HC Deb 03 June 1959 vol 606 cc322-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

I want to deal with a subject about which I feel very strongly, namely, the future of opencast mining. The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power is, no doubt, fully conversant with my point of view. He knows that many times I have opposed this type of mining. I opposed the Second Reading of the Opencast Coal Bill. I spoke during the Committee stage and, finally, on Third Reading I made an all-out burst of opposition. As we were not all of the same opinion, we could not manage to stop the Bill going through.

I am pleased to have the Adjournment debate, because I want to table a reasoned argument for the cessation of all opencast mining. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary wants to have ample time to give a reasoned reply. Therefore I will not take very long so that the hon. Gentleman can answer all the points that I raise.

I am pleased to see that some of my friends from mining constituencies are present. Opencast mining is causing us some concern. As we travel home to our constituencies every weekend—as most Members who represent mining constituencies do, because we live in or near our constituencies—during the first part of our journey we travel through very beautiful and colourful country. The shades of green at this time of the year are a delight to the eye. There are smatterings of yellow from the fields of mustard and many small and unspoiled villages, some woods and attractive copses, and we do not want to hurry through it. Our urge is to stay and linger awhile.

However, that is not true of many mining districts, one of the reasons being opencast mining, which is despoiling our countryside. Then we strike the industrial North—or more likely it strikes us. Massive mountains of muck from the bowels of the earth have been produced by deep coal mining, and the dirt from the operations has spilled over the countryside. As a consequence of this unplanned extraction of dirt, mining subsidence is rife in the same areas. Many roads are signposted as dangerous because of the subsidence. Many sewers have been damaged, buildings are falling apart and havoc is being created.

On top of all these—muck stacks plus the mining subsidence—we see the guts of the remaining countryside torn out by this new and mongrelised form of opencast mining, which rips up 200 ft. of dirt in an operation in order to extract a seam of 9 ft. of coal. I am pleased to say that all new coal spoil heaps are subject to planning and control, but the extensions to spoil heaps—and there are hundreds of them—are not yet subject to control. However, due, I am pleased to say, to the efforts of the Parliamentary Secretary and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and recently the National Coal Board, there is now a more co-operative effort to try to camouflage these mountains of dirt.

There has also been introduced into coal mines more mechanical stowing machines so that there is a possibility that in due course subsidence will lessen also. We can now say that spoil heaps and subsidence will gradually end. We do not, however, yet see the end of opencast mining operations. They are still continuing. I hope that we shall receive an assurance from the Minister tonight that opencast mining operations will also soon be at an end. Already 112,000 acres of agricultural land have been ripped up, and we hope that in the drive for the beautification of mining areas this will also quickly cease.

There has been a lot of talk about the restoration of opencast sites. It is not true that restoration is fully complete and good. At the recent National Farmers' Union Conference, a resolution was passed unanimously instructing the National Council to continue unremittingly and in every possible way its representations to secure the ending of opencast mining operations and in particular to call for an immediate halt to the taking of further land of which the top soil has not yet been removed. That resolution was passed unanimously. This did not give any indication that the farmers have faith in restoration.

Following the replacement of the overburden, the opencast operators move out and representatives of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food move in. For five years they are responsible for controlling the gradual restoration of the site, deciding the type of crop that should be grown and advising the farmers what should be done with the land. I am advised by the farmers, however, that after the five-year period they gradually see their soil sinking and the stones rising and the land value deteriorating. It was because of witnessing that over these years of opencast mining that the resolution was passed.

We cannot replace all the woods and the beautiful woodland walks that we have enjoyed once the opencast operation has taken place, because they are all wiped out and all the little beauty spots in many of the mining districts vanish with it. These opencast operations remind me of an octopus with its tentacles stretching out to all our beautiful little glades and spoiling them in the process.

A lot of rot is talked about opencast operations being profitable. This simply is not true. It is registered in the books that a profit of up to 13s. or 14s. a ton is made, but when the Ministry of Agriculture moves on to restore a site its representatives are there for five years. There are 130 sites in operation. We are gradually reducing the number because of the cutback of 3 million tons of opencast-mined coal. Hon. Members can imagine the number of inspectors and advisers swarming over these 130 sites throughout the mining districts. They are paid, not from the Opencast Executive, but from public rates. All this money comes from public funds, off the Ministry of Agriculture Vote, and the Opencast Executive gets away with it. When we consider also how many people are employed in the regional offices, apart from the advisers and inspectors, it all adds up to a very high figure. There may be also many National Coal Board personnel who indirectly help the Opencast Executive, with their wages merged into the production costs and not being paid by the Opencast Executive.

