HC Deb 13 November 1973 vol 864 cc314-27

6.42 p.m.

Mr. Fred Evans (Caerphilly)

When I listen to speeches of hon. Members and read Press reports I sometimes feel that the miners I was brought up among and still live among are endowed with some kind of chameleon quality and change their image and their shape far too often.

I have heard many tributes paid to the mining industry as being one of the most responsible and strike-free industries in this country, and historically that is true. But suddenly these men become translated into the greedy workers, the blackmailers of society, those who victimise the less able in our society. Inside and outside the House I have heard people become almost crassly sentimental when they talk of the dangers that miners undergo, the arduous conditions in which they work and the complete lack of hesitation when they are called, even at the possible sacrifice of their lives, to go to the aid of their mates. Suddenly all these worth while, almost heroic qualities are switched round and they become mini-men who are willing to take anybody by the arm and twist it until it is falling off.

In my constituency I have more pits still open, although not the biggest labour force, than elsewhere in the country. I visit the pits regularly, and as recently as last September—it would have done hon. Members' hearts good and improved their bodies as it did mine—spent a day at a working face in eight different collieries. I talked to the men in the environment of their job. Not being a stranger to the industry, apart from the physical punishment, I enjoyed being underground once again.

Let there be no misconception on the benches opposite. If hon. Members think that there is any lack of solidarity they are labouring under a fallacy. I hope that I can talk for the whole of the South Wales coalfields. The men I worked with are 100 per cent. solid behind their lodges and leaders. Any other construction that is put on it, as by the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), who hinted that there were divided voices, can be forgotten. There was one significant difference about the action being taken now. Surface workers are involved in this one, as are the British Association of Colliery Managers, the National Association of Colliery Overmen, Deputies and Shot-firers, and the Colliery Office Staffs Association. This kind of solidarity will not be broken. Managers may go underground in order to carry out a general supervisory walk round, but they will not do any job that any other underground worker normally would be doing. The same goes for any member of NACODS.

This morning's Guardian carries a significant little article headed "A bitter seam". Perhaps I might quote one or two brief extracts because I can assure the Government that the article represents the true feelings of the South Wales miners. The article was written by a woman journalist named Ann Clwyd. She writes: A ballot of the 700 men at the Coed Ely colliery two weeks ago was 100 per cent. in favour of the overtime ban. She reports one of the individual workmen as saying: Even if it was a vote for a strike I think it would definitely carry this time. Another worker is reported as saying: Our wages are low compared with other jobs. I get £36 as a face worker—after stoppages it's £29. When you're married with three kids it's not a lot of money, is it? Miss Clwyd quotes case after case, giving returns of their pay and what they would probably get under the implementation of the Government's proposals. She goes on: The miners strongly disagree with the National Coal Board's claim that its offer is worth a 16½ per cent. increase. According to one surface worker, It's not the wage they say we're having. I've been offered a rise of £2.25. It's just not good enough. Miss Clwyd writes of him: He gets around £30 take-home pay, including overtime, but works as a part-time fireman to make ends meet. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Sillars) reminded us, it is in the nature of mining communities to demonstrate a solidarity which will not be broken. The women fully support this attitude, and they are a powerful influence in seeing that when their men fight for justice they go in with a reasonable chance of winning.

The article went on: In the village a miner's wife, Mrs. Valerie Baker, was working as a petrol-pump attendant. 'I've got four children and we couldn't manage without my job. We don't smoke or drink but we still find it hard. If you work in a factory you can have proper breaks. My husband has to eat his sandwiches in the dust down under. I don't think he's paid what he's worth.' The flight from the mining industry which has been mentioned so often today is seen by the miners in a responsible manner which has not even been hinted at by Government supporters. The miners regard themselves as responsible people. There is no union in the country that has done more thinking about the general energy situation than the NUM—not now, but five years ago and even 10 years ago. The contribution of the NUM's thinking in the last five years has been magnificent. It was the miners who pressed the Labour Government for an integrated fuel and energy policy. It is the miners who are pressing this Government. It is the miners who care for the future of their industry and of their country.

