HC Deb 05 December 1967 vol 755 cc1301-25
Mr. Peyton

I beg to move, Amendment No. 8, in page 2, line 10, leave out '£45,000,000' and insert '£40,000,000'.

The Chairman

With this can be discussed Amendment No. 43, in Schedule, page 6, line 22, leave out '£45,000,000' and insert '£40,000,000.'

Mr. Peyton

For the reasons given earlier, I would much prefer large sums of money not to be immediately voted without Parliament keeping control over them. I see that the Leader of the House is present and I hope that he is having second thoughts about this exercise. [HON. MEMBERS: "Get on with it."] I hope that he is having second thoughts about this exercise. [HON. MEMBERS: get on with it."] I hope that he is carrying on an effective conversation with the Government Deputy Chief Whip. [Interruption.] It is no good hon. Members barking at me, although I know what the Prime Minister said about them. If I can peacefully interrupt the interesting conversation which the Leader of the House is having with the Government Deputy Chief Whip—

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

On a point of order. Would you interpret to the House, Mr. Grant-Ferris, what the hon. Gentleman is talking about? Is he speaking to the Amendment, or merely making remarks about hon. Members?

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Grant-Ferris)

I am the sole judge of whether anything is in order. As soon as it is out of order, I shall say so.

Mr. Peyton

I am obliged to you for your help, Mr. Grant-Ferris. I was endeavouring only to get a slight hearing as the peace of the Committee was being shattered by the loud conversation between the Leader of the House and the Deputy Chief Whip. [Interruption.] I am perfectly prepared to stand here for a long time and indefinitely to repeat an accurate account of what happened. If hon. Members ask me to do it again, I am quite willing to do so.—[HON. MEMBERS: "The right hon. Gentleman is going."]—I have been blamed for many things in my time but it would be grossly unfair if blame were laid on my blameless shoulders for getting rid of the Leader of the House.

The Minister of Defence for Equipment (Mr. Roy Mason)

He was just showing contempt for nonsense.

Mr. Peyton

I cannot remember who the Minister is who is sitting on the Front Bench, but he specialises in interventions when sitting down, not having been here before them. If he wishes to stand up—

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will come to the terms of the Amendment. When he comes to the terms of the Amendment, I hope that the rest of the Committee will listen in reasonable silence.

Mr. Peyton

I am obliged for your protection, Mr. Grant-Ferris, but I fail to see why I should be called to order when I have to put up with rude and impertinent interventions from the Treasury Bench, from Ministers who should wish to get the business and have not the sense to keep their traps shut. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] I am not in the least bothered. I am happy to listen to the kennel opposite yapping its way through the night.

If I may get back to the Amendment, it suggests that the £45 million proposed in the Clause is too large, at any rate initially, and should be reduced. We have already been at length over the ground and have suggested that we would rather not vote these excessively large sums of money for the National Coal Board in one move. This is not to say that the House would not be prepared to vote the sums required on a further report to the House by the Minister. It is for this purpose that I move the Amendment.

There is no great magic in the figure, but I do not think it unreasonable to ask the Ministers concerned with raising from the taxpayers, through Parliament, these very large sums, to come back to Parliament after a certain time and get the full amount they require. The spectacle of the party opposite supporting the Government who are in deep water today, while mocking the arguments of financial stringency and financial discipline makes me fear for the future of the country.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

There is a lot of merit in the principle behind my hon. Friend's argument. As he said, the figures do not mean anything, but the merit is this: it is quite clear from the speeches we have heard from the Minister and from the Parliamentary Secretary that the problems facing this industry are coming thick and fast and that they change the position. The situation the Ministry envisage one minute is completely changed the next minute. We had a good example explained by one of my hon. Friends on the last Amendment. If we can we should find some way of bringing the question of this vital industry before the House more often.

12 m.

I would have thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) would have had lots of support from hon. Gentlemen opposite on this. They have shown their concern, and I congratulate them on the way that they have been able to marshal their forces and bring their points of view to the attention of the Treasury Bench over the last few months, and certainly over the last few weeks. It would have been a good thing not to have left it to the discretion of the Minister of Power, who, whilst he is able, has, of necessity, to protect his Department and the people who run it. Of course, the one way that he can protect his Department is by keeping its problems outside the House of Commons. If something can be kept within one's Department and not have to face the probes and examination once it is brought to the floor of the House—

Mr. Albert Roberts

The hon. Member should bear in mind that a National Coal Board Report has not been debated since 1961.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

All the more reason why we should learn from that. It has not been debated, and we have seen the result affecting this industry very badly. It has disturbed all of us, and nobody is more disturbed than those who represent mining constituencies.

