HC Deb 20 March 1974 vol 870 cc1055-87

4.33 p.m.

Mr. Tom Ellis (Wrexham)

I am glad to have the opportunity to raise the important subject of productivity in the mining industry. I do so as a man who has spent 23 years working in the industry, first as a haulage worker, then as a face worker and finally, for 13 years, as a colliery manager.

Although we had several debates on the coalmining industry in the last Parliament, this is the first time I have spoken on that subject from the Floor of the House. I therefore want to take advantage of the opportunity to be as helpful and as constructive as possible to the industry in reaching a solution to the energy crisis which faces us.

Like other industries, the mining industry has many problems, but most people would agree that the key problem, certainly for the immediate future, is productivity. The House will be aware of the substantial increases in productivity which the mining industry has achieved since 1960. The productivity rate has more than doubled. It is nearly two and a half times the 1960 rate. There has been a steady and substantial improvement resulting mainly from two broad developments.

The first is mechanisation, particularly at the face. Money has been poured in, and workmen and management have adapted themselves successfully in a remarkably short space of time to this revolution in the technical methods of mining coal. There have also been mechanical improvements elsewhere, both underground and on the surface. But the mechanical process has now reached its limit, certainly in the short term, although I know that there may be long-term possibilities. For example, we may one day see the Westminster scratch-crawler mark 1 performing on the faces of British collieries, but in the immediate period of the next five years most people would agree that improvements in productivity by further mechanisation are not very likely, because the coalfaces and other parts of the coal mines are fairly fully mechanised.

The second development over the last 15 years which has led to substantial im- provements in productivity is not such a happy one. That is the improvement of productivity by closing less efficient collieries. That is not a process to be followed. If it were followed to its ultimate conclusion we should end up with a British mining industry of remarkably high productivity with all the coal coming from one colliery.

The need now is not only to increase productivity but also to maintain capacity. We need improved productivity and larger capacity and, ideally, improved capacity as well as improved productivity. We should no longer deceive ourselves, as we may have done in the past, that there have been real increases in productivity when, in fact, those increases are more apparent than real. It would be interesting to have from the National Coal Board the figures of improved productivity over the past 15 years at the 260 or so collieries still in existence.

There does not seem to be a great opportunity before us in the next five years to improve productivity from either of those two developments. We therefore have to look elsewhere. There are great benefits to be derived in improved productivity from what I might call rather grandly the sociological development of the industry. Many hard-headed, practical mining men regard such sociological talk as being airy-fairy, woolly and soft-centred. They fail to see its relevance to the earthy realities with which they are faced each day. But over the last 15 years there have been occasions when it has been very useful. I have a colleague who was an eminent mining engineer in the Lancashire coalfield and spent his whole life in that coalfield. When, after he retired, I asked him which of the 20 collieries was most likely to continue in the future, he said, "If you had asked me three months ago I would have said Mosley Common, but unfortunately it closed two months ago". Technically, it should have been the best colliery in the coalfield but it was closed for what I loosely call sociological reasons.

My colliery, in 1959, when collieries began to be closed, should have been technically one of the first collieries to be closed. It had thin seams, it was wet, gassy and faulted, it had a bad roof, and no money had been spent on it. Everything was wrong. I hope that I am not being arrogant or presumptuous, but I pride myself that the colliery has survived and is still in production to this day. I like to think that it has survived because its management was sociologically sound. It was a lateral management, very different from the customary vertical structure of management in most collieries, certainly in the 1950s and perhaps even to this day. Latterly, my colliery also had the advantage of producing coking coal. I am convinced, however, as is the union at the colliery, that the real secret lay in the harmony at the pit. There is a corporate drive and will to win among everyone at the colliery. This has contributed substantially to its continuation.

Nationally the problem is to translate into practical terms this loose phrase "improved sociology" and to do it quickly. The answer has to be based on wages, not simply the level of wages—a blanket increase of so many per cent.—but rather upon changes in wage payment systems. I know that the finesse and sophistication needed to change social attitudes at collieries, as in other institutions, are not to be found in wage systems, which are mechanical things. They are not ideal substitutes for the human quality of finesse. Nevertheless, a great deal can be done along these lines, especially when speed is as important as it is now. Whatever is done must be done carefully and skilfully, because no one can afford to make mistakes here.

