HC Deb 13 November 1973 vol 864 cc269-313

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

Leave having been given on Monday 12th November under Standing Order No. 9 to discuss: The threat to coal supplies arising from the present situation in the coalmining industry.

4.26 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for allowing me to initiate this debate. That you made the right decision has been emphasised by this afternoon's events. This is an occasion when Parliament should seek to make early and constructive comment, and I shall try to make my remarks in that spirit.

There is one thing upon which we can all agree, and that is that the situation which confronts us is serious and its early solution is of paramount importance. A threat to the nation's coal supplies is always a matter of utmost concern. In the context of recent events, it is more than that. Unless normal working is very quickly resumed in the coalfields, we shall face a major crisis which will affect every factory, office, shop and home in the land.

I know that right hon. and hon. Members opposite who are rightly proud of their party's long and honourable association with the mining industry will accept, as they did in the difficult days of 1972, that if my knowledge of the industry is small by comparison with theirs my concern for its future and for all who work in it is just as real.

We are not here today to call in question the industry's essential place in the nation's economy, and still less to disregard the spirit and courage with which miners daily face danger and difficulty. In recent months the vulnerability of imported fuel has emphasised the one and three dreadful tragedies have emphasised the other. Equally, however, no one can question that what the industry needs and the men who work in it deserve is a period of sustained growth and a sustained period of industrial stability and tranquility.

Coalmining has had more than its share of worries and difficulties, especially in the past 25 years. One of my constituents said to me the other day—some 30,000 of my present constituents are, or have been, involved in or dependent on the industry—"We must know where we are going and that we shall have a real chance of getting there." Last Session's Coal Industry Bill went a long way to giving him the hope and confidence which he sought. Today there is a genuine fear that his confidence will be confounded. For the second time in two years the coal industry faces a major crisis. It will not as easily surmount the next as it did the last, and the last was grave enough for us all; its effects are still being felt today.

Although this debate is in many ways depressingly similar to the debates of January and February 1972, it is at least being held before attitudes have, I hope, hardened too much. Then I was critical of the way in which the Government handled the situation both before and during the strike. Before and in its early days there was a reluctance to take any initiative, and later, too, there were serious errors of judgment. At no time was the miners' case or resolve—the national consequence of their actions or the public support they engendered—fully understood. The wrong people were taken on in the wrong way at the wrong time and for the wrong reasons.

Many of us pointed this out at the time even though we were critical of some of the attitudes adopted and tactics deployed during the strike. We also suggested that there could be no real victor in that sort of fight. We were right. Many of the nation's present difficulties flowed from it, and most of them were at least increased by it. Without it there might not have been any need for phase 1, 2 or 3. But at least there has been on all sides a strong attempt to rebuild confidence within the industry.

The Government have shown their willingness to support the industry and have shown that they recognise the continuing essential strategic importance of coal, even though it has attracted some criticism from these benches in the process. At this moment the National Coal Board is ready to present proposals for the future size of the industry, reflecting its improved prospects in the present energy situation. But, as Mr. Norman Siddall, Deputy Chairman of the Coal Board, said at the weekend, Such discussions could be jeopardised by the imminence of industrial action in the industry. He was not exaggerating when he said that. Even the coal industry cannot easily survive two massive crises within two years.

Nor can those who seek to disrupt the industry expect the same degree of public confidence and support they received in 1972. Then they were recognised throughout the country as being a special case, deserving of special treatment. They received it. Now, like so many other groups of workers, they are entitled to a decent increase, and in the opinion of many people in the country they have been offered one. It is easy to say that the coalminers deserve more. In many ways I agree, for the miners can never be adequately recompensed for the dangers which they face and the tasks which they perform.

Bearing in mind recent history and present circumstances, a union leadership which has turned down such an offer out of hand is not likely to capture the admiration or the sympathy of the people, especially as those people will include the old and infirm who will be most hit by such things as fuel shortages and power cuts, not to mention accelerating inflation should Government policy collapse. At the very least the union leadership has a duty to its own members and to their wives and families, as well as to the nation at large, to do everything within its rules and constitution to exhaust every procedure before calling for industrial action.

What does this offer mean? I am not pretending, nor would I seek to claim, that the offer is in any way a perfect one, but it means, according to the figures put out by the National Coal Board and not disputed by Mr. Gormley, that a quarter of all miners would get up to £6.30 a week extra, a half would get at least £4.75, and three-quarters would get at least £3.30. Only 15 per cent. would get the basic increases. In addition, there is the threshold agreement, and talks continue on Thursday on a productivity deal. This means for the men an increase not to be lightly dismissed, while for the industry there is the chance of the smooth and sustained progress that it needs in the country's interests, especially in view of recent events.

Surely the offer ought to be put to the men who do the work? I may be wrong, but I think that they would take it. Only last week a miner's wife told me—

Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that he seems to be moving in an unreal world. I have more miners in my constituency than he has. They know what deal they have been offered, and that has not prevented their leaving the pits in increasing numbers in recent months. The crisis which the hon. Gentleman is discussing is dwarfed by the crisis which will be caused by the removal of manpower from the pits.

Mr. Cormack

The hon. Gentleman must obviously speak for his constituents; I seek to speak for mine. But over recent weeks many people have come to see me in my constituency desperately concerned about the threat of further industrial action. Only last week I had a group of miners' wives who said "We do not want them out, and they do not want to come out". All I am saying is that in the privacy of a ballot the miners should have an opportunity to decide.

Only this weekend a man who was prominent in union affairs until recently said There is a time and place for everything. He added A lot of us do not like your Government but we shall have a chance to say so fairly soon. I do not know what has got into some of the union leaders. I do not know myself. As recently as 25th October Mr. Gormley was reported as saying: My own feeling is that if the Executive decides that direct action should be taken we should not play about by instituting an overtime ban. I feel that we should go for the supreme exercise, as we did last year, if that is what we mean, and that means balloting the members to find out if they want a strike. I do not know what lies behind the change which has so quickly come over him.

Mr. Harold Walker (Doncaster)

The hon. Gentleman apparently is seized of the idea that a ballot of the industry would result in a different course of action, and I infer from the noises from his hon. Friends that they share his view. If that is the case, why have not the Government exercised the power that they have to introduce a ballot under the provisions of the Industrial Relations Act? Is the hon. Gentleman really convinced that if the Government resorted to the use of that power the outcome would be that which he desires? It is my profound conviction, representing, as I do, a constituency in the Yorkshire coalfield, that, contrary to the hon. Gentleman's views, apparently based on what he has been told by his constituents, the outcome would be totally different.

Mr. Cormack

I cannot speak for the Government, of course. But there is a difference between a ballot organised by the miners themselves and any other kind of ballot. It is my personal belief that past ballots organised by the miners have been conducted properly. There is no suggestion that they have not been. I believe that if a ballot were held at the moment the offer would be accepted. In any event it should be put to the test—

Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)

Would the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) accept the result?

Mr. Cormack

I cannot believe that the ordinary miner, who fought as valiantly as anyone for freedom of expression and for true democracy, wishes to see his own freedom to decide denied him or wishes to anticipate or usurp the verdict which will be contained in the nation's ballot boxes within the next 18 months. There will be a time and a process for everyone to pass judgment on the stewardship of this Government, but it cannot be in anyone's interests for the nation's economy to be threatened or weakened further and so made more difficult of management for any new Government, whatever their complexion or their European, industrial or social policies.

I hope desperately that before the present difficulties become a crisis there can be a turning back and that the message from this House today can be in essence, if not in detail, a unanimous one to the leaders of the NUM and to all workers in the mines saying "Give yourselves time to reflect and to pass a quiet and individual verdict on the offer. In the meantime, do nothing to weaken the position of your industry and of the nation's regard for your calling."

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

The hon. Gentleman says that he is confident that the miners would accept the offer if it were put to them by way of a ballot. In turn, would the hon. Gentleman accept the verdict of the miners if they went against his point of view? If the miners turned down the offer in such a ballot, would the hon. Gentleman press his own Government to make a higher award?

Mr. Cormack

Anyone who cares to study what I said during the last miners' strike will know that I am prepared to accept what is said in a ballot. I believe that it is in the national interest for the present situation to be resolved sooner rather than later. I cannot believe that the statements of Opposition hon. Members help the nation's economy, nor do they help the interests of the industry which they seek to defend—

Mr. John

Answer the question.

Mr. Cormack

I have answered it. The offer should be put to the miners. They should say what they want to do about the offer. If it were rejected out of hand—I do not think it would be—the situation would have to be assessed from there. But here we have a situation where the true processes of democracy and a proper respect for the processes of law—I do not mean that they are breaking the law now—are being put in jeopardy.

I hope that the message to the miners from this House today will be "For your own sake, for the country's sake and for the industry's sake, think carefully and make a quiet and reasoned judgment on the offer, which is yours for the taking, and which you can take without causing chaos and disruption all round you."