Human nature being what it is, I know that the Minister will not want to neglect his job—and I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman will ever lack enthusiasm for wanting to do his job well—but there is all the difference in the world between the Treasury Bench and the back benches and there is all the difference in the world between the executive and Parliament. When the right hon. Gentleman is in charge of his Department he is doing his duty within the Department by trying to save embarrassment at having to give explanations half way through a particular exercise. The Department likes to keep it out of Parliament. It is a useful thing for any Department to be able to go for a good length of time doing what it thinks is right and doing the best it can without having to face a probe.

If there is one industry in the country which ought, over the next two or three years, to go through the perpetual Parliamentary examination to see that the direction taken is the right one, it is the coal industry. This is a serious point. If the Minister can find some way of implementing the principle that my hon. Friend has set out, without accepting the figures which appear on the Order Paper, I am sure that he would be doing the right thing. But I say to hon. Gentlemen opposite that the Treasury Bench is as much their enemy as it is the enemy of the Opposition on this. The Departmental heads want to hide from its gaze, just as much as it does the Opposition, the problems which are facing them.

Mr. Swain

The hon. Gentleman says that the Treasury Bench is just as much the enemy of the back benches as the Opposition.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

I said "of the Opposition".

Mr. Swain

I can inform the hon. Gentleman that I would sooner trust any Member of the Government Front Bench than any Member on the benches opposite.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

There were 19 votes in the Lobby last night which did not reflect that point of view, but that was yesterday and I suppose that today is today. However, I make the point that the Treasury Bench is the enemy of the rest of Parliament, whether the Opposition or those sitting on the back benches on the Government side. In nine cases out of ten it does not matter, but every now and again we get a problem in an industry, such as the coal industry, where it is up to both sides to join together to see that we get a full and proper answer.

All that my hon. Friend has done in the Amendment is to give one suggestion showing how we can accomplish that. If we do not grant the Board the money that it thinks it might want over a long period it means that it will have to keep—[interruption]—if hon. Gentlemen opposite will keep their fingers on this Department and keep it short of money so that it has to keep coming back for more, they will make certain that their constituents' interests are properly looked after. It is because the Amendment would entail that happening that I am supporting my hon. Friend, but I would have expected more support from hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Mr. Hector Monro (Dumfries)

I realise that the Amendment must be read in conjunction with the 1965 Act. I rise to speak on it because my principal objective in seeing that these Clauses are passed is to ensure that miners in my constituency are retained in their present employment until new jobs are available for them.

I have had some difficulty in obtaining the facts. I had hoped that the Parliamentary Secretary would have been able to give details at the end of the Second Reading debate, or that we might have heard more since, either by letter, or in the debates today. Certainly the Minister gave some indication of the number of pits which would be closed in 1968. The closure of the 16 pits which was postponed by the Prime Minister from September to 31st December are the 16 which, under exceptional circumstances, could be kept open until 31st March. From the way that the Minister spoke this evening, it perhaps gave some indication that their closure could be postponed still further, and I would be pleased to know whether that is possible, because in the area of the colliery in which I am particularly interested—and this applies to most of the Scottish areas where closures are imminent—it is most unlikely that new jobs can be found by next spring.

Mr. Marsh

I think the hon. Gentleman will find that he is on Clause 4, and not Clause 2.

Mr. Monro

I accept that there is a great intermingling of the various Clauses. The money to which I am referring is relevant to the grants which can be used in respect of pit closures. I therefore think that the information which I am seeking has a bearing on this, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will be able to provide it before we pass this Clause.

I am speaking against my hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) because I think that under the exceptional circumstances of the moment, with high unemployment in the mining areas, the money which is suggested in this Clause will be necessary. This is why I support the Clause.

Mr. Peyton

My hon. Friend has misunderstood the point that I was trying to make. I hope that he will apply his mind to it. I am not denying that money is necessary. Nor am I saying that it will not eventually be spent. I am saying that the House of Commons should maintain some control over the N.C.B., in which my confidence, to put it politely, is limited.

Mr. Monro

I thank my hon. Friend for that further explanation. I have listened to his earlier speeches, and I support him in what he said about the borrowing powers. From what he said, I take it that he is extremely critical of the Board, and so am I on certain measures, but, on the question of colliery closures, I think that the recommendation put forward by the Government will be valuable.

Mr. Freeson

I hope that it will not be taken as discourtesy if I do not seek to answer the point made by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), because he was not really speaking to the Amendment before us, or the Clause to which it refers.

As we are challenged to recapitulate the position of the finances referred to in the Clause, I shall be only too glad to go over the background and set out the position. Before doing so, perhaps I should say, as much stress has been placed on the need for this House to maintain a check on the finances of the Board and its activities generally, that this year. with the debate in July, the Second Reading debate, and tonight's Committee proceedings, we are paying more attention to the financial and other aspects of the Board than has been the case, I imagine, for the preceding five years put together, including the years when the previous Administration was in charge.

