HC Deb 05 December 1967 vol 755 cc1376-87

4.15 a.m.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

I beg to move Amendment No. 19, in page 3, line 36, leave out '£5,000,000' and insert '£3,000,000'.

I understand that we are also discussing Amendment No. 20, in line 36, leave out £5,000,000 and insert £7,000,000; and Amendment No. 21, leave out from £5,000,000 to end of line 37.

This Amendment has attracted considerable interest and four of my hon. Friends have supported it although I am, unfortunately, the only one of our number left in the Committee. It is also unfortunate that we are discussing matters of such importance at this hour. My four hon. Friends were very anxious to talk about this Amendment—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"]—but I think that it is a remarkable demonstration of their confidence in me that they have asked me to deal with it in their stead.

One of the reasons for the late discussion of this Amendment is that the Government insist on going on with business after other business taken under Standing Order No. 9. Such a practice might even discourage hon. Members from going ahead with requests for debates under that Standing Order, and that, I think, would be unfortunate.

If I could have an agreement in principle on this Amendment, I would be prepared to withdraw it. First, is the idea of providing a sum of not more than £5 million or not exceeding £8 million to keep open uneconomic pits for a brief period? If so, I suggest for two main reasons that to use the money in this way is rather foolish. In the first place, to keep open pits when there is no demand for the coal produced from them will just add to existing stocks, which are and have been increasing. While to do this might help us over a temporary unemployment problem, to have stocks more substantial that we have at present would make it even more difficult for future Ministers and future members of the Coal Board to justify a situation in which production was even approaching demand. That would be merely to hand over today's problem to the men who will follow on in the future. It is unfair to the industry in the future.

Second, is this the best way to serve the coal mining industry and the miners? The very substantial sum involved could more properly be used for investment in alternative industries that could provide real and secure employment in the long term—real job opportunities. That would be a more effective way of spending the money.

But some hon. Members on this side feel that perhaps this Clause is simply, in writing and in this Bill, the pay-off for a rather squalid deal which appears to have been negotiated at a recent Labour Party conference at a very crucial moment—particularly in relation to the votes of the National Union of Mineworkers—that 16 pits would be kept open for an additional six months. If this Clause really does represent the pay-off for that rather squalid political bribe, it should not be in the Bill at all.

I must say that I have been rather impressed by the statesmanlike way in which the Minister of Power and the Parliamentary Secretary have been facing the problems of the power industry. They have had to make harsh and real decisions which affect people in their ordinary lives, and to that extent this kind of blatant Prime Ministerial interference will not help them. In the circumstances, the Minister may be glad to consider the Amendment and, indeed, to accept it.

Mr. Ogden

In the doubts put forward by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) there was some imputation of corruption. His Amendment would reduce the sum from £5 million to £3 million, but our Amendment No. 20, which has not been selected, would do just the opposite: instead of reducing the sum, we would increase it from £5 million to £7 million. We suggest this because every other forecast of production targets and colliery closures has been over optimistic. We suggest that at a time when the closure programme has been accelerated it would do no harm at all to have an insurance over and above the figures already in the Bill.

These are the reasons why my hon. Friends and I support Amendment No. 20. There is a further reason which I should like to have expanded under Clause 3 to give an indication why the amount should be increased from 5 million to £7 million. When we talk of miners we think of strong men with broad shoulders, like my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire), or even of small wiry men like my hon. Friend the Member for Abertillery (Mr. Clifford Williams). We tend to forget that men and women in the ancillary services will he affected by closures.

Colliery managers, colliers, surface workers and coal face workers would produce little coal if they did not have the full support of men and women in the ancillary services and the machinery of the Coal Board. When closing pits we should not forget that we shall lose the support of area boards and administrative offices. This is why the sum should be increased from £5 million to £7 million. We should think of those who pay the wages, provide training services, order pit props and conveyers—the tools of the trade—those who do the planning, provide baths, canteens, supervise workshops and repair plant and take care of the thousand and one things that have to be done to make this coal industry the largest and most efficient in Europe.

The productivity of the white collar workers is as high, if not higher than, that of any private enterprise. The N.C.B. is a complicated organisation. It was created to control 1,000 collieries and ancillary services on vesting date. Now it has the task, 20 years later, of reorganising the administrative control of 300 or 400 collieries in 17 or 18 areas with a hot line link to the London headquarters and the amputation of divisional headquarters. This is link control with a vengeance, a drastic project which may place a tremendous strain upon the headquarters structure. There is a danger that services and controls close to the collieries will be deployed directly under the control of the London headquarters.

