HC Deb 10 November 1970 vol 806 cc345-56

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

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

The House will no doubt recall—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. Will hon. Members please leave quietly? They may have an Adjournment debate themselves one evening.

Mr. Mason

The House will recall the interchange which took place at Question Time yesterday arising out of a Question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Edwin Wainwright) with reference to the conversion of three power stations, Aberthaw A, Richborough and Northfleet. The hon. Gentleman the Member for Cirencester and Tewkesbury (Mr. Ridley), the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, said that these conversions have been the subject of consultation with the N.U.M., as will be any future conversions."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th November, 1970; Vol. 806, c. 20.] I questioned that. I asked the hon. Gentleman to reconsider his statement because I felt that consultations had not taken place on that occasion.

I duly contacted the National Union of Mineworkers, which provided me with a copy of the minutes of the proceedings when representatives met the Minister, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), on 18th August, three weeks after the hon. Gentleman had publicly announced the conversion of these three power stations. I quote from the minutes of that meeting: The Union's representatives made a vigorous protest at the lack of consultation regarding the decision to convert the Richborough, Northfleet and Aberthaw A power stations. A decision had been made by the Central Electricity Generating Board, the National Coal Board and the Government without any consultation with the representatives of the men in coalmining affected. The Union's representatives requested that in future the Union should be consulted before applications affecting mineworkers are consented to by the Minister. The union sent the minutes to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Bournemouth, West, saying, Could you please confirm that these minutes are a true record of the meeting between representatives of this Union and yourself?". He replied, on 28th September: I have no amendments to suggest. Those are the facts. The union was not consulted. In fact, its leaders were staggered at the Minister's announcement in the House on 23rd July, in answer to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Kelley). When I said yesterday that no consultation had taken place, I was right, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take cognisance of the facts and use this opportunity to straighten the record, especially the record in HANSARD showing what he said yesterday.

While the Government have been in office, they have effected a change of policy regarding power station conversions. On the three to which I have referred, there was not proper consultation with the N.U.M. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will not refer to the meeting on 15th July when the unions' representatives themselves raised it and the matter was still under consideration by the Minister.

What has perturbed Members on this side of the House and the National Union of Mineworkers is that it was not agreed that Richborough should be dual fired but it was switched completely to oil. The miners have lost a market of 500,000 tons of coal a year—in effect, the death of one coal mine. The hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends now have under consideration three more power stations—West Thurrock, Kirkstall and Padiham. Therefore, I ask first that proper consultation take place with the N.U.M. before the Government decide on the conversion of those three stations. We must bear in mind that if they do convert completely nearly 2½ million tons of coal will be lost to the National Coal Board and the coal industry.

Many people are under a misapprehension about the rundown of coal stocks. One reason is a policy I initiated when I was in the Ministry of Power. There is a low undistributed stock rate at present, but not by accident. Nor is it totally due to an unforeseen call on the large coal stocks we had a year ago. It is partly by plan, a deliberate act of policy initiated when I was in office. Derek Ezra, Deputy Chairman of the Coal Board, made strong representations to me to get the undistributed stocks down. First, that would help the National Coal Board finances, and, second, if we could move during the summer that would overcome the problems of moving in winter when the industry is at the top of the cycle of demand and when, because of snow problems, frozen points on the railways and so on, it is very difficult to move stocks, and they are in more hardened form. This was particularly requested because of a heavy call on British Rail rolling stock.

Therefore, I then initiated meetings between the C.E.G.B., British Rail and the Coal Board to move more coal in the summer and to have stocks developed at the point of consumption. If there had been a national coalfield stoppage in recent weeks the C.E.G.B. would no doubt have been in worse difficulties, but because of the movement it is better able to cope, and electricity generation is not so easily threatened.

Allied to this is a third point, that during the past 12 months many of the major power stations burning coal have developed boiler cracks. At least, they have been detected recently; they may have been there for a few years. This has meant a heavy repair programme by the C.E.G.B., taking out of commission major coal-burning stations that are highly efficient and calling upon the less efficient coal-burning stations, bringing them higher in the merit order and consequently burning more coal. This has also applied to the problem in the Magnox nuclear reactors. Because of oxidisation of nuts and bolts, they have been less efficient during this time, and so more coal has been burned in the coal-burning stations. That is a once for-all bonus for the coal industry. As soon as the repairs are effected demand for coal will lessen.

