HC Deb 08 April 1974 vol 872 cc53-96

4.37 p.m.

Mr. Fred Evans (Caerphilly)

I beg to move,

That this House declares its confidence in the future of the British mining industry ; and, recognising the fundamental importance of coal in meeting the energy needs of the nation, calls upon Her Majesty's Government to indicate its plans for ensuring the security and expansion of the industry.

It is, indeed, a woeful experience that two such important statements should reduce the time available for us to discuss those who for miserable wages dig and produce the slagheaps and who have worked as semi-prisoners of war for a long time. Neverthless we have at long last got to this important debate.

At the outset I wish to express my personal gratitude and, I believe, the gratitude of the whole of the mining community to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment for settling the miners' dispute within a matter of days of the new Government coming into power. Without the speed of this settlement we might well be enduring today all the miseries of fuel shortages and of three-day working. After all, as I have said in the House before, we had before us some glittering prizes, and we were quite capable of grasping them. We had before us the prizes of North Sea oil, North Sea gas, followed by the great promise of the discovery in the Celtic Sea of vast reserves of oil, the prize of becoming energy self-sufficient by 1980, and by the middle of the 1980s being a net exporter of energy, with the transformation of the totality of our economic scene.

We could have seen our balance of payments problem solved. We could have seen a new industrial era in Britain. Of all the follies committed by the last Government, surely the monumental folly of all was that they were willing, in a world with a growing energy crisis, to place in jeopardy this great future for British energy.

I am not over-dramatising the rôle that oil can play, nor am I trying to over-dramatise the part that natural gas can play. I am not trying to over-dramatise the part that new coal finds can play, although the Chairman of the National Coal Board has already told us authoritatively that the new discovery in Selby will outweigh in energy production the total of oil as yet found in the North Sea.

My purpose is to point the way. This motion is not in any way designed to embarrass the Government. Nor do I want to press the Government too hard on their future plans, knowing that an inquiry or a review is pending. What I hope will come out of this debate is some formative thinking from hon. Members on both sides of the House which may draw the attention of the inquiring review body to some aspects of the industry which may prove valuable for their considerations. At the end of the day it will not be my intention to press the motion to a Division because I hope that I shall receive reassurances enough from the Under-Secretary of State, Department of Energy, to satisfy me that the promises made by my party in its election manifesto and made for so long to the mining industry were meant and will be carried out.

We have seen a transformation in the world energy situation that is almost unbelievable. We must now look at the coal mining industry in the light of the new situation. That is why my motion falls into four parts. It calls, first of all, for an expression of confidence in the coal mining industry as in all probability the major contributor to fulfilling the energy needs of this country and leading us into a future where, as I have said, we could be a net exporter of energy. The recognition of this fundamental rôle is absolutely necessary.

The second part of my motion calls for a recognition that our energy supply in the future can enable us to play our part in the world in a way that we have not played it before.

The third part of the motion says that we require in this country a mining industry which has a secure future in terms of production and for the labour force engaged in it.

Taking the first part of the motion—planning for the expansion of the industry —there is nobody in this country, after the events of the last few years, who does not now appreciate the rôle that coal has to play. The public sympathy enlisted for the miners in the last few years is evidence of the growing consciousness of the people that we should use our indigenous resources to the best of our ability and see that we play our part safely and competitively using those indigenous resources.

There has been a dramatic change in the world energy situation. As I say, most people now realise this fact. They realise that it is better to pay British miners than to pay oil sheikhs at the point of a pistol, and, more significantly for our manufacturing industries, it is cheaper as well as less dangerous.

We have only to remember the traumatic experience of the mining industry, the savage series of pit closures, the creation of vast numbers of redundancies, the social effects of closures on mining communities, and the shattering of morale within the industry to realise that, in spite of recent pay awards, the principle stated in the first part of the motion is vital.

The pay awards have done much to restore confidence. They have done much to arrest the flight of manpower from the industry. But, as 1 know very well, living in the heart of one of our coalfields, there is still the feeling that everything could happen once again, and the industry is still not secure. There is need for further assurance, and I can think of no better way to give that assurance than for us, across the Floor of the House, to say that we have confidence in this great energy potential of ours which comes from coal. It will really matter if we say it here today.

We have been blessed, as I have said, with bonus finds of oil and of North Sea gas, but we have reserves of coal yet unknown. It is highly improbable that the reserves of sea gas and oil, wherever we find them, will ever equal in energy potential the amount of coal which we have beneath our feet. In the world as a whole, 93 per cent. of the fossil energy reserves are constituted by coal. I have already reminded the House of what the Chairman of the National Coal Board said about Selby. It is imperative, therefore, that we use these reserves as intelligently and as usefully as we possibly can in the service of the nation.

If we want evidence of the sort of thinking which is going on in the world, we need turn only to the World Energy Congress which was organised by the Financial Times, in conjunction with BOAC, on 18th-20th September 1973. We had gathered together there prominent energy experts from all over the world, who insisted that the world's great 93 per cent. of energy potential in coal must be used to an extent—I quote their own words—"hitherto not realised". In all fairness, let us add that the then British Secretary of State for Trade and Industry said that Britain is fortunate in having substantial reserves of coal". The Chairman of British Petroleum, opening the conference, said that the era of cheap energy was behind us and sources of energy which had been written off in recent years because of their high cost in relation to Middle East oil—sources such as oil sands, oil shales and coal itself—must come into consideration not only for long-term development but immediately.

In many countries, the decisions to exploit coal reserves have already been taken. Expansion of production in America, for example, is planned from 550 million tons in 1973 to 1,000 million tons in 1985, and to 1,400 million tons by the year 2000. Great expansion is planned in Canada, Australia, South Africa, the USSR and China. In Western Europe, a revaluation of the coal industry is rapidly going ahead, as anyone who reads the reports from the Bureau Européen d'informations Charbonniêres will readily acknowledge. Britain must not be left behind.

In the Labour Party, we have said that we must have an integrated energy policy. Over many years, the National Union of Mineworkers, as well as voices, including my own, from Labour Members of Parliament, have called, sometimes clamorously, for that integrated energy policy to come about, a policy under which every energy-producing component would be given its due part to play in the national economy. We were always convinced that, if this were done, the importance of coal would be recognised.

The importance of coal lies not only in its immediate use. When we look forward to periods such as the 1990s, when we begin to talk of the fluidised bed combustion process for coal linked with power stations, when we talk of the gasification of coal, when we think of other technological developments such as the liquefaction of coal—incidentally, Japan has a pilot factory planned to open in 1977—when we think of all these great technological developments and, what is more, the extraction of chemicals from coal, we can realise the true significance of what we have beneath our feet.

This is why I am asking the Minister to reaffirm that policy of the Labour Party and to reassure the National Union of Mineworkers and people such as myself that the intention is serious and that we shall have a policy of that kind brought in. It may mean taking into control—if not ownership—North Sea oil. One cannot plan unless one owns, or owns in some part. It is as simple as that. We cannot totally plan and we cannot totally integrate otherwise. I hope that we shall have that assurance tonight.

Mr. Emlyn Hooson (Montgomery)

I have considerable sympathy with what the hon. Gentleman says about the ownership of oil, but there is nevertheless another side to it—the provision of the capital for exploitation. If the Arab countries, for example, had not had capital from outside to exploit the oil, it would still be in the earth.

Mr. Evans

I cannot envisage a time when we should not be able to get enough capital on our own terms. We could raise the capital ourselves if we followed through the rest of the policies which the Labour Party would like to see. I remind the hon. and learned Gentleman that there is a move among the coal-producing countries to form a coal equivalent of OPEC, an organisation of coal-producing countries which would supply capital for the development of coal reserves.

Britain must not be left behind in this energy race or struggle call it what one will. For far too long, especially throughout the 1960s, coal mining was looked upon as a high-cost extractive industry. It was assumed that oil would continue to be available cheaply. Much of this thinking, I remind hon. Members opposite, was effective in the 1950s when the oil lobby in this place was so strong and wanted to oust coal as a source of energy. We saw the graph of oil as a contributor to our energy needs climb and climb until it caught up and passed the contribution from coal.

It was assumed also that nuclear energy was just around the corner, and there was a great euphoria. But both assumptions were proved entirely wrong. Political events in the Middle East, with the insistence of the Arab countries on increased prices for their oil, destroyed the first assumption. The first nuclear energy programme, the Magnox programme, by anyone's standards was a failure. Whether one calls it a total failure is anyone's guess, but it did not make the contribution which was expected of it. The second programme is experiencing technological difficulties. It has already failed to keep to its time scale and fairly authoritative voices say that we cannot hope for nuclear power to make a significant contribution for another 20 to 25 years.

