HC Deb 25 February 1971 vol 812 cc915-56
Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I beg to move Amendment No. 10, in page 4, line 21, leave out 'within the meaning of the Act of 1946' and insert 'as specified in the Schedule hereto'.

Mr. Speaker

With this Amendment it will be convenient to discuss Amendment No. 9, in page 4, line 21, leave out 'colliery activities within the meaning of the Act of 1946' and insert 'coal-mining activities'.

Amendment No. 14, in page 5, line 29, leave out 'colliery activities within the meaning of the Act of 1946' and insert 'coal-mining activities'.

Amendment No. 17, in page 5, line 40, at end insert: () The Secretary of State shall not give a direction to the Board under this section of the effect of which would be to require them to dispose or require a subsidiary of theirs to dispose, of any part of their or its under- taking, or any asset, which is managed or held wholly or mainly for the purposes of colliery activities. Amendment No. 21, in page 7, line 8, at end insert: 'coal-mining activities' means—

  1. (a) activities undertaken for the purpose of searching, boring for, working and getting coal, treating, rendering saleable, supplying, selling or otherwise making available coal. or for the efficient development of the coal-mining industry;
  2. (b) activities undertaken for the purpose of producing, manufacturing, treating, rendering saleable and supplying, selling or otherwise making available coke.

and Amendment No. 22, new Schedule (Colliery Activities).

Mr. John

It will be necessary to go into a little detail about the Clause, but before doing so it would be right to say that I am extremely disappointed, as are several of my hon. Friends, especially those who sat through the long Committee sittings, that the Minister has not been able to bring forward such an Amendment. I know his excuse will be that he cannot easily effect the Amendment, but I reject that implied slur on the draftsman's competence because in my view it is comparatively simple to effect. The implication of the Minister's refusal must be that he wants the wider powers which the unadulterated or unamended Clause gives to him.

For the purpose of the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act, 1946, a distinction is drawn between colliery activities and coal industry activities. Clause 6 legislates by reference to that distinction and gives power to the Secretary of State to call for reports on various of the Board's activities. The only activities on which the Secretary of State would be precluded under the Clause from calling for a report are those that involve the colliery activities of the Board.

It becomes important to appreciate, therefore, what constitutes "colliery activities" within the 1946 Act. Section 63 defines "colliery activities" as— searching or boring for, winning, working or getting coal, bringing it to the surface, treating it and rendering it saleable, and includes depositing spoil arising from working coal or from any other of the activities mentioned in this definition. That is an extremely narrow definition. It merely covers the getting of the coal from under ground and bringing it to the surface, and the separation of coal and slag. It does not cover many activities which are vitally and inextricably concerned with modern coal mining. Those fall within the definition of "coal industry activities" under that Act, upon which the Minister could now call for a report. I will give some examples of coal industry activities. The first is colliery electricity plants, which produce electricity for consumption by the colliery. The second is colliery transport or loading facilities. An example would be the aerial ropeway upon which the slag is loaded to be transported to be dumped away from the colliery. The third type of activity is merchanting property. The fourth example, and perhaps the most bizarre of all when we are considering the ability of the Secretary of State to call for reports, is colliery institutes, canteens, baths and other welfare activities. The fifth is maintenance of operational, office and general equiment. For example, trams are used for the transportation of coal, and so are conveyors. Facilities for repairing these exist on the surface of the colliery in a fitting shop, a blacksmith's shop or an electrical shop. These places are vital for the continued existence of the colliery, yet under Clause 6, reports upon the activities of these could be called for.

The next one is stocks of products, curtilages and development sites, colliery coke ovens and manufacturing fuel plants.

Mr. Skeet

Will the hon. Gentleman explain what is meant by "certain associated minerals" in Amendment No. 22? Would that include clay and bricks?

Mr. John

"Associated minerals" are minerals such as hardstone, and so on.

The Minister could call for reports upon all the activities which I have specified, all of which are activities intimately linked with the mining of coal in a modern context. The legend to Clause 6 is "Power of Secretary of State to call for report of Board's diversified activities." These are not diversified activities, but activities which are closely and inextricably linked with the mining of coal.

We know that the Government, in their present purblind state, would be grateful for information on almost any subject, but even they would derive little encouragement from knowing how many bars of soap were consumed at any pithead bath, or how efficient a colliery canteen is.

It is little wonder that this piece of stupidity on the part of the Government was too much even for hon. Members opposite in Committee. The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) was incredulous, which is not an easy thing to achieve. The hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) condemned his own side by saying that the Minister's definition was too narrow, and the Minister said that he did not want the reports to cover welfare activities.

As the Clause is drafted the Secretary of State could call for reports on all these things, and many others, which would not provide much information but would be a distraction to the Board in the management of the coal industry.

Sir G. Nabarro

The hon. Gentleman said that I was incredulous in Committee. My recollection is that I was exactly the opposite and strongly supported my Minister on this matter. Would the hon. Gentleman give me the column in which he says I was incredulous?

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman will remember the long passage concerned.

Sir G. Nabarro

Which column?

Mr. John

I will read it at a later stage. The hon. Member will remember the passage at arms that he and I had as to the exact meaning of the definition and that I asked the Minister to bring along the Solicitor-General to confirm that my view of the legal point involved was correct. If the hon. Gentleman turns his attention to that point, I am sure he will be able to recollect it.

Sir G. Nabarro

The hon. Gentleman keeps on making unworthy and inaccurate allegations. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will do me the kindness of referring to the column in which he is asserting that I was incredulous, for if he does he will find that he is entirely in error. I will give him an opportunity to find the passage to prove that he is wrong. I spent a considerable time giving powerful support to my Minister in Committee. I was not critical of him in any sense whatever.

Mr. John

I would point out to the hon. Gentleman that the passage occurs in columns 323 and 324. Even with the hon. Gentleman's memory, that passage should not have faded quite so quickly from his mind. He was incredulous of the fact—and if he had attempted to follow what I was saying he might have appreciated it a little sooner—that colliery electricity plants are included in any report called for by the Minister under the Clause. That was the point of it. I hope that the hon. Gentleman, having interrupted in what he likes to call his ebullient fashion—which some of us might regard a little less charitably—will apologise for his intervention.

Sir G. Nabarro

I have nothing to apologise for. I repeat what I said in Committee that the electricity installation of a colliery plant is an integral part of the colliery undertaking. It was never the intention of my hon. Friends to hive off an electricity installation responsible for the operation of the colliery itself. What I was stressing as a legitimate purpose was the hiving off of non-colliery activities.

Mr. John

By instancing hiving off the hon. Gentleman betrays his ignorance both of my argument and of the Bill, which we are attempting to discuss between his interruptions. Clause 7 is the provision which deals with hiving off.

Sir G. Nabarro


Mr. John

If the hon. Gentleman will contain himself for a moment while I go on with the difficult business of making a speech, I wish to point out that we are now dealing with Clause 6, which involves the power of the Minister to call for reports on diversified activities.

Sir G. Nabarro

Silly man.

Mr. John

I am not prepared to give way to the hon. Gentleman. He must content himself with sotto voce interruptions. He knows that I asked the Minister to bring along the Solicitor-General to assist us over Clause 63. He did not do so and therefore I take it that he assented to my view of the law. If he did, the hon. Gentleman is clearly wrong.

Mr. Skeet

I am interested in the definition in the Amendment, but is the hon. Member not destroying his ease by including among associated minerals ironstone clay? I can see there is a certain link between coke ovens and colliery electricity plants, but where does the link come with the iron ore? I would have thought that this matter could be investigated by the Minister.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman must allow me to finish dealing with the Amendment and he can then make his own comments. The hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton), in differing from his own side and from his Minister's definition, invited us to put down an Amendment on this matter. We are happy to put forward this moderate Amendment. The Amendment is so moderate that I am reminded of A.E. Housman's lines from "A Shropshire Lad": And miles around the wonder grew How well did I behave. 7.15 p.m.

We have made concessions on this point by extracting those categories included in the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act as being coal industry activities and manufactured fuel plants. I know that the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South is particularly interested in the operation of those plants and I would point out to him that we took those definitions from the 1946 Act. For the benefit of hon. Gentlemen opposite, with their concern for the poor land speculator, we felt that curtilages and development sites should also be omitted. Even if the Minister accepts this Amendment, it will mean not only that curtilages and development sites and manufactured fuel plants would be reported upon at the Minister's behest, but such things as North Sea gas and oil, brickworks, computers, and so on, which so arouse Members' interest. We are hoping to avoid the board of management being distracted by reporting on matters which are vitally connected with the production of coal and to see that this should not be reported on at the whim of the Minister. I know that several hon. Gentlemen have expressed reservations about the definitions. Since they feel that the Minister is not giving this matter the attention it deserves, we feel that we must try to create an oasis of sense in a desert of muddle-headedness.