Then, there are the costs of the local authorities, who month after month make appeals against authorisations, including the payment of the town clerk, the surveyors, engineers and clerks who have to formulate all the material for an appeal against an authorisation. There is all the dirt in the mining district and the miners have to pay through the nose in the rates for their local authorities to fight the authorisations. If all this was taken into consideration, opencast mining would be shown not to be a profitable venture and would quickly cease.

It is alarming to note that at the moment, 6,102,000 tons of opencast coal, or nearly half of last year's output, is stocked at opencast sites. Last year's corresponding figure was 3,785,000 tons, which shows that stockpiling of opencast coal has nearly doubled. Even though some people may argue that these operations are profitable, the coal is not being sold. We cannot sell it. The stockpile has doubled in the past twelve months.

Recently, 130 sites were in existence. Because it has been decided to cut back by 3 million tons, it is the Board's intention to whittle down this number to 80. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will indicate how long the authorisations for these eighty sites are to last, when they were first granted and how long the sites are to continue. There seems to be a lot of secrecy attached to these authorisations. The Coal Board's Annual Reports never state how many there are, how long they will work, and what total tonnage is expected from them. One ought to have some information on that point, too.

Then there is another very serious matter. There has been a long-standing pledge, a gentleman's agreement I always thought it was, on this question of the cutting back of opencast. In 1950 there was an international miners' conference, and at that conference all the national unions of every nation represented were advised to go back to their respective countries and approach their Governments to seek some assurance about the future of the coal mining industry. True enough, in 1950 the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board and the Government of the day met and talked about the future of coal, and there was an agreed Press statement issued at the end of the meeting. I have not the exact words of the statement, but the essence of the statement was that there was no cause for worry about the coal mining industry of this country and that it had two cushions to fall back upon, one being the extended hours, the Saturday working agreement, and the other the opencast mining.

As soon as the National Coal Board was embarrassed by the fall in demand for coal the N.U.M. fulfilled its pledge and stopped Saturday working. Now we expect that the Government and the Board will honour their pledge and will rapidly contract opencast mining operations.

What are the psychological effects on the coal miners themselves and on their mining communities? Deep mines are closing. Opencast still continues, and it is causing a lot of bitterness in the coal fields because this year 36 pits have closed. We must remember this, too, when a deep mine is to be closed. I know that the miners are not unique in this respect but it is worthy of consideration. A man who has been underground from 15 years of age and graduated from haulage up to the coalface and become a highly skilled, productive man at his job, whether a coal hewer, machine man or ripper of stone, once that deep mine is closed, cannot be transferred to another, and he is relegated to the status of a labourer. All the productive skill which has been built up in that group of men is lost to the nation.

So they are dependent upon other mines, and yet once the absorption of those men from those 36 pits has taken place, then if there are any more closures it will be very hard indeed for any of those productive men from the coalface to find future jobs where they can use their skill and receive a similar rate of pay.

Moreover, in every deep mine pit there are a number of men on what we term light work. These are the men who, because of the hazards of the industry, have been industrially injured and are suffering industrial diseases such as pneumoconiosis and silicosis. By agreement, every pit absorbs a certain number of these men on light jobs. When a deep mine closes and there is no alternative deep mine work these chaps are virtually unemployable, because no other industry will take them in, and it is only because of the agreement which we have with the Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers that these chaps have jobs. Therefore, there is something else which should be taken note of when these deep mines are closing.

Then there is also the question of those chaps in their late fifties. Having worked underground all their working life what chance have they of alternative employment? What chance have they? These chaps are then compulsorily retired.

These are the three issues, which are social problems, which are growing from the closing of deep-mine pits. As I said at the outset, these chaps are going to suffer even more in the event of more closures, because the pits with the vacancies will already have absorbed all the men they possibly can. Therefore, these three categories are bound to suffer in that respect.

I shall not take any more time because I promised the hon. Gentleman that he should have the opportunity to make a full and comprehensive reply to my comments, in view of these points, which I sum up. First of all, there is the urgent need of beautification in the mining districts. Secondly, the need to halt the loss of agricultural land, because 100,000 acres of valuable agricultural land are lost to the nation while the operations are in progress. It seems so absurd that the Government's policy is to recognise agriculture and subsidise it, because we are badly in need of homegrown foodstuffs, whilst at the same time they are depriving the nation of 100,000 acres of agricultural land all the time that these opencast operations are taking place.