4.40 p.m.

Mr. Eric G. Varley (Chesterfield)

The Opposition welcome the decision to allow an emergency debate on the miners' pay claim, and we welcome it even more following the exchanges in the House earlier today.

We welcome the debate because it is time that the miners' case was put fairly to the people. It is a case which is in danger of being drowned by propaganda handouts from the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, backed up by an obedient chorus from the Tory Press.

It is a case whose validity stands up not only on the basis of the arguments of the National Union of Mineworkers. It is a case which is unanswerable on the criteria proclaimed in this House by the Government themselves.

On Friday last week the Secretary of State issued, outside this House a statement which was so slick, so plausible and yet so totally phoney that he would never dare to have made it at the Dispatch Box. It painted a picture of the offer to the miners which gave the impression that every pay window at every pithead would be turned into an Eldorado.

Anyone reading the statement quickly is left with the deliberate impression that the average miner will get an increase of 13 per cent. Anyone reading the statement slowly will discover that the carrot which is dangled is even more juicy.

In that statement the Secretary of State said: The offer means that three-quarters of the miners would get more than £3.20 a week extra. Half of them would get over £4.75 more. A quarter would be getting more than £6.25 extra, with those who work wholly unsocial hours getting over £9 a week more. This adds up to a 13 per cent. increase in the NCB's wage bill. In addition the miners can negotiate an efficiency scheme which would add another 3½ per cent. to the pay bill and increase earnings by up to another £1.50 a week. The average earnings provided by these increases do not take account of the fringe benefits which all miners enjoy and which are worth on average another £2.50 a week. Thus the miner on a three-shift rota working a 43.2 hour week"— that is overtime, by the way— could be getting under this offer an overall wage of £54 a week. The Secretary of State piled everything that he could think of into that statement. I am only surprised that he did not add a notional sum to set against the free use of the pithead baths and free water for the miners' water bottles.

Why are Joe Gormley and the NUM so sceptical about the offer? It is because when it is examined carefully, it is seen to have many holes in it. The Secretary of State tells us that a miner working wholly unsocial hours could get an increase of more than £9 a week. How many miners would qualify for that? The answer is 14,000 out of 250,000. To get it those lucky 14,000 would have to be on permanent night shift. I do not know what that would do to their family life, and I shudder to think what my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) would have to say about it. What about the others? All those juicy extras the Secretary of State mentioned—unsocial hours, efficiency schemes and the rest—are confined to little more than 100,000 miners out of 750,000 in any given week.

Miners will not be attracted back into the pits by being told what they could earn if they worked all the unearthly hours that God sends. They are attracted by a basic wage which competes with other industries. That is why the miners tell me that the offer falls short on the Government's own criteria.

A year and three-quarters ago the Home Secretary, then Secretary of State for Employment, acknowledged in the House that miners' pay must be judged according to a special criterion. In a statement on the publication of the Wilberforce Report on last year's coal dispute, he pointed out the importance of what the report called "an adjustment factor". He said that the Government accepted that, because of this adjustment factor, the miners' claim, in the words of the report, should be given exceptional national treatment. The Wilberforce Report pointed out the need for this adjustment factor when a distortion or trend has to be recognised as due for correction". The report spelled out what it meant in paragraph 17: a serious fall has occurred in the relative pay position of the mineworkers, when compared with those in manufacturing industry. Paragraph 20 of the report stated: the fall in the ranking of coalmining pay has been quite unwarranted". That was what Wilberforce said, and that was what the then Secretary of State went out of his way to accept on behalf of the Government in his statement on 21st February 1972. What the Wilberforce Report said has not been carried out, as I hope to show shortly.

It is important that we should examine what has happened since Wilberforce deplored the fall in miners' wages to below the average in manufacturing industries and gave an award which put that right. Miners' wages today are once more below the average for manufacturing industries. To put miners' wages level with the average in manufacturing industries needs an increase of at least £3, and to lift the wages back to the level at which Wilberforce put them needs an increase of almost £5 a week.

However, in the fine print of last Friday's statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry we see the admission that under the National Coal Board's offer only half the miners would return to the wage level of Wilberforce, and a quarter of them would still not be earning even the average wage in manufacturing industries.

It is no wonder that there is a drift today from the pits, as has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy), averaging more than 600 men a week, that the work force in the coal industry has fallen in the last year by more than 17,000, and that the miners, trained to win scarce fuel for the nation, are leaving the pits to earn better money making washing machines.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dewsbury (Mr. Ginsburg) told us recently that miners were leaving the employment of the National Coal Board only to go back down the pits as employees of private contractors, to earn twice as much as they did previously. That is the sort of "lump" situation in the mining industry at a time when we need every ton of coal that can be dug, as Ministers have pointed out in trying to pressurise the miners into accepting the offer.

The position was cogently put last Wednesday by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedwellty (Mr. Kinnock), who said: The Government … cannot have coal without miners, and they will not get miners without money."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7th November 1973; Vol. 863, c. 1095.] Money in the pits means the basic wage. Minimum wages are maximum wages. Mining is an industry in which there is no wages drift. It is unique, because all wage settlements are national wage settlements, with no adjustment through local bargaining. That is why even in a period of statutory wage restraint the general level of wages in manufacturing industry has risen relative to miners' pay. For example, a power loader driver underground cannot have a new name invented for his job to get round the pay code.

It is a funny thing: the Secretary of State warns us about an energy crisis, which I think is very serious, but in facing that crisis the Government are not exactly being even-handed. When it comes to oil, they are ready to pay whatever is demanded of them, and wince with gratitude as the screw turns even tighter. When it comes to coal, it is a different matter.

Let us consider the contrast. Doctor Khene, Secretary-General of OPEC, last week flatly rejected the idea that consumers should be represented in negotiations on oil prices. He asked: Why should oil taxes and prices be subject to international negotiations? The Guardian pointed the moral a Dr. Khene's statement very well yesterday. It said: the Government has already acknowledged that the nation must pay the producers' asking price for primary sources of energy, which include coal as well as oil. The Government are quite happy as consumers to accept the diktat of the oil producers. But when it comes to coal the Government as consumers insist on dictating to the producers.

The matter was put very frankly by the Secretary of State for Employment last Sunday, when he said on the radio about coal pay: There is not the room for negotiating with the Government that there used to be. After listening to that broadcast, one of the miners at Ireland Colliery in my constituency told me "I wish Ireland Colliery were in the Persian Gulf. Then we would get whatever we asked for, and even have a say in the Government's foreign policy as well." To separate coal pay from energy policy is sheer, stupid short-sightedness.

But we are told that the Government have a solution. It was put forward by the Secretary of State in his broadcast last Sunday and echoed over and over again by the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) today. The Secretary of State complained that the miners were not playing fair by refusing to have a ballot on the offer. But if a ballot is the great panacea of the Secretary of State, he does not have to wait for the miners to organise one.

I have in my hand something the Secretary of State should look at. It is a very secret document, in which everything can be found. Being a man of generous disposition, I am prepared to give him a copy. It is called the Industrial Relations Act 1971. Section 141 says: Where it appears to the Secretary of State— (a) that in contemplation or furtherance of an industrial dispute a strike or any irregular industrial action short of a strike has begun or is likely to begin; … the Secretary of State may apply to the Industrial Court for an order requiring a ballot to be taken. We on this side of the House are not advocating that there should be a ballot. It is advocated by Conservative Members and the Secretary of State. We realise, because we understand the procedures of the National Union of Mineworkers, that the union faithfully carried out its own democratic procedures. The Secretary of State and the hon. Member for Cannock are great advocates of the ballot. Why does not the Secretary of State use it? Does he have memories of the magical effect it had on the railwaymen, for example, If he will not do his own job, why does he expect the NUM to do it for him? My only comment on that conundrum is that the NUM does not want the Government to teach it democracy; it knows all about it, much better than the Government.

Mr. Adam Butler (Bosworth)

So that the House may know exactly what the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues are advocating, is the hon. Gentleman saying that they recommend the NUM executive not to hold a ballot?

Mr. Varley

We are saying that the NUM has already consulted its membership extensively on the matter. The claim came from its national delegate conference. It was then lodged. The national delegate conference was recalled, and then the matter was put back to the branches, which voted unanimously for an overtime ban. The hon. Gentleman as someone who purports to represent miners in Bosworth—

Mr. Peter Rees (Dover)


Mr. Varley

It is a very short debate. I would gladly give way, but many hon. Members want to speak.

The answer to the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler) is that the dispute will be settled only by good sense on both sides. The Government should give greater scope for constructive negotiations. The Home Secretary gave his blessing to a settlement within phase 3 which met the needs of the firemen. As champion of the adjustment factor, the Home Secretary can surely advise the Cabinet and his colleagues on how to do the same for the miners. In that way a settlement can be reached that will reverse the exodus of miners from the pits and ensure Britain the supplies of fuel she needs. It will allow the National Coal Board and the men in the pits to resume the hopeful progress they were making before the unnecessary dispute arose.