I do not think it can be said accurately that we are not paying attention to Parliamentary control or concern for the affairs of the industry, but the position we are in tonight with this particular part of the Bill is, as was stated at one point by the hon. Member for Dumfries when he was speaking to the Amendment, that it follows on from the position under the 1965 Act.

In July of this year, in the debate to which I have referred, the Minister undertook to review some of the present benefits payable by the N.C.B. which rank for Government grant under the 1965 Act, and to do so in the light of the estimates of the numbers of men leaving the industry or transferring to new jobs within the industry.

At that time he explained that the benefits were important, and they remain important, to ease the obstacles to payment which has to be made in this situation of the industry, and to reduce these obstacles to a minimum.

The existing arrangement is one which should be accepted by all good employers with any sense of social obligation, and certainly the N.C.B. has been acting in that spirit over the years. It takes into account also the economic position of the industry and it is something which we have to review because of the changing position which has been the subject of much debate inside and outside the House of Commons in recent months.

Under the 1965 Act, the N.C.B. paid £3.8 million of expenditure each year, and half of the remainder. The estimate of the total cost of these grants for the five years to 1971 was expected to be about £80 million at that time, and the total Government contribution was to be limited to £30 million. Expenses ranking for grants from the Exchequer covered three broad headings: payments to ease the problems of transferring men within the industry; payments for social welfare activities; and payments to redundant men.

The numbers transferring within the industry, although reducing, will, however, require an increased scale of benefits being paid for by the industry, or would have were it not for the Bill, owing to the greater distances over which the miners have had to travel in order to take up employment to which they are transferred.

The cost of the new supplementary income benefit for mine workers will be carried under the proposals in the Bill by the Treasury, and the cost of reimbursing the Coal Board's superannuation funds for premature pensions will also be so carried. But the redundancy payments will fall to be met by the N.C.B., and the increased numbers of salaried employees of the Board becoming redundant still impose a substantial burden.

The estimate of the total cost of benefits still to be paid over the remaining four years up to 1971 will be about £70 million. The Government, taking into account the financial position of the Board, has therefore decided it would be right for the Treasury to bear two-thirds of the cost to the Board for each of these four years up to the limit of £45 million.

The effect will be to transfer £5 million a year of the cost to the Exchequer, together with the total cost of supplementary benefits for elderly miners aged 55 and upwards which will approximate to £11,500,000 net during this period over the next four years.

There is, too, the industrial as well as the social aspect. Not only is this desirable socially, but the industry will benefit from concentration of production and the transfer of skilled men to more productive jobs. The main point in our minds in these debates is that the community must accept a social obligation to help the large force of men affected by the changes in the industry, about which we are concerned in these debates.

12.15 a m.

Mr. Nicholas Ridley (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

It will be more opportune to discuss the grants themselves on the next Amendment, which seeks to transfer more of the responsibility for the grants to the Exchequer. I will reserve my remarks on the grants themselves to that occasion.

I support my hon. Friend's attempt to ensure that the Government will come back to the House earlier to find further monies on all these grants and loans. The Minister seems to take the arrogant attitude that Parliament is a last formality after they have made up their minds. Evidence of this is the Supplementary Estimate published last week asking for £3,968,000 more in respect of the £45 million grant in the Bill.

I submit that Supplementary Estimates should not be put in for sums deriving from Bills which the House has not passed. The assumption is made in this Estimate that we shall agree to this £45 million and a further similar amount in another Clause, plus other moneys in other Clauses, as if it were a foregone conclusion that the House would not alter the grants. It is only tactful to wait until the House has passed the legislation before claiming the money in this form.

The grants in Clause 2 are about the only ores which Mr. Pierre-Paul Schweitzer would approve. He will not consent to most of the latter ones. I believe, when the Chancellor writes to him, as he will have to do, to ask his permission to pay them.

I suggest to my hon. Friend, therefore, that we let this £45 million go through and discuss its merits on the next Amendment, because this series of grants is to be commended. I reinforce his plea, however, that, with an industry in serious trouble like the coal industry, the Government should come back to the House regularly with progress reports and requests for further sums so that the House can judge the progress of the industry.

Mr. Peyton

With my usual humility, I will take my hon. Friend's advice and ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. Peyton

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 2, line 11, leave out from `date' to end of line 16.

The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Grant-Ferris)

I understand that it would be convenient to discuss with this Amendment, Amendments No. 48, in page 2, line 10, leave out '1971' and insert '1972'; No. 49, in page 2, line 11, leave out 'four' and insert 'five'; and No. 11, in page 2, line 15, leave out 'two thirds of'.

