HC Deb 15 December 1959 vol 615 cc1405-14

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.16 p.m.

The Rev. Llywelyn Williams (Abertillery)

The Minister of Power, with the unfailing courtesy which is one of his many virtues, kindly sent me a letter to explain his absence from this Adjournment debate tonight. Nevertheless, I must say that I regret that he is not here. I say that in no sense of reflection on the pungent and robust good sense of his Parliamentary Secretary, who is with us, when he speaks of mining matters; but rather because I was hoping for a practical conclusion to this debate.

I believe that in the course of the next few days, the Parliamentary Secretary will be visiting south Wales. I wish that he could have visited the Abertillery constituency but, unfortunately, he is not to do so. I do not think he has ever visited it and, therefore, I will briefly describe it for him. I would ask him to think of a narrow valley in which there are, within a stretch of about ten miles, no fewer than twelve collieries, some of them very large. In addition to those existing collieries, there are at least half a dozen derelict collieries; and, in addition to this remarkable concentration of mining industry, we have one of the largest opencast mining undertakings in the whole country.

This opencast operation concerns the township of Abertillery itself, with a population of 26,500 people. Last summer, the huge excavating machinery used in this opencast working was brought in; and, so that he may have an idea of the magnitude of this machine, perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary would be kind enough to look at the photograph which I have here. As a result of the approach of this gigantic machinery to the edge of the mountain overlooking the Six Bells, there was very considerable interference with television reception for miles around. It is estimated that 80 per cent. of the houses now have television receivers—that is, about 8,500. About one-third of the houses have "piped" television, and the rest, about 3,870. have private or rented sets.

Information from two of the largest dealers in the area is as follows. The B.B.C. pictures, under normal conditions are exceptionally good but, due to the operation of the excavator, it is estimated that 80 per cent. of the B.B.C. output is affected to varying degrees. The Independent Television pictures, also under normal conditions, are about only 50 per cent. as good as those from the B.B.C. but, because of the operation of the excavator, they must now be regarded as a complete write-off. One of the dealers has great difficulty in collecting hire charges for rented installations, for very obvious reasons.

The cost of a television set is roughly £70 to £80. This is where I should like to bring the problem into sharp focus for the purpose of this debate. I know that in the Parliamentary Secretary I speak to a person who is sympathetic to the human issues involved. There may be a lot of argument about the place of television in the home life of Britain today, and whether it is a good or a bad thing, but there can be no argument that by this time it is a social necessity. It is not to be thought of as a luxury. That there should be such a situation as I have described, with these thousands of homes unable to receive anything tolerable in the way of television reception. I claim is a serious deprivation.

From his experience of mining communities in Scotland, the Parliamentary Secretary must know how this position is aggravated and intensified in the mining valleys of South Wales, where we suffer from a serious lack of the normal amenities found in urban communities in Britain. As he knows, we have also suffered from the vagaries and vicissitudes of the mining industry. The majority of our people live in long, unimaginative rows of houses which are clinging desperately to the mountainside or are in the murky depths of the valley. Then comes this great medium of television and the horizons of the people are widened and the windows of the world, so to speak, are opened to them for entertainment, culture and education.

To people living in mining valleys this could mean a tremendous enrichment of life, but since the summer, and because of this gigantic machine, many people have seen nothing but distortions of what other people see in very acceptable viewing night after night. For these people to have the Radio Times and the T.V. Times every week is almost a mockery. All they can ascertain from those publications is what they are unable to see on their own television sets and what they would have seen if their sets were able to receive programmes in a decent manner.

To come to the background story, early in August representations were made by a local miners' lodge, a large lodge of 1,700 members. Representations were made to Abertillery Council about poor reception of television programmes in the area. These were followed by representations from private individuals and television dealers. The Council immediately got into touch with the Opencast Executive of the National Coal Board which, I must say, is very helpful and co-operative. In turn, the Executive got into touch with the Post Office and the Council was assured that within a few weeks, because of ameliorative measures taken by the Opencast Executive—by creation of new tips to screen or shield the jib of the excavator—it was thought that television reception would improve.

Unfortunately, that did not happen. If anything, the problem was aggravated and worsened. I was asked by the Abertillery Council to arrange for a deputation of the Council to meet the officials of the Ministry of Power and the Post Office. The meeting took place on 6th November. The Minister conceded in a subsequent letter to me that the members of the Council put their case very persuasively and convincingly. They made three representations. The first was that the operations should cease altogether. The second was that the machine which has become the cause of the complaints should be moved immediately in an easterly direction on the mountain to a point where the jib will no longer interfere with the television signals. The third was that, if those two suggestions were not acceptable to the Minister, further consideration should be given to a suspension of the working of the giant machine during the hours of television broadcasting.

The Minister replied, after consultation with his officials, that he could not possibly accept the first two submissions, because of the sanctity of the contracts made and the impossibility of terminating existing contracts with the ensuing heavy financial penalties.