During the past few months Britain's coal industry has suffered three terrible pit disasters. The worst occurred three months ago at Markham Colliery in my constituency, where 18 men were killed in a cage that plunged to the bottom of a 1,400-foot shaft. Eleven men were severely injured. Seven are still in hospital. It is not widely known how dreadful the injuries were. The consultant at Chesterfield Royal Hospital, Dr. Geoffrey Baker, giving evidence on the first day of the public inquiry, said: There were injuries the like of which many of us had never seen before. One man had his tibia driven right through the sole of his foot, and most of the casualties had spinal injuries, chest injuries or broken ribs. I went to Markham Colliery on the day of the disaster, and heard a journalist ask one of the men who had been involved in the rescue work "Is there anything you would like to tell us?" The miner replied "Yes. Remember today when our next pay claim comes round."

The day after the Markham disaster, the Daily Express published a moving leading article which began: Life and blood have always been the highest price we have paid for coal. Those were fine words. Today, in return for the life and blood they risk every day when they go down the pit the miners are asking not for fair words but for fair wages. I am sure that the people of this country will look at the true facts of the situation and, having done so, will not let the miners down.

5.0 p.m.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and President of the Board of Trade (Mr. Peter Walker)

The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) ended his speech by referring to the terrible mining accident that took place in his constituency and to other mining disasters. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will agree that much of the work connected with mining is of a dangerous nature and performed in bad conditions, but the manner in which the hon. Gentleman stated the Opposition's case is disappointing. He is mistaken in his view of the offer that is available to the National Union of Mineworkers.

First, I will try to put the debate in the longer perspective of what has happened to miners' wages and conditions in the last few years. One almost gains the impression from listening to the hon. Gentleman that under the Conservative Government the miners have done badly, whereas prior to that under his Labour Government they did rather well. In fact—as the hon. Gentleman knows, because he has commented on it—the situation of the miners has dramatically improved over the last 18 months. In the six years prior to 1970 there were two—

Mr. G. Elfed Davies (Rhondda, East)


Mr. Walker

This is an important factor which puts into perspective the attitude that the Opposition are currently taking.

Mr. Davies

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Walker

In six years there had been considerable redundancy and the policy of successive Governments was a declining mining industry—

Mr. Davies

Is not the real fact that the miners, because of their loyalty in the 1950s and 1960s, did not get their just reward from any Government?

Mr. Walker

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. If it is true, as he says, that in the 1950s and 1960s the miners did not get their just reward, that fits in with my argument. I wish to set out the adjustments that have recently taken place.

The first major reversal in policy towards the coal industry took place when I introduced the Coal Industry Act. That was a major Act which was under no pressure of industrial relations at the time. The Act was welcomed by the NUM, by the House and the country—and by the hon. Member for Chesterfield. That was the first major reversal of policy towards the coal mining industry that had taken place under either Labour or Conservative Governments for many years. It was a positive Government decision to stop the rundown in the industry and to endeavour to reverse that process. The Act gave support to the industry to the extent of £1,100 million. It contained provision for maintaining jobs, improving redundancy payments, helping sales and improving miners' pensions. The Act represented a major reversal of policy and was applauded by the NUM and by hon. Members on both sides of the House who represented mining constituencies.

In addition, we are having active negotiations with the National Coal Board to consider the manner in which the Government can invest in further developments in the mining industry. This week we were to be engaged in further talks with the National Coal Board to this end.

Prior to the present claim and offer, over the last few years there has been a substantial improvement in the total incomes of miners. For face workers in the last three-and-a-half years there has been an increase of about £10 a week in average earnings. For surface workers there has been an increase in average earnings of about £16 a week. That is a quite dramatic improvement in wage levels.

It is important to recognise certain features of the industrial action that has been taken. First, the action has been taken in the middle of the period of operation of the pay agreement made by the miners, which continues until March 1974. Six months before the expiry of the agreement the miners put in a further large claim. Four months before the expiry of that agreement they decided to take a particular form of industrial action.

Secondly, at the time the miners took the industrial action negotiations were still going on about the possibility of some form of production agreement. While those negotiations were still going on, the miners decided on the date on which they would operate an overtime ban.

Thirdly, the nature of the industrial action means that the offer has not been put to the miners for ballot. Had the NUM decided to strike in support of the claim, the offer would have had to be put to the miners for ballot. Instead, the union has chosen a course of action which, according to Mr. Gormley, will within a short time have the same effect as strike action. Mr. Gormley said: It is my estimation that if properly applied there will be few pits working after the first week of the ban. Therefore his judgment, expressed before the ban was imposed, was that the action he was taking would have all the impact of strike action but for one difference: that it would not be compulsory under the rules of the union to put the offer to ballot.

Fourthly, the National Coal Board in making its offer under the provisions of phase 3 has taken advantage of all the aspects of phase 3 which were particularly designed to meet the problems of certain industries such as the coal industry in terms of the conditions under which the miners are working. Most people under phase 3 will be unable to apply for an increase anything as large as that which has been offered by the National Coal Board.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield suggested that a wrong impression was being given of the magnitude of the increases. He quoted from my first statement in which I set out the proportion of workers who would get certain wage increases and in no way challenged it. The basis of the increase is, first, the full use of the 7 per cent. that is allowed on basic rates. Then there is the full use of the 1 per cent. flexibility deal which is to be used to improve miners' holiday pay.

The biggest single impact to give assistance to the industry relates to the question of unsocial hours. Whereas up to the present there has been provision for only 2½p per hour for certain workers, not including face workers, in future under the board's offer there will be provision for a 17p per hour payment for all miners who work these hours. Added to that is the possibility of negotiating—I must stress that negotiations were taking place—an efficiency deal which would add a further 3½ per cent. to the claim. This makes a total of 13 per cent., without any efficiency or production agreement, or 16½ per cent. with such an agreement.

The threshold agreement provisions in phase 3 would take account of any increase in the cost of living. This means that, whatever the rise in cost of living, the miners are guaranteed, without a productivity deal, a 6 per cent. increase in real living standards or an increase of nearly 10 per cent. if they take advantage of the productivity agreements.

The example I gave in my statement last Friday was in respect of the largest section of face workers. Let me give an illustration of the very lowest wage position in the mining industry. This is going to the other end of the scale and it is reasonable that we should be aware of this point. Let us first recognise that the lowest-paid miner is a 19-year-old unskilled surface worker who does not go down the pit and who at present receives a basic wage of £25.29. This sum would be increased under the offer to £27.59, plus the fringe benefit. With fringe benefits of £2.64 the total figure comes to £30.23 plus, on top of that, the benefit of taking part in productivity agreements. That is for the man at the bottom end of the scale, the 19-year-old unskilled worker who does not go down the pit.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

Will the Secretary of State also quote the case of an underground worker who is married and has a family and is expected to go underground at 6 o'clock every morning and to come out again at 1.30 for five days a week? He has been offered by the National Coal Board an increase of £2.57. This brings his total pay, without stoppages, to £29.80. Does the right hon. Gentleman think that that is an adequate basic wage for a married man with a family who goes underground five days a week?

Mr. Walker

The right Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) mentioned the figure without deductions. I quoted the lowest-paid man of all, the 19-year-old miner. If the right hon. Gentleman considers that the arrangements in the total package, which amount in all to a potential 16½ per cent., adversely affect the situation, there is no reason why the offer should not be rearranged to meet that problem. If the right hon. Gentleman considers that those 25 per cent. of miners who will be getting £6.25 extra as a result of the agreement will be getting too much and that other categories should get more, there is no reason why this figure should not be redistributed.

The hon. Member for Chesterfield said that the miners' position had been misinterpreted by the Tory Press. The only newspaper that considers this offer unreasonable is the Morning Star. I quote, for example, from a recent editorial in the Daily Mirror—not normally a passionate supporter of the Conservative Government: Officially, there is no strike. Just a ban on overtime. But the effect will be the same. Pits will have to close because of lack of safety maintenance. At a moment when oil supplies are in doubt, coal will cease to be dug. At a moment when mining is all set for expansion and development, coal will cease to be dug. Last year when the miners were on strike for six weeks, they were helped by public sympathy. Most people thought their case was good. It will be hard for the miners to win the same sympathy this winter. It must be remembered that, with all the talk about improving the conditions of miners, this is the second best offer ever made to the mining industry. It is linked to the arrangements in phase 3 and cannot be eroded by rises in cost of living because of the threshold arrangement which will protect it.