Mr. Peyton

This Amendment echoes the sentiments we have expressed throughout our debates on the Bill. It seeks to require the N.C.B. to contribute half the expense and leave the other half to the Exchequer, instead of following the course proposed by the Bill of making the Exchequer provide two thirds of the amount. I will not labour the argument at this hour because I have already sufficiently adduced my case about how I feel convinced that I can have no confidence in the Board's capacity to control its expenditure properly. When dealing not with one's own money but with money which has come straight out of the Exchequer it is tempting to lose control of expenditure.

Mr. Ogden

Amendments Nos. 48 and 49 in my name are linked with the one moved by the hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to my proposals. Under the Bill as drafted—if none of these Amendments is accepted—a total of £45 million will be available for a period of four years. I propose that the sum should remain the same but that the period should be extended to five years. Thus, the £45 million would remain unchanged and only the period would be increased.

The Minister has often quoted from the Blue Paper on fuel policy, Cmnd. 3438. It is interesting to note that paragraph 6 states: The Government's aim has been to lay down long-term policy guidelines which can be modified and adjusted in response to new developments and to provide a coherent framework within which specific decisions can be taken as the need for them arises. Within this context, future decisions need to be based on up-to-date information; there will be periodical revisions of the relevant economic analyses and estimates in the light of changing circumstances; and the Government will keep policy under continuing review. Thus, if present forecasts prove wrong—as in some respects they certainly will—there is scope for adjustment from year to year. Hon. Members have referred to the fallacy of previous forecasts and the difficulty of forecasting. It would be wise and prudent, instead of limiting this sum to be made available for only four years—and one hopes that there will be a residual sum—to state, without increasing the total sum available, that if there is anything left over at the end of the four years, it may be made available for the fifth year for contingency planning. I hope that my right hon. Friend will indicate that he will consider this either here or in another place.

Mr. Marsh

The problem which arises here is an understandable one for we are drawing what must inevitably be an arbitrary figure for the contribution from the Exchequer as opposed to that from the Board. First of all, there is a strong feeling that the provisions under the 1965 Act were too onerous so far as the Board is concerned, and that view is held, not only by the Board, but by the union as well.

It is with all modesty that I say I must perhaps be the only Minister in the House who can expect to have opposition from both sides at one and the same time, and tonight provides no exception. From one side—or, rather, from both sides—I am told that the Exchequer contribution is too high, and at the same time I am told that it is too low; so I think that, perhaps, the figure we are suggesting is about right. Yet I think that the Committee will agree that there is no amount which anybody can produce before us and say, "This is the right figure". It is right that the Board should carry a proportion of the burden; it is good for the morale of the industry that it should not feel it is living on the Exchequer, and it is right from the point of view of ordinary commercial practice. The industry will benefit from the concentration of production and the transfer of men to more productive jobs within the industry, and it is this which provides part of the cost.

That is so far as the industry is concerned. The community will benefit in that it has also an obligation to meet part of the cost, and the first consideration is that the £3.8 million bloc—the Board has to pay that—is a quite unrealistic figure. Amounts of that order, which cannot be met, are better if they are squarely faced and the first point is to abandon the first £3.8 million.

Under the 1965 Act, the Board has to meet pound for pound of the Exchequer contribution after the first £3.8 million and, again, I cannot produce any absolutely right proportion. It is a matter of judgment but, personally, I think that the pound for pound formula was unrealistic and unreasonable. However, as I have said, there is much to be said for the Board carrying some of the burden. So, we have changed this to a one-third contribution instead of one-half and, as a result, it is estimated that the difference between now and 1971 will be about £11,250,000. I do not underestimate the size of that figure, but, in the context of the size of the exercise which is going on, this is not an unreasonable increase in the Exchequer's contribution either from the economic standpoint or from the point of view of the social reasons to which I have referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) made the point quite clearly that it might be reasonable to extend the period from 1971 to 1972. I would say to him that, here again, this is inevitably an arbitrary decision, but what we have done all the time since the exercise first started after the passing of the 1965 Act is to work with 1971 in mind. That is three years ahead and, so far as anybody can say, that is as far as we can see. On many occasions we shall have to look at what is happening in fact. Much comment has been made about the need to debate this industry, but I should have thought that in the last year we have debated it more than in the previous four years. That is right, because it is important, and there will be many other debates between now and 1971. I hear the hon. Lady the Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher) say "More money". That may or may not be the case. I have a feeling that we will be discussing the coal industry again before 1971, and I put it no higher than that.

I therefor suggest to my hon. Friends and to hon. Members opposite that this is a question of balance in the light of the size of the problem which the industry faces. I cannot prove that two-thirds is the right figure, I cannot prove that 1971 is better than 1972, but what the Bill sees to do is to draw a new balance which gives the Board a chance of meeting its obligations, and places a bigger load on the Treasury—at considerable cost—and enables us to keep our eyes fixed on 1971 in the knowledge that as we get into 1968, and again in 1969, the picture will be changing all the time. All the way along we are trying to give the industry a period in which to see how far it can get—and it is a big increase and will be more—and how far it will be able to press on along these lines. With those remarks, Mr. Grant-Ferris, I ask hon. Members if they would now be prepared to accept the Bill as it stands in this context.