I speak tonight for very sane, balanced and reasonable people. They were naturally a little hesitant about accepting immediately the refusal of the Minister, but they certainly have not pressed those two submissions any further. They were, however, acutely disappointed that the Minister did not feel empowered to look more into the third submission, namely, the cessation or suspension of the excavator during the normal hours of televising. They suggest cessation between 2 p.m. and 11 p.m. I, believing in the great British art of compromise, would ask for an even shorter time, say between 5 p.m. and 11 p.m.

The machine works twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. A few years ago it caused serious flooding, but that is incidental to this point. It has already caused much grievance in the local hospital because of the sound it necessarily makes. Does the Parliamentary Secretary consider that the Ministry could meet the Council half way on its third submission and make a counter-proposal? It would not be a serious financial loss for this huge, mammoth machine not to be working for the six hours from 5 to 11 at night in these days. In this valley we have stockpiling of coal at a tremendous momentum. It would be a social asset to the people living in these conditions. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will reconsider this suggestion after I have sat down and he has replied. I know that he cannot commit himself now.

I was hoping that the Parliamentary Secretary would be able to see his way to see the Minister tomorrow morning. I have already prepared the way for that, because I saw the Minister and told him that possibly his Parliamentary Secretary would be seeing him tomorrow to see whether at this Christmas season this small concession could be made to people who have really pulled their weight in the last few years for the industrial prosperity of the country; who, since time immemorial, have put up with the inevitable concomitants of deep mining, and who now have this additional source of disadvantage—opencast mining.

After all, the Parliamentary Secretary is a Scot and the Scots have imagination like the Welsh. He can imagine the scene in hundreds of homes in the township of Abertillery. A man comes home from work, from the colliery or from the factory, sits down for the evening, puts on the television set and in a very short time these distortions of the picture begin. I suggest that such a state of affairs must create, and create unnecessarily, a sense of grievance which could be put right.

I seriously ask the Parliamentary Secretary to do what he can to put the matter right as a gesture at this season of the year when television programmes are supposedly at their best and when all over the country millions of people will be settling down to enjoy this great medium and the advantages which it brings. It is surely not asking too much for the Minister to consider suspending the operation of this mammoth excavator for those evening hours. If he does he will earn the good will of the thousands of people concerned who have bought television sets for as much as £70 or £80 and who now, to use a colloquial expression, feel a sense of having been done because of this mammoth excavator on the top of the mountain.

I ask the Minister to make this suggestion. It would be much appreciated, and I am certain that, in the long run, he would never regret having made it.

11.33 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Mr. J. C. George)

The hon. Member for Abertillery (The Rev. LI. Williams) has put his case in an expressive, attractive and appealing way. As a Scot to a Welshman, one is almost immediately induced to say yes. But things are not as simple as that. I will deal in as few words as possible in the short time left to me with the matter which the hon. Gentleman has raised.

First, I want to make two apologies to the hon. Gentleman. The first is because neither my right hon. Friend the Minister nor I could receive the deputation which he led to the Ministry. We were both new to the job and were very immersed in our new duties. The second apology is because my right hon. Friend is absent this evening. He wrote to the hon. Gentleman, and he regrets very much that his duties have kept him away from this debate. Both my right hon. Friend and I are very conscious of the social and cultural value of television in the valleys of Wales, just as, as the hon. Gentleman said, I am conscious of it in the isolated villages in Scotland. I am conscious also of the annoyance, irritation and frustration which he has described.

After the day's work is done people are ready to sit down before the fire and enjoy an evening's viewing, only to find when they switch on that there is no picture at all or else only a most uninteresting attempt at a picture. I understand all these things. My right hon. Friend expressed his sympathy to the urban district council and I now join with him in extending my sympathy. He rightly said that the council expressed its points with great restraint. It exhibited great reasonableness in putting the case before the Ministry. I hope that, after hearing what I have to say, the House will agree that our approach to the case is equally reasonable.

The site in question is not one site, but a group of sites, and there are 4 million tons of coal in them. Area "D" is at the centre, and is the source of the irritation because it overlooks Six Bells in Abertillery, where sits this mammoth excavator which the hon. Gentleman has so graphically described, with a huge jib composed of a great mass of steel which intercepts the radio beam and re-radiates it to the village of Six Bells, with the result that viewers receive a double picture on their screens—

The Rev. LI. Williams

Perhaps I may be allowed to say that it interferes not only with Six Bells but with the whole of that district at Abertillery.

Mr. George

I am not aware of that. Six Bells is mentioned in the submission to us.

It is not a consistent interruption. It varies with the position of the jib of the excavator, and it is acute for a period of two weeks at a time as the excavator moves to a point just above the village, almost in the centre of the site.

These are the facts, and complaints were made, as the hon. Gentleman has said, by the miners' union and by the council. The National Coal Board acted very promptly. It brought in the Post Office, and the Post Office engineers tried to shield the aerials so as to preserve the picture. That failed, and they said that the only cure was to create a high spoil heap which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned.

That was the position when the complaint was first made. The council approached the Minister, and put forward its points, as did the hon. Gentleman tonight, with great reasonableness and with great attractiveness. The council's first solution was very simple—just to abandon the site. That, indeed, was a simple solution. The second was to move the excavator out of range, and the third was to stop it during the hours of viewing from 2 p.m. until 11 p.m.