This takes place in a situation of considerable national significance. This is a time when nobody will deny that we wish to obtain every energy resource we can. Without any additional strike or action at all, miners have been offered a total package which could amount to 16½ per cent. They have decided on industrial action which will cut us off from coal supplies at a time when they are very much needed. If 13 million tons of extra coal is used by the Central Electricity Generating Board, this could save the country 6 million tons of oil at this crucial time. This is a time when the effects on power as a whole could have a considerable impact on the potential growth and our whole export performance. This is a time when it is vital for the industry to recognise the damage which it will do to its own future.

I think I can claim that by piloting through the House the Coal Industry Act I was the first Minister, Labour or Conservative, to reverse the policy towards the coal industry. I can claim, before there were any industrial threats, to have taken part in the organisation of the phase 3 proposals so that miners would get a 16½ per cent. offer in the circumstances. I believe that the mining industry has a considerable potential for the future and in terms of the miners who work in the industry. We can claim that their position in the last three and half years in relation to both the cost of living and total wage increase, has improved substantially faster than it did in the previous six years. As a result of the present offer, a still greater improvement is available.

I find it surprising that the Opposition in face of such an award—and remembering that we are facing a national energy crisis, with the good will that could be created by extra production—have decided this afternoon not to urge that the offer is put forward on a normal basis. I am surprised that they take the view that a 16½ per cent. offer four months before the present agreement expires is not justified. Such a view can only be damaging to our energy resources. For this reason I hope that in the national interest both the miners and the Opposition will think again.

Mr. Mason

Perhaps the Secretary of State, before he concludes, will explain something to the House. If his policies have been so successful, why is it that during his Government's tenure of office 28 pits have closed, 31,000 men have left the industry and men are now leaving the industry at around 700 men per week? Does he think that the basic increase of £2.57 will rectify that situation?

Mr. Walker

I must say that for the right hon. Gentleman to put that question to me when at the time that he had responsibility—[HON. MEMBERS: "Answer the question."] I will answer it. I have just been asked to explain about 28 pits being closed under this Government. Yet when the right hon. Gentleman was responsible 276 pits were closed and 185,000 men were made redundant.

5.20 p.m.

Mr. George Grant (Morpeth)

I accept that there is a serious situation in the mining industry. Therefore, I welcome this debate.

I appeal to the Government, even at this late stage, to set up an immediate inquiry into wages in the mining industry and into why 600 men a week are leaving it.

I should declare an interest. I am an ex-coal miner, a sponsored Member of the NUM, and I live amongst miners.

My contribution to the debate will consist of my estimation of how the miners view this wage offer by the National Coal Board. They look upon this offer as a 7 per cent. increase—£2.30 for surface workers and £2.57 for underground workers. The media have put over to the public that the miners have been offered 16½ per cent. to 17 per cent. The miners contend that this is not so.

Every section of the industry is affected differently by the unsocial hours payment. Only 3 per cent. of miners would qualify for the full payment. I estimate that only 20 to 25 per cent. of the total hours worked in the mining industry would qualify for the unsocial hours payment of 17p.

The productivity limit of 50 per cent. of the general settlement is regarded by the miners as airy-fairy. I remind the House that in February 1972 Wilberforce advocated the setting up of productivity bargaining for the mining industry. Yet 20 months later no progress has been made in this direction. The union is in difficulties in this connection. Whilst other industries were getting down to productivity bargains for relinquishing restrictive customs and practices, the miners were co-operating with the NCB to try to make the pits viable. Therefore, they could not get down to that kind of negotiation.

At Ellington and Lynemouth collieries, which operate five or six miles under the North Sea, miners have agreed to a five-shift system in order to get full utilisation of expensive machinery. At Ashington colliery there is a four-shift system. Apart from the social unheaval and the effects on family life, these shift systems involve miners in travelling to and from work, often having to walk miles to get there, when there is no public transport.

A fortnight ago I put a series of Questions to the Minister relating to the mining industry. I asked for the manpower figures for the industry in October 1972 and October 1973. In October 1972 there were 267,000 miners. By October 1973 the figure had gone down to 251,000. I also asked for the total number of vacancies for men in collieries in each National Coal Board area. The Minister said that the Chairman of the National Coal Board would be writing to me on this matter. I have not yet got the answer.

Miners are leaving the industry for better-paid and cleaner jobs. That is why I ask for an inquiry. Coal is important to this nation, and we need miners. To keep and attract miners the National Coal Board must pay wages which will achieve this purpose.

The miners' application is for £35 for surface workers, £40 for underground workers and £45 for power loading. In today's climate of wages in this country, can anybody say that that is unrealistic for the important job that is carried out by miners?

The Minister, both inside and outside this House, has said that under this offer, with overtime, miners can earn £50 a week. I should have thought that, in the interests of the nation and the mining industry, the Government would be seeking to keep miners healthy by getting them to the surface, not down the pits for more overtime.

I should point out that, unlike as in other industries, it is unlikely that a miner can work for 50 weeks in the year. I can illustrate this by my own experience, and I am no exception. I have had a broken leg and three cartilage operations, I have lost a finger and I have a miner's chest. The condition of my chest would not allow me to go to a pit today. These considerations must be taken into account when we talk about pay in the mining industry. We should not ask miners to work overtime to get above the national average.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (West Ham, North)

Put that over on the media, Peter, when you get on.

Mr. Grant

Private contractors in the mining industry doing jobs like drifting, sinking shafts and boring are paid twice the wages of miners employed by the NCB. In my constituency about 7 per cent. of the male working population are unemployed. Yet daily on Tyne-Tees Television the National Coal Board advertises vacancies. What is the position in areas where there is keen competition for labour, such as the East and West Midlands and South Yorkshire? Miners are leaving the mines daily, and there is an acute shortage of labour in these most profitable coalfields.

I accept that it is the Government's responsibility to curb inflation. At the same time, the energy requirements of the nation are of paramount importance.

The miners' feelings were summed up in the recent ballot on the overtime ban. Every branch in the country voted for the ban.

On the second day of this overtime ban I, as an ex-miner, voice a word of warning. I said at the beginning of my speech that I appealed to the Government to set up a committee of inquiry into wages in the industry and into why men are leaving the industry. It is late, but there is still time. With every day that passes the problem will become greater. In the first week power production might be only slightly affected, but as the weekend approaches the real crunch will come, especially for pits under the sea with their problems of water, pumps, and maintenance of machinery.

It is not unreasonable for me, as an ex-miner, to expect that when it comes to the second week men will be sent home. Men who travel to work in the middle of the night will be turned away. They might accept that on the first or second occasions, but if it happens during the second and third weeks some colliers will say "To hell with this." That is how I see the position. If we are not careful, it will be a question not of balloting about a strike but of drifting into a strike situation.

The energy situation is serious, and I repeat what I said earlier. I earnestly appeal to the Government to appreciate the true position in the industry and to consider why miners are leaving at the present rate. It is not only face workers who are going but engineers, overmen, deputies, craftsmen and skilled face workers. Right across the board men are leaving the industry, and I ask the Gov- ernment to set up this inquiry before it is too late.

5.31 p.m.

Sir Paul Bryan (Howden)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) on getting his debate and on the moderate tone in which he put his case.

I read in The Times this morning that the Government had heard with dismay Mr. Speaker's decision to grant this debate. I doubt whether the Government still view it with dismay. The start of an industrial dispute, or even before it takes place, is the vital time to get one's case across and to form opinion. This debate has given the Minister the opportunity to put the National Coal Board's case in Parliament for the first time.

Looking back at the last miners strike, which was not so long ago, one realises that it was due to many reasons. But if one had to name the leading cause why the miners won the strike, I would accept that it was because the Government misjudged public opinion. This time if the miners go on strike it will be because they in turn have misjudged public opinion.

During the last strike I was a Minister at the Department of Employment. I cannot claim, or admit, to have taken any particularly important decisions then, but at least I had a ringside seat. I saw the Government make a number of misjudgments. We underrated the strength of the miners' case. I say that quite plainly in retrospect.

The general percentage increase that was offered then of 9 to 10 per cent. seemed fair in relation to the wage awards to the gas, electricity and other industries, but what we underrated was the number of true anomalies in the industry. There were anomalies not only for the lowest-paid workers but among those higher up the scale who had not received wage increases for several years.

The miners' case came across on television every night, and public opinion was gradually won over. It was won over not only by the actual claim but by the claim in relation to the rigours and difficulties of working in the pits.

Public support for the strike was important for three reasons. First, it encouraged the leadership of the strikers. Secondly, in the strike last year an important factor was that picketing took a powerful part in its success. I do not believe that if the public had not had sympathy with the strikers they would have tolerated the kind of picketing which took place then. They would not have supported mobile picketing, with carloads of pickets massing at key points in the country. Without the support of public opinion that kind of action would not be tolerated. Thirdly, public opinion played a part in the final findings of the Wilberforce Committee. The findings could not have been so generous without the backing of public opinion.

If the miners go on strike now they will confront the Government in an entirely different situation. Those who were sympathetic on the last occasion will be less sympathetic today. When one talks about public opinion, one has to remember that one is talking about the 99 per cent. of people who make their living in industries other than mining. This majority has not yet featured in the debate.