Amendment No. 9 introduces the new definition of "coal mining activities". Broadly, these are colliery activities defined in the 1946 Act to which has been added the efficient development of the coal mining industry. We prefer that definition to the words which now appear in the Clause. But of the two Amendments we prefer Amendment No. 10 because it has the merit of clarity about what activities are excepted from review and what activities are included. We feel that the Minister could accept this Amendment without breaching any other point of principle which may divide the two sides of the House. But if he is impervious to reason and wishes to prevent the Board from getting on with its task, then this will hamper the Board at every turn. If this is the real reason behind the Clause, I hope that hon. Members will unite in supporting this Amendment.

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)

I am grateful for the opportunity of being able to take part in this discussion, particularly because I had been dismissed by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) as a minor exception to the rule which he has propounded that all constituencies containing deposits of coal should be represented by Labour Members.

Every argument advanced by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) in support of this group of Amendments convinces me that the words in brackets in lines 21 and 22 on page 4 should be omitted and that, far from any cuttingdown of the Minister's rights of review, they should be expanded.

In support of his argument, the hon. Gentleman advanced the extraordinary proposition that the activities which he wished to see excluded from the Minister's review were those vitally concerned with the primary purposes of the National Coal Board. I nurture no hostility to the Board. I am an admirer and a supporter of it. It does good work in my constituency. However, the Minister might be said to represent the interests of the Board's shareholders, and it must be his duty on our behalf to review not only the peripheral activities which will be touched upon when we come to discuss Clause 7 but also the Board's primary activities. Although the Minister should not be involved in the day-to-day running of the affairs of the Board, it must be his duty from time to time to review the Board's primary activities.

Mr. John

I urge two points in answer to that. The first is the power under Section 3 of the 1946 Act for the Minister to call for reports on the vital concerns of the Board. The second is that the margin note of Clause 6 is Power of Secretary of State to call for report of Board's diversified activities. In no sense can the activities which the Amendment seeks to exclude be called diversified. They are the very kernel of the Board's activities.

Mr. Rees

The hon. Gentleman is as well if not better versed in the law than I am. He knows that no court will construe a statutory provision by reference to the side-note. That is only of marginal assistance. I am sure that he is not suggesting that we should be guided by those words.

Even accepting that the provision should be directed to diversified activities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) has pointed out, the Amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Pontypridd refers to … coal and mines of coal and certain associated minerals". "Associated minerals" is a very vague phrase. For example, it probably covers clay deposits, and it could even cover oil, if it were discovered, and possibly natural gas, though, in saying that, I do not offer any legal opinion.

I come back to the principal point. It must be the Minister's duty to review all the Board's activities from time to time. Looking at the report and accounts of the National Coal Board for 1969–70, I am struck by the fact that there is no breakdown area by area giving the kind of information which the hon. Gentleman seeks to exclude by his Amendment. I feel that the Board could have made far more detailed accounts for the information of the House.

The second point which the hon. Gentleman put to me was that the Minister has powers under the 1946 Act. I agree. However, that makes the hon. Gentleman's Amendment otiose, in any event. I recall that two post-war Labour Governments introduced Companies Acts, in 1948 and 1967, in which, very properly, they imposed on directors of both public and private companies the obligations to prepare proper accounts and records of their activities for their shareholders. I do not think that the National Coal Board should be under any less duty, and I am surprised that hon. Gentlemen opposite support Amendments which seek to impose a lesser standard of duty on the Board than that which they expect of boards of companies in the private sector.

For those reasons, I cannot support this group of Amendments.

Mr. Golding

By this legislation, as we see it, the Government are calling for a special review of all Coal Board activities other than the digging-out of coal and its preparation at the pit-head for sale. This Clause gives speculators a licence not to print but to prospect among the books for wealth. We think that that licence should not be granted, because the public interest and the welfare of miners should be our first concern.

The Government know that there is no profit in colliery activities, as opposed to coal-mining activities, so they are not concerned with them. Last year, colliery activities lost, before interest, £4½ million, even after a profit of £7.3 million had been made on open-cast workings. I am sure that a little more cheek on the Minister's part would have resulted in his asking that a closer look should be given to open-cast workings. In addition, I am surprised that the Government are not asking for a detailed examination of pits which are actually profitable, like those in my constituency.

Under Clause 6, the Government want to review the profit-making activities of the Board so that they can make rather belated election presents to their friends. The Minister has been careful not to miss anything, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) pointed out, and even one hon. Member opposite expressed his disquiet at the Minister's selection.

This legislation empowers the Minister to call for reports of those non-colliery activities which are still an integral part of coal production, such as pit-head baths, those which earn large profits, and those, like computers and North Sea Gas, which ensure that assets are fully-used.

I will not discuss pit-head baths tonight. This type of facility was discussed in Committee by my hon. Friend the Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), and tonight it has been dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd. However, I will comment on what the Bill calls other "diversified activities".

In 1969–70, coke, by-products and processed fuels made a profit, before interest, of £9.4 million, and other activities made £4.2 million. Non-colliery activities turned a loss of £4.5 million into a profit of £8.8 million. Clearly they are vital to the industry, and certainly they are not ancillary or peripheral as regards its financial welfare.

Against that financial background, one can only wonder at the Government's logic in expressing a desire to review those activities which are directly concerned with improving the profitability of selling coal or with the achievement of the full use of assets which have been created to assist in efficient coal-producing. To my knowledge, no evidence has been produced that they lead in any way to greater losses on the colliery activities. The profits earned £9.4 million on coke and other products and £4.2 million on other activities, were very welcome in 1969–70.

It does not take a review to tell a Minister that it makes sense to process coal. Everyone knows that the more sophisticated the more specialised the fuel, the greater is the return on capital that one gets from that fuel. It does not take an inquiry to find out that at the pit top, where coal faces competition from cleaner, more adaptable fuels, it is better and more profitable to transform that coal into coke which can be sold at a good price, without competition, to blast furnaces and iron foundries. There is a lot of money to be made from specialised fuels, as both the Coal Board and private enterprise have discovered.

7.30 p.m.

There is also money to be made by the development of existing and new chemical by-products. The processing of coal can be used to mitigate against the seasonal fluctuation in demand. It is also true that the location of coke and chemical plants at collieries not only means that the asserts of the Board are used more fully but reduces demands on transportation.

It needs no inquiry under Clause 6 to tell the Minister these truths about the mining industry. Nor do we need an inquiry to tell us that it makes sense for the Coal Board to be involved in the distribution of coal. The Select Committee on Nationalised Industries was making this inquiry only this week.

The National Coal Board, to protect its customers, has not only had to supervise private enterprise merchants; it has had to act directly to try to reduce distribution costs. Hon. Gentlemen opposite who talk about the price of coal ought to be drawing attention to the big differential between the pit-head price of coal and its price at the coal-house door. Hon. Gentlemen should be drawing attention to the substantial costs placed upon the housewife by the small private-enterprise distributor. It is for this reason that the N.C.B. has joined Amalgamated Anthracite in forming the British Fuel Company—a company which produces a profit. The Board has also created, again to reduce distribution costs, large mechanised depôts, which, again, have been making money.

The Minister does not need an inquiry to show that these are problems which have to be solved by extending the range of work away from colliery activities.

Mr. Spriggs

My hon. Friend referred to the margins which the retail distributor takes from the distribution of coal. As there must be millions of consumers interested in this point, may I ask whether my hon. Friend is aware what those margins are and, if so, whether he will give that information to the House?

Mr. Golding

I am advised that the margin is about 105s. per ton.

Mr. Concannon

The price paid at the pit head for the year 1969–70 was 105s. 2d. per ton. That was the amount paid to the National Coal Board for every ton of coal which it mined in 1969–70. There is a vast difference between that and the amount which the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) is always quoting of £20 to £25 per ton.

Mr. Golding

It is also important for any fuel concern to be involved in central heating. The coal industry is faced with competition from oil—although that competition is quickly disappearing—from gas, and from electricity. These industries have established organisations to assist in the fostering of central heating. It is important that the Coal Board should have a stake in the central heating market.

I do not think that any business can afford to neglect the use and exploitation of its waste products—clay and shale in the case of the Coal Board.

I do not want to argue the case for housing—it is obvious on social grounds —but in housing, too, the Coal Board is making a profit.

Involvement in computers and North Sea gas is more controversial. But it is reasonable and sensible for the N.C.B. to be involved in both, because there is spare time and geological talent in the Coal Board.

The Bill aims to examine the profitable parts of the business, leaving the unprofitable parts in darkness. If the Government had honourable intentions, that would be ridiculous. What business man would devote all his time to examining the profitable side of his activities and make no searching inquiries into the unprofitable side? It is only because the Government's intentions are dishonourable that it makes sense. Their only justification is to make sure that they cannot be charged later with handing over to their friends any unprofitable parts of the industry. That is why they have to examine the books so carefully.