I want to look at wages and their connection with productivity. I ask the House to forgive me if, to do so, I go briefly into the recent history of mining wages. In 1947 face wages were paid largely on a piecework system. Although wages doubled in the first 15 years of nationalisation the increases were the result mainly of negative, grudging and defensive negotiations by management. Most certainly they were not inspired by the intentions and hopes of the Parliament of 1945, when it legislated for the creation of a nationalised coal industry.

The piecework system which prevailed over much of the industry for the first 15 years or so after nationalisation was an odd kind of piecework. The wage that the man actually received at the end of the week could be divided into two main elements—the prescriptive payment and the discretionary payment. Prescriptive payments were those prescribed by formal agreements or long custom—for example, tonnage, rate for filling coal, and for water, in many parts of the country, and so on.

Discretionary payments were those negotiated weekly—or allowed—for all situations not covered by prescriptive payments, for example, allowances for bad roof faults, steep ground, and so on. These payments were not, or should not have been, of a repetitive nature. They should have varied as conditions varied. They were often negotiated at deputy level, sometimes at overman or under-manager level, but rarely at manager level and only in exceptional circumstances at any level outside the colliery.

They were frequently conceptual in nature and sometimes openly called allowance payments. Their main justification was as a damping factor to avoid excessive fluctuations in earnings if performance, tonnage or yardage, or whatever, fluctuated excessively. There is no doubt that they had a legitimate function to perform in this respect. Fifteen years after nationalisation, and as a direct result of the defensive approach of management towards wage negotiations, and the increasing use of conceptual payments, there remained some conventional hand-filled faces where workmen were paid on a formal contract little changed since vesting day, but where the actual wage had doubled. The increase in earnings had been largely achieved by an increase in the discretionary element of the wage, so that this formed a large part—up to 50 per cent.—of the whole.

That had been accompanied by a corresponding increase in the number of payable variables and of officials able to influence the week's final wage level. This in turn had led to the abuse of the discretionary damping factor and to the odd phenomenon of the so-called "ratchet effect" and wage creep. The possibility of improved wages control, that is the more rational—although not necessarily frozen—correlation of wages and performance, or of cost or profit, or with or without any other objective criterion, had been weakened. The emphasis had been put upon highly personalised negotiations at junior level.

Another important characteristic of a too readily negotiable contract when allied to a straight piece-rate system—a system with a large conceptual content—was the ease with which the need for cutting production costs could be translated into the need for cutting wages rather than improving productivity. On occasion this has even taken formal shape in the mining industry. For example, the sliding scale of the 1880s tied wages to the selling price of coal.

It would be a nice economic point to consider how far the lack of improvement in productivity and technical innovation prior to 1939 could be traced to this mentality. By 1960 there was an acknowledged need in mining for an improved system of incentive payments of greater precision and rationality. Mr. Ford, the then President of the NUM, spoke at the annual conference in 1963 about the possible ideal of a day-wage for face workers, but pointed out, wisely I thought, that in an industry so accustomed to traditional wage bargaining it was necessary to advance a step at a time and with much serious thought before abandoning completely the tradition of payment by results.

In the event, as we all know, the national power-loading agreement was reached in the mid-1960s. A fixed weekly wage was established and the industry has worked under it ever since. It has always been my view—I say this as one who, in principle, supports the idea of a fixed weekly or monthly wage—that the industrial attitudes of management and workers in the mining industry were not sufficiently sophisticated to make a complete success of the jump to the power-loading agreement.

Having said that, I acknowledge that much success was achieved by it and I pay tribute to the mining fraternity for the part they played in achieving that success. Now, after Wilberforce and this winter's dramatic events, we are clearly at a turning point. Whatever wage negotiations are taking place between the NCB and the NUM it is obvious they can have a profound influence on the future success and productivity of the industry.

We understand that following the Wilberforce recommendations, and for other reasons, some kind of incentive bonus scheme may be accepted in due course. I welcome this, as do, I believe, most people in the industry. That is why I have sketched out some of the dangers which resulted from the old piecework schemes in the industry. We must be careful not to fall into them once again. The search must be for an incentive scheme combining as many as possible of the advantages of piecework and day-wage with as few as possible of their disadvantages.