Millions of workers are subject to a statutory wage restraint. Many of them are suffering anomalies which they regard as particularly unfair to them. One of the inherent troubles of any statutory incomes policy is that it eventually gives rise to anomalies. Those workers—and I know more about their industries than about mining—take the view that the phase 3 arrangements have almost been set out for the special benefit of miners. The unsocial hours provision and others appear to workers in other industries to be tailor-made for the mining industry. I know of no other group of workers who could squeeze a 16 per cent. overall increase out of the phase 3 structure.

In short, I believe that before taking action of this sort it should be realised that we all depend upon each other. Comparability is with us for ever. I agree that the miners deserve high priority in any statutory incomes policy because of the conditions and importance of their work; but that priority is exactly what they have been given in phase 3. What is now being asked—and this is what the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) claimed—is for them to be given something over and above phase 3 which is not open to anybody else.

I believe that that is too much for the rest of the country to swallow. If the miners go on strike now, it will appear to others that they are taking advantage of a crisis for their own ends at the expense of those lower down the queue.

5.37 p.m.

Mr. John Pardoe (Cornwall, North)

I have no miners in my constituency, but I do have some coal and energy consumers, and most of my constituents are deeply concerned about the likely shortage of fuel, cuts in electricity supplies and an increase in either oil or coal prices.

I do not think that they have any magic beliefs about, or formulae for, settling this dispute, and I suspect that all and every one of them would accept what has been said this afternoon by right hon. and hon. Members on this side of the House about the dirtiness of the miners' trade and the hardship of their job. There will, therefore, be, as there always is, immense sympathy for the people in this industry.

Nevertheless, there are many questions which have to be asked. The first question must be put to the Government, some questions must be put to the Opposition, and some to the unions. The first question is to the Government: why not have a ballot under the Industrial Relations Act? The Secretary of State did not answer that question, although it was posed several times. If the right hon. Gentleman is embarrassed about holding a ballot under the Act, ought not we to change the Act? It is not much good having useless luggage around a statutory—

Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)

As the hon. Gentleman intends to put a number of questions to others, perhaps I may put one question to the Liberal Party. Does he suggest that the Government should hold a ballot under the Industrial Relations Act?

Mr. Pardoe

Indeed not. That was the point I was making. I was going on to say that I know only too well—as I think all right hon. and hon. Members do—why the Government are not to hold a ballot. They fear, quite rightly, that if there were a ballot it would not be on whether the latest offer should be accepted. If it were on that issue, the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) might be right. He may know which way it would go. The fact is that the miners would interpret any ballot under the Act as a ballot on the Act.

It is true that I and my Liberal colleagues voted for the Second Reading of the Industrial Relations Bill, but on the condition that substantial changes were made to it. We did not vote for the Third Reading. We voted against that, because those changes were not made. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Outside this House it is perfectly reasonable, to a reasonable being, to vote for the principle of law reform in industrial affairs but not to vote for some of the detailed provisions. It is only in the House that the bigotry and idiocy of the two-party system dictates that men and women should do unreasonable things, constantly, preferably all night, and on every day of the week. But this House is not a reasonable institution. It is a repository of unreason.

As the Government will not call a ballot, why did not the union call a ballot? Why did the union go for a form of industrial action which specifically bypassed the rules in its constitution, which would have demanded a ballot on a strike?

Mr. Concannon

I should imagine that the National Union of Mineworkers has consulted its members, in accordance with its rule book, more than any other union anywhere. If the hon. Gentleman wants to know whether it has had a ballot, I can assure him that I have had meetings around my constituency last weekend and the previous weekend which were attended by as many as 500 men. These have not been unanimous. One of my branches did not vote. That happened to be my transport branch. But that is all. To say that the men have not had a ballot is fallacious.

Mr. Pardoe

It is not fallacious, because they have not had a ballot. It is not fallacious by any standard of use of the English language, but we must use the English language as best we find it. One must ask why they have not had a ballot. Their rules say that they must have a ballot for a strike.

This industrial action will inevitably lead to a strike in a roundabout way, be- cause pits will be closed and the men will be out of work, and we shall have got a strike without having held a ballot. All that I ask of the union is whether this is a way of getting around its rule book. If hon. Members are so certain of the result of a ballot—they may well be right—and if all these deliberations have been taken, let us have the ballot and the result. There is no point in having an overtime ban which brings coalmining to a stop. One might as well have a strike and be done with it. If Mr. Gormley is right, we shall have a strike by default by the end of next week.

I turn to the aspects of inflation involved in this matter. Will the Government give us some figures which will help both us and our constituents to make up our minds? By how much will the price of coal rise if this offer is accepted by the union? By how much will it rise if the offer is increased by, for instance, 3 per cent. or 5 per cent? By how much will the price of coal rise by the end of this year if the industry continues to lose miners at the rate of 600 to 700 a week?

In Britain now there is a terrifying danger of inflation. We have already seen wholesale prices and prices of manufactured goods escalate in the last two months at the rate of 18 per cent. a year. That will filter through into the retail index. I do not have an interest in inflation. Oppositions in Britain usually have an interest in inflation. The Conservative Party, when in opposition, behaved as though it had such an interest, as do the Opposition today. I have an interest in keeping down prices and keeping down those wages which enter into prices. I believe in a long-term prices and incomes policy.

We need to know from the Government exactly what effect on the price of coal this offer is likely to have and what effect it would have, for instance, if it was raised by 3 per cent. or 5 per cent. The Government made a fundamental mistake in trying to design stage 3 to accommodate the miners. I never thought that that was possible. Stage 3 is so full of holes that it is a sieve indeed. It clearly has not worked. It has not bought off the miners. It would have been far better to have a lower norm in stage 3 but to have had specific provisions for the investigation of special cases.

It seems that the miners are undoubtedly a special case. It is always easy to say that they are a special case. But the economic facts of life have changed, in particular in relation to an energy policy and the competitive price of energy since stage 3 was invented. The miners will now get what the economic facts of life in relation to energy throughout the world will give them. Why should they not go for that? The price of alternative fuels has risen substantially, even since they worked out their demand. The economic price of alternative fuels is likely to rise even more within the next month. Therefore, it seems sensible that the policy in relation to miners' pay should take account of the competitive situation of other fuels. It seems sensible to set up an inquiry taking this into account. It was not taken into account when stage 3 was designed.

We cannot, in the present fuel situation, take on the miners. The country cannot take them on. The Government cannot do it. Anyone on the Government benches who thinks that it would be sensible to have a General Election on this issue, even in view of the results of the last four by-elections, is asking for serious social trouble and is a fool. We must come to an agreement. Therefore, the Government must set up some machinery that allows miners to come to an agreement, taking account of the competitive situation with regard to other fuels.

5.48 p.m.

Mr. Adam Butler (Bosworth)

The debate is certainly about very serious and sad matters. The hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) has indicated how serious they are by showing that he, at least, is prepared to give way to any wage claim put forward by any body of men who are in a position to twist the arm of the Government. I am sorry that the hon. Member should have spoken in the way he did.

There has been some query as to the necessity for the debate. Earlier this afternoon there was the question whether a state of emergency should have been declared. I was not then fortunate enough to catch the eye of Mr. Speaker. However, I believe that there are good reasons for the state of emergency being declared now. One reason is that reports from the pits in the South Midlands area are that the loss of coal on the first day of the working of the overtime ban was 40 per cent., and that was after full weekend working on maintenance. That is not just a single day. It is supported by evidence from the Warwickshire pits, which have been operating an overtime ban for two weeks. They have lost production of the same order of magnitude.

In the National Union of Mineworkers executive I see two different approaches to this problem. The first, if I may so call it, is the responsible attitude, concerned with the future of the industry and the relationship between recruitment and wage levels paid. The other approach is that which puts forward a policy of deliberate confrontation with the Government on political grounds. By the public utterances which we have heard, it would seem that the supporters of this latter line are not only more vocal but are in the majority. I would say quite simply to them "If you genuinely want to help your members, you are going the wrong way about it".

When the Coal Industry Act was passing through this House, I said that it was an act of faith by the Government. If the executive of the NUM now thinks that by kicking the Conservative Government in the teeth it will get its way it is mistaken. The question of the ballot has probably been mentioned in the contributions of all right hon. and hon. Members so far. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State that it is deceitful to undertake a course of action, such as an overtime ban, which is deliberately intended to bring about a shutdown of the nature which could have been produced by a strike, without going through the democratic processes for which the union is quite rightly admired throughout industry. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) did not answer my question on the policy of his colleagues about suggesting a ballot to the union.