To justify this the Minister has relied heavily on precedents. However, none has been very convincing to hon. Members on this side. In the main they appear to be irrelevant in the context of hiving off.

The hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) has argued ingeniously that a review is needed to increase parliamentary accountability. In doing so, the hon. Gentleman has been rather rude to the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries. Unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman's arguments about the public interest read with rather less conviction than his arguments relating to the virtues of hiving off the profitable parts of the nationalised industries. At least the hon. Gentleman has been consistent in his total opposition to the coal industry over the years. There is no reason to distinguish between colliery activities and coal-mining activities if we have the interests of the nation or of the coal-mining industry and the miners at heart. I do not think that the Coal Board should have these sorties inflicted upon it. We know that after the sorties provided in Clause 6, the plunder of Clause 7 will follow.

Unfortunately the coal-mining industry has fallen into the hands of its traditional political enemies, well-expressed over the years, at a time when it has both profitable and unprofitable sections. The tragedy for the coal-mining industry is that the Government are determined to take away the profitable parts, to give the cream to their friends, as we saw with the air lines, and to leave the unprofitable parts, which will produce great problems for the industry and lead to years of discontent for the mining community.

Mr. Skeet

I like the way that the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) puts his case. I put a sharp question to him. I understand the Clause to relate to inspections and reviews and to nothing further. This is not hiving off of assets. I can see a relation between coal and mines, colliery coke, colliery electricity and colliery baths and canteens—this can be described as ejusdem generis—but when he advanced certain associated minerals, including ironstone, he went well outside this category.

Also in this, one can include clay, slate, limestone and many other minerals. Had it not been for this, the suggestion might have been reasonable. Having gone well beyond this, it seems that the Minister may require to look into these various activities. If he can assist the House by finding in the charter Act a complete definition of associated minerals, I shall be very interested. Or if the hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-West (Mr. Swain), who is on the edge of his seat, has already thought up the actual definition which the 1946 Act should include, I will give way to him.

Mr. Swain

On the periphery of Chesterfield there is a coal seam with a seam of clay immediately above it, about 2 ft. 3 ins. thick. That seam of coal and clay is mined together. Would the hon. Gentleman consider that section of clay, which is used by the Coal Board in its brick-making plants, an integral part of the mine in which the coal is mined?

Mr. Skeet

The hon. Gentleman is going further into the matter now; he is including bricks. I thought that I was giving way to him to let him point to a certain Section in the 1946 parent Act which defines associated minerals. Now we have not merely ironstone, road stone, slate and limestone but also clay for brick making.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman will readily concede that there is a reference in the Schedule to its being more particularly defined in the 1946 Act. Part I of the First Schedule to that Act describes the other unworked associated minerals as … other than coal being minerals which can only be economically worked in association with the working of coal or which can only be economically brought to the surface by the use of a mine of coal … So all the associated minerals are those described there, which are to go with mining.

Mr. Skeet

Of course it goes on to particularise this, but this Schedule goes even further. I asked the hon. Member how he would describe associated minerals. He gave me the example of ironstone. A number of these are associated, but my hon. Friend should consider these activities. If I were Chairman of the National Coal Board or a mine manager, I would not bother about baths or canteens or electricity plant, but I should be interested in associated minerals.

Mr. John

The hon. Gentleman does not appreciate the point, that whatever minerals are brought up are limited by the Schedule of the Act to those which can be worked only in association with the mining of coal. In other words, it is not completely mining of ironstone or other minerals. It is only those minerals which can be mined in association with a mine of coal.

Mr. Skeet

I appreciate that point, which was emphasised before. Certain of these things are in the ground. There may be a whole broad band of common minerals which are used for road stone and the like. All of these things are or may become peripheral activities of the Coal Board, which it may want to investigate, and, in due course, under Clause 7, hive off. The hon. Gentleman would have been on stronger ground if he had confined his argument to those activities which hang together, but he has gone further than that. I could not possibly support him on the basis of that argument.

7.45 p.m.

Mr. Ogden

The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) said that the Clause had nothing to do with hiving off, that it was not the highway or even the threshold of that activity, that it would simply enable the Minister to make some inquiries about the conduct of the Coal Board.

Hon. Members opposite, claiming to be men of principle, have argued on two principles—but never at the same time, because they are contradictory. During any one day or debate or week we hear the claim that, because of principle, the Government are pulling out of interference with industry, that they will support the setting up of a Post Office Corporation, for instance. How many times in the last few days have we heard the Secretary of State say, "Of course we cannot interfere with what the Post Office is doing. This is a commercial operation." Then, half an hour later, another Minister comes along and says, "This is exactly the purpose of the Bill: we will interfere in the day-to-day running of a nationalised industry."

They cannot have both arguments at the same time. It would be helpful if they made up their minds and tried to stay in one position instead of being like shifting sands. The two together—non-interference with commercial operations and this Bill, which is direct interference —are contradictory.

No one can accept that this has nothing to do with hiving off. This is the preparation for hiving off. The Minister always has had the power to find out what is happening in any nationalised industry without extending that power in this Clause.

Mr. Stainton

At the risk of isolating myself from the remainder of my colleagues, I should like to revert to what happened in Committee on this point. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) tended to get the House into the kind of mess which we got into in Committee.

This is a very narrow point. It is clear that it is by no means the Government's intention to interfere with the central core of the Coal Board. Given that premise, the argument then concentrates on Clause 7. But we have to establish that premise. In Committee, I commented, "A plague on both your houses," to the Minister, on behalf of the Government, for drawing his definition too wide in terms of colliery activities, and to the Opposition for constricting the definition in the other extreme.

I suggested that perhaps we might have a Schedule giving greater precision. Despite the risk of otiose comment on behalf of the hon. and learned Member for Dover (Mr. Peter Rees), Amendments 10 and 22 commend themselves to me.

The precise wording of Amendment No. 22 in terms of the Schedule may not be exactly to the Minister's liking. Perhaps, in terms of the interpretation Sections of the 1946 Act, the definition of associated minerals has been somewhat too truncated, despite the cross-reference back to the 1946 Act. Nevertheless, Amendments Nos. 10 and 22 commend themselves to me because, by this means, we remove the argument which exists between the two sides of the House. The central core of the N.C.B. remains immune, as I understand it, and subject to the discipline of the 1946 Act.

One is not seeking to impose further disciplines on the essential activities of the N.C.B., If, therefore, we can get a definition somewhat on the lines of Amendments Nos. 10 and 22 combined, the argument about pithead baths and so on could be got out of the way, and we could move on to the area of contention which is embraced in Clause 7.

Mr. Swain

I am delighted to speak following the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) who, in relation to the matters raised in Amendments Nos. 10 and 22, adduced a consistent argument in Committee. He has continued to discuss these matters with great clarity.

Before proceeding, I should, perhaps, mention that I shall not refer further to the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Sir G. Nabarro) who, judging by his absence, is probably now on the soup course. As the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge pointed out, Amendments Nos. 10 and 22 define something which the Minister refused in Committee to define, and I hope that at this stage he will accept these definitions. For example, in Amendment No. 22 we have the inclusion of maintenance operational office and general equipment and these establishments are set up at the pit head, though maintenance only in a minor way. The main source of maintenance in my part of the world is the central workshops of the N.C.B. at Markham, where I was employed for many years. These workshops are just across the road from the shaft which produces two million tons of coal a year. In other words, the central workshops are an integral part of the working of pits.

The research establishment at Bretby is situated in a somewhat remote position in relation to the nearest coal mine, which is the Bretby pit, or Stanhope pit, as it was commonly called. This is a drift mine. This research station is an integral part of every colliery because it is the main research station of the N.C.B. It is largely as a result of its efforts that output per man shift has been increased, so enabling the cost per ton of coal to he reduced, or at any rate to be kept within reasonable limits.

The workshops, with their modern plant and machinery, and the research station, where vital research work is conducted, are vital to the successful working of pits throughout the country. The workshops, because of their sophisticated and modern equipment, employ highly skilled labour. It would be a tragedy if, because of the profitability of these activities, the workshops and research station were to become subjected to the review and, as a result of the review, sold in the pig market with other ancillary undertakings of the N.C.B.

I cannot add to what my hon. Friends have said about the importance of Amendments Nos. 10 and 22, except to tell the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet), who must lean forward lest his wings become squashed on the back of his seat, that in his flamboyant way he was trying to define something indefinable. I urge him to visit a coal field and to examine the geological sections relative to a seam of coal. He will find that immediately above and below the seam are the minerals which my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) has in mind, such as stone and clay. If these and other minerals were not mined simultaneously with coal, it would me impossible to mine coal.

Mr. Skeet

I am not saying that they are not or should not be mined together or in association, but that it is right to leave the review open to include them because it is the end use which is of concern.