To my knowledge one or two schemes have been used or partly used in the mining industry in the early 1960s. Certainly there was one colliery which, in the teeth of opposition from the senior management of the National Coal Board at the time, persevered with and ran at least partly an incentive scheme for a couple of years designed to eliminate the traditional disadvantages of piecework. I hope that the House will forgive me for making this personal reference to my own colliery. But we at Bersham—the National Union of Mineworkers' lodge, my management colleagues and I—felt at the time and still feel that we achieved a major breakthrough in wages systems for the mining industry.

I will not bore the House with the technicalities, but the scheme combined an incentive for the whole colliery which would have been applicable individually to all collieries, whether they were difficult ones to work or easy ones, where the wage level could be determined centrally at national level so that there should not be great discrepancies in the wages paid at different collieries. It established an equity between one colliery and another which overrode the geological and other differences which so often in the past have vexed negotiators, and it rewarded the imaginative and intelligent use of skills now becoming so vitally important to this highly mechanised industry.

I understand from our newspapers that there is some difficulty about the question whether an incentive scheme should be based locally, regionally or nationally. However, the method used at Bersham could be used with enough flexibility to achieve a satisfactory compromise in this respect.

I imagine that the working papers and the arguments of 13 years ago at Bersham are still recorded and available. I urge the National Coal Board and the NUM to use these and any other experience which may be available at other collieries to look in some depth into wages systems their psychology and their relation not only to productivity but also to safety and to industrial harmony.

It is surprising that, despite the long and sometimes acrimonious traditions of wages negotiations in the mining industry, there is in mining literature little discussion in depth of the theory, general principles and psychology of wages payments. Since, as I suspect, this is the new development to follow in the hope of genuine increases in productivity over the next five years, I trust that I shall not be thought presumptions in commending this course of action to my good friends in the industry.

4.53 p.m.

Mr. Adam Butler (Bosworth)

I must apologise to the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Tom Ellis) for not being here to listen to the whole of his speech. I have a strong constituency interest, and I listened with great attention to what he said in the last few minutes of it.

I intervene briefly to support what the hon. Gentleman said about the experiment which ran for a short while some 13 years ago on a colliery efficiency scheme. This is what I have advocated in this House on a number of occasions and have discussed at some length with miners in my constituency. The hon. Gentleman asked both the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers to look closely at the arrangements which prevailed then, and I endorse that heartily. The hon. Gentleman might even do me the courtesy of letting me have any details that he has.

I believe that this approach is the only one which will work. A national productivity scheme of the sort that the NUM insists upon cannot work because there is no adequate incentive involved. I do not believe that a regional system can work. Equally, a face system will not work because of the difficulties in the working of a single face and between different faces in one pit. But on a colliery basis there should be sufficient colliery feeling and a spirit of working together amongst the men to make them take the rough with the smooth and respond to the added incentive which should be involved in a scheme of this sort.

I imagine that what used to operate at the colliery referred to by the hon. Gentleman was that there was a normal level of production associated with standard conditions and that on that was based the productivity scheme which operated. I believe that this is a fair arrangement, and I would like to see it introduced.

I am reinforced in the view that we should return as soon as possible to such schemes in this vital industry by the fact that when day work was introduced in my own area on road development work, production fell substantially. What is more, although some hon. Members opposite criticise the National Coal Board for employing outside contractors whose employees earn high wages, I am told that despite their high wages they have cost the NCB less per yard of development work than union members simply because they have been on piecework and have been prepared to work for their reward.

If we can produce a truly effective scheme on a colliery basis, I should like to give it all the encouragement that I can.

4.58 p.m.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) and the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler) will forgive me if I do not pursue their productivity arguments.

I wish to begin by congratulating my right hon. and hon. Friends on the prompt way that they have set out to tackle some of the problems facing the mining industry. I do not suggest that the new wage agreement will solve all the problems, but clearly it opens the door to a new future for the industry.

I agree with the stress that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham laid on the fact that capital investment alone will no longer provide a solution. The basic future must depend for many years to come on the necessary manpower being available.

Since the new wage agreement came into force a number of my constituents have expressed an interest in returning to the mining industry, and I believe that the problems of the industry have become very urgent in view of the additional energy which is required by the nation.