The other strand to which I want to refer is the moderates, or those who produce a moderating influence within the executive. Moderation has historically been shown by the miners in the Midlands, such as those in my constituency, and I have every reason to believe that the same moderation prevails today. Their case rests on the need to stop the decline in manpower, which is running at the rate of over 10 per cent. per annum, and to attract more men into the industry. It seems to be argued almost as a secondary measure that underground work would still be inadequately rewarded with an average basic rate of about £40 for those on morning or afternoon shift.

The hon. Member for Morpeth (Mr. George Grant) spoke eloquently, and drew the attention of the House to the fact that so many surface workers now suffer physically because of long periods underground when they were younger; and they have much less opportunity for overtime.

There is some substance in the moderates' argument, but, as my right hon. Friend said, they really must blame the lack of performance of earlier Governments, not least of the Labour Government in the six years up to 1970. It was during that period that the miners crashed down the relativity ladder.

In an ideal world it is very easy to say that miners should be paid £50, £60 or more per week, but in our imperfect world everybody claims that he is a special case; and the Liberal spokesman would give way to every special case. The fact is that miners have had above average increases over the last two years, and the present offer is the second largest in their history. I believe that it must be accepted, but, at the same time, there should be a Government commitment to continue to improve their position in relation to others.

Because the package is higher than other wage settlements at the present time, it is reasonable to assume that the rate of reduction in manpower in the industry will be reduced, but in view of the need for coal this may not be sufficient. However, it is wrong to try to build up manpower too substantially, because the future of mining in the long term is not very secure.

Furthermore, do we really want to see our men continuing to work underground? I believe that it was the hon. Member for Morpeth, who knows more about this subject than others, who suggested that we should not want to see an increase in underground working. But if we do not want to build up manpower, the alternative is increased productivity, and I must be critical both of the National Coal Board and of the NUM executive for not concluding a productivity agreement, such as was contained in the Wilberforce proposals. I am informed that at present the increase in the productivity rate is little better than 2 per cent. per annum.

The NUM looks for a national productivity agreement. I can understand some of its reasons, but I must say, as I have said in earlier debates, that if it is to be at all effective we must have area or colliery productivity agreements. I am not suggesting that we should revert to the old piece-rate system, with all its risk. It is possible to work out an effective and rewarding scheme, such as has been done in the case of factory productivity schemes and group productivity schemes, and if an experiment is needed I believe that the Leicestershire pits are ready to act as guinea pigs. So I would ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to seek some way of offering a higher percentage for genuine productivity deals within this industry.

The moderates' attitude is that an overtime ban will not cause undue harm to the nation, and that they just want to draw attention to their case but not to cause disruption. I have referred to the effects experienced so far in the South Midlands area. There is no doubt that the figure of 40 per cent. loss of production will rapidly grow to 50 per cent., and will deteriorate quite rapidly still further over the coming weeks, and that a stoppage will have been brought about without the benefit of a ballot. I understand the theory behind the moderates' case, and I hope that I understand the stand which they are taking. In practice, however, the results of this action will lead gradually to disaster at a time when the Arabian stranglehold, however unintentionally, is cutting off another source of energy.

My hon. Friend the Member for Howden (Sir P. Bryan) spoke from experience, and drew our attention to the importance of public opinion in this matter. The public, knowing the restrictions on their own earning power, knowing the increases paid to the miners in the last two years, and taking into account the twin pressures of inflation and the energy crisis, consider the offer fair. I am sure that they are right.

5.59 p.m.

Mr. Joseph Harper (Pontefract)

If hon. Members had to sign a register of interests, I should have to sign it. I have a vested interest in this subject. I have a son working in the industry. He is one of the men we are debating today.

I wish the Press would get the facts right. The Press is very wide of the mark when it writes about the number of men working in the pits. This arises from the fact that men are leaving the pits in such numbers. The hon. Gentleman who is so assiduously working on the Government Front Bench—I refer to the Minister for Industry—stated on 6th October that at that date there were 251,328 men in the pits, in contrast to the up to 280,000 men of whom the Press speaks.

Two phenomena have occurred in the last 24 hours which have left us bewildered. The first was the acceptance by Mr. Speaker, with great alacrity, of the application for a debate under Standing Order No. 9, which has enabled the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) to raise this question. The second has been the introduction by the Government of a state of emergency after 24 hours of an overtime ban. That will go down as an all-time record.

This enables us to debate the energy crisis, to consider the whole problem nationally and internationally, and to place the miners' case before the Government, as the hon. Member for Cannock tried to do, before the situation deteriorates further.

We on this side have pressed over the years for an overall energy policy in which coal plays an integral part. Present and subsequent events will prove that we have been correct all along the line. However, this does not give us any cause for satisfaction, because it is our people who have got hurt in the process.

I shall repeat some figures given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) in an interjection. In the first nine months of this year 14 pits were closed. Since 18th June 1970, a date which leaves a nasty taste in my mouth, over 33,000 men have been displaced or left the pits, and 28 pits have been closed.

I do not seek to apportion blame for that, because the Labour Government played their part in that process, as was pointed out by the Secretary of State. The tempo has, unfortunately, increased, as the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Adam Butler) said, so that the men are now leaving at the rate of 700 a week.

There has been a lot of "bull" talked about ballots. My reply to that is that the miners are balloting in the only way they know—that is, with their feet: they are leaving the industry. As the hon. Member for Bosworth said, we must try to make conditions in the industry so attractive that we can prevent men from leaving it and attract those who have left back into it.

I shall not enter into the realm of the Industrial Relations Act and how it could be operated. I am only pleased that the Government have not tried to use Section 141 of that Act, because that would have made matters dangerously worse.

To sum up this part of my speech, the industry is bleeding to death and the Government's job is to act like all good first-aid men and arrest the haemorrhage—in other words, to arrest the flow of men from the industry and to attract back those who have left. The only way of doing that is to increase miners' wages. More than a year ago Lord Wilberforce gave miners the best wage increase they had ever had, or perhaps I had better say that he advocated that they should be paid a certain amount and the Government, to their chagrin, accepted Lord Wilberforce's findings.

It would take an increase of £6 across the board for every man jack who goes down into the pits to bring us back to the level at which Wilberforce left us. Therefore, are the miners asking for too much? I believe that they are not, because the Wilberforce Report was a detailed and just report which was accepted by everybody. That report put us very nearly at the top of the league. Since then, like my own home team, we have slipped alarmingly, and the miners are not liking it one bit. They want to be back at the top of the league, where the industry demands that they should be.

We face rising discontent and seething unrest. The National Coal Board has gone as far as it can under phase 3, as the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) said, and it is now up to the Government. It is not a case of the miners versus the Government or of the Government versus the miners. I certainly hope that it is not the latter. All we want is a fair and just settlement.

A great deal of cant has been talked about productivity deals. I have worked in the industry. There comes a time when saturation point is reached. Under the old system one could always spend money on mechanisation and automation to get increased output. However, there comes a time when the whole industry is fully mechanised and automated and it is no longer possible to achieve increased productivity. To me, productivity deals mean so much extra produced per man shift. If they do not mean that, I am at a loss.

Mr. Adam Butler

Is the hon. Gentleman saying that there is no scope for a productivity deal in the industry at present?

Mr. Harper

There is still scope, but it is very limited. We cannot now achieve the huge increases in productivity which the hon. Gentleman, if he had had further time, could have said occurred in the mid-1950s and through to the 1960s. We are reaching saturation point. There is not much to come there, and the miners realise that.

This morning I heard an announcer on the radio programme "What the Papers Say" state that the Government were taking the miners on. This is all wrong. I deplore that such comments should be made in the Press or on the radio or television. Such statements exacerbate the position and do not make the job of Government or trade unions any easier in trying to reach a settlement.

This country has a reputation for muddling through. However, the muddling has got to stop at some time. It is better stopped now. Planning decisions should be taken immediately, not tomorrow, not next week, not after Christmas, not in the new year, but today.

This country should not be subjected to Arab blackmail. As coal is at the moment the only readily accessible indigenous fuel we have got with any certainty, it should be utilised to the full to fill the gaps in energy that are occurring now and are still to come.

For example, Governments of both political complexions have spent a lot of money on the Magnox system of reactors. We must now depend solely on the advanced gas-cooled reactors. I hope that this will not be taken as a pun, because I do not like puns. The advanced gas-cooled reactors have not advanced. They are years behind the times. Something must fill the gap. The only thing that can fill the gap is the fuel known as coal until the nuclear programme is ready to take over. If we were so foolish as to let coal run down, we should be in the position of having to buy reactors from America, and that would be just pouring money out, the same as we are pouring it out today to the sheikhs in the Gulf and in the Middle East.

I want now to say something positive. It is easy to destroy. It is harder to be positive. I suggest that the Government should do the following things. First, they should give the immediate go-ahead to Drax B and West Burton to start building. Secondly, the Central Electricity Generating Board's policy of changing coal-fired power stations to oil-fired should be stopped forthwith and Mr. Hawkins should be told to get those that have been changed over to oil-burning back to coal-burning.