Besides this, we are worried about the Tory Coal Bill. It is not yet before the House, but we are worried about what will happen if they cut out the proviso we had in our Bill of coal burn being financed by the State equivalent to 6 million to 7 million tons of coal a year. On those two counts, if coal burn is lessened by the State and if the power station repairs are affected, in a year or two years' time there could be a fall in demand for coal of 10 million to 12 million tons. Therefore, we should then get the true demand and supply. They would be put properly in perspective, because the factors I have mentioned are tending to falsify the position now.

That leads me to my final point—the question of coal imports. I shall not speak at length because my hon. Friends the Members for Dearne Valley, Don Valley and Pontefract (Mr. Harper) wish to contribute briefly to the debate. We shall give the Minister time to reply.

I gather that talks are taking place between the Minister's Department and the British Steel Corporation regarding coal imports. I must warn the Minister that this is a dangerous trend at this time. A ballot is in the offing in the coalfield and when the ballot takes place I believe the decision will be accepted. Further the fuel problem will be lessened. I would urge the hon. Gentleman not to take this step, let it lie for a while, it may not be necessary. An announcement of coal imports plus the long-term contracts that would ensue from that announcement at a time when demand—after the power station repairs are effected—will fall, will only exacerbate the feelings again between the union and the Board and between the industry and the Government.

I therefore suggest, first of all to the hon. Gentleman that there has been a lack of consultation on those three power stations and I hope that that has now been totally remedied. I fear that there will be a loss of coal burn in the Bill and in view of the repairs at power stations, and because of this lessening in demand soon, I hope that the Government will discard the question of coal imports on any count until that has happened.

10.33 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Harper (Pontefract)

I am grateful for this opportunity to make a short intervention. This debate arises from the Question that my hon. Friend the Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Edwin Wainwright) asked yesterday in this House. It hinges around consultation and fears for the future of the coal-mining industry. I want to reinforce what my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) has said. It has always been the custom of the two previous Governments for consultations to take place between the miners, this House and the Minister. We thought that when the new Government took office that would still be the case, but apparently someone has slipped up.

When we were discussing the closures of previous power stations, notably the one at Fulham, on pollution grounds and the other two at Portishead and Brunswick Wharf, we met the then Minister to discuss this. I have a letter in my possession written by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) who was then Minister of Technology. He said: I met them"— that is the miners' group— just before Christmas and fixed a seminar in the Department to discuss the things that caused them most anxiety. There were a lot of things at that time causing anxiety. The Minister added: I had also cleared the actual conversions with the Chairman of the National Coal Board and the Chairman of the National Union of Mineworkers. Shortly after the General Election we met the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden) on 21st July. I thought that things were getting off to a good start and that we would have continued consultations.

Once the more efficient stations are back to normal the position will revert back to normality. What we are worried about is that if there is any shortage of coal in the near future the Ministry will take it upon itself to lift the ban on imported coal and this would be disastrous on all counts. It would be disastrous not only for the mining industry but for the country and would cause a drop in morale in the mining industry. It would exacerbate an already explosive situation. I hope and trust that after this debate the Minister will have a good look at the position and come to a definite decision, giving us a firm undertaking that there will be no imported coal and that the Government will not lift the ban.

10.34 p.m.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright (Dearne Valley)

It appears that the Minister deliberately misled the House the other day on the question of consultation. If that is so, he owes the House an apology. A lack of consultation creates dissatisfaction throughout the mining industry and other industries. There has been a lack of communication from management to employees in all industries for years. If the Minister cannot set an example, it is to be deplored, and I hope that he will apologise to the House.