Mr. Tom Boardman (Leicester, South)

For the record, is it not right that as a result of the Magnox programme 10 per cent. of our electricity is being generated by nuclear power, which is no mean feat?

Mr. Evans

I do not dispute the percentage, but I dispute the original prognostications of what it could perform. Four years ago, by the same sort of luck, I drew the first motion in the Ballot and I introduced a similar debate to this one. That occasion was a Friday and the debate took a full day. I made these points on that occasion. The expectations of nuclear power have not been fulfilled and we must therefore look to our great indigenous resource of coal to bridge the gap. We treat the other energy sources as a magnificent bonus for Britain which will help us in all kinds of ways. But coal is the essential industry.

The next point in the motion concerns security. I trust I shall be forgiven if I deal with a particular case, because the example I shall give is a classic. We have closed pits that need not have been closed. All over Europe pits have been closed and illustrious gentlemen such as Dr. Thiemann have said they should be working and full manned. There will always be pit closures because of exhaustion of reserves, but in the current situation, of energy supply, and with improvements in technology overcoming physical obstacles in coal mining, there can be little reason other than exhaustion for the closure of collieries. Any programme of proposed closures must stop immediately. Dr. Thiemann says that it is a gross stupidity that modern industrialised society has fallen into the oil trap, allowing the former relatively cheap price of oil to dictate our major decisions. He says: Nowadays we would be only too happy if the pits were still in working order. I have one such pit in my constituency at the Ogilvie Colliery at which there is a major dispute with the NCB. The board wants to close it on the alleged ground that the coal is only 33 per cent. saleable, whereas the men, having called in their own experts, say there are 14 million tons of top coking coal to be had. They charge the NCB with having worked dirty seams instead of trying for untapped virgin reserves. The colliery has been reprieved almost day by day and in these circumstances we cannot watch the morale of 630 men broken. The lodge committee says, We say there is a future here and that if we are given the chance to go for untapped seams we could make this pit break even within six months. We do not accept that the cost would be enormous to open up virgin seams and go for 14 million tons of reserves. Britain, after all. needs that coal. And that is true. Quite simply, we would be working our way to the new seams, digging good quality coking coal all the way. This pit could break even in six months if the Coal Board would give us the chance. The men, like most fair-minded miners, are not backward in admitting the drawbacks. They admit that the pit has lost £2½ million in five years, but they blame the board's bad planning and persistence in working dirty seams. The believe that it would be criminal to leave untouched reserves of coal which is in worldwide demand and which is now being imported. They claim that on the report of a top mining expert, by working only three of the eight untapped seams in the colliery, they could extend the life of the pit by at least 15 years.

I do not want to go too deeply into a particular case but I use it as an illustration of the way in which we must provide security for the men in the industry. If we are to do justice to the energy needs of Britain we must lift the shadow of pit closures. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister of State to request my right hon. Friend to inquire into the circumstances of this colliery.

The last section of the motion urges the Government to ensure the security and expansion of the industry. If we are to ensure security the first thing to be considered is the labour force, because without miners all the reserves of coal we could ever want would stay in the ground. What do the men want? There have been settlements within the last three years and the miners have been accused of holding the nation to ransom. Any fair-minded person who knows the conditions in the industry and the pay scales will willingly admit that the men are by no means generously paid, even taking account of the latest settlement. Compared with miners in most other countries our men are very modestly paid. Compared to the aristocrats of the mining industry—the Polish miners—they are miserably paid.

It is not my province to say that the miners will put in any great wage demands. They have a very effective union which can do that. But if we are to ensure security, the relative rewards for this dangerous and arduous job must be adequate in relation to our current economic climate.

There are other things in the way of fringe benefits which are vital. Anybody who knows these men and the work they do—and I go down collieries in my constituency on working shifts—will agree that the pension these men are paid is utterly miserable. It is a degradation to demand this physical effort from the men and in return to give them that kind of reward. In view of the fatalities, the injuries, the general nature of the work, it is degrading. It is degrading for those who offer it as well as for those who are driven to accept it.

We should have a scheme for earlier retirement, particularly for underground workers. After early retirement there should be adequate retraining facilities and absorption into a different kind of industry, so that men who have spent heir lives below ground—in my area, a thousand yards below ground for most of their time—can at least have the benefit of working in another industry and enjoying eight or perhaps 10 years in more civilised conditions.

We need to introduce better protection of dependants, particularly of the dependants of those who have suffered from pneumoconiosis. In the Welsh coalfield one can find hundreds of tragic widows whose husbands suffered heavy percentages of pneumoconiosis but who died of bronchitis or heart failur because of the strain on their heart. Such widows receive nothing, not even a load of concessionary coal. It is time the system was overhauled.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda (Mr. Jones) introduced a Private Member's Bill a couple of years ago, a very simple Bill which the Tory Government threw out. They had every right to do so, but it left a bad taste. All we were saying in it was that a man's percentage of disability should be recognised in the claim of dependants for the benefits he would have received if he had remained alive until retirement age.

I do not want to go into that matter too deeply, because I have been speaking for too long. I come to the position of the National Coal Board. If we are to ensure expansion, the board is the vehicle for doing it. It needs a revised set of terms of reference. It is not enough to say, as we used to say, "First, you have to show regard for the public interest, and, secondly, you have to ensure viability and profit." The two things are incompatible. We need a totally new approach, acknowledging that energy is a social need, that without it the whole of manufacturing industry collapses, and that therefore we pay for the energy because the cost can be offset through manufacturing industries. Even at the worst, adopting that attitude will in all probability prove highly profitable.

We need massive investment. How can a board starved of research and development money carry out investigations into new technologies, investigations into matters I have already mentioned, such as fluidised bed combustion, liquefaction and gasification? How can we have the kind of technology used underground in Russia for safety purposes, for example? Information about such matters is easily available to anyone who wants to read it. We cannot do any of those things without massive investment. We must tell Governments of all kinds, "If you want the returns that you could have from our being a net energy exporting country, you must adopt a rational and compassionate attitude towards the industry."

Britain has the good fortune to have discovered oil and gas in the North Sea, and there seems to be an exciting future for oil in the Celtic Sea. We command vast reserves of coal. In front of us lie the prizes. They can be grasped. With the right kind of governmental help and encouragement, the men engaged in the coal industry can forge the will and the co-operation to grasp them.

5.5 p.m.

Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)

It gives me great pleasure to follow my good friend the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans). I believe that he would expect me to refer to my very good friend of many years' standing, my predecessor, Alan Beaney. I was aware that Alan Beaney was very well respected by right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House. What I was not aware of was the tremendous affection for him felt by all, by servants of the House as well as by right hon. and hon. Members. I understand that he was known as the kindly Member by all who knew him. I congratulate the House on its adequate description, for Alan Beaney is the kindest man I know. My most gratifying duty to date has been to convey to him and to Mrs. Beaney many messages of good wishes and hopes for a long and happy retirement for them both.

Representing, as I do, the mining constituency of Hemsworth, it seems appropriate that I should make my maiden speech during this debate on the coal mining industry. In Hemsworth we have nine active pits and a central area workshops establishment. One of the pits is the famous Ferrymoor Riddings Mine, which in March 1971 set up a European output record of 364 cwt per man-shift, which is about seven times the national average. That record still stands.

In the Hemsworth area we have enjoyed for many years in the brass band world the friendly rivalry between Frickley and Grimethorpe collieries, which between them have for many years held the championship trophy of the British coalfields. While in the world of music, I must not forget to mention the famous Thurnscoe male voice choir, which draws most of its members from Hickleton Main, and is well-known all over the country at music festivals.

There is a similar rivalry between those three pits and my own, South Kirkby, in first aid. At present Grimethorpe seems to have the edge, in as much as it has won the famous Mitchell Hedges Trophy, the blue riband of first aid.

There are times when collieries receive notoriety for which they have no wish, and which they do not deserve. That happened at my colliery in 1935, when an explosion claimed 10 lives, including that of my brother. We suffered an explosion at Barnburgh colliery in 1956, and at the same colliery in 1941 there was a massive roof fall in which several men were buried. There was a similar incident at its nextdoor neighbour, Hickleton Main, where my predecessor worked. In the 1960s a further massive roof fall occurred there. Alan Beaney's son was then the captain of one of the colliery rescue teams which battled to rescue the men. It was an operation for which they received the Daily Herald award for industrial heroism. The citation for that award is still carried proudly on the Hickleton Main union branch banner. Such incidents happen almost every day in coal mining life.