12.30 a.m.

Mr. Richard Kelley (Don Valley)

We want the Minister to look at our Amendment on the ground that as in 1965 it was recognised by the then Minister that the Treasury had some obligation to meet the cost of the transference of men and of the contraction of the industry, so, as the contraction is now likely to be accelerated and much more severe, the Treasury should be prepared to accept the full responsibility. We want to leave out the words "two thirds of".

Unless the Board is allowed to concentrate production on the most efficient units we shall never have the kind of industry of which the Minister has often talked as making a strong and vital contribution to our energy requirements. In order to carry out this exercise in concentration the Board must meet an ever-increasing burden. There have been occasions when men have moved from one pit to another, where they have had only a few months of work there before having to move on again. Only on Saturday a man came to see me who had already moved four times—three times in Scotland and once down into England—and now works at a pit that is at risk. If such movement of labour has to be undertaken by the industry on the present basis, even though it appears to be much more generous than the 1965 arrangement, there will be a burden which it should not be asked to bear, and one which no other industry has to bear on such a scale.

The Minister ought to consider the burdens peculiar to the industry. It has to meet, for instance, the enormous cost of compensation for subsidence. It has to pay out about £20 million a year in common law damages for injuries received in the pit, where the incidence of accidents is considerably greater than it is in any other industry. Management and men have to be able to accept the full spirit of the safety regulations. That is much more difficult in a mine than in the ordinary type of factory or in other places of work, so claims for personal injury are greater in coal mining than elsewhere. Large housing estates have to be subsidised so that rents charged may be comparable to those prevailing for similar houses in the area.

These things are peculiar to the mining industry. Unless it is prepared to meet this burden, the State will not have the viable industry envisaged by the Minister. We shall lose men, and miners cannot be made overnight. We cannot send a man to an accelerated training course and expect him to be turned out as a fully-fledged miner in a short time. When we lose these men they seldom return to the industry.

A vital force in our economic life is formed by those able to man the pits and produce coal. We should do what we can to enable the industry to move these men to areas where work is available so that the force necessary to keep the industry going can be maintained.

Mr. Clifford Williams (Abertillery)

With my colleagues I have listened to the debate and we have been entertained a great deal. Some of the speeches have been completely out of context. They have ranged over a wide field. I perhaps will do the same. If so, I ask your forgiveness in advance, Mr. Grant-Ferris. We have had Worcestershire sauce, Somerset cider, harmless gas and, from the hon. Lady on the Opposition Front Bench, a sip of champagne.

I do not pretend to understand all the implications of the arrangements which have been made. I worked in the pit for only 45 years and I have several brothers who worked in the pits for many years. We lived and worked in a period from 1918 onwards, the memory of which will remain with us always. When I hear hon. Members opposite professing friendship for the miners it is not in human nature to accept it. When one has lived in the valleys and seen the suffering and stark tragedy which can never be removed, one thinks of the gas chambers which Hitler had in Germany. I asked your guidance, Mr. Grant-Ferris, lest I should stray off the road.

Perhaps hon. Members opposite do not know when the Ridley Committee's Report came out.

Mr. Ridley

indicated assent.

Mr. Williams

There is one scholar in the class. At the time of that Report, 90 per cent. of the energy of the country was produced from coal. Today it is 65 per cent. That has been a violent change and it appears to be accelerating as technology advances. The Ridley Committee, only 15 years ago when the country was desperately short of fuel under a Conservative Government, was set up by a Conservative Government. It advised on possible measures to promote the best use of the country's fuel and power resources … To meet in full the demands of the community for the different fuel and power services … To provide for export fuels … Export fuels mark you, 15 years ago. Today that seems rather strange. The Committee proposed producing 222 million tons of coal in 1955, and said that that figure should be increased to 250 tons a year by 1970. The experts on the opposite side of the Committee have told us how wrong the Coal Board has been in its forecasts, but there was a case of a specialist committee set up by a Conservative Government being hopelessly wrong.

Changes affect our mining communities and the lives of all those in them. Some places, like the Rhondda, have become economic graveyards. We had that under the coal owners, and I worked under them for a long period. My God, if ever we worked under slave masters and brutality, then I and my colleagues experienced that for 30 years. I shall never criticise the Coal Board or the Government that nationalised coal. Whatever the Board's defects, it has been very good, and those old days must not be repeated.