The mining industry is going through a very difficult time. There is a tremendous lack of confidence in the Government. When the Labour Party was in office, a Bill was almost on the Statute Book. We are still awaiting a decision on that Bill. We are still waiting for the Government to do something about the grey, intermediate zone in Yorkshire. In fact, all the local authorities in the area want the coal mining area of Yorkshire to be declared a scheduled development area. I hope that the Government will do something about this matter in the very near future. The Government's indecision is creating great dissatisfaction, not only throughout Yorkshire, but throughout the country. It is time that decisions were taken.

I hope that after this debate more confidence will be created by the Government. I remember the meeting which I attended with the Minister for Industry when he promised faithfully that there would be no change of policy, no alterations and no conversions made during the recess. I accepted that what he said was said in good faith. I hope that that good faith will not be undermined by the Government.

The Minister owes the House and the National Union of Mineworkers an apology for misleading the House.

10.37 p.m.

Mr. Richard Kelley (Don Valley)

I am obliged to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) for allowing me to make a few observations in this hurriedly arranged but important debate.

The question of consultation has been a very marked feature in the relations between the parties in the industry during a period of contraction probably unprecedented in the economic history of this country. Because of a lack of confidence by the Government in the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board, we have this lamentable situation in which no consultation has taken place.

I tabled a Question for answer on 23rd July, because we were under the misapprehension that a decision was likely to be made without consultation and announced during the recess. Apparently the decision had been made without consultation, and it was announced the day before the recess.

There have been reports in almost all the newspapers that the Government are contemplating importing coal. I advise the Minister that that would be a catastrophic step. If coal is imported, it must reach and leave the dockside, which requires the employment of dockers. Transport will be required to move it from the docks, which means the employment of railwaymen and transport haulage workers. There would be introduced into an already delicate economic situation an explosion which would probably lead to a complete shut-down of all industrial activity throughout the country. There would be a repetition of 1926, deliberately promoted and provoked by action of this kind, and I beg the hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite to have serious thoughts before they take what I regard as a stupid step.

10.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Nicholas Ridley)

The debate arises out of allegations made by the right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) and the hon. Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Edwin Wainwright) that I misled the House yesterday. They pressed me to make a personal statement, which I have no intention of doing because Erskine May records that objection has been taken to a Minister correcting a previous Ministerial statement by means of a personal explanation. I do not believe that I have any charge to answer in relation to misleading the House.

The two statements I made in answer to the hon. and right hon. Gentleman have been quoted and I will not repeat them because time is short. At no time did I say when these discussions between the National Union of Mineworkers and my hon. Friend took place, and at no time did I say that the discussions were entirely satisfactory to the National Union of Mineworkers. I will refer to these two points later. I restricted myself to the statement that consultation and discussions had taken place. This was denied by the hon. Gentleman, who referred to the lack of consultation on these conversions, and by the right hon. Gentleman who said that he informed the House during the debate on coal a fortnight ago that in the matter of these three power stations the Government deliberately avoided talking to the N.U.M.

The facts are that my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry saw the N.U.M. on 15th July before the decision was taken and before an announcement was made to the House. He listened to the representations of the N.U.M., which were fulsome and strong, and I have before me the record of what the N.U.M. said to my hon. Friend. Consultation means listening to what the other person has to say and taking account of it before coming to a decision. The fact that my hon. Friend came to a decision which was inimical to the interests of the N.U.M. does not in any way invalidate the statement which I made that consultations took place.

Later, on 18th August, my hon. Friend again saw the N.U.M. for a much fuller discussion on this subject. Although I admit that the decision had already by that time been taken, there can be no doubt whatsoever that my hon. Friend did his very best at a time of great pressure to make sure that the views of the N.U.M. were known and that full opportunity was given for discussion on policy. I therefore see nothing at all for me to withdraw in relation to this matter, although perhaps the right hon. Gentleman might feel that there is something for him to withdraw.