These are the things which bind miners together into a brotherhood, unseen, unspoken and sometimes defying description. Nevertheless it is always there when it is needed. Hemsworth is a typical mining area, an area of which James Nicholson said in the Financial Times on 14th March, in an article on the Yorkshire Region: It needs new jobs, new science-based industry turning out high value products which will offer better profits and therefore better wages and better working conditions. This is true. We have in the Hemsworth area a male unemployment rate of 9.2 per cent. as against 3.8 per cent. for Yorkshire and Humberside and 3.6 per cent. for the rest of the country. Included in the Hemsworth figure are 27 boys under the age of 18 who have probably never had a job since they left one of our famous comprehensive high schools.

We are too dependent upon one large industry. My good friends and colleagues of the Hemsworth Rural District Council were well aware of this when in 1948 they did the spadework and invited the Prime Minister, then the President of the Board of Trade, to open the Langthwaite Grange estate at South Kirkby. What my friends did not foresee was the advent of the motorway juggernaut. We are situated in the centre of the motorway box and desperately need an improvement to the entrance to the estate. We also greatly need a road-widening scheme for the approach road, especially the county road C4, from Moorthorpe to Bamsdale Bar. This road widening is particularly necessary on the stretch known as Minsthorpe Lane. The widening of the Minsthorpe railway bridge is also a priority because the massive vehicles coming from the motorways are causing havoc in the area.

A further environmental problem is subsidence. This has prevented some of the local authorities in my area, notably Dearne Urban District Council, from availing themselves of the housing improvement scheme.

In case hon. and right hon. Members are getting a jaundiced view of a mining area let me list a few of our achievements. In the Cudworth area we have one of the finest, if not the finest, sporting complexes in the North of England. The money was raised by local effort supplemented by ministerial grant. Naturally, it was named after Cudworth's most famous daughter, and is known as the Dorothy Hyman centre.

Only three weeks ago in my own Hemsworth urban area my good friend of many years, Councillor Jim Starling who has served the Hemsworth UDC for 32 years, officially opened the new sporting complex at Fitzwilliam. This is a joint urban district council and CISWO enterprise. It contains a new cricket pavilion and is situated a cricket ball's throw from the home of our most famous son, the world's No. 1 batsman, Geoff Boycott. Hon. and right hon. Gentlemen may be interested to know that I am wearing the Geoff Boycott benefit tie. This year is his benefit year. I am assured that I can have as many as I can manage to order at £1.25 each.

Before leaving Fitzwilliam I would like to mention the removal of the dirt stack at the closed Hemsworth colliery site. Hemsworth UDC and the West Riding County Council agreed upon plans for its removal, after which it was hoped to landscape the area and lay out a golf course. Unfortunately, the contents of the stack have been found to be ideal material for motorway construction. Extraction has gone on and has delayed the plan. The Wakefield Metropolitan District Council has agreed to adopt the plan, which is becoming more urgent as more and more golf enthusiasts are taking up the game and having to travel to Barnsley, Pontefract and Wakefield to indulge in their favourite sport.

These are matters which mean a lot to my constituents. It is necessary to mention them if for no other reason than to point out to hon. Members the new image of the miner. We are no longer a cloth cap and muffler community interested only in running dogs and racing pigeons, although we still have these. The modern miner is a skilled technologist, not only a man who knows how to work with the new and sophisticated equipment, but a man who invents, builds and operates this vast and complicated machinery. He is a man who is proud of his calling and of his skill.

It is significant that the week before last miners in the Doncaster area, part of which is in my constituency, achieved an output 1 per cent. above last October's level. That was a remarkable achievement so soon after a month's stoppage. The miner is tremendously loyal to his comrades, his country, his Sovereign and this Government. He is proving it by his efforts. He wants to get this country back on to and well along the road to complete economic recovery.

5.16 p.m.

Mr. Michael Roberts (Cardiff, North-West)

It is perhaps appropriate that it is my privilege, coming from a city whose success was built on the export of coal, to congratulate the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) on his speech. He has spoken fluently on a subject he knows intimately. I am sure that the House looks forward to many further contributions from him.

I was particularly pleased that the hon. Member should have made reference to the changed image of the miner. When, 25 to 30 years ago, I used to play rugby for a South Wales mining village, the miners then used their brawn, skill and courage wielding a pick and shovel. Today, as the hon. Member has said, the miner is concerned with the use of sophisticated machinery. In many ways he is a skilled engineer.

That has been the story of the mining industry in the past 20 years. In a process of mechanisation which has gone on over two decades 90 per cent. of coal production is due to power-loading and 80 per cent. of the faces are equipped with power support. Great increases in productivity have been achieved by the skill of the miners and also by the expenditure of great sums of money. Each year £60 million to £70 million is spent on capital equipment. Although the 1960s saw the closure of many mines and meant redundancy for 200,000 miners, production was maintained and productivity soared.

Today productivity is static, and has been for some years. We have reached a plateau of productivity. Output per man shift has become static. The productivity of our mining force is not as great as that of Western Germany, for example. In the past few years the emphasis in the mining industry has been on wages. There has been a determined effort to ensure that the miner returns to the top of the wages league. In the near future, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) mentioned, there will, quite rightly, be determined efforts to improve the position of miners' pensions, to introduce—

Mr. Fred Evans

The hon. Gentleman must not distort my words. I did not say that there is a determination. I said that it must be borne in mind that a comparison of miners' wages in Britain with those of miners in other countries showed that the wages of our miners were still modest. However, I said that I would not argue that case because it was a matter for the NUM. I am sorry for the length of this intervention in the hon. Gentleman's speech, but he also mentioned production. He must be aware, if he has read the relevant literature, that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy is looking forward to a production of 120 million to 130 million tons of coal within four years.

Mr. Roberts

I had no intention of distorting anyone's words. I was merely expressing my view—which I thought the hon. Gentleman would also hold, but, clearly, does not—that there will be a determined effort to improve the pensions position of the miners, to introduce new health safeguards, and to give improved holidays and better conditions. These will no doubt be the subject of negotiation in future, along with pay claims.

Miners in the past few years have naturally demanded that the debate should focus on the question of what the miner is to receive. But now there is a much greater awareness of the importance of coal. It is no longer fashionable to suggest that we would welcome the day when all collieries would close and no miner would be asked to go down and work in the dreadful conditions which still exist in some of our mines today. It is recognised that coal will play an important part in the country's future.

Thus, in addition to the discussion of wages and benefits, there is no doubt that the nation is also increasingly concerned to get a better return for the capital it has invested, is investing and is being called upon to invest. There is little doubt that a higher productivity potential exists, and we much ask ourselves how it can be achieved.

Of course there is room for further mechanisation. There has already been reference to increased investment. There is need, for example, to improve man riding so that the men are carried to the coal face instead of having to walk. If they are carried there, they arrive less fatigued and spend longer at the coal face.

Most important is that there should be better utilisation of the existing equipment. The effective running time of the mechanical coal cutters, referred to as sophisticated machinery, is 130 minutes per shift, and a volume of opinion in the mining industry suggests that this could be increased to about 180 minutes. If this were done, it would in itself lead to a substantial increase in productivity. Indeed, the increase could be enormous and could transform the industry.

The nation, recognising the difficulties that the miners have experienced, but recognising also the very great investment which has been put into the industry and the investment that is being called for, wants the maximum utilisation of the mining equipment which is being invested. Traditionally, the mining industry was built up on a piece work system. About six years ago, this was replaced by a day rate system and it can be argued that the introduction of the day rate system has led to less local industrial trouble. Nevertheless, it has disadvantages in that there is not quite the incentive to produce which existed under the piece work system. There is urgent need for the NUM and the NCB to achieve greater incentives to the maximum use of the sophisticated machinery in the mines. If this is done, it will ensure a great future for the mining industry.

5.25 p.m.

Mr. Emlyn boson (Montgomery)

Of all communities I have known, the mining communities are, save for the agricultural communities, the most closely knit, socially and economically.

Coal production is now 132 million tons per annum, representing 39 per cent. of our energy. That tonnage of production is being achieved already and is not, as was suggested by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans), a target for the future. When one considers the part which coal plays, I was amazed when the Conservative Government took on the miners head on in the strike which led to the General Election. It was a lunatic thing to have done in any event.

The problems in the mining industry seem to me to stem from a number of economic, social and psychological reasons. This country's industrial predominance at the turn of the century and its continuation as a very prosperous industrial country were based on cheap energy. I do not think that we have ever sufficiently appreciated the importance of cheap energy to a dominant industrial economy. In fact, coal was followed by oil, which came in very cheaply, and we were thoughtless in our attitude towards it.