Eminent people have stated many times on wider economic matters that the world does not owe us a living. We accept that, but we must also accept that the country owes the miners a living. What they have given over the years cannot be measured in pounds, shillings and pence. During the last war and for a decade after, the demand for coal was insatiable. Every pit capable of production was needed, and we were exhorted to produce the maximum amount possible.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Gentleman. I know that he feels these things very much, and we are all very interested to hear him. But I am bound to keep to the rules of order. All the Amendments refer to one thing only—pit closures—and we must adhere to that, for otherwise there will be no end to the debate.

Mr. Williams

Thank you, Mr. Grant-Ferris. I asked you to guide me. I shall have to skip half a dozen pages of my notes. You have knocked me off my stride, though you did not mean to do that. I thought that I was on the mountain then, practising to myself. I do not want to take advantage of the Committee.

Do not ask me or my colleagues who worked under both systems to deride or belittle the National Coal Board. We know that the country and the Government can never hope to repay what the miners have given the nation.

The most shameful thing I have seen in my life was a picture in the London Evening Standard of 21st November when the country was up against it and the Government were compelled to devalue. It portrays the parasitical non-producers on the floor of the Stock Exchange the day after devaluation.

The Temporary Chairman

Order. I cannot have that either. The hon. Gentleman must keep to the Amendments, and remember that they bear on pit closures.

Mr. Williams

I had to bring that in as a contrast to what I was saying. We believe in the Amendments which we have put down and we believe that we have the support of the Committee and the country.


Mr. G. Elfed Davies

I will not detain the Committee for long but I want to make one or two comments and refer to what the Minister said when he spoke about there being arguments at all times. He said that hon. Members opposite said that the amount borne by the Treasury was too high while we said that it was too low. The problem is that it is too little and too late. Had much more been done in 1965 many of the problems which we face today would probably not be there.

The real question was not whether the figure was too high or too low. The Minister suggested that the right path was in the middle. But it is too little and rather too late.

The 1965 Act assumed that the cost of the concentration of the industry—and that included only expenditure to facilitate the redeployment of miners—would be something like £80 million. I am convinced, as I said on Second Reading, that the concentration of the industry since 1965 has been mainly Government policy. If an industry is contracted by the policy of the Government, surely it is right to argue that the Government should accept full responsibility. That is why we lave put down this Amendment. We believe that, having taken decisions as a Government, it is the responsibility of the Government to meet the results of those decisions. Therefore, I suggest to the Minister that he should say, not as the Opposition suggest, that the figure is too high, but as we suggest, that it is too low. Because this balances the scales he cannot wriggle out of the middle and say that his figure is right.

He should face the facts and the facts are that the Government have decided a policy and there is a responsibility on the Government to meet it. The Amendment simply asks the Government to meet the full responsibility of the results of the concentration policy. That is why I support it.

Mr. Marsh

I do not want to prolong the debate because I know that hon. Members on both sides want to move on. This is a long Bill and there are a number of other points to be made.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, East (Mr. G. Elfed Davies) has put his finger on the most sensitive point: whether the Exchequer should carry the entire cost of this exercise. This is a perfectly reasonable and legitimate point to put forward, but I think it would be a mistake. It would mean that the Coal Board would be dependent on the Exchequer for the whole of its expenditure under the Bill. While the expression "He who pays the piper calls the tune" is a cliché, there is a tendency to undervalue most clichés. It is important for the Board, in its own interests, to have a smaller proportion to bear, but a proportion which enables it to put its point of view forcefully and argue its share in the exercise.

I do not think my hon. Friend and I find ourselves in disagreement in principle, although we will probably have more arguments on the issue, but I hope that he will feel, on reflection, that it is important for the Board to have a degree of independence from the central Government.

The Board's share is much smaller because of the abolition of the first £3.8 million as well as the change from one-half to one-third. The remaining third gives the Board a level of independence which is valuable to it. It enables it to take a close interest because of its financial commitment to those concerned.

Mr. Ridley

I have great sympathy with the case put by hon. Members opposite. The total sum involved was thought last year by Lord Robens to be £80 million in this operation. In his evidence to the Select Committee he said that the Board would have to find £50 million and that the Government would only find £30 million. The Parliamentary Secretary, a year or so later, says that the figure is now down to £70 million, of which £25 million is for the Board and £45 million for the Government, making a switch of £25 million in favour of the Board.

This seems to me the best way to help compared with many of the ways available. What is now proposed by hon. Members opposite is that there should be a further switch of this last £25 million from the Board to the Government. This scheme is very important. The Board tells me that, in the first four years of this exercise, 10,500 men have been taken from declining coal fields and also from other industries and put to work in profitable coal fields in the Midlands and elsewhere. This, as far as I can make out, has cost approximately £15 million, an average of £1,500 per miner.