At the same time, it is the miners who are labelled as blackmailers and as people who are dishonourably using their own rules. It is written into their rules that they have to hold a ballot before they strike. However, they do not have to hold a ballot before they ban overtime. Because they have begun an overtime ban, it is looked upon as an act of treachery to the country. In other words, it can be an act of treachery to operate inside the rules. On the other hand, anyone operating as an asset stripper or property speculator is regarded as a slick individual who is using the situation in an intelligent manner. If anyone thinks that the native intelligence that most miners have will swallow that kind of argument, he can think again.

In caring for their industry the miners know that if they do not stop the flight of manpower from the industry it is only a matter of time before the industry dies. It has an ageing labour force and it is failing to recruit labour. If an overtime ban does not result in floods and geological movements which close the pits, it will be the men who close them because there will be no manpower.

The Government must think carefully about the situation. If they care about our country's future the Government must find a way out. They must do justice to the miners. In my reading of the energy situation, we shall not be able to do without coal for very many years into the future. It is our very precious bridge over the energy gap which will hit other countries. We must exploit it properly. We shall not do it without according elementary justice to the miners.

Mr. Cormack

Does not the hon. Gentleman think that an overtime ban may itself accelerate the drift from the industry and that during an industrial dispute the drift of 600 or 700 a week may grow to 1,000?

Mr. Evans

That is supposition. What is certain is that an overtime ban may close a number of pits. I have in mind a typical colliery in my own constituency from which 2 million gallons of water are pumped every day. Given a week or a fortnight without something being done that colliery may not reopen.

The miners are saying "We do not want to do this. It is our industry. But we know that unless we achieve conditions which will bring recruitment into the industry, it will die in any event. Therefore, we believe that we are doing the right thing by our country in taking strong action when we talk in terms of an overtime ban." If we cannot solve the present difficulty we shall find ourselves in dire trouble.

What will hit the miners more than anything else is the indecent haste in bringing forward emergency powers. I can assure the Government that their action will be interpreted by the miners as an attempt to wield the big stick. What is more, if and when the emergency powers are invoked they may prove to be of assistance in terms of transport, but soldiers will not be willing to go down 1,500 ft. below ground. As someone said earlier today, coal cannot be dug with bayonets. Miners are essential if we want to win coal.

Contrary to popular opinion, anyone who knows the industry knows that every man in it is a superb craftsman. If their crafts are not preserved and passed on, the industry will die whether it be because of an overtime ban, a strike or the flight of manpower from it.

That is the challenge which the Government have to answer. If we land ourselves in an energy crisis, theirs will be the blame.

6.55 p.m.

Mr. David Marquand (Ashfield)

Unlike almost all my hon. Friends who have spoken in the debate with the authority of having worked in the coal mining industry, I have never worked in it. I merely represent a mining constituency. However, I have learnt a great deal from representing that constituency.

One thing I have learnt, and perhaps the most important in the context of the debate, is that one cannot hope to bully the miners. To try to do so would be counter-productive. In many of the speeches from the Government benches there was a tendency to think that in some way one could bully the miners back to normal working. If that is the thought in the Government's mind, we are heading for an ugly social crisis. Therefore, I hope that the Government think again.

We have all talked about the energy crisis which we face in the coming weeks and months, but the subject is also being debated in the shadow of a much more serious, long-term energy crisis. What has happened to our economy in the past few weeks as a result of the activities of the Arab oil producers is merely a foretaste of what will happen in any case in 10, 15 or 20 years' time. It is now fairly well accepted, as a consensus, by those who know something of the technicalities of the oil industry, that oil production will be running down by the early 1980s, and that we shall be in severe energy troubles by the end of that decade.

An energy crisis is not something which has been suddenly dreamed up by NUM propagandists. It is a fact. That is why the Government carried out the turn-round of policy which the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry boasted about at the start of the debate. It was not because the Government have suddenly fallen in love with the miners, or the mining industry, but because they realised that mining would be essential to the country's economy by the end of the century.

As has been repeatedly pointed out in the debate, there cannot be a mining industry unless there are miners to work in it. At present, miners are leaving the industry at an accelerating rate. I have today looked at the figures for the pits in my constituency. It would take too long to give all the figures, but in three months between July and October, 254 men left the industry in the pits in my constituency. The north Nottingham area, which is supposed to be an expanding coal production area and one of the bright spots of the coal industry, had 403 fewer men on its books in October than it had in July. That is the fact of the situation.