I was one of the few people in the 1964–70 Parliaments to oppose the policy of run down of the coal mines. There was, indeed, a powerful coal lobby in this House between 1964 and 1970, but it had precious little effect. During that period, the country was thoughtless, by and large, about future provision of energy. It seemed to me then, as I said often enough, a matter of common sense to realise that the Arabs would grasp the fact one day that they could hold the Western world to ransom simply by squeezing the oil pipeline. In that context, it seemed to me foolish to run down our coal industry. I do not think that the more articulate members of the last Labour Government, and certainly not hon. Members from mining areas, ever tried to defend that policy in those days. However, it is water under the bridge.

The motion refers to the great importance of coal as a source of energy for the country in the future, and that is what we are concerned about. But once again as a nation we are counting our chickens before they hatch. We are congratulating ourselves on and are looking forward to a bonanza with oil from the North Sea and the Celtic Sea before any of the oil reaches our shores, before there is even true appreciation of the risks which under-sea oilfields imply as opposed to oilfields under the sands of the desert, for example, and also before we have any appreciation of the total cost of producing oil from under the sea compared with the cost of extracting it from, say, Saudi Arabia.

I am told that the total cost of producing a barrel of oil from the North Sea will be about nine or ten times the cost of producing it from under the Saudi Arabian desert. All these things we should be considering as a background to our energy policy, and we must not make the same mistake as we did in the 1960s and earlier—take energy for granted. We must not, for example, take it for granted that we shall have cheap oil in future because we have struck oil in the North and Celtic Seas. In this context the future of our coal industry becomes important.

We know that the coal is here and that we have skills already developed to maximise the production of coal. The discovery of the Selby coal seam presages the probable finding of seams in other parts of the country which might rival it. I am told that the Selby Seam is of such thickness as to lead one to believe that the man-shift production for the country might go up to 10 tons as opposed to the present 2½ tons, which is low. It is low partially because we are still working deep mines with thin seams.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly mentioned the coal mining communities which are so closely knit in areas where seams are being worked out. This creates many social problems for the future.

I wish to dwell on three things which need to be done. First, the morale in the industry has been low for years. The record of absenteeism in certain coal mining areas has been bad because the morale of the miners has been low, particularly in areas where there has been a large number of pit closures and it was thought that the whole industry was being run down.

The first requirement for a healthy industry is a carefully worked out energy policy that balances the risks of drilling for deep sea oil against the risks of deep mining. We should aim at increased coal production. At present it stands at 132 million tons per annum. Reference has been made to plans in the United States by 1985 to put up production from the present 550 million tons to 1,000 million tons, and we must try for an increase in our country. That might mean that the 39 per cent. of our energy coming from coal will remain the same or go lower, but to keep anything like this percentage it will be necessary considerably to increase coal production. The first requirement is a sensible energy policy which makes use of our available skills and assures the miners of a future for their industry.

The second requirement is to pay attention to our social policy. For many years I advised the National Coal Board in my professional capacity on many accidents that occurred in the mines. I often had to visit mines and to crawl through low faces which had been the scenes of accidents, liability for which the NCB wanted to fight. I had been brought up in an agricultural community, and it was a shock to see the conditions which existed in some mines. Most people have no idea of the conditions which prevail at coal faces. The time has come for an experiment in total insurance against accidents in this industry which might in time be adopted by all industry.

Why should a man, before he is entitled to damages for serious injury, have to prove that his employers have been guilty of a breach of statutory duty or that another employee has been negligent? Why should a widow have to prove that the NCB or an employee has been negligent in causing the death of her husband? I remember a case some years ago in which I was led by the Lord Chancellor when we were appearing for the NCB. A volunteer had been sent into the mine to try to repair a tender roof. The manager of the mine had taken infinite care and so had all the other safety workers. Neverthless, there was an additional roof fall and the man was killed. I regret to say that the NCB won that case and the widow got nothing. This was perfectly legal under the 1911 Act, which contained a provision to the effect that if it were not reasonable and practicable to prevent a breach of statutory duty, that was a total defence.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alexander Eadic)

The Labour Government rectified that.

Mr. Hooson

That was rectified, as it should have been. It is surprising that it was not rectified between 1945 and 1951. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State, instead of taking pride in something that happened years too late, will do something now and bring in total insurance.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

Nationalise the insurance companies.

Mr. Hooson

Nationalised insurance has nothing to do with it. It is to be hoped that the insurance companies will have money to pay out. If they are nationalised they will not, if past experience is anything to go by. But we need the change in social policy which I have suggested.

The third requirement is inquiry into the set up of the NCB and the administration of the coal industry. It is far too centralised and remote. There is a great deal to be said in the present climate for giving far greater power to coal areas and to the pits. I am attracted by the BP solution as a reasonable compromise between private investment and public control. I should like consideration to be given to the suitability of that system for the coal industry in certain areas. The feeling in the coal mining areas is of a remote juggernaut in the form of the NCB, tucked away in Hobart House in London and other centres. We should consider—28 years after the nationalisation of the coal mines—whether the form of that nationalisation is right for an industry which we can reasonably expect to expand greatly in the future.

5.37 p.m.

Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) on his success in being able to introduce his motion on this important topic. I also congratulate my geographical neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall), who, in his maiden speech, referred to his constituency and left the House in no doubt about his deep roots in his constituency and the close ties he has with all parts of the community there. I look forward to many years of close collaboration with him.

Both sides of the House are aware of the importance of the future of coal to the country, both from the economic and the strategic points of view. I will concentrate the attention of the House on the area close to my constituency, which is generally called the Selby area in the North Yorkshire coalfield. There is no doubt that it holds the whole key to the future development of coal mining in Britain and, therefore, to the future of our national energy supplies.

The area extends west of the River Ouse and north of the town of Selby. That does not necessarily mean that there will be mining under the town of Selby. The use of the description "the Selby area" gives people who live in the town the wrong impression, that the National Coal Board intends to sink pits in close proximity to the town. All the test bores initiated by the National Coal Board have been put down in the rural areas surrounding Selby—namely, in part of the new Selby district which is now the local authority area taking in a large part of my constituency.

Within that district the Coal Board has conducted test boring on a dozen sites and has discovered thicknesses of coal in the Barnsley seam, greater than anything discovered anywhere else in the United Kingdom to date. The thickest part of the seam is at Ryther near to the confluence of the Rivers Ouse and Wharfe. At depths of 340 yards the board discovered coal to a thickness of 11 ft 4 ins—far greater than anything we have experienced in this country before. There is every reason to believe that this thickness of coal extends over a very wide area, going perhaps into what has been the East Riding of Yorkshire and which will be within the new county of North Yorkshire.

There is great enthusiasm in the coal board about these discoveries—an enthusiasm shared, I am glad to say, by people in the locality. There have been some worries about the possible environmental effects of the extension of coal mining in the area, but there has also been a new feeling about the national importance of these finds. The people in the area are willing to support development which is vital to the interests of the nation as a whole.

The National Coal Board, for its part, is doing great work in allaying the fears about environmental matters. The board is going out of its way to keep in touch with the locality. A newsletter called "NCB Selby Newsletter" has been circulated throughout the area, explaining to people in the locality the ways in which the traditional dirt, dust and danger which so often surround coal mining can be kept to an absolute minimum. The newsletter points out that by the use of modern mining techniques and by using pillars preserved in the seams the minimum of hardship can be caused in terms of subsidence. Where there is subsidence the land will go down over a wide area much at the same time and, if difficulties are caused in respect of land drainage on the surface, the National Coal Board is ready to compensate those in the area.

I should like to deal with part of the motion which asks the Government to indicate their plans for the future of the coal mining industry, by particular reference to their plans for the Selby district. I have already mentioned the considerable enthusiasm in the locality, and indeed throughout the country, about the extension of coal mining in the Selby area, but as yet there are no definite plans. The newsletter to which I have referred begins by saying, There is still no firm plan to sink a coal mine in the Selby district. … if the board decides that one of the ways to keep up coal production in this country is to replace dwindling output on the western edge of the Yorkshire coalfield by new capacity to the east, then the Selby district mine becomes a distinct possibility. Meaningful discussions must then take place with government—both national and local—so that the project can be properly co-ordinated to meet local, regional and national needs. I hope that in this debate the Government spokesman will be able to give some encouragement to the National Coal Board to go ahead with this development, and to do so quickly. The time scale indicated by the board in regard to development in the Selby area gives the impression that a period of two years will be taken up in dealing with the detailed planning aspects and that the sinking and equipping aspects will take another five or six years. Therefore, a total of ten years could elapse between the go-ahead for the mine and its reaching full production. In the present national situation this is far too long a time scale and there should be a speedier development.