Thirdly, we should proceed with the task of obtaining, after more research, oil from coal. Oil-from-coal plant could be built next to the pits. It is cheaper and quicker to build such plant than it is to build power stations. We need extra oil, and there would be a yield of 3½ or 4 barrels of oil to the ton from this source.

Fourthly, we should start immediately to exploit the Selby coalfield with its rich reserves. If we are to keep allowing the miners to leave the pits or not make any attempt to stop them from leaving, it will be no good if the National Coal Board says that the seams there are 27 ft. thick. Seams 27 ft. thick are no good without miners. Once the miners have left the pits they cannot be persuaded to return. Before they get really settled in the jobs they have gone to, we must try to get the men back.

Mr. Alexander Wilson (Hamilton)

My hon. Friend has made four valuable points, but I suggest that a prerequisite to their implementation must be the establishment of a national fuel and energy policy, with a Cabinet Minister in charge. My hon. Friend's four proposals could be encompassed within that formula, could they not?

Mr. Harper

On the overall energy situation, I am in full agreement with my hon. Friend. At the moment, however, I am talking about the men leaving the pits. They leave the pits because other jobs are easier, more comfortable, less dirty and less dangerous. A few days ago, travelling on a bus in London, I looked across at the advertisements—I always find my eye attracted to the advertisements, and, of course, that is why they are put there—and I saw that London Transport was advertising for staff, with a starting wage at just under £30 a week and the prospect after a couple of years, if the chaps pass their test, of going up to £41, with overtime. Good heavens—I am glad that our mines are not nearer to London or we should be losing men not at 700 a week but at 1,000 a week.

The Government should act positively and at once. There will be real danger if they do not. As my hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. George Grant), said, there is the risk that craftsmen still in the industry, as well as men in middle management and the youngsters, will continue to leave the industry in great numbers.

If the Government cannot in the last resort think of a solution, I give them one. Hand it back to Lord Wilberforce. He will make something of it.

6.12 p.m.

Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)

The hon. Member for Pontefrat (Mr. Harper) and his hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. George Grant) have added to the debate a note of sincerity, pleading that we recognise the seriousness of the industry's position, with so many men leaving week by week for the obvious reason, as they say, that pay and working conditions in the coal industry do not compare favourably with pay conditions elsewhere. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) should know that I have frequently spoken in debates on the coal industry, not because I would pretend to be a miners' Member of Parliament but for several other reasons.

Not the least of those reasons is that I have many miners living in my constituency, although the pit there has been closed. My principal concern, however, like that of the hon. Members for Morpeth and for Pontefract, and, I suspect, all the Members present today, is that I am genuinely anxious for the progress and well-being of this key industry which is vital to the security of our economic progress. I put it as high as that. What motivates us one way or another in this dispute is our concern to ensure that the industry continues in good health.

I recommend anyone outside the House who contemplates the dispute which is building up between the miners and the National Coal Board—and, perhaps more especially, between the miners and the Government—to look at the calm way in which we in this Chamber who are concerned about the same matter can debate it and put forward constructive suggestions for a way out of the impasse. We must as a House of Commons make a contribution to show how this impasse can be overcome. We are constantly confronted with problems of this kind in our sophisticated industrial society, and it should not be beyond the wit of the House of Commons, which is the very centre of our democracy, to make constructive suggestions to help the nation—I say that advisedly, for it is the nation's wellbeing that is at stake—out of the difficulties in which we find ourselves as we try to protect our vital industries and, at the same time, try to protect our whole economy and all the workers in all industries.

I have spoken consistently in favour of the miners on other occasions, and I speak again today in favour of the miners. At the time of the last dispute in 1972 both before and during the dispute and after the settlement, I spoke harsh words to my own Front Bench because I felt on that occasion that we ought to take the initiative in this House to support the miners and to support the coal industry in the interests of the whole nation.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

What about supporting the miners today?

Mr. Crouch

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will listen to me. He may not agree with everything I say, but I believe that he will have sympathy with some of my remarks.

The miners had a case in 1972. They were granted an inquiry. The Wilberforce recommendations were accepted by the Government, and the miners were given what I regard as a generous award. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said today, it was the biggest award ever granted in the history of their industry.

I believe that the miners have a case again now. I am genuinely concerned when I read in the document sent to me this morning by the National Coal Board that under the new pay scales proposed—I emphasise that—there will still be men working underground earning less than £30 a week. I asked my taxi driver today how much a week he could earn, and he told me that he could just about earn £30 a week if he worked 12 hours a day—and I assume that he meant five days a week. But the men about whom I am concerned are working underground. We cannot fail to appreciate, therefore, that such men, earning less than £30 a week, feel that their case has not been fully recognised.

I read also in the NCB document that as a result of the unsocial hours provision men working at night would have considerable increases under the proposed award, ranging from £8.10 to £9.37. In that area, therefore, it seems that the board's proposals have, so far as they can, taken care of what the board regards as the most important aspect of the miners' claim.

However, it seems that the miners feel that a proper adjustment has not been made in that respect, and I have a suggestion to make in that connection. I do not know how it will be received—perhaps other hon. Members will know better than I can exactly how the miners feel—but I suggest that an adjustment could be made within the total offer. It is, after all, a big offer—£45 million in a year, and nearly equal, as the Secretary of State said, to the Wilberforce award. Perhaps some adjustment could be made within the overall parameters to give more to men working underground in the day time and less for the night period than is suggested in the proposed award.

This will not, of course, be the last award to the miners, and I make that suggestion in the present interim context when we have a problem to deal with and, as I said earlier, we must try to get over an impasse. I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend say that there is room for flexibility. It is not an inflexible award proposed by the National Coal Board, and I imagine that there could be some readjustment if that were wanted.

Much as I support the miners' case and have sympathy for them, I must recognise that the Government cannot allow the prices and incomes policy to be shattered by their leaning overboard, as it were, in an attempt to help this important sector of industry. To do that would not help all those workers in other industries which the Government—as we all do—have an equal duty to help and sustain.

Do the miners mean to hold the nation to ransom—I use that strong term advisedly—by rejecting the present offer? I do not believe that they do. But I ask the question: do they realise that that is how the public will interpret their approach to the award? I cannot believe that they take that view. No hon. Member on the Labour benches, however strongly he feels as a true miners' representative, has spoken in such terms as even to suggest that he would want to see the nation held to ransom.

Opposition Members who represent miners come to this House not only as miners or ex-miners who know the mining industry, but as true representatives in a democracy. They are prepared to work to the limits of democracy, but within its parameters. That is why, when they speak, the miners and their leaders, of all shades of opinion, pay great attention and have great respect for the way in which they conduct their case in the House. I think that they conduct their case properly, even if they conduct it strongly. That is how they should do it.

I emphasise that I consider the present award to be generous. I do not think that it is the last word. However, no one can get a higher award. The Government have leaned over backwards to ensure that within the limits of their prices and incomes policy, which they acknowledge is restrictive, it is possible for the miners, who work in a key industry, to get as much as possible. The miners must recognise that there will this time be no Wilberforce Tribunal. They must rely on the House of Commons. We must work within the prices and incomes policy, whether we like it or not.

Mr. Harold Walker

The miners are, but Sir John Stratton is not.

Mr. Crouch

No one who is concerned about the wellbeing of workers in all our industries could be prepared now to speak on behalf of miners in their present claim. In general terms—yes. That is what I have tried to do. In future—yes. That is what I have tried to do. In trying to get out of the present difficulty we must remember that the solution will be of an interim nature. The Government have indicated that this will be an interim solution. The Government have introduced the Coal Industry Act and investment into the industry to put it on a modern footing. The Coal Industry Act is a measure which I supported and will continue to support strongly. It is an Act to sustain the industry and everyone in it.

I want to see the industry have a brighter future than that which has been suggested by the Government Front Bench. I agree with some Opposition Members who constantly remind the Government that electricity should continue to be generated, as far as possible, from coal and that there should not be a switch to oil. It is not now old-fashioned to support the coal argument and to speak against the generation of electricity by oil.

In the present dispute I do not believe that the Government should go beyond the present award. The award, which is on average 13 per cent. across the board, is generous in the context of the Government's prices and incomes policy. I hope that the miners will remember that they must work within that policy. Not to do so and to ask for a tribunal to be established would wreck not only the prices and incomes policy but our last hope of controlling inflation. It would be like a dam buster which would imperil the wage packet of everyone and the housekeeping bill of every housewife.

I believe that the miners have much more sense than to allow themselves to be led on such a dangerous and tragic path. They have much more sense than to allow themselves to be labelled for ever as the initiators of the nation's decline. It would be a tragedy to have a confrontation. There may be a case for the miners, but there is no case for a fight and a showdown. There is a case for continuing consultation between the NCB, the miners and the Government. Of course, the Government are involved in all major disputes because the Government are operating a prices and incomes policy. The acceptance of the Wilberforce Tribunal's findings showed the Government's concern to recognise the aims of the miners in our society. The Coal Industry Act was and must be a reinforcement of that position.