Perhaps I can relate an anecdote to the House, because we often talk in abstractions and forget about individual people. The other day I visited a constituent in his home to talk about a personal problem. He happens to be a miner. His wife, his brother and his brother's wife were also there. I arrived in the middle of a conversation amongst the four of them. The two wives had been saying to their husbands: "Look, when are you going to wake up to the facts of life and get a decent job outside coal mining?" My constituent told me: "I would go to another job if I was 10 years younger. I am too old to go. I am 48. I cannot leave now. I am trapped. If I were 38 I would leave. But if I were 28 I would never have gone into the pits." He added, "In my pit we are like Dad's Army. In my team there is one man under 40, one man over 60, and the rest are in the same age group as myself." It is lunacy to think that the industry can survive in this situation.

We can all understand the imperatives of the counter-inflation policy, but the imperatives of maintaining the one indigenous energy resource which can fill the gap we face in the near future are even greater. I urge the Minister to accept the wise and statesmanlike suggestion of my hon. Friend the Member for Morpeth (Mr. George Grant). For God's sake, before it is too late, before attitudes harden, before a deadlock has been created, set up an immediate, high-level inquiry into the reasons for wastage in the mining industry, and act on that inquiry in the very near future.

7.0 p.m.

Mr. Alex Eadie (Midlothian)

I have very little time to reply on behalf of my hon. Friends to the debate, which has been unsatisfactory in many ways. An urgent need for the House to have a full-scale debate on energy has emerged. We need it so that we may discuss the energy crisis that confronts the British people and may very well confront the world. It would be monstrously irresponsible of the Government not to give an assurance that we shall have such a debate.

The Minister for Industry, who is to reply for the Government, has a heavy responsibility. Nothing has emerged from the debate so far to suggest that the Government have any idea of the kind of situation which we are entering. If the congratulations to the hon. Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack), who managed to initiate the debate, are to be meaningful, and if the debate is to be constructive, the Government have a duty to tell Parliament and the nation what they propose to do about the present serious situation.

The hon. Gentleman has done the House a service in bringing the issue of coal and energy before us, but I do not wish to comment too much on his speech. Some of my hon. Friends have said that he tried to ride about four horses at the same time. I do not think that many miners in the hon. Gentleman's constituency will congratulate him on his speech. We do not mind being lectured about history, but miners and their representatives object to a Member of Parliament trying to re-write history. To say that the miners were responsible for phase 1, phase 2 and phase 3 of the incomes policy is a complete distortion of the facts and of political reality.

It is nothing new for miners to be given instructions in democracy by certain people outside their own organisations. We are sometimes told that when miners engage in conflict it is not because they have a grouse or a case but because they have become victims of the predatory Left or other organisations. If the Secretary of State and the Minister believe that the present problem of the miners' overtime ban has been dreamt up by the predatory Left or some other organisation, they are making the biggest mistake they have ever made.

My hon. Friends and I have been saying that the miners, or their leaders and representatives, exercised democracy in having a ballot or reflection of the opinion of members. There is nothing undemocratic about the process that is gone through. The miners' accredited representatives, members of the national executive, decide on resolutions passed by accredited annual conferences which give them the mandates they should follow for the rest of their elective year. They write to every branch in Britain, saying "We are to have an overtime ban. Are you in favour or against it?" Then, the membership having been duly notified, members go to the pit union branch meetings where the issue is discussed, and decide what to do. The branch secretary reports to national headquarters the decision of the branch, made when members vote at the branch meetings. Our information, when we met the miners' leaders last night, was that the decision was unanimous among the members of every union branch in Britain. The Government would be foolish if they ignored that.

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that he was responsible for the introduction of the Coal Industry Act. He said that the Government had greatly improved the prospects and the lot of the miners by the implementation of Wilberforce. I do not speak entirely with the authority of the national executive of the NUM, but my guess is that it would accept tomorrow if the right hon. Gentleman instructed his hon. Friend who is to conclude the debate to say that the Government are prepared to settle on the kind of payments commensurate with the Wilberforce settlement. [Interruption.] I bet it would.

Some Conservative Members have said tonight that at the time of Wilberforce the miners received great sympathy from the nation because they had a case, and that the nation welcomed Wilberforce because it believe that the settlement was fair and equitable to the miners and their community. If Conservative Members are saying now that they will agree to a Wilberforce settlement, the crisis about which we have been told will be averted.