For the next four years, as outlined in the Clause, the estimated cost is a further £70 million, and the Board, according to my information is hopeful of persuading another 20,000 miners to accept resettlement of this sort, which works out at £3,500 for each miner resettled. I am not sure whether that figure is right. It seems we are not getting particularly good value for money if the cost has gone up from £1,500 to £3,500 per miner resettled.

I have also checked with the cost of similar schemes on the Continent by the Coal and Steel Community. In the last complete year, 1966–67, I find that 51,000 miners were moved and resettled at a cost of nearly 14 million dollars, which works out at about £100 each. So we have this very wide range between £100 in Europe and £3,500 as forecast for here. There is, of course, a very large benefit in doing this but Lord Robens—

Mr. Swain

The discrepancy between the two costs is accounted for by the Board including the provision of houses in the new areas where the miners are resettled. This does not happen in America.

Mr. Ridley

I was not talking about America but about the European Coal and Steel Community. The figure for housing is relatively small. It has only been £2.2 million so far in subsidies by the Board. I do not think that that aspect can account for so large a gap. How much are we spending per head? How much do we plan to spend? It is important to know the cost and what we are getting for our money, although, of course, the scheme is desirable.

As I was saying, Lord Robens has said that it has a large financial advantage for the Board. In his evidence to the Select Committee he said: I could put the figure in another way which may be of interest, that is the miner transferring from Northumberland to East Midlands earns for the Board £1,000 a year, and he earns a considerable amount of money for himself. The Board itself, in its hand-out on the scheme, stated—and this is significant: It costs us over £1,000 to train an underground face worker but only about £500 to move a man. Is our redeployment effort worth while? We think it is, because it enables us not only to fulfil our obligations as a good employer but to make a sizeable contribution to our balance sheet. The marginal contribution of a man at profitable pits in the East Midlands can be as high as £5,000 per man year. There can, therefore, be no more effective use for our marginal labour than to redeploy it; our efforts are bent on doing so as effectively as possible. I am sure that that is true. Therefore, in this expenditure there can be very large economic benefits for the Board in carrying it out. One has to ask why it is proposed that the Government should help.

Another point which seems to me to be important is that the Ministry of Labour pays similar grants to workers in other industries. We know what the grants are—travelling allowances, make up of lost wages, settling in costs, lodging allowance, household removal, continuing liability in the place where a man comes from, household resettlement grants and increased rent allowances.

The Ministry of Labour has a rudimentary scheme for other workers than miners. The comparison seems extraordinary. The Ministry of Labour last year, on schemes for non-mineworkers—the whole of the remainder of the population apart from mineworkers—spent £366,000 only, and here it is proposed to undertake expenditure rising to perhaps £20 million on mineworkers. There is this enormous discrepancy between the arrangements provided for the population as a whole, £366,000 a year, and the arrangements for the mineworkers.

Looking back over the events since 20th July last year, when the great drive for redeployment started—and we must admit that it has been a total failure—one sees the reason, because it is clear that to achieve successful industrial redeployment an expenditure of £366,000 a year is totally inadequate and that the example of the Coal Board in having at least tried to tackle the tasks involved is one which could be emulated by the Government as a whole.

That consideration leads me to believe that this is a national responsibility. For instance, of the 10,500 miners so far redeployed to profitable pits, 2,000 were unemployed or not previously employed by the Board at all. We thus have a transfer of men from other industries into coal mining. Obviously, this is extremely valuable both to the Board and to the economy as a whole.

It would seem to me that the policy in this direction should be national and should concert transfers from one area or industry to another—indeed, from one firm to another. It is not right to charge employers contributions on the weekly stamp for industrial movement of that sort—unemployment pay, training and the like—and, at the same time, to put the burden on to the employer, even in part, as is being done in this case.

The best way that we can spend money to help the coal industry is on grants to help it to become efficient and effective. This means redeploying men from pits which are closing to the pits which are short of labour and have a great future in other parts of the country. Therefore, I would have thought that, on all this argument, hon. Gentleman opposite who have put down the Amendment to remove the two-thirds limit on the grants have the better of it, though I must be quite honest and say that I believe that some of the later Clauses of the Bill seeking to spend a lot of money on far less worthy objects is the place where we should I make the economies to find the extra money which would be involved in making this transfer. But I would find it very difficult, if this matter were to be taken to a conclusion, to say other than that it is the right place to spend Government money, and I only wish schemes of this sort were available to workers in every industry, and not reserved to coal miners.

1.0 a.m.

Mr. Eadie

I want to comment, briefly I hope, on this part of the Bill's provisions. I sought, with some of my hon. Friends, to put down Amendments to those relating to pit closures. I do not want to go over the ground which has been already covered by some of my hon. Friends with, let me say, a great deal of compassion, sincerity and knowledge.