The first solution is attractive, but the Board operates one industry over the whole of the country and makes its plans on a national basis. It has made drastic cuts in its opencast programme—a cut of 50 per cent. between 1958 and 1960—by not renewing contracts. This has been done to avoid the payments of huge sums in compensation for cancelled contracts. That was the national policy. To cut existing contracts would, in the Board's view, have incurred prohibitive compensation payments. That is the national picture.

Next, we must ask if there is anything special about this site to make an exception of it. Looking at the situation as we did at the Ministry, advised by the Board, we found that it would mean a complete cancellation of area "D," and compensation for cancellation would be heavy. Frankly, we have to weigh payment on such a scale against the interference in the village. We therefore felt that solution No. 1 was out. I think the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues have come to the same conclusion.

The second suggestion was to move the excavator. That seemed an easy solution—just to move the jib away from the points where its presence caused interference in the village. That would, however, involve very drastic technical changes in plans for the extraction of coal. The probable result, at its worst, would be the abandonment of the site and, at its best, a major change in the contract and, again, the incurring of very heavy compensation payments. So No. 2 is out.

The third solution, which the hon. Gentleman put so appealingly, would avoid the difficulties arising from sug- gestions No. 1 and No. 2, but would incur new penalties. This huge machine cost a lot of money—a great deal of money, not only to buy it, but to take it to and erect on the site. That cost a vast sum of money, and the only way to get the capital back and pay the capital charges is to work the machine at full speed twenty-four hours a day and seven days a week. The contractor put in his price to work the coal on the basis that he worked the machine day and night for seven days a week; to shut the machine down for even six hours a day would be a serious disruption of his plans and would, again, involve very heavy compensation payments. But the jib would still be there. We could not guarantee that it would be away from the village every day at 2 o'clock or at 5 o'clock. It might be right on the spot, with the interference as bad as ever.

We did not turn down the council's ideas lightly. They were all studied with the utmost sympathy, but those were the reasons which made my right hon. Friend come to the conclusion that he could not recommend the National Coal Board to accept any of the proposals that were put forward. We are entirely sympathetic and we have looked at the matter from another angle. The Coal Board has been very active and has been moving fast to carry out the Post Office engineers' suggestion. The Board has set about raising the spoil heap by another 20 ft. and has taken action to drop the excavator by another 20 ft., making a 40 ft. increase in the shield between the jib and the village. A great deal has been done to screen the jib and it has been done every day to an increasing extent.

The Rev. LI. Williams

My information is that it has made no difference.

Mr. George

Then let us come quickly to the results. I claim that they show substantial success. The Post Office report on 13th November, after visits from its engineers to the houses, was that reception was much improved. On 10th December, the engineers made a similar routine visit and said that the reception was generally fairly good and that there was a notable improvement. I can only go by those reports of the Post Office engineers.

The jib will be completely screened in three months' time. That period is the estimate of the Opencast Executive of the National Coal Board. During that three months, however, which seems a long time to bear the interference, it will be acute in only one more two-week period. Towards the end of January, the jib will be in the position to give acute interference in the village. That will be the next time and the last time. That is the extent of the interference which we have to consider when weighing the possibilities of incurring huge compensation. When that is done, the Post Office engineers are confident that interference will cease.

The Board, however, did not stop there. As the hon. Member knows, it had another site further up the hillside to develop later. It has decided now to abandon it completely. That means that, with the abandonment of that site, extraction of coal will stop completely in eight to ten months' time, and there should be no interference in the last five or six months. The Board will be in occupation for a further three to six months in filling but using only small machines which will not interfere with television reception. I have one last small point, which, although not in reply to the request for a gesture for Christmas, is that the machine will not be working between noon on Christmas Eve and 9 a.m. on 27th December.

I ask the hon. Member to believe that my right hon. Friend and I and the Coal Board have studied this matter sympathetically from the outset knowing the disturbance that was caused to family life. We express our deep regret for the irritation caused to the people of Abertillery. We are grateful for the restraint which has been shown by the hon. Mem- ber, the urban district council and the people of Abertillery. The Coal Board, however, has been diligent, the contractors have been co-operative and the end is in sight. The time of trouble will pass and reception will again resume the efficiency which has been enjoyed for so long. A few more weeks of patience and understanding will see this unfortunate aspect closed. National considerations sometimes overrule vital local issues. It was on that basis that the Minister felt hound to turn down the council's objections, and I hope that the House, the hon. Member and the council will accept his decision.

11.44 p.m.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway (Eton and Slough)

I should like, in the last minute, to express the hope that even now the Parliamentary Secretary will accept the suggestion that there should be further consideration of this matter with the Minister. I know Abertillery. I know the people there. It is nearly fifty years since I first went to Abertillery. This is a human problem. In a sense, it is symbolical of what is happening in this age of a great centralised power exerting its weight and the life, the interests and the social values of the ordinary, common man and woman in the village being lost under this weight. I make my appeal, with my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery (The Rev. Ll. Williams), that there may still be consideration of the points which he has put forward.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.