Third job for energy minister as Fallon handed Portsmouth role

Michael Fallon visits the Total Elgin platform
Michael Fallon visits the Total Elgin platform

The UK minister in charge of overseeing the North Sea oil and gas industry has been given a third government job.

Energy Minister Michael Fallon has been named “Minister for Portsmouth” to help the city recover from the loss of Royal Navy shipbuilding.

The former Conservative deputy chairman already has a portfolio in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, as well as his energy role.

It is believed to be the first time a minister has been given responsibility for a particular provincial city since Michael Heseltine was made minister for Liverpool in the wake of the Toxteth riots of 1981.

It means that as well providing support for Portsmouth, Mr Fallon’s responsibilities include energy security, gas and coal policy, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, renewable energy, North Sea exploration, licensing, revenues and decommissioning, deregulation and competitiveness in the wider economy, and the legacy from the Olympics.

Prime Minister David Cameron has already come under fire for breaking his pre-election promise to deliver stability to the offshore sector.

Mr Fallon is the UK’s 14th energy minister in 16 years, and the third appointed by Mr Cameron, having taken over in March last year from John Hayes, who lasted just six months.

Mr Cameron’s official spokesman said: “Michael Fallon already has BIS (Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) responsibilities. His role will be to support jobs and growth in the Portsmouth area, working with local businesses, local representatives and working across government.”

Asked why Portsmouth had been chosen for particular attention, rather than other cities and regions which have suffered economically in the wake of the financial crisis, the PM’s spokesman said: “This takes into account that there are particular circumstances here with regard to recent announcements in terms of shipbuilding and the continued transition towards Portsmouth as the centre for Royal Navy maintenance and refurbishment.

“There are very particular circumstances here with regard to Portsmouth and the fact that there have been changes to Royal Navy shipbuilding, an industry that is very closely and directly linked to the government.”

The spokesman was asked whether Mr Cameron would consider reviving Labour’s practice of appointing ministers with responsibility for regions of England, which was dropped in 2010.

He replied: “I think there are particular circumstances in the Portsmouth area.”

Shadow Energy Minister Tom Greatrex said the division of Mr Fallon’s time suggested complacency about the energy industry by the goverment.

“The challenges at Portsmouth are significant and it seems the government is finally waking up to them,” he said.

“I am sure people in Portsmouth would rather have active and continued engagement from the government and not the spinned stunt this smacks of.

“Michael Fallon is already a part time energy minister at a time when the UK faces considerable energy challenges – to make him a part time part time Minister demonstrates a complacency about vital energy issues at the heart of government.

“That the prime minister is so bereft of Ministers he trusts tells its own story about the chaotic mess of the Tory party. If they carry on like this, Tory MPs will be changing their names to Michael Fallon to ever stand a chance of getting a job.”

SNP Energy spokesperson Mike Weir MP said: “There seems to now be a tradition that the minister responsible for the North Sea oil and gas industry is parachuted into various other jobs.

“This industry is a vital part of the economy yet successive governments seem to think it can be done by a part-time minister. This is yet another indication that they do not take the industry seriously and it is no wonder that they continually blunder into policies that damage the industry without any adequate consultation.

“On September 18 Scots have an opportunity to cast their vote to ensure that the interests of Scotland and our vital industries are given proper attention.”

Portsmouth’s two constituencies are likely to be key battlegrounds in next year’s general election, with Mr Hancock defending a relatively slim majority of 5,200 over the Tories, while Portsmouth North’s Conservative MP Penny Mordaunt will be hoping to hold the seat which she seized by 7,289 votes in 2010 after 13 years in Labour hands.

His appointment to the new role was welcomed by politicians in Portsmouth, who said the port city was in need of support following the decision to move Navy shipbuilding to Scotland, with the loss of almost 1,000 jobs due to the closure of BAE Systems’ shipyard.

The leader of Portsmouth City Council, Gerald Vernon-Jackson, said: “I am glad that it seems ministers are listening and we are going to have somebody like Michael to help us cope with the loss of ship-building. We have had just silence from the Ministry of Defence about this, so I am pleased that another department is willing to listen.

“He will have the ability to pull everything in Westminster and Whitehall together to make sure that we know what support there is available, not only from the UK Government but also from Europe.

“The loss of shipbuilding is a real blow for Portsmouth – it is the loss of 1,000 skilled jobs – so it is about trying to replace those and to find additional work for them.”

Portsmouth South MP Mike Hancock said: “I welcome the initiative. It’s the first time it’s been done since Michael Heseltine was appointed Minister for Liverpool in the 1980s. At last maybe now the Government are taking the problems in Portsmouth seriously.

“He has got to look at how we can preserve the skills base in Portsmouth and the greater Portsmouth area. We have got to make sure he realises the size and scope of the problems and can work with local authorities and unions to try to bring about a mechanism which will go some way to encourage other businesses – either shipbuilding or maritime-related – in the space vacated by BAE in the shipyard.

“We have to bear in mind that Michael Fallon has already got two other jobs. I just hope he has the time and energy to devote to the issues we are facing.

“I am in the process of writing a letter of welcome to him, saying I would appreciate him coming down here as soon as possible.”