Mr. Swain

I hope that the Minister will consider Amendments Nos. 10 and 22 in relation to Clause 6, which is the vehicle on which Clause 7 will ultimately ride. Clause 6 gives the power of review and Clause 7 gives the Minister power to direct. I regard the vehicle as the most important provision in this part of the Bill.

Mr. Spriggs

I urge my hon. Friend to remind the hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) of the success which the coal industry has had in mining various mineral deposits. The N.C.B. has made a success of extracting these minerals, along with coal, and should be congratulated on its enterprise in this sphere.

Mr. Swain


Mr. Skeet


Mr. Swain

The hon. Gentleman is bobbing up and down like a man in a mixed bathing pool. I think that my hon. Friend who is to wind up the debate for the Opposition will handle very well the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens (Mr. Spriggs). I hope that the Minister will accept the Amendments in the spirit in which they have been so admirably moved.

8.0 p.m.

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

I must first apologise for coming back to the Bill after not having been with it during its Committee stage. But I have read with the greatest interest the OFFICIAL REPORT of the debates in Committee, including the very short contribution of the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), which put the Opposition's case admirably. This is not the moment for us to get extremely het up and excited about any possible action under the next Clause. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) described the Amendment as the vehicle for Clause 7. That is not true, because the mere holding of a review in no sense determines what its outcome is to be. The question before the House is simply, which are the areas of the Coal Board's activities which should be reviewed? We are up against a quite simple problem of definition, of defining, if we can, those parts of the Coal Board's activities which are to do with the winning of coal, which I think all lion. Members accept are not to be subject to the review. If we could find a form of words which on the one hand covers the Government's clear desire to have a wide review of all the activities not directly related to coal mining and on the other hand excludes the obvious winning of coal, I think that we should all be happy.

The difficulty is that no definition produced so far has quite met the problems involved. Two solutions are offered in the group of Amendments. The first is that the definition coal-mining activities. should be substituted for colliery activities". But there is no explanation of the meaning of coal-mining activities. The phrase is so vague as to have no meaning in terms of pinning the Government down, which is what the Opposition seek to do. I think that it is not that Amendment which is the main burden of the Opposition's case, because it contains a totally unspecific and undefined concept.

Therefore, I shall concentrate on Amendment No. 10, which introduces the new Schedule containing what purports to be a specific definition. We all agree that such things as welfare facilities, miners' institutes, pithead baths, electrical generation associated with the colliery, and storage of stocks of coal, should be considered part of the mining of coal and excluded from a review. There is no difficulty about that, but the proposed new Schedule tries to extend that concept into the various subjects mentioned in it.

A number of difficulties would arise from a strict interpretation of the Schedule. First, it would exclude from any possibility of the review, sales at any stage of the distribution process or chain, including retail sales and joint enterprises with the private sector to promote them. That whole area would be excluded by the Amendment. It would probably—although there is some doubt as to the full legal interpretation—exclude fuel manufacture and distillation of coal, an area going far away from coal mining. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mr. Golding) spoke about that in some detail, but assumed that the whole series of activities was profitable, without having the knowledge on which to base that confidence. He even went so far as to say that not only all the smokeless fuel products of the National Coal Board but also the housing subsidiary are highly profitable. He may be right, but surely we could all talk about these matters much more sensibly if we had a review and knew the full extent to which the hon. Gentleman was right or wrong. If he is so confident that he is right, he need have no fear about the outcome of the review.

Mr. Eadie

The hon. Gentleman says that he has read the OFFICIAL REPORT of the Committee proceedings, though we did not have the pleasure of his company. One of the problems mentioned then was that capitalist firms do not trust each other. Industrial espionage is going on within capitalism, and to reveal the whole of the Coal Board's activities would leave the Board open to that industrial espionage. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will consider that when he talks about opening up the books.

Mr. Ridley

I read the passage in HANSARD reporting the debate on this matter, and the very firm assurances by my hon. Friend that there would be no release of such information. But this whole subject is alien to the topic to which I am trying to address myself.

The point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) about associated minerals could be valid. There could be some that should be included in the review. I concede that it is unlikely that there will be many, but it is conceivable that a material which is worked normally out of the pit could become the subject of a separate activity in the downstream treatment by the Coal Board, so it would be wrong a priori to exclude such minerals from the review.

There is also the matter of colliery transport, loading and storage works, which is included in the Schedule. This could even mean such things as Coal Board-owned transport facilities going from the pits to other parts of the country, and exclude even the Immingham terminal. That is clearly nothing to do with coal mining, whatever its merits may be, and it is something which should be included in the review.

Mr. Stainton

These reservations are so all-permeating that we wonder why on earth the Government have bothered to insert line 21.

Mr. Ridley

I want to deal with that point, and I shall come to it.

Colliery merchanting property is included in the Schedule. To some extent this comprises the purchasing department of the Board. Though there would be no question of wishing to hive off such a thing, it might well need to be reorganised. Why Labour hon. Members are so frightened of reviewing these things is hard to understand.

There is great difficulty in "plonking" the First Schedule of the 1946 Act into this Bill as a Schedule, because that Schedule was designed to list the activities which had to be transferred compulsorily from the old companies to the Coal Board. Therefore, it covered a very different type of situation from that with which we are trying to deal. Indeed, just to take this simple step, as the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) has done, of lifting Schedule I to the 1946 Act, is, to quote his own words, "a desert of muddleheadedness".

Mr. John

If the hon. Gentleman intends to be insulting, he might at least be accurate. The new Schedule is not lifted from the 1946 Act. Manufactured fuel plants and curtilages and development sites have been omitted in an effort, as we thought, to be reasonable. The hon. Gentleman should not be abusive when there is no need for it and no accuracy in what he is saying.

Mr. Ridley

I cannot accept that if I simply quote the hon. Gentleman's own words back to him they are insulting. They were not meant to be insulting when he used them against the Government, so I presume that he cannot complain about their being used back to him. Indeed, he has left out one or two of the items in the Schedule, but, as I have pointed out, he has included a lot of things which clearly should not be included.

My hon. Friend the Minister for Industry tried very hard to find a definition which would cover all the things we want while not including anything we do not want. He has been unable to find a legal definition of the sort that would please everyone in the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge asks, "Why have these two lines in at all? Why not just review all the activities?" But I think hon. Members opposite would join me in feeling that it is right to exclude the main coal-mining activities, and that is what we intend to do.

Mr. Stainton

My remark was one of despair.

Mr. Ridley

I am sure that my hon. Friend would despair if he had to try to draft a Schedule or Amendment which met this situation. All we are proposing is to review the activities. I do not want to prejudge, but in some cases there may be a case for the National Coal Board to hive off; in other cases, it may wish to reorganise. The holding of a review is in no sense prejudging the outcome. The only thing that I can ask the House to do is to leave it to the good sense of my hon. Friend not to review things like pithead baths and activities of the sort which are clearly part of the activity of a colliery. Anyone who thought that it was worth having a special review of pithead baths or of the electrical machinery in a pit would be wasting the time of all concerned, and we have no intention of doing so. But, in face of the fact that it is impossible to find any way of leaving out the things that we want left out and to make a sensible definition, the course I suggest is the only sensible one to take.

The hon. Member for Derbyshire, North-East asked about the central workshops and the research station at Bretby. Although it is right that there should be power in the Bill to include them in the review, I think it extremely unlikely that they would be hived off, for the reasons he gave. If I make that concession, I am sure that he would agree that there is no harm in allowing such matters to be reviewed. The holding of the review is something which no one should be frightened of. No one should feel that a review is in any way undue after 25 years of nationalisation, and I hope that the House will accept that it is perfectly reasonable to leave the Bill as it is, to hold the review and to take the decisions in the light of that review.

8.15 p.m.

Mr. Michael Foot

It would be a good idea for the House to come to a decision by a vote on this matter, although I naturally do not want to curtail any further discussion of it. But there will be plenty of opportunity later in the evening, on Third Reading, and at other stages, to discuss it. We might, therefore, come to a conclusion by a vote. From what the Under-Secretary of State said, I do not think it likely that we shall impress him by any further arguments because it is clear that the arguments we have already put have had no effect on the Government.

The hon. Gentleman said that the items in the new Schedule proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) had been lifted from the First Schedule to the 1946 Act. He was wrong. The items were selected from that Schedule, as my hon. Friend made clear, with the purpose of making an accommodation—that is, of dealing with some of the matters which hon. Members opposite stated in Committee they wished to have studied. We realised that if we were to achieve a definition which would be acceptable to the House, we should have to select from that Schedule. The hon. Gentleman has given a mistaken impression of the meaning of our proposal. He talked as if all the sales activities which, he said, it would not be right to include if we had this provision, were not covered under paragraph 5. According to our reading of the First Schedule to the 1946 Act, possibly there are many other detailed matters of interpretation on which he is mistaken, but even if that were not so, we should not have accepted his statement that it was impossible to find a formula which would achieve what the House wanted.