The right hon. Gentleman talked about Wilberforce. I was in a better position than he was then, because I was a member of the national executive of the NUM. I happened to be at Downing Street at a meeting from about 9 p.m. until 1 a.m., when the Prime Minister realised that the nation was confronted with a crisis and the Government settled on the basis of Wilberforce. When the right hon. Gentleman says that he was responsible for the Coal Industry Act, we are entitled to reply that the Bill came after Wilberforce, because the Government realised the rôle that coal had to play.

We believe that during the strike another powerful factor emerged. The Prime Minister and the Government are very fond of talking about open government, but we have still not received from them information about what the Rothschild "think tank" said about the coal mining industry. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that during the last miner's strike the Rothschild "think tank" gave the Cabinet a jolt about the future of the coal industry. That was revealed by the remarkable journalist, Chapman Pincher, in the Daily Express, under a headline which suggested that "King Coal" had to take its place in our future. The right hon. Gentleman has a responsibility to the miners and the nation to reveal what was contained in the "think tank" report about the future of the coal mining industry.

I hope that the miners will not be blamed for the state of emergency which, I understand from the Leader of the House, we are to debate on Thursday. If the Government blame the miners for the emergency, petrol rationing or power cuts a feeling of tremendous bitterness will develop in the industry from which we shall never recover.

I hope that the Government will investigate the question of obtaining oil from coal. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, in the debate on 30th October, spoke of this possibility. As miners, we do not want to crawl to prosperity on the backs of Arab or Israeli workers. We have indigenous resources and we should use them.

When the Minster for Industry replies I hope that he will answer these simple questions: what do the Government intend to do about stopping the wastage of 700 men per week from the mining industry? Will he announce an inquiry into the energy crisis and try to get a settlement so that our people will not have to suffer inconvenience now or in the future?

7.13 p.m.

The Minister for Industry (Mr. Tom Boardman)

The House is grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) for introducing the debate and for the contributions which have been made from both sides of the House by hon. Members who have a considerable knowledge of the industry and of the people who work in it. Although on some matters I find myself in disagreement with Opposition Members, they have expressed sentiments which are shared by Conservative Members as to the contribution made by miners to the economy and the conditions under which miners work and the risks they run.

That this debate has become necessary is a matter of personal sadness for me. We have made considerable progress during the last 18 months in restoring the industry to a position from which it can make a major contribution to our energy problems and give secure employment to those engaged in it. The course that has been taken not only could have a disastrous effect upon the coal industry but could do grave damage to industry and employment in the United Kingdom and to the comfort and way of life of many people who may suffer from shortages of fuel and energy.

In that connection, I should perhaps tell the House that tomorrow we shall be making regulations, with effect from tomorrow night, to control the use of display lighting and space heating. The effect of the regulations will be to control the use of electricity for advertising or display or for lighting any open-air arena, and to control the use of electricity for the space heating of offices, shops, restaurants and places of entertainment. Premises occupied by doctors, dentists and certain other categories will be exempt. At the same time, instructions are being sent to Government Departments on the economy measures that they should put into effect without delay. Similar advice is being sent to nationalised industries and local and other authorities.

I hope that everyone will take whatever means possible to reduce fuel consumption. I make this appeal to the country as a whole. We could be facing a shortage of fuel and energy which would have a cripping effect upon our way of life and our industry. It is very much in the interests of everyone to conserve all the fuel they can at this time.

I do not want to go back to the record of the past, but, having heard many speeches from Opposition Members, I must say that the record of the Labour Government does not entitle them to criticise what has happened since we have had a Conservative Government. The position was summed up very well by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Stechford (Mr. Roy Jenkins), who admitted that the Labour Government's rundown of coal had gravely damaged Britain's overall industrial strength and long-run international competitiveness. In the last 18 months we have secured that the two sides of the industry get together with the Government. There was the 20-point plan which spelt out the contributions made by the National Coal Board, the unions and the Government to set sights and targets for the future to provide a secure supply, stability, security of jobs and better terms. We discussed the rôle of our indigenous fuel and its virtue as a secure source of supply. The unions pointed out the vulnerability of other sources of supply—which was argued forcibly by hon. Gentlemen—and contrasted it with the security of supply of indigenous fuel.