I take the view—and I think the Minister knows it—that the Government have to share the responsibility for the social consequences of pit closures, because, although I know that it is arguable, it is my submission that it is Government policy which is responsible for the concentration in the industry. Government can influence consumer demand, and if there is a lack of consumer demand for coal there will be pit closures. Some of my hon. Friends have sought to argue that the Government should be responsible for the social consequences in their entirety, and, quite frankly, I think that that is a reasonable proposition.

When we start to talk about pit closures and the costs and social consequences it is assumed, particularly by hon. Gentlemen opposite, that the pits in the areas of closures are derelict. This is not entirely true. In many of the areas where we have pit closures and serious social consequences there has been a big capital investment, a capital investment in houses and schools, in clinics and roads. Even when the pits are closed, a necessary economic and social infrastructure is still there in the area, and I would argue, if there is contraction of employment, that the cost of putting in the infrastructure is a rate burden on the people in the area.

In my submission, the Government have a responsibility for carrying out their obligations in this, because, after all—and I know this is contentious, and that hon. Gentlemen opposite, and even some of my hon. Friends, do not agree with me about it—unproven technology is taking the place of proven technology. Let me take an example. In the area in which I reside—not my constituency—a commercial decision has been taken, I understand, on the closure of the Michael Colliery; but there are reserves of coal there; there is an abundance of coal; it is a very very rich field of coal. Because of the policy of the Government for concentration, the argument is being advanced that the coal will not be needed, and, therefore, we will not work it in that area. Because they have been politically conscious and sensible, the miners of the area have elected Labour-controlled authorities which have ploughed back this vast social capital in houses, schools, roads and clinics. The Government have a responsibility not to carry out this policy of concentration and neglect this social capital, this rate burden, this capital burden, in areas where there are pit closures. The Government cannot abdicate the responsibility of backing up these authorities financially.

I therefore ask my right hon. Friend to realise that what we are asking is that the Government should take the entire responsibility for the social consequences of pit closures, and our arguments are soundly based. Many of my hon. Friends endorse these arguments and I hope that my right hon. Friend will give them careful consideration.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

I should like to put a short question of fact which arises out of the argument put so eloquently by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie). He referred to the Michael Colliery which is representative of many Scottish pits which are closed, or about to be closed. Is the contribution to be made by the Board, and which is now to be one-third instead of one-half, to be borne by the divisions or by the Board as a whole? If it is borne by the divisions, that will clearly have the effect of raising the price of coal in each division affected.

Mr. Marsh

I apologise for intervening for a third time on this subject, but this is an important issue and it arouses strong feelings among many of my hon. Friends and some hon. Members opposite. I can tell the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) at once that there is no question but that this provision is met by the Board on a national basis. It is right that it should be.

The whole argument has been that this is a cost which must fall on the State. We have moved away from the 1965 Act, when the Board was asked to pay the first £3.8 million and a pound per pound thereafter, to a position which is considerably better and in which the Exchequer does not put a block at £3.8 million and where the Exchequer meets two-thirds of the amount. We are down to a very narrow argument about whether the Board should be relieved of the whole lot.

I ask my hon. Friend to consider very carefully what this would entail. As long as the Board makes even a minimum contribution, it is master in its own house, which would not be the case if the entire financial burden were to be placed on the Treasury, thus making the Board 100 per cent. dependent on the Treasury for this provision. I say that with the greatest respect—which all Ministers always have—to the Treasury. I am sure that on reflection my hon. Friends will see that that would not achieve their objective, in which I support them.

I do not make a quibbling argument, but it is a fact that leaving out two-thirds and charging the full amount of the Board's expenditure against the Bill's provisions would exhaust these financial provisions faster than would otherwise be the case.

Mr. Ridley

The right hon. Gentleman should admit in fairness to his hon. Friends that they have proposed to increase the amount provided, so their argument holds water on technical grounds.

Mr. Marsh

I said that I was not making a debating point. I was saying that, given the drafting peculiarities of Bills and the fact that the Financial Resolution has been passed, the effect of the Amendment would be to charge the full amount of the Board's expenditure against the financial provisions of the Bill. The effect of that would be to exhaust the financial provisions of the Bill faster than would otherwise be the case unless expenditure were less than was previously thought. Therefore, taking these arguments into account, and they are powerful— —

Mr. G. Elfed Davies

What I think my right hon. Friend should realise is that some other provisions in the Bill may be over-generous, like the provision for people who may transfer from one coal field to another. Some coal fields which are contracting are not taking these men in, so there may be financial provision there which counter-balances this.

Mr. Marsh

This is an understandable reaction, but I hope that it will not spread, because the undermanning of economic pits would be one of the most dangerous things for the industry.

We have done a great deal of calculation, and in these circumstances, with the assurances I have given, and with the difficulties we face, I hope the Committee will feel able to accept the Bill as it is.

Amendment negatived.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Back to
Forward to