PMQs sketch: For Miliband it wasn't as easy as ABC

It sounded as if Ed M's summer nose job had finally kicked in, but it turned out to be just a heavy

It was when a Tory MP suggested that parents should take their children to work during next week's public sector strike that you realised Prime Minister's Questions was just a try-out for the real thing.

There they sat fidgeting, staring off into space, whispering to their pals, ties askew, waiting for the lunch bell, and that was just the Government side of the House. Opposite, equally unruly and even noisier -- as befits their rather ruder upbringing -- the boys and girls from the local comp.

It was meant to be a different day when deep economic matters would be discussed in the run-up to next week's Autumn Statement by the Chancellor, when he will reveal that we are up to our necks in it -- but luckier than the others who are busy swallowing the stuff.

Indeed George was there, chewing on his lip, braced for the inevitable spanking from Labour for his part in the ongoing drama. Just to add to the excitement we had learned earlier in the day that "We-are-all-in-this-together" Dave had just forked out £140,000 to buy a field next to his constituency home without needing any help from his bank manager. What an added bonus for Ed M, who had started off his day by being awarded the phrase of the year prize for inventing "squeezed middle". Surely this was going to be his day.

PMQs kicked off with an early moan from a member of the Government side about next week's strike in what observers thought was just a way of giving Tory MPs a chance to clear their throats before the session started in earnest.

Labour spirits lifted when Ed stood up and launched into his attack on the Government's jobs record. Dave had managed in 18 months what Labour never did in 13 years; push youth unemployment over 1m. As he spoke, he sounded as if his summer nose job had finally kicked, in but as he continued it appeared that it was just a bad cold.

He tried to pin down Dave but even the constant encouragement of Ed B, forever barracking from the sidelines, seemed unable to provide the energy necessary to get a grip on the PM, already a past master in ducking and diving.

Ed threw in his sound bite with the charge that Dave never takes the blame. ABC -- Anyone But Cameron -- he said, but you wondered if his heart was in it. His enthusiasm cannot have been helped by the poll revelation that 18 months on more people still blame Labour than the Coalition for our economic woes.

He tried to hit Dave with another demand for a bankers' bonus tax, this time to help the young unemployed. But the PM swatted him off with a list of nine uses he said Labour had already ear-marked the tax for. "This is a bank tax that likes to say yes", said the PM with all the pleasure of delivering a well-rehearsed line.

Three Tory MPs managed independently -- and no doubt without conferring -- to ask the PM to explain just how wrong, selfish, undemocratic and unrepresentative next week's strike would be. Dave could not agree more, and yes, he does agree with MP Louise Mensch that people should take their kids to work if schools are closed by strikes next week.

When not an MP, Mrs Mensch is a writer of fiction.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions.

Peter McHugh is the former Director of Programmes at GMTV and Chief Executive Officer of Quiddity Productions

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.