tom Smith, said: “The oil and gas industry has been working to engage meaningfully with government over the years but this is made increasingly challenging by the continual changes to ministers’ portfolios.
“Security of energy supply and the long-term sustainable future of the North Sea are of critical importance and it’s hard to see how these app-ointments do them justice.”
The industry body, Oil and Gas UK, declined to comment pending confirmation.
But Jake Molloy, regional organiser for the RMT union in Aberdeen, said: “It hardly instils confidence when we have perpetual ministerial change and a critical sector of the economy is treated as if it were a back-street sweat shop. It is appalling.”
SNP energy spokesman Mike Weir, MP for Angus, said: “It is an absolute disgrace that an industry of vital importance is treated in this manner.
“The minister of state will not be available to be questioned directly in the Commons, which is totally and utterly unacceptable. The industry is being treated in a cavalier manner.”
And Gordon Lib Dem MP Malcolm Bruce said: “We need an energy minister who can inform government who has real clout.”
He said the role was being given “pretty poor status”.
But Aberdeen North Labour MP Frank Doran said: “Philip Hunt is a very experienced minister who has been in the department for two years and David Kidney has a lot of experience in renewable energies.
“We now have two ministers covering energy and they will be a good team.”
He said repeated changes in ministerial responsibilities are “a fact of modern life”.
Aberdeen South Labour MP Anne Begg said: “It is a shame they had to have yet another energy minister but from what I know of Mr Kidney he will do a good job.”
Depending on how they are counted, Lord Hunt is the 12th energy minister in as many years. Those in the post since Labour came to power in 1997 have been:
John Battle 1997-99.
Helen Liddell 1999-2001.
Peter Hain 2001.
Brian Wilson 2001-02.
Stephen Timms 2002-04.
Mike O’Brien 2004-05.
Malcolm Wicks 2005-06.
Alistair Darling with Lord Truscott 2006-07.
Malcolm Wicks 2007-20.
Mike O’Brien 2008-09.
Lord Hunt 2009.