Thirdly, opencast mining is more costly than we are led to believe and, in any case, we cannot sell the coal produced. Finally, there is the effect which it has on our own basic coal industry, which is the core of our fuel and power require- ments. We expect the pledge to be honoured when it was agreed in 1950 that rather than that we should see the core of our basic fuel industry being whittled down and jeopardised in this manner, opencast mining and Saturday operations would cease. I hope that the Minister will give news tonight that phase contraction is planned and that two or three years from now opencast mining, as we understand it will cease to exist.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. Harold Neal (Bolsover)

From this unaccustomed vantage point on the back benches, I should like to support the excellent case presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) urging the termination of opencast coal mining. A debate of this kind is altogether inadequate to deal with this very important subject, but it is essential that the views of those on this side of the House should be expressed at this time.

The gravity of the situation in the coal industry cannot be overstated. Not within living memory has the industry been in such a helpless and hopeless situation as it is in at present. Some of us on this side of the House believe that one of the things that would relieve the anxieties now present in the coalfields would be to terminate opencast mining. Stocks of coal in the country have reached unprecedented levels. Distributed and undistributed stocks at present total over 38 million tons, and there appears to be no prospect of reducing the stocks, either by selling our surplus overseas or by an increase of industrial productivity in this country. Wherever one looks one finds the industry assailed by competition from oil, methane and tail gas, and one cannot see a good prospect for the mining industry for years to come. In this situation in which pits are being closed and men rendered redundant, the first step that should be taken surely is to stop opencast mining in order to keep the deep mines working.

My hon. Friend has referred to the undertakings given to the miners. I was privy to those undertakings, and I regret that they are not being fulfilled. At a time when in 1951 the agreement on extended working hours was being renewed for another year, the miners' feelings were assuaged by a promise that there would be the question of closing down opencast mining when a problem of over-production presented itself. I wish that promise were now fulfilled. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary will say that that would be an enormous expense, but I am very sceptical about the profit which it is said is being made from this coal of something like 13s. a ton. I would believe that story if a market could be provided for the 6,120,000 tons now lying on the ground. Compensation has been paid for the termination of oil contracts, and I see no difference between that and compensation being paid for terminating opencast contracts.

Derbyshire has borne a disproportionate burden of this unpopular form of mining. Up to the end of 1956 no less than 29.6 million tons of opencast coal had been got in Derbyshire, which represented about one-fifth of the total output. Local authorities and farmers are wondering why this form of mining is still continuing at a time when stocks are so high. I hope the Minister will have something helpful to tell us about the prospect of terminating opencast mining and helping the National Coal Board to save some of its own pits from closing.

10.20 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

As has been said, the time available is insufficient to deal properly even with the special points which have been raised, let alone with the whole subject. I hope, therefore, that the two hon. Gentlemen who have spoken will not think I am discourteously dogmatic if I put a few points briefly and then give them one or two facts which are not sufficiently known.

First, on restoration, it is not disputed that in the early days restoration was in many cases bad, but all the information that the National Coal Board and the Ministry have at the moment is that under modern conditions restoration leaves very little to be desired. We must remember that when these contracts were entered into, and opencast as a method of getting coal, which was well tried on the other side of the Atlantic, was first introduced here, the coal was badly needed—and maybe it will be needed again.

I would have to take a great deal of time to deal with the point of profitability in detail, but I can assure the hon. Member far Barnsley (Mr. Mason) that he has fallen into some very pardonable mistakes. For instance, the costs of the Ministry of Agriculture are taken into account before the figure of profitability of opencast is struck, and they are recovered from the National Coal Board. Indeed, his argument can be turned against himself. The hon. Gentleman talked about town clerks and so on. He might just as well say, for instance, that the cost of the Mines Inspectorate, which is paid by my Ministry, ought to be recovered from the National Coal Board before we strike the figure of profitability of deep mined coal; but it is not.

So I think the hon. Gentleman can take it from me that, as far as is humanly possible, the figures given are correct. They are that last year, before charging interest, there was a profit of only a shilling or so in deep mined coal, but well over 10s. in opencast coal. In fact, opencast coal was substantially more profitable and was subsidising deep-mined coal.