When we debated this matter in Committee, almost all hon. Members on both sides, holding different views on the subject, nevertheless agreed that the existing form of the Bill was not satisfactory. The hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge (Mr. Stainton) quite fairly represented to the House exactly the same point. He said that all of us wished to define, if we could, the central core activities, as he described them, of the Board which we had thought in the Committee everyone was eager to see excluded from the kind of operation proposed in Clauses 6, 7 and 8. The hon. Gentleman, who made many valuable contributions to our debates, agrees with what I am saying. Indeed, I am merely repeating what he said.

I cannot believe that it is beyond the capacity of the Parliamentary draftsmen to devise a scheme which would put into the Bill what we want to achieve, particularly when they have all the valuable resources of the 1946 Act and the long experience of its working, and after the way in which parts of it have been incorporated in subsequent Acts. We cannot accept the doctrine that it is impossible to devise a method of defining the central core activities of the Board to enable them to be excluded from the operations of the Bill. It is unbelievable. Therefore, we set about finding a definition ourselves, and I think that our definition is quite a good one. If there are difficulties in it, it can be altered. But the Government contend that they have tried to get a formula and have found that it is beyond the capacity of themselves and of the parliamentary draftsmen. That makes us all the more suspicious.

The hon. Gentleman says that he is asking us to leave this matter to the good sense of the Minister. That is a most damning argument. I need say no more. The case rests. All he is saying is that we should leave the question of how these Clauses are to be operated against the Board to the good sense of the Minister.

Mr. Stainton


Mr. Foot

I do not want to lose the support of the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge on this matter, so I am being carefully restrained in my remarks. Someone said that in Committee sometimes I was sweetly reasonable and at other times I was irascibly reasonable. No one denied that I was reasonable throughout. On this occasion I am attempting to be sweetly reasonable, although hon. Members opposite may not be able to notice the difference. Later in our proceedings I shall see whether the other method will work. However, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene I will give way to him because we hope to have his support in the Lobby.

Mr. Stainton

That does not necessarily follow, of course. The point which I want to make—and it is a very pertinent point—is that somebody must run the Coal Board in the meantime and in future.

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman is a good deal more cryptic than he has been on other occasions. Of course the Coal Board must be run. The hon. Gentleman is genuine in his desire to ensure that the Board is allowed to get on with the job. I cannot say the same of the occupants of the Government Front Bench. They have not given any

evidence to show that they wish the Board to get on with the job. If they wanted the Board to get on with the job, Clauses 6, 7 and 8 would never have figured in the Bill.

I ask my hon. Friends to vote for the Amendments because if they were carried, the central core activities as defined by the hon. Member for Sudbury and Woodbridge would be excluded from the depredations of hon. Members opposite. That would leave for discussion later the other ways in which we seek to protect the activities of the Board. But first let us protect the main business of the Coal Board. After all the time we have spent on the Bill, we should not forget that the Government have said that it is beyond their capacity to define the central core activities of the Board. They cannot do it, so they should let the House do it for them.

Question put, That the Amendment be made:—

The House divided: Ayes 165, Noes 222.

Division No. 215.] AYES [8.22 p.m.
Albu, Austen English, Michael Lawson, George
Allen, Scholefield Evans, Fred Lee, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Archer, Peter (Rowley Regis) Fernyhough, Rt. Hn. E. Leonard, Dick
Armstrong, Ernest Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Lomas, Kenneth
Ashley, Jack Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston) Loughlin, Charles
Atkinson, Norman Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Foot, Michael Mabon, Dr. J. Dickson
Barnes, Michael Forrester, John McBride, Neil
Beaney, Alan Fraser, John (Norwood) Mackenzie, Gregor
Bishop, E. S. Freeson, Reginald Mackie, John
Blenkinsop, Arthur Garrett, W. E. Mackintosh, John P.
Boardman, H. (Leigh) Gilbert, Dr. John McMillan, Tom (Glasgow, C.)
Booth, Albert Ginsburg, David McNamara, J. Kevin
Bottomley, Rt. Hn. Arthur Golding, John MacPherson, Malcolm
Campbell, I. (Dunbartonshire, W.) Grant, George (Morpeth) Mallalieu, E. L. (Brigg)
Cant, R. B. Grant, John D. (Islington, E.) Mallalieu, J. P. W. (Huddersfield, E.)
Carmichael, Neil Griffiths, Eddie (Brightside) Marks, Kenneth
Carter, Ray (Birmingh'm, Northfield) Grimond, Rt. Hn. J. Marquand, David
Clark, David (Colne Valley) Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Mason, Rt. Hn. Roy
Cocks, Michael (Bristol, S.) Hamilton, William (Fife, W.) Meacher, Michael
Coleman, Donald Hardy, Peter Mellish, Rt. Hn. Robert
Concannon, J. D. Harrison, Walter (Wakefield) Mendelson, John
Conlan, Bernard Hattersley, Roy Millan, Bruce
Corbet, Mrs. Freda Heffer, Eric S. Miller, Dr. M. S.
Cox, Thomas (Wandsworth, C.) Houghton, Rt. Hn, Douglas Morgan, Elystan (Cardiganshire)
Cronin, John Howell, Denis (Small Heath) Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)
Crosland, Rt. Hn. Anthony Hughes, Mark (Durham) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw)
Dalyell, Tam Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen, N.) Morris, Rt. Hn. John (Aberavon)
Darling, Rt. Hn. George Hunter, Adam Moyle, Roland
Davies, Denzil (Llanelly) John, Brynmor Mulley, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Davies, G. Elfed (Rhondda, E.) Johnson, James (K'ston-on-Hull, W.) Murray, R. K.
Davies, Ifor (Gower) Jones, Barry (Flint, E.) Ogden, Eric
Deakins, Eric Jones, Dan (Burnley) O'Halloran, Michael
de Freitas, Rt. Hn. Sir Geoffrey Jones, Gwynoro (Carmarthen) O'Malley, Brian
Dell, Rt. Hn. Edmund Judd, Frank Orme, Stanley
Dormand, J. D. Kaufman, Gerald Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, Sutton)
Dunn, James A. Kelley, Richard Palmer, Arthur
Dunnett, Jack Kerr, Russell Parker, John (Dagenham)
Eadie, Alex Kinnock, Neil Parry, Robert (Liverpool, Exchange)
Edwards, Robert (Bilston) Lamond, James Pavitt, Laurie
Ellis, Tom Latham, Arthur Peart, Rt. Hn. Fred
Pendry, Tom Spearing, Nigel Walker, Harold (Doncaster)
Pentland, Norman Spriggs, Leslie Wallace, George
Prescott, John Stallard, A. W. Wells, William (Walsall, N.)
Price, William (Rugby) Steel, David White, James (Glasgow, Pollok)
Reed, D. (Sedgefield) Stewart, Donald (Western Isles) Whitlock, William
Rees, Merlyn (Leeds, S.) Stewart, Rt. Hn. Michael (Fulham) Willey, Rt. Hn. Frederick
Roberts, Albert (Normanton) Stoddart, David (Swindon) Williams, Alan (Swansea, W.)
Roberts,Rt.Hn.Goronwy(Caernarvon) Strang, Gavin Williams, W. T. (Warrington)
Roderick,Caerwyn E.(Br'c'n&R'dnor) Swain, Thomas Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Roper, John Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery) Wilson, Rt. Hn. Harold (Huyton)
Ross, Rt. Hn. William (Kilmarnock) Thomson, Rt. Hn. G. (Dundee, E.) Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)
Shore, Rt. Hn. Peter (Stepney) Torney, Tom
Short, Rt.Hn.Edward(N'c'tle-u-Tyne) Urwin, T. W. TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Silverman, Julius Varley, Eric G. Mr. Joseph Harper and
Skinner, Dennis Wainwright, Edwin Mr. William Hamling.
Small, William
Alison, Michael (Barkston Ash) Glyn, Dr. Alan Meyer, Sir Anthony
Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead) Godber, Rt. Hn. J. B. Mills, Peter (Torrington)
Archer, Jeffrey (Louth) Goodhart, Philip Miscampbell, Norman
Atkins, Humphrey Goodhew, Victor Mitchell,Lt.-Col.C.(Aberdeenshire,W.)
Awdry, Daniel Gower, Raymond Moate, Roger
Balniel, Lord Grant, Anthony (Harrow, C.) Molyneaux, James
Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton Gray, Hamish Money, Ernie
Bell, Ronald Green, Alan Monks, Mrs. Connie
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torquay) Grieve, Percy Monro, Hector
Benyon, W. Griffiths, Eldon (Bury St. Edmunds) Montgomery, Fergus
Berry, Hn. Anthony Grylls, Michael More, Jasper
Biffen, John Gummer, Selwyn Morgan-Giles, Rear-Adm.
Biggs-Davison, John Gurden, Harold Morrison, Charles (Devizes)
Blaker, Peter Hall, Miss Joan (Keighley) Mudd, David
Boardman, Tom (Leicester, S.W.) Hall, John (Wycombe) Murton, Oscar
Body, Richard Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury) Nabarro, Sir Gerald
Bowden, Andrew Hannam, John (Exeter) Neave, Airey
Bray, Ronald Harvey, Sir Arthur Vere Normanton, Tom
Brinton, Sir Tatton Hastings, Stephen Onslow, Cranley
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Havers, Michael Oppenheim, Mrs. Sally
Bruce-Gardyne, J. Hawkins, Paul Orr, Capt. L. P. S.
Bryan, Paul Hay, John Osborn, John
Buchanan-Smith, Alick(Angus,N&M) Hayhoe, Barney Owen, Idris (Stockport, N.)
Bullus, Sir Eric Heseltine, Michael Page, Graham (Crosby)
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) Hicks, Robert Page, John (Harrow, W.)
Campbell, Rt.Hn.G.(Moray&Nairn) Higgins, Terence L. Parkinson, Cecil (Enfield, W.)
Carlisle, Mark Hiley, Joseph Peel, John
Chapman, Sydney Hill, James (Southampton, Test) Pike, Miss Mervyn
Chataway, Rt. Hn. Christopher Holland, Phillip Pounder, Rafton
Chichester-Clark, R. Holt, Miss Mary Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch
Churchill, W. S. Hornby, Richard Price, David (Eastleigh)
Clark, William (Surrey, E.) Hornsby-Smith,Rt.Hn.Dame Patricia Prior, Rt. Hn. J. M. L.
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Howell, David (Guildford) Proudfoot, Wilfred
Clegg, Walter Howell, Ralph (Norfolk, N.) Pym, Rt. Hn. Francis
Cooke, Robert Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye) Quennell, Miss J. M.
Coombs, Derek James, David Raison, Timothy
Cooper, A. E. Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford) Rawlinson, Rt. Hn. Sir Peter
Corfield, Rt. Hn. Frederick Jennings, J. C. (Burton) Redmond, Robert
Cormack, Patrick Jessel, Toby Reed, Laurance (Bolton, E.)
Costain, A. P. Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead) Rees, Peter (Dover)
Critchley, Julian Kellett, Mrs. Elaine Renton, Rt. Hn. Sir David
Crowder, F. P. Kershaw, Anthony Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Curran, Charles King, Evelyn (Dorset, S.) Ridley, Hn. Nicholas
d'Avigdor-Goldsmid,Maj.-Gen. Jack King, Tom (Bridgwater) Roberts, Wyn (Conway)
Deedes, Rt. Hn. W. F. Kinsey, J. R. Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Dixon, Piers Knox, David Russell, Sir Ronald
Dodds-Parker, Douglas Lane, David St. John-Stevas, Norman
Douglas-Home, Rt. Hn. Sir Alec Langford-Holt, Sir John Scott-Hopkins, James
Drayson, G. B. Le Marchant, Spencer Sharples, Richard
Dykes, Hugh Longden, Gilbert Shaw, Michael (Sc'b'gh & Whitby)
Eden, Sir John Loveridge, John Shelton, William (Clapham)
Edwards, Nicholas (Pembroke) McAdden, Sir Stephen Simeons, Charles
Elliot, Capt. Walter (Carshalton) McCrindle, R. A. Skeet, T. H. H.
Elliott, R. W. (N'c'tle-upon-Tyne,N.) McLaren, Martin Smith, Dudley (W'wick & L'mington)
Emery, Peter Maclean, Sir Fitzroy Soref, Harold
Eyre, Reginald McMaster, Stanley Spence, John
Fenner, Mrs. Peggy McNair-Wilson, Michael Sproat, Iain
Fidler, Michael McNair-Wilson, Patrick (New Forest) Stanbrook, Ivor
Fisher, Nigel (Surbiton) Madel, David Stewart-Smith, D. G. (Belper)
Fookes, Miss Janet Marples, Rt. Hn. Ernest Stodart, Anthony (Edinburgh, W.)
Fowler, Norman Marten, Neil Stoddart-Scott, Col. Sir M.
Fox, Marcus Mather, Carol Stokes, John
Fry, Peter Maude, Angus Stuttaford, Dr. Tom
Gardner, Edward Mawby, Ray Sutcliffe, John
Gibson-Watt, David Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J. Tapsell, Peter
Taylor, Sir Charles (Eastbourne) Turton, Rt. Hn. R. H. White, Roger (Gravesend)
Taylor, Frank (Moss Side) Vaughan, Dr. Gerard Wilkinson, John
Tebbit, Norman Waddington, David Wolrige-Gordon, Patrick
Temple, John M. Walder, David (Clitheroe) Woodhouse, Hn. Christpher
Thomas, John Stradling (Monmouth) Walker-Smith, Rt. Hn. Sir Derek Woodnutt, Mark
Thomas, Rt. Hn. Peter (Hendon, S.) Wall, Patrick Worsley, Marcus
Thompson, Sir Richard (Croydon, S.) Walters, Dennis
Trafford, Dr. Anthony Ward, Dame Irene TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Trew, Peter Weatherill, Bernard Mr. Hugh Rossi and
Tugendhat, Christopher Wells, John (Maidstone) Mr. Keith Speed.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Kinnock