In the context of development I should like information to be more readily available about where manpower for the pits is to come from. There are no skilled mineworkers in the area concerned, and obviously in future they will have to be brought into the area from other mining areas—from areas in which pits have been closed in recent years. I am thinking in this respect of the area of Thorne in my constituency where the colliery was closed, amid much controversy, in 1956. In that area are many skilled mineworkers who could readily commute on a daily basis to pits in the Selby area.

How will coal extracted from Selby be used? Will it be used for electricity generation? It is true that there are large power stations close by—at Ferry-bridge, Eggborough and Drax. In this context it would be useful to have more up-to-date information about the construction of the Drax "B" power station. If coal from the Selby area were used for electricity generation at Drax, it would be feasible that water transport could be used to convey the coal from pit to power station. In respect of the other power stations I have mentioned, rail transport would be more suitable—although when we look at the map we see that it would be necessary to construct more new railway links to allow the coal to go from the area in which the pits will be situated to power station areas.

There must be a more fully integrated approach within the area to relate housing and transport needs to the possibilities of colliery development. This is all part of the planning process under the new North Yorkshire County Council and it needs to be thoroughly examined. There are great prospects in the area based on these new discoveries of coal, and they are a vital key to future national prosperity.

5.48 p.m.

Mr. Jim Lester (Beeston)

When I saw the motion tabled by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Fred Evans), I thought that perhaps he was being a little mischievous and firing a shot across the Government's bows to provoke them into announcing their intentions about the mining industry. I know from my experience in local government that what caused many problems in the mining industry was the 1966 White Paper, published by the then Labour Government. I have spent seven years in local government trying to overcome the problems caused by that document. I am delighted to be able to say that in Nottinghamshire our efforts were successful.

I welcome the chance to intervene in a debate on the coal industry, because in my constituency it is a major employer and a major ratepayer. I have lived in Nottinghamshire for the whole of my life, and mining and things to do with mining are almost second nature to me. Therefore, I have considerable sympathy for the industry, and I hope in this Parliament to specialise in it to some degree.

I recognise that the national energy situation puts coal in an entirely new and a much more important position. If we have learnt anything in past years, it is that we must in future have a much more balanced energy policy among nuclear energy, oil, gas, coal, and any other form of energy that may come forward as a result of scientific and technological development. I have in mind, for instance, solar energy. The country will be well advised to seek a balanced energy policy and to keep its constituent parts carefully in check. We have learnt to our cost that circumstances change rapidly, even in the best planning circles.

It is significant that world coal reserves are 10 times greater than those of oil, and it is equally significant that the East Midlands plays a dominant part in producing much of the country's energy from coal at a much lower cost than from any other fuel. My concern is that it should continue to do so within the balanced policy that I suggest.

Between 1947 and 1967, the East Midlands coalfield produced a £200 million profit after charges. The hon. Member for Caerphilly is against profits. However, a profit of that kind is not a bad measure of the success of the coalfield, and that is a view that was shared by the National Coal Board and by the miners concerned.

I ask the Minister to consider in the short term this vexed problem of productivity. The Wilberforce Committee virtually commanded the NCB and the National Union of Mineworkers to achieve a productivity agreement. I understand that at least six attempts have been made, but that such an agreement has still not yet come to fruition. I hope that the Minister will be in a position now to discover what are the areas of disagreement.

As the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) said, productivity is the key in the short term, and I like to think that it will be possible to work towards a national minimum wage and the nearest local productivity agreement possible. My hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler) has made that suggestion in the past. A productivity agreement is meaningless unless the individual miner can see the productivity in his district and in his own pit. What is more, it should be shared by everyone connected with production, from the coal face worker right up to the clerks in the office, if necessary, and it should be tied recognisably to a product in a district towards which everyone can work.

Our real concern in this debate is the future of the industry and the direction that it should take, and I am a little concerned to read in the Press Government comments on the uneconomic pits and whether such pits should be closed. "Uneconomic" can be taken in many ways. If price changes make a pit no longer uneconomic, there is no problem. However, having travelled extensively in Wales and Durham, I recognise that there are social reasons for keeping some pits open, reasons which have to be taken into account, where it may be uneconomic to put a whole community out of work if there are not alternative jobs.

All these matters have to be costed, and I recognise that the human problems are considerable. However, the risk of possible closure is much worse without a real attempt by a local authority, backed by national policies, to widen the industrial base of its area. The problem varies from area to area, of course. There are places where it is difficult to widen the industrial base. But there is an area in Nottinghamshire where, within the space of two years of a pit closing, whole areas of new industry and new shops have grown up because there has been a willingness on the part of local authorities—many of them Conservative-controlled—to act in the interests of the people. When he was Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition paid a visit—I believe the first ever visit of a Prime Minister—to this small area of Nottinghamshire.

Mr. Adam Butler (Bosworth)

My hon. Friend has been discussing uneconomic pits. I am sure that he will agree that there is an enormous difference between pits in the Nottinghamshire area, where there is alternative industry, and pits in other parts of the country where coal mining is the sole industry. A different situation exists in the latter areas, and my hon. Friend must apply his mind to that problem, too.

Mr. Lester

I accept what my hon. Friend says. That situation exists even in Nottinghamshire. In the north of the county there is no easy possibility of new industry. I hope that that sort of situation will be taken into account in deciding whether a pit is uneconomic if there is no other industry available. In communities of that kind the thought that sooner or later a pit will close and the community will be left without work is very worrying.

What really matters is how quickly and with what energy we tackle the problem of trying to make areas of that kind less uneconomic by putting in roads and the necessary infrastructure to try to develop new industry. If we are to maintain the 132 million tons production that we have at present, I hope that the Minister will consider the level of investment that will be required in the medium term, allowing for exhaustion and uneconomic closures. Pits producing 1 million tons annually are eating into reserves at a tremendous rate. Clearly, we shall need new investment if we are to maintain that level of production, let alone expand it.

I hope that decisions on that new investment will fall into three areas. The first is the national area. In my constituency there is a great deal of mining engineering. I hope that automation and better tools for the existing miner and the existing pit will play a greater part in current research. I shall welcome any statement that the Minister cares to make about current plans for that research. Having been down a deep old pit such as Harworth, one quickly sees the difference when visiting Bevercotes, which is one of the most advanced technology pits in the country, and even that has had its problems. The great investment in automation and new ideas is there to be seen. It is to be encouraged and welcomed.

The second area of investment relates to a local problem. It is how quickly we can expect a decision by the Central Electricity Generating Board on West Burton "B" power station in the Trent Valley. This project has been mooted for some time. It would give a tremendous boost to the confidence of the coal industry if a decision were made fairly soon and in favour of coal as the basic fuel. The proposed station is close to the coalfields of North Nottinghamshire and especially close to new pits producing the kind of coal that it can burn. I do not for a moment recommend that coal should be the only fuel—I hope that there will be a second capability for oil or gas—but a decision of that kind would be a welcome boost for the future of the coal industry.

The third area concerns the need for the rapid development of the Selby field, which has tremendous reserves of good coal in extremely wide seams. The only point raised in the debate on that issue is the environmental point. Because of the planning consents that have been given, we have seen how carefully we can control the environment in terms of both new pits and power stations.

I hope that the safeguards that can be ensured through the planning procedures will satisfy any environmentalist about the balance between development in the past, which traditionally we have looked upon as a scar, because it has been a scar, and development now since planning procedures. Recently, some European journalists visited Nottinghamshire. Without any prompting they made some flattering remarks about the landscaping and environment where we had phased in the Cotgrave pit and the Ratcliffe on Soar power station. These things can be done.

Equally, we live in times very different from those which many hon. Members will recall of the terrible scars of pit tips which polluted not only towns, but milk and everything else. It was very moving for me to hear a Labour councillor on the Nottinghamshire County Council, a lady of long experience, literally with tears in her eyes, speak of sheep grazing on a tip that had dominated her life until the last five years. For her it was a significant change that that great ugly scar, which had polluted the town's milk, washing, and people's lives, should have become a gentle hill with sheep grazing upon it. That is something that we can show the environmentalists. If we have the will, we can not only turn back the clock and repair the scars, but make sure that they do not occur in future.