We must bear in mind that under the Statute which he and his right hon. Friends passed there is a statutory duty on the National Coal Board, taking one year with another, to make ends meet. Unfortunately, for reasons I cannot go into now, the Board has piled up a considerable deficit, added to it last year, and, I am afraid, unless something changes radically in the next six months, will add to it this year. Therefore, we cannot go on piling obligations on the National Coal Board by insisting that it should give up what is one of its most profitable activities.

Mr. Harold Finch (Bedwellty) rose—

Sir I. Horobin

If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I have only a few minutes left. There is one further point before I come to what will be the more interesting and novel points. I must repeat, as has been said over and over again on behalf of the National Coal Board—for whom in this matter it is naturally my duty to speak—that there was no pledge. We are continually being told that there was a pledge to stop opencast mining. I have looked this up myself, and the National Coal Board has looked it up, but there is no record of any pledge that, in case of a surplus, opencast would be cut. In fact, however, opencast has been cut quite substantially.

I think I can use the few minutes available to me more profitably than in going through, at any greater length than I have done up to now, the points which have been discussed over and over again in the course of coal debates. Whatever the views as to the profitability or desirability of opencast coal from the point of view of the National Coal Board, it is generally agreed now on both sides of the House that probably on balance, in the difficult situation in which the coal industry finds itself, some substantial cuts in opencast coal mining should take place. Therefore, we are really discussing not a matter of policy but a question of degree. Speaking in round figures, it has already been reduced from 14 million tons last year to 11 million tons this year, and it is intended to cut it down to 7 million tons next year.

If—I emphasise "if"; I am not saying that this will be the case—no further authorisations were given, opencast would, by 1965, come practically to an end with the exception of certain special, large cases, such as the Westfield site associated with the Lurgi gasification plant in Scotland, which presents special problems and which nobody would suggest should be discontinued anyway. That is broadly the situation now. If we go on as we are going now, production will fall to about 7 million tons next year and progressively after that.

What further can be done? I am not now laying special emphasis on compensation, though that must not be taken as nominal. The companies have in good faith expended large sums of money on the strength of the word of the Board which entered into a contract, and, therefore, substantial compensation in the event of the altering any contract would no doubt have to be paid. The Board has no reserves for that purpose, and, therefore, it would be adding to its deficit.

But that is not the real point. The real point is this. The hon. Member for Barnsley was on the Standing Committee when we went through our complicated new legislation dealing with opencast coal, and he will recall that only up to the end of the year was it possible for the Board to take advantage of the old requisitioning procedure. What happened at the end of the year was, broadly speaking, that any sites where substantial work was not already done were handed back to the owners.

The situation is, therefore, that there are very few sites, only half a dozen in the whole country—I have a list of them here—where very substantial work has not already been entered into. No sane person could suggest that, having dug an enormous hole in the ground at great expense, one should leave it there, perhaps for a number of years, perhaps almost indefinitely, just not taking the coal out in order not to produce a coal surplus. No one could suggest that, compensation apart. No one could suggest either that if one dug a great hole in the ground at enormous expense, one should put all the earth back again without taking the coal out. Therefore, we are merely talking about six sites where, although work has been started, very little has been done.

None of these sites is planned to produce any coal at all this year. Between them they will produce about 1 million tons next year, and after about a couple of years at that level their production will fall rapidly. Consequently, all we are discussing is whether or not it would be possible or desirable, if terms could be arranged and so on, to accelerate the reduction which will take place anyway by about 1 million tons next year and the year after. I am not saying that a 1 million ton reduction would not be worth while if other things made it desirable and if it were possible on reasonable terms, but I think that what I have said will persuade hon. Members opposite, and perhaps assist in the viewing of the situation in the country, which is even more important. It is very important that we should realise once and for all that there is no major contribution to be made to the problems of the coal industry, by substantial further reductions in opencast production above those reductions which are taking place under present policy.

All we are discussing really is, very roughly, whether next year production should be 7 million tons or 6 million tons. The idea that there are 4 million, 5 million or 6 million tons of coal which we could stop producing on any rational policy, is a misconception owing to the fact that, for very good reasons, as soon as the Board got possession by requisition, it started work. Far too much work has now been done on all the sites, except the half dozen to which I referred, to make it possible or reasonable to do other than go on getting the coal.

Having had that explanation, hon. Members opposite will, I think, perhaps be a little more able to form a considered judgment as to the limits of action now open to the Board and the Government. It may well be that we can make some further reduction—I do not know: it is up to the Board and the contractors to ascertain whether it is possible. But any further major contribution to the Board's stocking or production problems by the cutting of opencast production is no longer a possibility.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Ten o'clock.