I do not want to waste the time of the House on this, because the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken have raised more important matters. My hon. Friend is not satisfied with the amount of consultation which has taken place in the past. In answer to the question raised by the hon. Member for Pontefract (Mr. Harper), my hon. Friend saw the mining group of hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition side before he took his decision, and he will, I am sure, wish to keep in close touch with them on all matters to do with the coal industry. He agrees with three sentences which I wish to quote from the minutes of the meeting which he held with the N.U.M. on 18th August: The Minister replied that he was keen to have the best possible contact with the Union and would like regular meetings for general discussion. … Regarding power station conversions, the Minister admitted that a case existed for better communications. The Minister promised to let the Union know of future applications and consult them before making a final decision. In view of that on the record of the minutes written by the N.U.M., I think that it was churlish of the right hon. Gentleman to bring up the point that the Government had deliberately avoided talking to the N.U.M. either at that time or in relation to the future. My hon. Friend is willing to have the closest possible relations with that union in future. Indeed, that is his wish.

Regarding future possible conversions, my hon. Friend has already been in touch with the N.U.M., and it will soon be invited to meet him. It has already given him its views in writing at this time. So there can be no doubt about the truth of my hon. Friend's desire to fulfil that obligation.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to Richborough. The conversion of Rich-borough to oil will simply release 500,000 tons of valuable coking coal which can find markets in the steel industry and in other parts of industry where it is badly needed. Therefore, the market for that coal is probably better now that the coke power station is to be converted than had it been otherwise. So there is no need to fear about the future of the coal which used to go to Rich-borough if it is converted.

I now turn to future conversions mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman. The C.E.G.B. has applied to convert four power stations: Kirkstall, Portsmouth, West Thurrock and Padiham. Details of these have been sent to the N.U.M. My hon Friend will discuss these with the N.U.M. I can assure the House that my hon Friend has not come to a decision. He is acting, as it were, in his proper statutory position of deciding after he has taken all the factors into account. But circumstances are different in relation to each of these power stations. I understand that some are not opposed by the N.U.M., but others are. Therefore, it would be wrong for me to pre-judge or to attempt to say in advance what my hon. Friend will decide about any of these conversions.

The right hon. Gentleman, referring to stocks, said that they should be in the hands of the consumers. We agree with him. In fact the present position is that there are 26 million tons of coal in stock, 18 million tons of which are in the hands of consumers, and 8 million tons are undistributed. Of that 8 million tons a substantial portion is of low quality which has been stocked for a long time. Therefore, it is true to say that the stocks in the hands of the Coal Board are at a very low level, although distributors have reasonable stocks in hand. Indeed, although there is a tight situation for coal, it is tighter for some types of coal than others.

The general position, to put the matter into perspective, is that at the end of October the industry as a whole had about four to five weeks' stock in hand, the power stations had nearly seven weeks' stock, and most other groups of consumers had, on average, between three and four weeks' stock. So the situation, although tighter than perhaps we would hope, is by no means as bad as has been suggested.

Lastly, I must refer to imports. My hon. Friend and I have listened very carefully to what has been said by right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite. One reason for debate in this House is that the Government should take note of what is said, and take note very carefully. I am sure that my hon. Friend will do this.

So far as I can help in this matter, the position is no different from that which was announced by the right hon. Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever) who, as Paymaster-General, said: It is possible that the point will be reached when the steel industry will need high quality coking coal beyond the resources available in this country to meet it and it may be possible to get this from abroad. All I can say about that is that, if importation of coking coal is permitted, it will not act to the detriment of our own industry. It will be a necessary support of our own coking coal industry if we have to bring in coking coal of a very high quality to blend with some of our own."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 9th April, 1970; Vol. 799, c. 876.] There is also the question of the Welsh anthracite dust which, as the House knows, has been exported to France and re-imported in the form of briquettes, for the simple reason that there is a surplus of briquette capacity in France, and this helps to provide smokeless fuel. In this whole matter of fuel imports the Government have not departed from the policy of the previous Administration. The position is open, but clearly the Government, in the end, have a duty to make sure that the people of this country are able to keep themselves warm and to keep themselves at work. That must be the overriding duty of the Government.

The situation is of concern to all of us. The strike, which is partial at present, obviously makes the stock position more serious. If the shortage becomes more serious, there are possibilities that the policy would have to change. But it is the Government's firm intention—

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

Adjourned at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.