The new award of £45 million is not inflexible. I hope that when my hon. Friend the Minister for Industry replies he will confirm that point. It could still be adjusted, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has said. Surely the time has now come for us to rely on consultation rather than confrontation.

6.25 p.m.

Mr. James Sillars (South Ayrshire)

I should have liked to comment on the point of view expressed by the spokesman for the Liberal Party, the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) about ballots, but unfortunately he is not present. If we can persuade the hon. Gentleman to stay here after 11 o'clock we may be able to debate the matter further and explain to him the difficulties involved in the rigidity which is inherent in any trade union executive going to a ballot.

Neither the hon. Member for Cornwall, North nor many Government Members understand that as soon as a ballot is taken there disappears freedom of action for an executive. A ballot is, as it were, a referendum which takes powers and responsibilities away from a union executive. That is true, like so much that my hon. Friends and I said during the passage of the Industrial Relations Act. That is one of the reasons for the non-implementation of the Act.

I warn the Conservative Party that if it thinks that it can command public opinion and use it as a nutcracker on the mining communities it has misunderstood the strategy and tactics of an industrial dispute. Mining communities are more isolated than any other communities. In many parts of the country public opinion is mining opinion. For example, in my constituency the housing convener is a miner. If anyone thinks that the local authority will evict miners from their homes because they have not paid rent during the strike period he is up a gum tree. The quicker the Government understand that fact the better. The sooner they stop talking nonsense about the employment of public opinion the better.

I shall try to explain as patiently as I can why the miners in my constituency have been driven to action. That will be more difficult today, following the proclamation of a state of emergency. It will be construed by the miners as a diversion to cover up the difficult and almost disastrous economic situation into which the Government have put themselves.

I can almost see the cartoonists at work in South Ayrshire. There is much talent in the mining communities. What a wealth of material they have to work on. There will be the Home Secretary, going along to Buckingham Palace. There is the Queen, with pins in her mouth putting up the tucks on the frock for tomorrow. Somebody comes along and says, "I think there is an emergency." Any woman whose daughter is being married tomorrow would agree that an emergency is on.

My people will not be impressed by the charade that took place this afternoon. The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry implied, as others have done, that miners are a greedy lot. That, basically, has been the argument. It is said that they are inspired by greed. It is not greed. The same vindictiveness has appeared in leading articles in the national Press. Those articles have sought to paint the miners as the greedy element in the British working class. We must remember that men who have been working in the pits for years for low wages now earn only £36.79p. That is at the top of the line in the national power loading agreement. Can such men fairly be labelled as the greedy element of the working class? If they were greedy men they would now be on strike. This is the hour of the greatest peril for Britain, in terms of her energy supply. Instead of going on strike, what have the miners done? They have operated an overtime ban as a warning to the Government. They have given the Government more time for reflection, reconsideration, and further negotiation.

It should be noted that had the miners decided to strike with the same speed as the property owners struck a few hours after phase 3 was introduced—phase 3 having a number of loopholes for property owners—the miners would now be on strike and the country would be in a perilous position.

The Government ask miners to accept wages of below £45 a week for a national power loader on a day shift, but Lord Samuel increased his income and wealth by £1½ million in one day. A working miner would have to live as long as Methuselah to make that sort of money. The miners' case is not greed, but honesty. The miners have seen their ambitions for better living standards thwarted by massive price increases in food and land.

The refusal by the Government to subsidise meat has meant it is rationed to miners, because of the inadequacy of their wages to meet the price of that commodity. By refusing to recognise that a rent increase is a price increase—somehow the Prime Minister cannot understand that—and that it has been imposed by the Government, the Government are refusing to face the bitter resentment that is now abroad in the coalfields.

It is not Lawrence Daly or Joe Gormley who is making the biggest contribution to mining militancy—it is Ted Heath and the Conservative Government. The men can see that the Government, which prides itself on its masculine ability to act toughly, will listen at the end of the day only to people who can act just as toughly as the Government in a confrontation situation. That is the lesson that the working class of this country has learned. Here we are talking about the leaders of the working class—the mining community.

The level of miners' wages has an important bearing on the viability of the coal industry, and Britain will need a viable coal industry. The so-called energy experts inside and outside the Department got it all wrong. The only people who were right were the National Union of Mineworkers and the miners MPs in the last Parliament. The experts thought that coal was finished. I remember a headline in the Sunday Times business section which said: Coal still needs the knife. It got the knife, and a vital lifeline in the country's energy supplies was nearly cut. That shameful exercise was best exemplified by the 1967 White Paper, which is about as relevant as the Dandy, the Beano and The Times—which are just three of the comics circulating at the moment. However, to be fair to the Dandy and the Beano, it is only The Times that is subsidised. The experts have inflicted considerable damage on the energy supply situation in Britain. The Minister should examine his advisers closely and if they are the same as those who advised the Labour Government in 1967 he should get a new lot. They have already been proven as a relegation lot.

The situation in the 1960s depressed miners' earnings in relative terms. It disturbed a continuing pattern in which mining families produced successive generations of miners. It has landed us with a manpower crisis at a time of energy shortage. That manpower crisis can be averted only by a massive increase in wages and that is the only way to re-establish the pattern which provided the only source of mining manpower. That pattern existed on the basis that no-one in his right mind, apart from those born to mining families, would dream of going down the pit unless he was paid £60 before digging a pound of coal.

I hope that the Government will take these facts of life on board, digest them and act sensibly for once by making an increased offer. I once said to the Government, when they were abolishing the three waiting days for manual workers such as miners, that they would live to regret the time when, in the two years after 1970, they declared war on the working people. I said the day would come when they would have to say to the working class, "We are in difficulty, the country is in difficulty, will you help?" That day has arrived. But the Government have to understand that they must pay the price to the working class if they want us, patriotically, once more to come to the assistance of not only the country but the Government. The chickens have all come home to roost after three and a half years of Tory Government. The Government must face that fact of life.

6.34 p.m.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

I spent many years in the coal distributive business—

Mr. Harold Walker

Another parasite.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

—and having been involved with energy distribution for a long time one fact emerges clearly to me, not only from the debate but from any intelligent appreciation of the current situation. It is that energy will cost more to everyone in this country. If energy costs more, whether it is oil or any other form of energy, that must ultimately be reflected in the wages paid to the miners.

However, the dispute will not be solved by making the miners a special case. There are unhappy political overtones involved. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State explained earlier, the present agreement has another four months to run. A productivity agreement has still to be finalised, and the fact that the miners and their leaders have decided at this moment to challenge the Government's income policy only leads me to believe that they are out to destroy the Government if possible.

I do not like saying that, but I believe it to be true. The mining industry would have the whip hand in the matter of electricity generation should the dispute drag on until coal stocks at the power stations run out. If that happens the damage to the economy will be disastrous, at a time when we already face considerable problems from external pressures and the problems of oil supply. The miners have chosen this moment to exert the maximum pressure on the Government's incomes policy. If the challenge were to be surrendered to it would endanger the livelihoods of others who have an equal claim to be a special case and whose problems can be exaggerated every bit as much as those of the miners.

The counter-inflation policy is designed to apply to all. Any special treatment that breaches that policy must also destroy its total credibility. Therefore, there can be no special pleading. If there were, a flood of claims would quickly follow that of the miners, and the policy would be in ruins. Those who would suffer most would be those least able to protect themselves, those without the big battalions and without the whip hand, those who cannot protest in the way which this dispute is demonstrating to us one group can.

Therefore, the deal with the miners must be within the framework of the counter-inflation policy. No exceptions can be allowed. There can be no Wilberforce this time. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Varley) said that there is a manpower problem. We are aware of that, of course. One of the problems of a statutory control on prices and incomes is that a number of individuals become locked into a situation which perhaps prevents their getting the going rate for the job. Energy will be more expensive and therefore miners should ultimately see an increase in their salaries. If, with a statutory policy, purely arbitrary decisions are made about increases in pay, some people will be locked in at a lower level, unable ever to get out. If we are to continue with statutory controls over wages we need a national job evaluation to unlock those who find themselves locked in at below their true market value. This is how we shall ultimately solve the problem of the mineworker who does a dangerous and a difficult job. We shall evaluate his job in the same way as we are having to take account of the pressures of the oil sheikhs on our oil supplies, and by so doing enable the mineworker to earn the going rate for producing what is an essential energy content for our industrial needs. But I repeat that in the present dispute there can be no giving in. It has to be decided within the context of phase 3.

It is a tragedy to think that this industry, perhaps the most flexible of all the energy industries at the present time—the one which could take account of our needs far more than nuclear power, or any of the hopes we may have for further oil supplies from the North Sea—should find itself in dispute when the country so desperately needs the products it has to offer.

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