I beg to move Amendment No. 25, in page 5, line 3, leave out from 'direction' to end of line and insert: 'and such report shall be supplied to the trade unions representative of the workpeople employed by the Board and its subsidiaries not later than seven days after it has been submitted to the Secretary of State'. The Amendment has two very straightforward purposes. The first is to delete from subsection (3) the phrase … or such shorter period as he"— the Secretary of State— may specify. Its purpose is obviously to restrict the powers which the Secretary of State intends to take upon himself in the Bill by requiring the Board to submit a report within 12 months or a shorter period.

My fear is a fear shared by my hon. Friends on this side of the House and by my coalmining constituents and their families throughout the country, that under the Clause, if taken in conjunction with Clause 7(5)—lines 32 to 35 on page 5—the Secretary of State is provided with the weaponry for a quick kill, for the very swift and painful dispatch of a profitable subsidiary with a minimum of fuss and parliamentary intervention.

One could be guilty of exaggeration, such is the import of the Bill. But taking the time scales involved, we can see four weeks in which the specified "shorter period" could be satisfied under subsection (3), another few weeks for notice under Clause 7 to be given that the Secretary of State, after receipt of a report, intends to make moves to hive off part of the National Coal Board's assets, and then a brief but painful steamrollering through Parliament of the legislation empowering the Secretary of State to hive off. If anyone were to argue that things cannot be steamrollered through Parliament, I would ask what the purpose of a majority is.

Since Clauses 6 and 7 owe their inspiration in toto to a dogmatic belief in the efficacy of free enterprise, the Secretary of State and his Whips would have little difficulty in gaining the assent of their side of the House to undertake this killing of the most profitable sections of the N.C.B. and its assets. The subsidiaries, in that short period—within a few months —may be transformed from fruitful contributors to the Board, meeting Board obligations, into hived off honeypots for private enterprise. That would be the greatest transformation from Beauty into Beast since Snow White, I think it was, was turned into a frog. As long as the phrase or such shorter period as he may specify remains in the subsection, doubts about the honesty of the Government's intentions and about their regard for democracy must remain. The phrase confers the right upon the Secretary of State to be a two-bit second hand industrial salesman.

I hope that the Secretary of State sees the extensive power conferred upon him by the Clause as a right which he will wish to surrender in the interests of commonsense, of economy and of democracy.

The second purpose of the Amendment is to require the Secretary of State to submit the Board's report which he will be entitled to receive to the scrutiny of the workers most affected by the hiving-off procedure. Those workers in those subsidiary concerns are concerned to a greater extent than are the Government, the Parliament or the taxpayer with the implications to themselves, their families and their future security of the hiving-off of the profitable sections of the Board's assets.

The report system as outlined in the Clause is little short of a show trial, an elaborate procedure to get the Government's dirty work done. The least we can ask in this novel circumstance is that the employees of the threatened profitable subsidiaries have the opportunity at the show trial of sitting on the jury.

The importance of the rôle of the trade unions in this procedure is emphasised by the fact that we are not talking about some insignificant little market stall but about the most profitable sections of a vast industry, sections which amount to about 15 per cent. of the Board's business, 15 per cent. of a vast industry, 15 per cent. which the Government had undertaken in a dogmatic, doctrinaire fashion to nibble at, as the years passed, as a mouse would nibble at a choice cheese.

Judging by the experience of recent months and by some of the speeches made by hon. Members opposite today, they are mice with the appetites of rats, because it would seem that the Bill imposes no restriction. Once the tumbrel starts rolling for these profitable sections of the Board's activities, there would seem to be little to prevent the greed of private enterprise and of hon. Members opposite from being satisfied until the last vestige of these profitable subsidiaries has been removed from the Board's influence.