For that reason, I feel that it is vital that we should look at the development of the industry not only in the long term but also in the short term. If we look at the short-term problems, the greatest need is to speed up the expansion of existing collieries wherever possible.

In the Cannock Chase area of my constituency the three major collieries—Lea Hall, Littleton and Cannock 5—are all subject to plans for expansion. The Lea Hall Colliery, which has already reached the 2 million tons mark, is being talked about as the first colliery in Britain to reach the 3 million tons mark in the foreseeable future. There is a £5 million plus expansion scheme at Littleton, and expansion is also envisaged at Cannock 5.

It is essential that at these and similar collieries, in view of the urgency of the energy situation, there should be a greater speeding up of all these development plans. In my constituency alone such developments could provide several thousand more jobs in mining.

In the long term it is equally important to speed up development. The major development which is given great prominence is at Selby. However, bordering on my constituency is another important development near the Cannock Chase area where I understand that there ate coal reserves of hundreds of millions of tons. Certain probing and seismographic work is already being done in that area. I stress the need to speed up this type of development not only in that area but generally, and to tie up some of these major developments—I cannot speak for the Selby position, but I know the situation in Staffordshire—with some of the other social factors operating in the area.

The Staffordshire County Council has outlined a proposal for some type of mini-town development of about 3,500 homes in the Cannock Chase area. I am sure that the new Cannock Chase district is anxious that many of those homes should be developed by the local authority. If such development takes place, the authority must avoid providing little boxes which are divorced from the community in general involving people in travelling several miles to the West Midlands conurbation to find work.

If we are to provide jobs for about 5,000 people, clearly the policy that the local authority has operated extremely successfully in the past of providing a diversification of new industries will not alone solve the problem. There is a need here for at least one major source of additional employment to provide many or the jobs required. Therefore, it would he most useful if there could be a tie up between the possible mining development near Cannock Chase on the one hand and the development of housing near Cannock Chase itself on the other. I understand that the time scales for the two developments are likely to be somewhat similar.

I am pointing to some of the problems facing my constituency merely as examples of some of the wider difficulties facing the coal industry. The two wider aspects, as I see them, are the need to speed up the short-term development of existing collieries where such development is possible, as this is the only way that we shall solve our short-term energy problems, and the need in the long term to tie up the more major developments in the coal industry with some of the other likely social developments in the areas affected.

5.5 p.m.

Dr. Michael Winstanley (Hazel Grove)

I intervene briefly in the debate to call attention to one aspect of productivity in mining which has not so far received any mention but which, from my experience, ought to be mentioned not once but over and over again—namely, health and safety.

My involvement in mining is varied. I come from a mining family of many generations. Indeed, some of my family will be known to hon. Members. My uncle, George Winstanley, developed the Winstanley experiment which first demonstrated the cause of underground explosions. He was in charge of the Prince of Wales Miners Relief Fund, which conditioned his attitude to life and politics in many ways.

I have been brought up in a mining atmosphere surrounded by people who have worked in and understood the industry. I have practised and still practise in a mining area in the region of Mossley Common colliery, to which reference has already been made, and for some years I worked as a surgeon in a hospital in the middle of a mining area.

In my professional medical life I have witnessed the influence of the dangers inherent in mining and their damaging effect on health and productivity. It is well known that in certain areas accidents tend to have more severe results than might be expected. There are understandable reasons. An accident underground is very frightening and alarming, as anyone who has been down a mine knows. When dealing with people in hospital who have been involved in accidents underground, I have found that they are more shocked and ill than might be expected from a similar accident on the surface.

Mining cannot be described as pleasant or enjoyable, though many miners enjoy the comradeship, and so on, underground. However, it is not the kind of work to which people are desperately anxious to return when they are not feeling fit. My experience, both in hospital and in general practice, is that when a miner has been ill his enthusiasm for getting back to his job is affected by the conditions in which he will have to work.

I have treated people who have changed from mining possibly because the local colliery has closed. People often say that miners cannot be retrained for other jobs. Of course they can be retrained. I know many miners doing excellent jobs in industry as machine operators, and so on. It is interesting to observe how ex-miners' attendance rates improve when they are in new and different occupations. The difference is quite startling.