I understand that the N.C.B. estimates that the new organisation, linked with redundancies caused by colliery closures over the next few years will effect a reduction of 13,000 non-industrial staff by 1970. At present, non-industrial staff numbers 47,000, of whom 27,000 are in junior grades. There is the closest co-operation between industrial and non-industrial grades in the supervisory staff through the whole structure of the Board's organisation.

This is not the first time the staff has met such a challenge of reorganisation. It has had a mechanisation and computerisation programme of infinite complexity and detail. People in the white collar grades have served the industry well and they deserve the extra support which could be provided by putting the extra £2 million in the Bill.

May I say a personal word of thanks to you, Mr. Irving, for allowing me to put in this form what I could not put in another form earlier in the debate.

Mr. Concannon

I support the Amendment, and should like to go a little further, for the philosophy behind it is very good. I should like to see more phasing of pit closures until suitable alternative employment is available, with an open-ended commitment by the Government instead of the £5 million.

I represent a receiving area for some of the older employment areas and older mining regions. My area is more modern than those of many hon. Members who have spoken before, and we are still short of miners—though I do not expect to fill the vacancies with mine workers of 55 and over. The older areas must be protected by the phasing of necessary colliery closures with the provision of suitable alternative employment, and, therefore, an open-ended commitment would be better.

Mr. Emery

I rise at this late hour just to put one or two questions to the Minister and to draw a number of conclusions. We are in rather a strange position, because in discussing both Amendments at the same time we are considering exactly opposite ends of the same point; one Amendment wishes to reduce and the other to increase the amount to be paid over a four-year period for keeping 16 pits open.

I understand the worry of the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) only too well when he said that in every forecast production figures have been overestimated. That is true, and I do not think that any hon. Member taking part in the debate would believe that the figures we have had are budgets, forecasts or estimates. They are really guesstimates, more often than not of the worst sort.

What really perturbs me about the Clause and the Amendment is that their purpose is to keep open inefficient pits which have already been scheduled for closure by the management. Paragraph 114 of the White Paper on Fuel Policy states: In the light of an assessment of employment prospects this winter, the Government have requested the Board to defer until after the end of 1967 all closures except those necessitated by the exhaustion of reserves. Later in the paragraph it is stated for the first time that the Government consider that the management of the Coal Board should consult on pit closures to a very much greater extent than before with the chairmen of the regional economic planning councils. Whether this was policy or not, it is certainly the first time that I have seen this limitation put on the management authority of the chairman of the Board. Is it the Minister's intention that there should be this extra limitation, and if this is the case then I think that Lord Robens has the right to be told about it. I am certain that he does not think that it is.

The policy on closures is set out quite clearly in paragraph 117 of the White Paper. It would appear quite definitely that the two contentions are that this should not be done in haste and that it should not have any wrong or unplanned effect on the pit closure programme. The Government surely cannot claim that either of these two contentions are reasons for keeping pits open and are applicable to the Clause we are considering.

It is for that reason that I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Edward M. Taylor) was right in suggesting that the amount of money should be cut down. It was the policy of the Board that the pits should have been closed earlier. They were co-ordinated into the plans and management decisions. One has to look a little further for the exact reason for finding this Clause in a coal borrowing powers Bill.

4.30 a.m.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Is the hon. Member suggesting, regardless of whether jobs are available for these men, the pits should be closed, throwing the men out of work?

Mr. Emery

I am not suggesting it. This is what the Coal Board has said. I am not taking on this responsibility. This was something planned with and agreed by the Minister. This is the strange thing about it.

I come to the point my hon. Friend the Member for Cathcart made. This was a political deal. I do not wish to use the word "bribe", but I do not think that it is too far away. The position is that hon. Members who are members of the N.U.M. made their power felt at a certain conference. They were rightly concerned. I am not doubting that. They had a vested interest and the interests of their members to look after. They were concerned about pit closures and the Prime Minister and other people were concerned about the way the N.U.M. might vote on a certain resolution.

Mr. Swain

On a point of order, Mr. Irving. Is the hon. Member suggesting that the Prime Minister used roguery or treachery? Is he impugning the Prime Minister's character in the action he took immediately prior to the conference at Scarborough?

The Deputy Chairman

I had not taken the remarks in that way. I am sure that the hon. Member will clarify the point.

Mr. Emery

Indeed I will, Mr. Irving. There are a number of instances where the charge of roguery can be brought against certain people. That was not what I was implying. I was saying that the Prime Minister wanted a deal. Any hon. Member in this Committee who does not believe that this sort of thing happens at trade union conferences and at party conferences many times is living in another world.