Earlier today, on Second Reading and at frequent intervals in Committee, the Minister for Industry and other hon. Members opposite have said that we should not over-emphasise possible dangers in the Bill. The Under-Secretary said earlier that we should not be frightened by the implications of the Bill. On Second Reading the Minister for Industry said this: Since it is nearly a quarter of a century after nationalisation, it is absolutely right that we should now take stock of the point that has been reached. The Minister also said that the decision to hive off sections of the Board's activities would be taken only after full consultation with the Chairman of the Board"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd December, 1970; Vol. 807, c. 1484.] and that only then would the Secretary of State be in a position to use the powers provided under Clause 7.

It appears that it will all be peace and light; there is nothing vicious or doctrinaire about this; it is all in the interests of everything that is held to be good, right and fulsome in the morality and opinion of the Tory Party.

It will not work like that. If we get down to fundamentals and ask ourselves on what basis the Secretary of State would in the first place require a report, we have only the Minister's statement that he would ask only because the Board has been in existence for nearly a quarter of a century"; and presumably some vague figment of his imagination would lead him to think that this would be a proper time to take stock. That is not a guarantee that can convince anyone with an interest in the coal-mining industry. It is not a guarantee that can convince anyone who holds the interests of the National Coal Board at heart. It is certainly not a guarantee that will convince those on this side. It is not enough to say, as the Minister intimated, that by some divine inspiration or because of his discriminating judgment we can take for granted that it is now an appropriate time to take stock.

What it really boils down to is that when the time is felt to be right, when the fruit is ripe, the Government will begin to pick the profitable sections of the National Coal Board off the tree. If they were honest enough to admit that this is the purpose of Clauses 6 and 7 they would at least gain some respect for their honesty; but they are so ashamed of the proposed grand larceny of hiving-off these sections of the economy that they will not admit it.

If we go to the next stage of the show trial beyond the point where the Secretary of State, under inspiration from above, has decided that the time has come to ask the Board to submit to him the report for which he can call unless this Amendment is accepted, which is possibly a very vague possibility—[Interruption.]

Mr. Skeet

Hear, hear.

Mr. Kinnock

I am glad the hon. Gentleman in his honesty again agrees from the other side. The fact is it could be less than 12 months, and dangers attach themselves to the right of the Secretary to have this power, to which I drew attention earlier. He can then give directions and the Board has four weeks from the time of notice in which to object. If the Board objects the objections can be steamrollered, flattened, by the exercise of a Parliamentary majority until the last stage comes and it is selling-off day. Bingo! the most profitable sections are hived-off. I would like by inserting this Amendment to establish, between the stage at which the Minister receives this report and begins to act upon it, the right of the trade unions to take and scrutinise the basis of the report for which he has asked; because it is these trade unions and their members who are most closely concerned with the affairs of the companies that would be hived-off. In the name, I believe, of commonsense and true judgment at this point in technological development, at this point in our economic history, it is appropriate for a Government from either side to take workers from any industry into their confidence; and when such a monumental decision is being made as to divest a nationalised board of its most profitable sectors the least a Government can do is to take trade union representatives into their confidence and submit their governmental opinions to the scrutiny of men who work in those industries so that possibly their opinions will be enlightened even if their purposes can be diverted.

I would have liked to have gone further and made a direct advocacy of an extension of industrial democracy. I realise, however, that the last kind of person to embrace this expansion of democracy will be a Tory Minister. Therefore, I submit what I consider to be a reasonable and moderate Amendment requiring that the Secretary of State will submit his report within seven days to examination by trade unions representative of the work people.

Mr. Swain

I must congratulate my hon. Friend. I have been here for 12 years and that is the best speech I have ever heard made from the Liberal Bench. The sound commonsense of this Amendment is paramount in the point that the National Coal Board, along with the trade unions, set up long ago consultative machinery.

8.45 p.m.

The consultative committees operate with the Coal Board at every pit in the country and when a pit is in financial trouble the high management of the Board makes a special journey to meet the consultative committee and tell it of the financial position. Funnily enough, this only happens when the pit is to be put on the jeopardy list or when it is in serious financial trouble. Management does not go down and explain things when the pit is doing very well.

If the Board has the right to go to the consultative machinery, representing the three main recognised unions in the industry when finances are down, then it has as much right to meet those trade union representatives when part of the pit or the industry is making a profit. If the consultative machinery is to operate with a modicum of success, as it has done since nationalisation, then more stress has to be put upon the consultative committees. I hope that the Minister will look at this. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bedford (Mr. Skeet) can say "No". I am pleased, and I imagine that the country is pleased too, that the hon. Member is not a Minister because the House would have sunk to a very low level indeed. I therefore address my remarks to the Minister. —[Interruption.] If the hon. Member wants to cheer I will give him a ticket for the Tottenham match on Saturday.

We are pleased with our consultative machinery because it is a model of its kind, regardless of its shortcomings and the difficulties experienced in the initial period. It plays a major part in the continuity of production and in looking after the welfare of the men and their families.[...] I consider it to be the responsibility of the Board and the Minister, when the review has been conducted, to inform those who represent the men about what is happening.

Some of the undertakings of the Coal Board will be sold off to the large enterprises which will not be buying the undertakings for what they are but for the order book of the organisation. Then that small section will be closed down. This has happened on hundreds of occasions in my constituency and I am sure that all other hon. Members have seen this terrible disease affecting their constituencies. The trade unions must be called in. and the question of potential closure of potential expansion must be discussed seriously at all levels.

I hope that the Minister will give a favourable reply to the Amendment. Despite what has been said about trade unions by his hon. Friend in Committee on the Industrial Relations Bill, I hope that the Minister realises the value of consultation with the trade unions and will accept the Amendment in the spirit in which it was moved.

Mr. Skinner

I am rather sad at having to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain) in a different strain. I realise that he has been away from the colliery for some time and many changes have taken place. I remember the time when my hon. Friend was secretary of a large trade union branch in Derbyshire and sat on the consultative committee wielding a great deal of bargaining power. Since he came to the House in 1959 several things have happened. We were saddled with an industry which was very different. The bargaining went, and with it went our ability to advance arguments at the consultative meetings.

I read the Amendment as saying that the trade union representatives should be the people to whom the Secretary of State should report. During the past 10 or 12 years men have, naturally, lost their faith in the ability of the consultative meetings to put forward their views. It is not the consultative meetings we want the Secretary of State to report to, but the trade union representatives, which means at the national level of the N.U.M. and the other unions associated with the mining industry, and also at area and branch level. In that way we could get the extension of the industrial democracy to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) referred. I hope, therefore, that the Amendment will be accepted.

Mr. Kelley

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) on the Amendment, which strikes at the root of the intention behind Clause 6. If it is intended that investigations shall be made, the people who are on the spot and who know about the financial and commercial aspects of the undertaking in which they are involved should be consulted at all levels.

The consultative machinery in the coal-mining industry is not what a lot of people think it is. Usually what happens is that the management at some high level makes up its mind that a certain thing shall be adopted or plan put into operation and on a Tuesday afternoon the management meets a group of representatives of the men employed in the industry at various levels and in various trades and says, "This is what we have decided to do. Think about it." That is what they call "consultation". I do not think it has changed a great deal, as has been emphasised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner).

We want the trade unions to be made aware of these matters before any decision is made either by the Coal Board or by the Minister. We want them to be fully acquainted with the findings of the inquiry and with the Secretary of State's intentions, and wish them to be told what the Board is preparing to do. This is an important matter, not only because we might have some financial geniuses among the ordinary mining folk—though I do not think there are many—but because those are the people who are involved in the social consequences of any decision that might be taken as a result of investigations which Clause 6 empowers the Secretary of State to make.

The social consequences of taking over a non-colliery activity, that is to say something ancillary to the industry, might mean a large number of people in that community being rendered unemployed, because most people who buy these activities will really be buying them to close them down. They will buy them because they are their competitors, rather than because they want to continue the industrial activity involved. In my view, the first duty of the Secretary of State, after the examination has been completed, is to report fully to the local consultative committee so that the matter can be discussed at the level where it ought to be discussed so as to provide some semblance of industrial democracy.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

We should all look closely at the meaning of this Amendment. My hon. Friend seeks to give the impression to the Secretary of State that it is essential that workers' representatives should be made aware of all the faults and all the successes in the undertaking in which an examination is taking place. I emphasised in Committee time and again that we should look at Clause 6 on its own and forget about Clause 7. The Government spokesmen wanted the Opposition to forget about what would happen after reports had been called for.

I am wondering whether it will be wise for us to adopt that course. Let us try to get at the Government's intentions. We shall probably come to the conclusion that the Government are not at the moment particularly bothered about Clause 7 and want to find out what faults exist in a particular undertaking to see what can be done to make it more viable and successful. If that were the case I would not mind; but one knows that the fundamental aim behind the calling for reports is to sell off to their friends the successful undertakings and those that are not too successful can stay with the National Coal Board.