I am not competent to speak on bonus systems, different rates of pay or productivity, but whatever rearrangements are made in methods of payment we will not fundamentally increase productivity to the level that we would like unless we substantially improve the working and safety conditions of those who have to get the coal, because they have an effect not only on health but on morale in general.

I have been down many pits. Considering miners' working and safety conditions, I wonder whether, in the second half of the twentieth century, we ought to be thinking about new methods of extracting coal. When I see people who have developed bent knee, miner's nystagmus, who are crippled with injuries of one kind or another, coughing with pneumoconiosis and anthrocosis, I wonder whether it is socially acceptable to ask people to work in those conditions. Perhaps the time will come when modern technology will devise better, safer and more socially acceptable methods of getting coal.

We are all happy to burn coal and use its various bonuses—heat and so on—but not many of us think about the cost of that coal in human terms. I have seen that cost in medical practice. I ask the House, when thinking about productivity, to bear in mind the conditions in which miners work and to realise that we shall get real improvements only when we make the job safer and pleasanter. When we achieve that situation, morale in the industry will improve startlingly.

5.10 p.m.

Mr. Michael McGuire (Ince)

First, Mr. Deputy Speaker, may I add my congratulations to those that have been offered to you during the last few days. I am sorry that I am a little late, but this is the first time that I have been called to speak.

The debate has been profitable and necessary, and we are indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) for initiating it. I know that my hon. Friend will not say it aloud, because he is a modest man, but he is held in high regard in his own area for many of the reasons that he mentioned, and not least because he was the innovator of a new payment scheme in the mining industry. We all know how difficult it is to get any such change brought about.

For the last two years the National Union of Mineworkers, through its national executive, has been trying as hard as anyone could to get through a scheme as recommended by Wilberforce—a productivity payment scheme if one likes so to call it. Many people do not like the word "productivity," but perhaps for the sake of shorthand we can use it and agree that everybody wants a better system of payment in the mining industry. I note that one of my hon. Friends disagrees, but in my view such a scheme is necessary.

Perhaps one may for a moment look back at the history of the payment of wages in the mining industry. My hon. Friend rightly referred to the ancient system of tying the wages earned by the men at each pit to the amount of coal that was sold. The results fluctuated dramatically, and in fact miners have for many years had a prices and incomes policy. It was only after 1947, when the industry was nationalised, that that system was cast overboard. It was in 1955, eight years after the mines were nationalised, that a proper nationally-agreed system of payment was introduced. That is a measure of how long it takes to get things done.

In 1955 there was introduced the first day wage structure. Under this system everybody in the pits whether he was a face pieceworker, a pieceworker outbye or a haulage hand, was given an identification number and a basic day wage payment. If he did not make enough on the face on piecework, he was guaranteed a basic day wage rate. If my memory serves me right, at the time I was there the rate for a face pieceworker was 31s. 9d. That was the basic rate, so we have made some progress since then.

In about 1966 the power loading agreement came into force. Under that scheme the face power loader—the panzer man as we called him—was given a basic rate. I must not use the phrase "day wage", because the men on the panzers and on the power loaders say that they work extremely hard. Nevertheless it is a basic payment, and there are no pluses. If production on one day is 10 times higher than that of the previous day, it makes no difference and the basic rate at the end of the week is the same. That is in the contract. That is what the men are paid, provided that a proper effort is made to produce the coal. It may be that because of geological reasons or supply or other problems, production falls. Nevertheless every man on the team gets the basic shift rate per week.

Recently there has been introduced the third wage structure. I think that this was referred to by the hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler). There are men outbye who get considerably less but who are doing the same jobs as those done by people working for outside tunnelling contractors. The latter receive sometimes double the daily rates of pay for miners. I do not know whether it is the structure payment scheme that is preventing the miners from receiving a proper rate of pay for this type of work.

I realise that the National Coal Board has problems if there is a basic structure payment for men outbye the face. The board has to abide by that structure and pay the men the laid down rate of pay, but those in the mining industry know that this is creating tremendous problems in the pits.