We should accept that the ideal for the future of the coal industry is mixed economic areas. I accept that this is a longterm view—a 1990 view. With structure planning, we should work to that end so that the National Coal Board competes with a variety of industry and thereby presents a choice not only to the people who live in the mining areas, but to their sons, who will thus not necessarily have to go away if they do not wish to work in a mine. This is the better background for the greater rewards for which we should strive.

I hope that future research—indeed, research for the Selby field—will be closer to the automated mine and the long-term view of how we extract coal. We could never do without the miner's skill and knowledge, but we could probably manage without his muscle. We can probably arrange things so that there is not the unacceptable risk of injury and danger to health about which many people feel so strongly.

Mines without miners can be considered in two ways—I mean "mines without miners" in the kindest possible way. We want miners, but we do not want the unacceptable risks to them. We want machinery to take those risks. This is the opportunity, if we are to develop new coalfields, for new investment into ways by which that can be achieved. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will look favourably on this kind of research programme so that not only may we see mines without miners, but we may work towards producing energy without extraction.

I hope that we shall hear answer to some of these questions. I am sure that with a research programme properly linked to economic circumstances and balanced with other fuels, coal will continue to play a major part in meeting the country's energy requirements.

6.4 p.m.

Mr. Richard Kelley (Don Valley)

There is no doubt that coal ought to play an important part in our future energy requirements.

We should be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) for this motion which a depleted House is here to debate. It is an important motion because it deals with the security and expansion of the coal mining industry, the importance of which has been stressed by several hon. Members.

I do not want to deal with the technical aspects of the industry. I should not presume to try to tell my grandmother how to suck eggs. I do not know a great deal about the new coalfields, for that matter—probably less than my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall), who lives on the doorstep of this huge bonanza at Selby which the coal industry has before it.

I live in a mining village and I first went to work in a colliery about 56 years ago. I have lived in a colliery village, barring the few years I spent in the Army, for 56 years. Therefore, I know something about how men who work in the pits live. That is what I want to talk about.

During the election campaign I went to an important mining village close to a mine that produces more than 1¼ million tons of coal a year. There are five large pits in my constituency, all producing more than 1 million tons of coal a year. In this important mining village I found that of 87 junior officials who worked at the pit, only one had a son who had followed him into the mining industry. Those officials were all family men. They had dedicated their lives to the industry to such an extent that they had attended technical colleges and become qualified technical people in the industry. As I said, of the 87 officials, only one had produced a son who had gone into the mining industry.

In my early days in the mining industry and in the Labour movement I recall singing about the "dark satanic mills". To some extent, we now have the dark satanic hills. I am not talking about the hills of Makerfield, but about the environment surrounding the communities on whom we depend to produce the energy required by this nation. More than 70 per cent. of our energy requirements will be derived from coal before we get any great advantage from North Sea oil. This is an alarming prospect when we think that coal production is still labour intensive.

We had a wonderful dream about underground gasification at Bevercoates, about machines crawling into seams of coal 8ft. thick and, without the touch of human hand except pressing a button, pulling out thousands of tons of coal per shift. That has gone up in smoke. Lord Robens was a fool to think that this was possible without any previous knowledge of the difficulties that the kind of machine that could do that work was likely to experience in an uncharted area. We cannot regulate by statute the strata beyond a certain point in mining. Therefore, Lord Robens was a fool to consider that Bevercoates was the answer to the manpower problem in mining. Everyone in any responsible position in the mining industry in the managerial side took notice of him because he was the Chairman of the National Coal Board.

What has happened to Bevercoates? We do not hear anything about it, simply because it was an attempt to get coal without men. Several hon. Members have said that we cannot get coal without men. Therefore, men must be attracted to the industry. In order to attract them to the industry we must allow them to live in the kind of civilised conditions that 20th century man is entitled to expect.

A miner's fundamental task is to destroy the architectural structure of nature. Nature forms seams of coal hundreds, even thousands, of feet below ground. Nature places rock in certain positions and the rock has almost to be torn down by human hands in order to get at the seams of coal that nature has placed in the most uncompromising positions. Therefore, the miner's job is simply to tear down what nature has created.

Because of the very nature of his job, the miner requires some compensations. He requires to live in a decent environment. When he comes out of the dark, subterranean passage in which he has been working for six hours or more and breathes God's fresh air, he is entitled to see green fields with cows grazing in them, beautiful gardens, and nice, well painted cottages. But what does he see? He sees his wife's washing on the line and he knows that when he gets home she is going to play hell with him about the muck which the pit chimneys have created and about the dust which has blown off the slag heaps—I am talking not about slag heaps in Ince-in-Makerfield, but the slag heaps in colliery villages. Those are the conditions in which miners have to live.

If we want to get the coal that has been said in the debate to be so important, we have to create conditions in the mining areas which will attract miners. When I went to work at Hatfield Maine it was called a "rolly off" for tramps. A "rolly off" is where a fellow gets off the line. It was called a "rolly off" for tramps because only people who could not get a job anywhere else went to work at Hatfield Maine. We tried to make a village of it. I was on the local council for 25 years and we built streets and put up lamps and tried to create a respectable standard in the village.

A headmaster said, "You will never get anybody to settle here until they start to bury the dead here". We did not have a cemetery, although we have one now. My hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) knows about it, The provision of a cemetery was supposed to help to get the community established, but in the cemetery one finds the names of men who were killed at the coal face. They may have been buried under a fall of roof, had their legs torn off, or died as a result of an accident involving coal cutting machinery, or from pneumoconiosis.

When the widows turn away from the graves and look towards the village where they live, they see the grey, dark walls of the houses. Better conditions must be created in these villages. We must spend money not only on machinery to get the coal, but on improving the places where the men who get the coal and who man the machines have to continue living.

Miners are family men. Having regard to all the modern technology and propaganda about family limitations, they have what are reasonably large families. The miners breed boys who will become the men who will man the coal mining industry of the future. But, not one of the miners I know—and I still live in the miner's cottage to which I went 43 years ago—wants to persuade his son to go into the pit. The miners say about their sons, "The sooner they get out of this place, the better".

I had the honour and privilege of opening a leisure centre at Woodlands. I said that it was unique in its concept for a mining village and that it opened up great potentialities for the area which, incidentally, is around Brodsworth Colliery, from which Buckingham Palace gets its coal, or used to get it. Between 2,500 and 2,800 men are employed there. The leisure centre will offer great opportunities for youth. We heard from my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall), in a maiden speech, about Dorothy Hyams, who achieved athletic records despite great difficulties. She had few prospects of improving her athletic prowess in the village of Thurnscoe, but nevertheless she did.

I should like to see the sort of leisure centre that I have mentioned provided in every coal mining village of any size. I should also like to see other amenities, such as comprehensive schools. However, for too long mining has been regarded as an industry that would soon be entirely discarded. We were told that we could do without it. Even Labour Ministers talked about the great North Sea gas bonanza and the oil to come from the North Sea and Celtic Sea, and all other fuels that it was said would be substitutes for coal. Therefore there was a rundown of the social stature of the mining communities. Money was not to be spent on roads, schools or housing in mining areas.

Now we must reverse that process. We must think not only about machines in the pits to get the coal, but about inducing men to settle in the mining communities, to man the machines that will get the coal that the nation needs now and that it will continue to need for a long time ahead.

6.18 p.m.

Mr. Adam Butler (Bosworth)

We are all grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) for moving the motion. There is normally a certain amount of all party accord on this subject. There are on this side of the House fewer hon. Members who represent coal mining seats than on the other, but I hope that we shall make up in quality what we might lack in quantity.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the debate would give an opportunity to put formative ideas to the Government, and I welcome that opportunity. Inevitably one echoes some thoughts already expressed, but there will be no harm in that.

First, however, I must set the record straight, at least to a small extent. The hon. Member for Caerphilly said that his Government between 1964 and 1970 had not looked after coal mining as well as they might, but he went on to criticise the Conservative Government for "putting in jeopardy", I think his words were, the whole future of the industry and our whole energy situation by their attitude to the miners' strike. But what he did not do—it was a significant omission—was to make any reference to the Coal Industry Act brought in by the Conservative Government. That Act was no mean thing. It introduced a total of £1,100 million into the industry, partly to write off debt in an attempt to make the industry viable again, and to provide encouragement for expansion and security, as the motion asks.

In my constituency what the Conservative Government did during six years was greatly welcomed and recognised by the miners. It is not without significance that in the last election a large number of mining seats—not just those which were won by Conservatives but some which were held by Labour—showed a swing to the Conservatives, against the trend.