We followed that discussion on the 20-point plan with the Coal Industry Act, which provided for £1,100 million of the taxpayers' money to be put into the industry, part of which was to be used to write off past deficits. I remind the House of the benefits—which both sides believed to be due—that the Act brought to the miners in the form of improved pensions. Pensions were doubled. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may have said that they wanted more, but I remind the Opposition Members that the Labour Government left pensions at the previous low level. The Conservatives have doubled the pension, and that is a factor which those who are engaged in the mining industry should take into account when looking at the overall conditions of their employment.

We also revised the redundant miners' payments scheme. This provided that miners between the age of 35 and 55 who were made redundant should receive a substantial lump sum payment. We put an end to the system whereby after he had been in receipt of redundancy pay for three years a miner went on to social security benefits. We introduced provisions for continuing the pension until he reached retirement age. We also brought in social benefits at a cost of £100 million of the taxpayers' money and provided better transfer provisions, and so on. These matters should not be disregarded when we consider the mining industry as a whole.

We discussed our long-range thinking with the industry, with the National Coal Board and with the union. The National Coal Board introduced its long-term plan, it produced a blue-print mapping out the future of the industry. It dealt with new seam expansion of pits, new pits to be sunk, and similar matters which were to be undertaken. If we can get over this present trouble, those matters can still be undertaken in order to provide the industry with a secure future and the country with the indigenous resources that it needs.

We discussed the energy plan put forward by the National Union of Mineworkers. It was a document with which in many ways we agreed. It contained much which we could incorporate in our thinking and some matters which we could not accept. Against this background, I view the present situation with some regret.

Hon. Members on both sides of the House have referred to the run down in manpower. One criticism made by Labour Members is that the run down rate is quite unacceptable since it indicates that wages are too low and are insufficient to maintain the industry. I wish to remind the House that the real measure of run down must be looked at against what has happened in previous years. These matters were under negotiation when the union put in its wage demand and sought to couple with it an implied threat of industrial action. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Indeed, the record is there for all to see. The first occasion on which the weekly voluntary wastage figure exceeded 600 was the week after the union made its announcement about its demand with the underlying sentiment "This must be met, or else!"

Let me remind the House of past rundown figures. In 1968 the figure was 43,000; in 1969 46,000; in 1970, 23,000; and in the last three years the figure of rundown reduced to 9,000, 12,000 and then to 10,000. This was the contrast between the sort of security which we were building up in the industry in providing mineworkers with a secure base and the rapid contraction which was undermining the morale of the industry as a legacy of the past.

In saying this, I am not confining myself just to the 1964 period. I believe that prior to 1964 the mining industry did not have all the support which most hon. Members believe that it should have had.

The right hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) referred to a particular case of one miner who did no overtime, who worked at an unskilled job, who had a family, and so on. I do not wish to bandy figures with the right hon. Gentleman—except perhaps to say this. In the six years of Labour Government the pay of the surface worker rose by a total of £7 a week. In the three and a half years in which the Conservative Party has been in power the wages of that same worker have risen by £16 per week. The wage of the face worker during the six years of Labour rule rose by £4 a week. In the three and a half years of Conservative rule his wage rose by £13 a week and his standard of living in that period has improved year by year.

The right hon. Gentleman also raised one matter which was answered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and also by my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Crouch). My right hon. Friend said that if the unions wished to re-jig the offer—if they wished to attribute more of the total packet available to them to allow more to go to the lower-paid and less to some other section of workers; for example, more to the surface worker and less to the face worker, or whichever way they wished—this was something which they could negotiate with the board. This is part of the flexibility built into the code. What must be clear beyond peradventure is that we cannot, and will not, break the code and destroy our fight against inflation—a fight which is so vital to the protection of the standard of living of pensioners, those on fixed incomes, those with low incomes and the like.

The miners are said to be a special case. I believe that the miners are a special case, and I appreciate the special conditions under which they work, the risks they run and the hours they work. These are problems which arise in mining and in other industries, and they are provided for within the code. The provisions of the code enable people with special cases to take advantage of the code. The provisions in respect of unsocial hours—a matter which for years had never been met—is now available to them under the code.

I conclude by saying that Conservatives have no hostility to the miners. Quite the reverse. We respect them as individuals. Those who have seen them at work respect them and recognise the hazards and dangers of their work, but neither they nor any other group—

It being three hours after the commencement of the proceedings, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER interrupted the proceedings pursuant to Standing Order No. 9 (Adournment on specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration): and the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed without Question put.