Mr. McGuire

The Tory party conference does not vote at all.

Mr. Emery

We do not have the block vote, so we are not affected by this. I invite the hon. Gentleman to the next Tory Party conference. He is talking without knowledge or experience.

Mr. McGuire

It is a proud boast that the Tory Party conference does not vote. Indeed, Tories are aghast when anyone seeks to vote at their conference. I believe that the vote at the last conference was the first for many years. It is not a feature of Tory Party conferences to have votes.

The Deputy Chairman

Order. There is no mention of the Tory Party conference in the Amendment. I hope that the Committee will come back to the Amendment.

Mr. Emery

I realise that only too well, Mr. Irving. Perhaps I have missed out by not having an Amendment put down on that matter. I wanted just to clear up a point, since what the hon. Gentleman has said is incorrect, as he knows. However, it is fun, even at this hour—perhaps it is more acceptable at this hour.

But it is the case, as he knows, that the announcement of the prolongation of the life of these 16 pits was made when the vote of the N.U.M. was most needed. Certainly, there was managerial reason. However, another reason is probably that the Government's management of the economy was so poor that there was heavy unemployment, so this is an even greater condemnation of the Prime Minister in his interference.

The Deputy Chairman

Order. It is not for the Chair to decide on that issue, but the hon. Gentleman cannot elaborate on the matter on this Amendment.

Mr. Emery

I shall come back to the Amendment, Mr. Irving. I am sorry that I have not made myself clear.

We are concerned about the way in which the management of the coal industry has been interfered with. We cannot see any argument for keeping open pits which had been properly planned and scheduled for closure. The Clause allows this sort of interference to go on and the Amendment tries to impose a time limit on such interference. It would surely seem plain that the amount of money involved here is to be such as to carry the cost of these 16 pits for four years. Indeed, the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-east (Mr. Swain) put down an Amendment which would have entailed even greater cost over an even longer time. We cannot project that the period should be as long as the Government propose. It cannot be in the interest of proper management or of the industry as a whole. Surely we all want to see the retraining of miners made redundant carried through as quickly as possible. Delay in that is bad for the industry and the prospects of the men.

Mr. Swain

Before making speeches from the Front Bench opposite the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) should do a little homework. If he had read the statements made here and elsewhere, he would have known that the 16 pits will close during the next 12 months and not in the next four years, or four years from now, as he suggests.

Mr. Emery

I assure the hon. Member that before I get up to make any speech, wherever it is, I do my homework. The hon. Member is right. Postponement is until the end of March, but the cost factor, and the cost factor involved by the Clause, runs to between £5 million and £8 million. We believe that that is too much to pay, particularly when it is not money which the Coal Board initially expected to meet in its pit closure programme. That sums up the position. We are sustaining uneconomic pits, and it is wrong to do so.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Speeches of the kind just made by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) make some of us believe that it is Tory policy to make sure that pits close regardless of the impact on the men. The hon. Member has made a statement about the cost of not closing the pits. No one says that the cost will be £5 million or even £8 million. We do not as yet know. No one knows how long they will be kept open, but my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) was correct in saying that they will probably be closed within 12 months.

The Coal Board has all along tried to phase the closing of pits to avoid greatest harm for the men. That is the easiest way to ensure that the welfare of the men is cared for. The hon. Member for Honiton criticises the Government, however, for having second thoughts and deciding to grant the money to enable the Coal Board to phase its closures. Some of us on this side want a greater phasing out.

It does not behove the hon. Member to score party points on an issue of this kind. As I said earlier, the welfare of the men is involved. They can be thrown out of work willy-nilly. It will be impossible for the Coal Board to make certain that jobs are provided at other collieries or elsewhere in the same area unless more time is given. I was surprised at the hon. Member's attitude. I hope that he will realise that it is the welfare of the men and their future which matters. They have given long service in an arduous and dangerous job in the mining industry and they should be looked after better than the impression which the hon. Member has given.

Mr. Freeson

The point of Amendment No. 20, put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain), would be to increase the initial limit from £5 million to £7 million to meet the Board's losses on deferment of colliery closures. It would not affect the maximum provision of £8 million to which the sum may be raised by order.

The purpose of the Amendment is already accomplished implicitly in the Bill. If further moneys need to be made available, my right hon. Friend the Minister has power to place the necessary Order and get approval. Therefore, although I recognise the point of my hon. Friends in wanting to speak to this issue, it is not necessary to press the Amendment, because my right hon. Friend already has power under the Clause to deal with the question which it raises.

4.45 a.m.