A number of hon. Members have referred to the risks inherent in mining, particularly working underground. At the time of all wage negotiations this factor is brought up, but it was particularly in evidence at the time of the Wilberforce settlement and above all during the last dispute. On each occasion the public has been rightly moved to learn not only about the conditions in which miners work, but, much more important, about the risks to health and limb which they continue to face. It is right that earnings should take those factors into account.

The hon. Member for Don Valley (Mr. Kelley) has referred to experience in one mining centre, where sons are not entering the industry. I do not believe that to be typical. I believe that the majority of new recruits to the industry come from families who have been in it all their lives. It gets into the bones of a family. But if there is one reason for their not working underground, it is the risks of pneumoconiosis and to life and limb.

Mr. Kelley

I referred to junior officials, not miners in general, in that mine. Only one of their sons had gone into the pits, out of 87 families.

Mr. Butler

I am grateful for that clarification, but I think that I am right about miners as a whole.

Regardless of whether wage rates should take account of these risks—I believe that they should—it is high time that there was adequate compensation for such industrial injuries. One must be critical of the NUM for not having been prepared to accept the then Prime Minister's invitation to sit down and discuss this matter, to thrash it out and to reach a solution as soon as possible. One can only hope that the union's attitude has changed and that it and the National Coal Board will come to an agreement. I particularly hope that the Government will give financial assistance for this pur- pose—perhaps the Minister could confirm that—and that a conclusion may be reached to give truly adequate—indeed generous—compensation to those suffering these dread diseases.

The question of mining subsidence has not been in the forefront of surgery cases or Press publicity, because of the generous interpretation that the Coal Board has been giving over the past year or two to the provisions of the 1957 Act, but most people would agree that that Act, if interpreted exactly, is not sufficiently generous. It is significant that my first mining subsidence cases for a year or more were raised in my surgery only this weekend. That shows that the NCB is already trying to get coal where it has not previously tried, or in areas in which up to now it has had a policy of sterilisation.

Inevitably, this development means that the pillars which are normally left will be cut down a little, that the areas I have described, which for good reason have been sterilised, will now be mined, and there will be a higher incidence of subsidence. If the productivity that people talk about comes to pass, there will be more rapid undermining, with more serious consequences of subsidence. What has happened to the mining subsidence review which my hon. Friends were considering when in Government but which has not yet seen the light of clay? Can the Minister give me any information, particularly the date of publication?

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North-West (Mr. Roberts) referred to the need for a better return on investment in mining. Can the Minister say what the financial targets of the industry are? Are they still, or have they returned to, a requirement to break even?

I want to suggest where coal fits into a general energy policy. We have many alternative sources of energy. Nuclear energy has not been the failure which has been suggested tonight. The Magnox stations have not failed; indeed, they have performed extraordinarily well. It is likely now that, taking into account the costs of oil and coal, they produce electricity more cheaply than any other source. There has been rather too long a delay in deciding the next stage in our nuclear programme, but I hope that that will be rectified shortly.

A source of great economic strength for our country is the massive finds in the North Sea. However, I believe that, within 10 or probably 15 years, there will be a surplus of oil production throughout the world—partly because the present costs of oil from the traditional producers have now risen far enough to encourage other countries to prospect for oil and to extract it as quickly as they can, and also to extract from other sources, such as shale and the Alaska tar sands, which up to now have been uneconomic.

If that possibility exists—the time-scale is important—we must consider our own investment not only in our oilfields, but in our coalfields. It would be the wrong policy to invest massive sums in our coal industry, at least for electricity generation. We should in the long term be looking for the greatest part of our electricity from nuclear fuel.

We have been reminded by the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) of the time scale involved in establishing new pits. He did not give a figure, but the cost of Selby or any other new pit will be many millions of pounds. In judging the requirements of energy policy, one has to set investment in new pits against investment in nuclear stations. These are surely matters that the Government have in hand.

What we must do, however, is to go for over-investment in sources of energy as a deliberate act of policy so that we cannot again be caught in the situation in which we have found ourselves in the past few months, when we have been in the hands of the oil-producing countries. If we go for such a policy, certainly coal will play its part. Although I do not look for a massive expansion of the coal industry, it would be right to keep it at its present level. That means a continuing investment so that Selby and any other of the potentially prolific coalfields can be properly developed.

I have no hesitation in supporting the motion.

6.31 p.m.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

The House will be grateful to the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) for putting the motion before us, enabling us to have a first bite in this new Parliament at what is obviously a crucial and central subject in all our affairs and in the future economy and strength of this country. Obviously we shall press for a much fuller debate on the Government's plans for the development of coal mining in an overall energy context in due course. This afternoon has been rather a brief occasion, although some excellent contributions have been made.

I shall not detain the House for long. I join in the congratulations offered to the hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) on his maiden speech. He gave a very intimate and detailed glimpse of the life and problems of his constituency. He obviously spoke from great experience in the coal mining industry.

I also pay tribute to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler), who reminded us that there is no need for an apology for the Conservatives' record towards the coal mining industry during the period of the previous Government. On the contrary, it was a very active and a good record. It turned round the situation which had arisen from the conventional wisdom of everyone throughout the 1960s—that the coal mining industry should be run down. My right hon. and hon. Friend's took a different and more far-sighted view. By their actions and legislation they turned the situation round. It is right that we should take some credit for that. If now the new Government decide to copy parts of that policy we are entitled to regard imitation as the sincerest form of flattery.

I want to express two hopes and to put a few questions to the Under-Secretary of State. Obviously one does not expect the hon. Gentleman to be able to answer all my questions at such short notice, but perhaps he will write to me or let the House know in other ways about some of the answers.

My first hope is that, in deciding the pattern of the coal industry and investment in and policy towards it, there should be in the future a global energy approach. That is the central need for deciding energy questions in the future and for deciding the futures of the different industries within the overall pattern of energy. There is no doubt that the creation of the Department of Energy in January gave the then Government the opportunity to look at the pattern for the future in coal, nuclear power, oil and gas coherently and not at each in isolation. It is essential that this opportunity is now built on by the present Government, so that they approach the whole energy question in a coherent way with a global strategy.

They should realise what that means. It means that decisions about coal must be taken on the basis of the real costs of production so that the House and the public know what the true relative costs of different sources of energy are and are likely to be, in both the medium term, to about 1980, and thereafter, and so that intelligent decisions can be taken on the basis of those costs. Those cost decisions must include the cost of investment and any artificial taxation effects or other interferences. Let all these things be clear. If thereafter the Government wish to take decisions of a social nature which would go against the competitive cost structure let them do so; but let the facts—the real costs of production of coal and other sources of energy—be open and clear, and let decisions be taken on the basis of those facts.

The central difficulty for the Government—and it is easy to say these things —will be to estimate over the next few years, and certainly after 1980 the price of coal vis-à-vis the price of oil—a very difficult estimate to make. In this country and elsewhere many expert minds are applied to trying to guess how the price of oil will move. At the same time the Government and leaders of the coal industry will have to make assessments about how the price of coal will move. We are now at a stage—and this is the basis for optimism on the part of those who support the coal cause—where for the first time the price of coal is clearly lower than the price of oil. Careful and wise assessments must be made about how long that situation can be, ought to be, and will be maintained, in order to reach decisions about investment in and development of the coal mining industry.

We have heard much about the short term and the long term in the debate. In a very precise and clear way the strategy for coal, as for other energy industries, reaches a watershed at about 1980. It does so for three main reasons. If we make the decisions soon, as the House and the country believe we should, about the next round of investment in nuclear reactor systems, those nuclear reactors, if the technology is successful and relatively free of troubles, will begin to contribute decisively to the generation of electricity some time after 1980. Secondly, if we get the North Sea oil programme right, soon after 1980, or possibly before then, all our oil needs will come from indigenous sources. Oil, too, like coal, will be an indigenous fuel.

Finally, from 1980 onwards there will come on stream any new power stations, other than nuclear stations, with which the Government now decide to proceed. Clearly, there are difficult decisions here. The House will want to know the Government's thinking about the kind of power stations that they will commission, because those stations will take five, six or seven years to come on stream and will determine the fuel requirements of the Central Electricity Generating Board from 1980 onwards.

There is a great and clear divide between the shorter term up to 1980, when the pattern of energy needs for electricity generation is decided, more or less, within certain limits which can be varied between coal and oil, and the shape after 1980, which it is now within our hands to decide.

That brings me to my second hope, which is that in making these assessments we think not merely of the energy strategy but of the needs of the economy as a whole—of consumers, of people of all ages and all circumstances who need power and warmth and life-giving sources of energy. Above all, these people need security of supply. Therefore, the Government of the day and future Governments have a prime task in providing a secure supply of power. That task has always existed, but it is crucial today. That means that there must be flexibility, with the maximum capacity to draw from a variety of energy sources. It means that this nation should not be pinned irretrievably to one energy source. That, too, is an essential requirement for any future strategy on energy which the Government must develop for the good of the country.