9.0 p.m.

I suggest to the Secretary of State and the Minister that he should press for an understanding between employees' representatives and managements about how to make undertakings more viable. The Secretary of State should make certain that there is closer and better liaison between employees and managements. Obviously the way to do that is to accept the Amendment. It would mean that trade union representatives would be made aware of the particulars of undertakings and would thereby be enabled to help managements.

If the Minister responsible is not willing to accept the Amendment, it means that he is not interested in better industrial relations, any more than he is interested in creating a better understanding between employees and managements. The Government's sole interest lies in one objective, which is to sell off those undertakings about which they have obtained information and which are bound to be successful. If that is so, once again we shall be made aware of the way in which this Government want to take the plums and leave non-viable parts of industries to be looked after by the State. They have proposed doing that with sections of Rolls-Royce, and now they seek to do it with sections of the Coal Board.

We have heard no word of dissent from the Minister. Indeed, he does not appear to be taking much interest in our discussions. His mind is made up. When he conies to reply to the debate, it will become plain that it is not this Clause which matters. What is more important is Clause 7, which will give to the Government's friends some of the plums which should remain with the State.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) moved this Amendment with his usual attractive flair. We had references to beauty and the beast, to frogs, to mice, and to rats—

Mr. Kinnock

I hope that the hon. Gentleman did not take them personally.

Mr. Ridley

I did not take them personally, but I would have preferred the hon. Gentleman to apply those epithets to me than to private enterprise, which is what he intended.

If I may, I will bring the House back to the Amendments, which are of a slightly different nature from the wide-ranging philosophical discussions which the hon. Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Edwin Wainwright) ended by rehearsing.

The Amendment is in two parts. The first provides that the Secretary of State should not have power to call for the report in a period of less than 12 months. It is possible that only a limited report would be called for or that it might be considered that the report could be done in a period of less than 12 months, and we must resist the suggestion that it will be unnecessary to have the power to call for the report in less than 12 months. The Secretary of State will make sure that the period allowed for the report is a reasonable one—reasonable, that is, in the eyes of the Coal Board as well as those of the Secretary of State. But, if it is agreed by all concerned that it is possible to do it in a shorter period, I see no harm in allowing the Secretary of State power to call for it in a shorter period.

I do not feel that the burden of the case rests on that part of the Amendment. It rests on the second part, which deals with consultation with the trade unions.

I do not think that anyone could accuse my hon. Friend of not having had frequent contact with the trades unions in this industry, as indeed this Government have had with trades unions in all industries where relevant business is being conducted which concerns the unions. It will certainly be my hon. Friend's intention, as in the past, to keep in touch with the unions on any matters which they wish to raise.

I must point out that it would not be right for this report to be given to the unions for the reason urged upon us in the debate on the previous Amendment: that the report will contain confidential information and therefore no-one should be allowed to see it.

My hon. Friend has given many specific assurances in Committee—I refer to three of them at columns 430, 431 and 466; I will not weary the House by quoting them—that confidential information will not be released where it should not be. It would not be right for the report to be given to the unions or to anyone else, and it certainly will not be.

I do not wish to cross swords with the spirit underlying the speeches of the hon. Members for Don Valley (Mr. Kelley), Dearne Valley and, indeed, Derbyshire, North-East (Mr. Swain). I think that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) was wrong in suggesting that the Secretary of State should make a report to the unions. In fact, it is proposed that the Coal Board should make a report to the Secretary of State. I think that the hon. Gentleman got it mixed up.

Mr. Ogden

I should like to ask about a matter of information, not to express an opinion. The hon. Gentleman has referred throughout his comments in reply to "the report", "a report" and "this report". I understand that there are to be or could be a number of reports. It is not one report over twelve months; there will and can be a continuing series. Therefore, it is one of possibly and probably many reports.

Mr. Ridley

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. I apologise if I gave the wrong impression. There could be one or more reports. I was perhaps using shorthand, which was not entirely accurate.

There is a great need for consultation, both between the Board and the unions and between the Government and the unions. We do not deny this. As the reviews proceed and decisions and actions are taken my hon. Friend will take every reasonable step to ensure that the N.U.M. is informed and consulted about the progress of the policy.

Mr. G. Elfed Davies

One can understand the reticence of the Minister and the Government in giving a report of a confidential nature to trade unions. But surely the Minister understands that we are suspicious when an Amendment passed in Committee to bring reports to this House by an affirmative Resolution is attempted to be changed by the Government on Report.

Mr. Ridley

I hat is another Amendment. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that he is not being entirely accurate in his interpretation of an Amendment which is to be discussed later. However, I do not wish to stray into that now.

I assure the House that at the right time and in the right way there will be consultation with the unions I feel sure that on consideration the hon. Member for Bedwellty will not wish us to give confidential documents of this kind to the unions. I think that it would be better if the Amendment was not pressed.

Mr. Varley

We certainly take the point that commercial confidences need to be protected when calling for a report. As the Minister said in Committee, on many occasions we had to draw to the attention of the Government the fact that in many respects, by the provisions in the Bill, they were, as it were, putting commercial confidences in jeopardy. I think that would prove to be so if some of these powers were exercised. But the Under-Secretary's answer was very timid, because my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock) did the House a service by exploring this matter.

There are two aspects to be considered. Superficially, a case can be made out for calling for a report on a subsidiary activity of the Coal Board and deciding at that stage that it would be improper to reveal that information or pass it on to the union concerned. That would be all right, providing that the Government were acquiring the information only for their own purposes. But if, as a result of the review, they decided to hive off an asset, it is essential that the unions and the people in the industry should know exactly what the criteria are.

So there are the commercial confidences which must be retained if the Government are not to act; on the other hand, if they are going to hive off, the N.U.M. and the other unions should be told. I should have thought that this was in strict accord with what the Government have said they will do. After the General Election, we were told from the steps of 10 Downing Street that there was to be more open government, that they would set the people free, and open the corridors of power so that people could see exactly what was happening.

The mining industry is going through a very difficult period. It was the last Government's aim to see how far they could create an industry with a long-term viable future, but to do this one essential is the absolute co-operation of the men who work in the industry. If the Government do not achieve that, if they give the impression—as the Under-Secretary did tonight—that these reports are so confidential that they are no business of the unions, they will not win that cooperation. Their only chance is to be open with the unions and let them have the information which it is proper for them to have.

Mr. Kelley

Does my hon. Friend agree that full consultation should be possible with the addition of one or two words? If the Government cannot accept the Amendment, could they not agree that the report by the Board shall be submitted to the Secretary of State within 12 months of his relevant direction, in consultation with those employed in the industry, or within such shorter period as he may specify?

Mr. Varley

It would have been possible for the Government to bring forward an Amendment of their own to cover this point, but it is essential, if the industry is to thrive and continue to be successful, for the Government to provide information to the unions.

I do not know my hon. Friend's intention on this Amendment—no doubt he is considering the matter—but its intention is one which we support.

Mr. Kinnock

The Under-Secretary said that a report could be done in less than 12 months. I agree. Then what is the necessity for the Secretary of State to specify a shorter period? That question has not been answered satisfactorily.

It might be the Secretary of State's intention to keep in touch with the unions, but the road to hell is paved with good intentions—and so is the road to hiving off. As to confidentiality, industrial spies do not come from the ranks of the trade union movement. As in Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) pointed to the growth in industrial espionage. We will not find many trade unionists in the ranks of those who indulge in this practice.

9.15 p.m.

Mr. Skinner

My hon. Friend may be interested to know that I recently came across an interesting pamphlet about spies in industry. It was issued by an organisation called Complete Security Services Ltd. and spoke of: The supplying of undercover agents—a man planted among your employees to provide you with a complete appraisal of any unauthorised happenings… following of vehicles used by employees during… their work… investigating of thefts, frauds and embezzlement. Reporting on any person who may be suspected of causing dissension or inciting employees to defection. The screening of prospective employees—a search into their antecedents and background. The pamphlet added that one of the Directors of Complete Security Services was no other than Mr. L. Robert Carr".

Mr. Kinnock

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention, which describes the initiative, enterprise, independence and uprightness of those who are anxious to safeguard the interests of industry. I cannot imagine those extensive services being provided by the N.U.M. or any similar union.

If more attention had been paid to the opinions and advice of the workers employed by the N.C.B. in the past, I have no doubt that many of the difficulties which occurred in the last 25 years would not have been encountered. Unfortunately, a great deal of the sincere advice that has been offered has received cryptic replies. Indeed, a slogan among the miners in my part of the world refers to the nationalised industry as in some ways being like the same team in different jerseys.

I had hoped that the Secretary of State would take this opportunity to extend the cause of democracy. I did not expect that he would do so. It is obvious that democracy will have to tread water until the next General Election, when I hope that the party opposite will be drowned. In the meantime, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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