I want to turn my remarks in the main to those of Members of the Opposition. Of the two Amendments in their names the first would have the effect of reducing the financial provision to £3 million, and the second would exclude the power of the Minister to increase the provision by order to the £8 million to which I was referring just now.

The financial provision depends primarily on the estimate of likely costs of the current programme of deferments, and £3 million might not, on current estimates, be sufficient. What in effect hon. Members opposite would be doing, if they were to have their way, would be to impose on the N.C.B. additional expenditure. Whatever their views might be on the decision which was taken at the request of the Government, if the Amendment were carried the result would be to impose on the N.C.B. additional expenditure for action requested of the N.C.B. by the Government.

This is not new. I am merely stating what has been stated quite specifically and publicly before. I do not know why the hon. Member should look astonished at this. This would be running counter to the whole principle applicable to other aspects of the Bill and the policy which it represents. Where the Government are seeking to establish a policy which, for social and economic reasons, and on national grounds, the nationalised boards undertake, the cost of the policy should be carried on public funds; that is clearly shown to be the position. Were the Amendment of hon. Members opposite to be accepted the action which would result would run counter to such policy, which is in accordance with our policy in this Bill.

However, I want to turn to one or two points which were raised by the hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery). He raised the question of consultation with regional councils' chairmen, which was referred to in the White Paper. I got the impression from his remarks that this came as some fresh item of news to him. It is not a fresh item of news. It was stated publicly, before the White Paper was published, that this was to be the policy in regard to closures. This is one of the reasons why it is necessary to have the power to raise the sum to £8 million if necessary at a later date, because while it may be sound policy—and there is no question that it is sound policy—for the Board to pursue a particular closure programme, it does not follow that that particular order of closures in particular development areas and regions would be the right one to follow through. It is for this reason that the policy of establishing close liaison with the regional councils has now been put forward by the Government and is operative.

This might well create situations in future—it might—where the order of closures which in particular areas the N.C.B. had established, some time back, perhaps, or currently, would be sought to be varied by the regional councils in the light of particular regional circumstances applying to them at that time. If the N.C.B. were to co-operate in this broad economic approach, this might impose on the Board, for the economic and social benefit of a region as a whole, additional expenditure which it would be unreasonable to impose upon the Board, just as it has been unreasonable to impose upon the N.C.B. the cost of closures requested by the Government for this winter.

Mr. Emery

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Would he clear up a direct question I asked him? Who has the final decision? Is this decision, in other words, being left with the N.C.B.? Or, if not with it, with whom? Because interfering with management at that stage is very dangerous indeed.

Mr. Freeson

The operative word is "consultation". The decision does rest with the N.C.B., but it is not an empty exercise, but a proper and sound procedure in the light of regional needs. I hope that we have every hon. Member of the Committee in support of such liaison where we have serious regional problems current in this industry, in areas of unemployment higher than in other parts of the country.

The point which I am making is that, for the same reasons as we are seeking to establish for this winter's deferments, it would be wrong to put these costs, which are the result of national or regional economic and social policy, on the Coal Board. The comments of the hon. Member for Honiton about the decision about the winter deferments were unnecessary and unworthy.

Mr. Emery

They were quite true.

Mr. Freeson

They arose from an unemployment situation, which is not something to be made into party capital. There are serious problems in these areas. If the hon. Gentleman wants to follow the logic of what he has been implying, one can only assume that he wants to see a continuation of miners being put out of work in areas where there are already serious problems of unemployment. Again, I must tell the hon. Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley) that this is not a joking matter. Thousands of men and serious unemployment problems are involved.

Mr. Ridley

Does the hon. Gentleman think that it is a joking matter that the fortunes of these miners should be played with so that the political opportunities of the Prime Minister can be enhanced thereby?

Mr. Freeson

The hon. Gentleman is continuing to play this way and to turn a serious situation into a light-hearted political joke. I have explained why these winter deferments were absolutely necessary. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make party political capital out of it, that is his business. There were sound reasons for this policy, just as there are sound reasons for seeking to establish this close liaison at regional level wherever there is a programme of closures. I hope that I shall always have the support of hon. Members in trying to improve a regional situation where unemployment threatens.

Mr. David Lane (Cambridge)

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm or deny a report in The Times that the Minister of Power was not in agreement with the Prime Minister's proposal to defer these closures?

Mr. Freeson

I can confirm that that is not correct.

Mr. Edward M. Taylor

Although it has not been entirely satisfactory, the Parliamentary Secretary's explanation has shown that the Coal Board would suffer a substantial financial loss if the Amendment were accepted and in those circumstances I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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