Those are the longer term hopes that I express. We shall obviously want to hear much more about the Government's strategic thinking in due course, and we look forward to hearing their ideas on the whole energy question and on sensibly and carefully placing the investment needs of coal within that strategy.

May I put some questions to the Minister? I shall perfectly understand if they cannot be answered in detail tonight. First, we should like to know the position in the very short term—that is, in the next few months—about coal stocks. The aim will presumably be for the electricity generating authorities to build up coal stocks to the October 1973 levels again and higher if they choose, and they will be doing this during the second and third quarters of this year. The House would like to know the Government's views, aims and intentions. Obviously there must be great concern after the miners' strike that we get back to a position where we can go into next winter with adequate coal stocks.

Secondly, can we know a little more about the Government's plans for research in those very important areas which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Caerphilly and others for liquefaction—coal into oil—gasification and the other potential uses for coal in the period after the 1980s when there will be a need to look for new uses and new outlets for the industry?

Thirdly, may we know a little more about the point touched on by the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall), namely, the progress at Selby? Will any coal come out before 1980? Can we have an assurance that the environmental considerations will he carefully considered? With the possibility of coal development in Oxfordshire, environmental considerations become increasingly important.

Fourthly, what is the Government's policy to be on closures? The last Labour Government closed 249 pits. What is the policy now? Will the closure rate continue at that rate or is it to be changed? If it is to be changed how is it to be changed and on what criteria are judgments on closures to be made in future?

May we be given some statistics showing the average earnings of the miners by category after the recent settlement? A Parliamentary Question was tabled on this matter but it did not elicit the necessary information.

The most important question which the House must put and to which the country must have an answer in the near future is: what view do the Government take about the level of output? Are we talking of an objective of stabilising output at the present figure of 130 million tons or 132 million tons? Are we talking about expansion only on the opencast side with stabilisation of deep-mine coal? Are we talking about an increase up to the 1980s only, with a decrease thereafter? If there is to be an increase, is it to be with a fixed labour force, implying a great increase in productivity? What are the Government's hopes about increased productivity?

All these factors will determine the competitiveness of coal vis-à-vis oil and the strength of the industry overall to compete, not merely as a basic source of energy, but in all the other basic fields which have been mentioned in the debate, as an industry at the spearhead of technological advance.

The House will want to know much more about what the Government intend. It will want to know how the Government intend to fit the strategy for coal into their overall energy strategy. The House will, above all, want assurances, as will the nation, that the energy strategy will ensure security of supply which will mean some flexibility in our reliance on energy sources. These are the questions which now and in the coming weeks will be at the forefront of people's minds and to which answers will be demanded if we are to be clear about the right strategy for coal and for other sources of energy.

6.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alex Eadie)

It gives me great pleasure to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) on his maiden speech today. The whole House appreciated the fact that he paid full and adequate tribute to Alan Beaney, the former Member for the constituency.

I understand why my hon. Friend was unable to remain for the remainder of the debate. He was distressed because his wife was called away urgently and he accompanied her to catch a train. My hon. Friend brought an air of reality to the debate. He showed that he would fight for his constituency with great tenacity. I am sure that the whole House will want to hear more from him.

I also want to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) for initiating the debate. My hon. Friend seems to be rather successful in the Ballot for Private Members' motions. Because of his compassion, understanding and great love for those he represents, particularly the miners, he always chooses this subject for a debate and gives it an adequate airing.

My hon. Friend asked me for some assurances. I do not need to give him any assurances, because the hon. and learned Member for Montgomery (Mr. Hooson) gave all the assurances that my hon. Friend would want. The hon. and learned Gentleman said that he did not like the present set-up in relation to the National Coal Board and said that there should be some private participation now in the organisation of the coal industry. At one time, anyone who dared to say that would have been laughed out of the House, but the hon. and learned Gentleman said it and nobody laughed at him.

The hon. and learned Member made his proposal because there is now a recognition that, as a result of the energy crisis—it is a crisis, not a problem—coal as a fossil fuel has a future and may well be profitable. So that is one assurance for my hon. Friend—that coal has a future.

My hon. Friend spoke about the need to utilise our fossil fuels to a greater extent and said, correctly, that although fossil fuels were wasting assets, of all the fossil fuels that there were we had an abundance of coal; therefore, in the strategy and planning of the use of our fossil fuels greater attention must be paid to coal.

I hope that my hon. Friend understands why I cannot give him some of the detailed assurances he wants. He knows that we are in the process of a tripartite inquiry into the coal industry. The first meeting will take place in the coming week.

It may assist if I give the terms of reference of the inquiry. They are: to consider and advise on the contribution which coal can best make to the country's future energy requirements and the steps needed to secure that contribution. There are to be represented on that tripartite inquiry the National Coal Board, the National Union of Mineworkers, NACODS, BACM and the Government. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy regards this matter as so urgent and important that he will preside over the inquiry.

My hon. Friend referred to the social effects and impacts on the contraction of the mining industry. Speaking as a former miner, when I heard my hon. Friend, I thought that it was almost like hearing the story of one's life. The hon. and learned Member for Montgomery referred to the rôle that coal should play in future. I should tell him that that view was not shared by all his hon. Friends on the Liberal benches. I can remember Liberal Members and some Conservative Members saying that the solution to our problems was entirely to wipe out the coal mining industry.

When the hon. Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell) said that the country had been through a bad time and referred to the foresight of the previous Government in connection with the mining industry, I could not but reflect on the fact that the foresight of the previous administration was responsible for two great coal strikes, in 1972 and 1974. One of the responsibilities of the present Government has been to get the nation back to work and to reach a settlement with the miners.

When an hon. Member said that it was a great error of judgment on the part of the previous administration to consider taking on the miners for a second time, I recalled the advice given by a former Prime Minister when he said that there were three organisations with which no Government should do battle—the Church, the Treasury and the miners. It is a pity that the outgoing administration did not pay heed to that advice.

My hon. Friend mentioned Ogilvie Colliery in his constituency, and referred to the proposed closure and the negotiations between the union and the National Coal Board. He gave the figures for the losses sustained by that colliery. I have to tell him that although the appeal against the closure was heard at national level on 4th December, the appeal decision has not yet been announced. However, I assure my hon. Friend that we shall bear in mind the points that he has made, because I appreciate that it is a great constituency problem.

My hon. Friend also mentioned recruitment after the Government got the miners back to work and made a wages settlement. I am sure that he will be interested to know that since 11th March, 13,000 men have applied for work at collieries. Of those, 7,000 are ex-miners. and in the three weeks ending 29th March 2,000 have signed on to start work in collieries. The interviewing continues.

Manpower availability is one of the important matters that will be considered in any examination that we shall undertake in the industry. If I had time, I could give more details of the area break-up, but, in view of the hour, I hope that I shall be excused from doing So.

My hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Mr. Kelley) brought out very clearly the importance of energising the nation's industry. Indeed, without energy we should freeze to death. At the very least, the country would be faced with a serious crisis. We have agreed in this debate that coal has a vital rôle to play in our energy resources, but it is as well to remember—my hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley also mentioned this—that there is a price to be paid, that coal mining is still a dirty, dangerous and arduous job and that men lose their lives in the industry.

Even since the settlement of the miners' strike, men have paid the price when digging the coal that the nation so vitally needs. In the three weeks from 11 th March 1974 to 30th March 1974—that is after the resumption of normal working—three men were killed in the pits and there were 29 very serious injuries. It is a sobering thought, when we speak in what we think is an objective way about the mining industry, that people have to pay this high price.

My hon. Friend asked some questions about coal derivatives. The National Coal Board has been doing some remarkable work in this connection recently. I remember making the point that by using 1950 technology—not 1974 technology—one could get 100 gallons of petrol from one ton of coal: the economics are another matter. My hon. Friend talked of signposting the way into the 1980s and 1990s, saying that coal was much cheaper than oil, but one cannot tell what the trend will be in obtaining derivatives from coal.

I have been asked whether the National Coal Board is active and alive in the matter of research and development, and I can say that that matter is receiving urgent attention. There are other perhaps less inspiring derivatives of coal. One thinks here of plastic materials, pitch plastics, damp proof courses and roofing materials for the building industry, and even synthetic cricket pitches—

It being Seven o'clock, proceedings on the Motion lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Precedence of Government Business).