I think that all my hon. Friends who know the mining industry will agree with me when I say that the men doing piecework on air crossings, drifts, driving tunnels and the thousand and one other jobs that have to be done complementary and supplementary to face production were paid more than face piece-workers. Now, however, the same payment structure applies to all. If there is a difference, it does not amount to very much.

It is crucial that those who were in the mining industry should take a more detached view of the situation. We are not now in the pits but we are proud to be among the 18 sponsored Members with practical experience of working in the pits. We can speak to our colleagues on this matter of piecework. I know the history of it. I know how glad some men were to see its abolition. There is not now a system under which a man on the coalface in Scotland would get substantially more or substantially less than a man doing a similar job in another mining district. There is now a system of equalisation, and many people say that it is about time too and that they will not abandon it. They say that they will not go back to the old piecework system.

A moment ago I said that those who were not now working in the pits could take a detached view of the situation. My view is that there was little wrong with the piecework system when it was possible to operate it. When the men were earning money on piecework, there was no problem. I speak with experience in the pits, and also as branch secretary of seven and a half years. The problem arose—here I am 100 per cent. behind what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham—because the management, while being competent engineers, had little understanding of what I call the subtleties or the common touch.

Problems arose when the face was not producing or the rip was not able to be advanced. If the men were not able to accomplish their target of X number of yards advance, problems arose because the management did not have the nous—it may be that there was some reluctance on the part of the union for such a system; I do not know—to have a proper evaluation of the time that was spent waiting for the necessary supplies to arrive, geological difficulties to be overcome and so on. Not enough sense was shown by the management in dealing with problems—though no doubt the management would argue that there was not enough understanding on the part of the men of the problems—and that was when difficulties arose.

I maintain—and I am open to challenge by anybody with experience in the pits—that when the men were producing coal on piecework rates there was little complaint about the system. Problems arose when the job was not going forward for reasons outside the control of the men. Quite often they were the victims of inefficient management. They were not producing the money, and rows resulted.

I should like to give a classic example of what I mean in support of what my hon. Friend said about an enlightened management. I was a secretary at Sutton Manor for seven and a half years. I had a face there—I used to call it mine, because I was one of the 54 million coal owners—which for one reason or another never turned coal. We had a fall-back system under which the men could not be paid less than 50s. a day, £15 a week. A charge-man there, whom we used to call a "puffler", used to say to me "We have made only 55s. or 60s., yet other men on other faces are earning £5 or £6. We are working just as hard yet they are making twice as much money and seem to be getting it easier."

Every week I would go to the management. Some weeks they would give us a few shillings extra per shift and other weeks they would say "It is their own fault if these men are getting only this amount. If others on other faces can do so well, so can they."

We then had a new under-manager with whom I had worked myself. He said to me "Don't come the old story with me. These men want more money and I can't understand why they aren't earning it." He phoned back later to say "I am going to give them the biggest allowance they have ever had, because something about this situation puzzles me." He gave them the biggest individual payment they had ever had to make up their money—10s. a shift—and said that he wanted to have discussions with the men about the problems they thought that the company should be solving and that lie would tell them what we thought they should be doing.

Those discussions followed and he went on that face himself for a fortnight. At the end of six weeks those men fulfilled his prophecy. When he had given them the 10s. a shift, he had said "If I cannot get you men earning the highest wages at Sutton Manor and having the highest productivity on a very awkward face, I will pack in." They were delighted to get the money but thought that his prophecy would not come true. But it did. After six weeks they earned the highest wages ever at the pit and had the highest productivity. No one had broader chests than those men, who had previously been maligned for not knowing how to do the job.

This came about because we had a manager with the common touch. He had had experience on the face, as most managers have, and he understood the problems not only of the workers but of the management.

I want the National Coal Board and the union to get together. It will be in the best interests of the country, the industry and its workers to have a productivity or incentive scheme to reward all those in the industry. One of the bad things about piecework, even when it went well, was that only a few shared in the cake. The men on the loader and the men on the top got nothing; only the face pieceworkers benefited. They felt this badly but used to say that the problem was not for them. They are right: it is for those responsible to devise a scheme which will remove the worst aspects of the old piecework system, include the good ones and bring in some new ones.

The industry is awakening to the fact that we need a new look at this. The union has been trying for two years with the National Coal Board to get a proper productivity scheme. I and, I am sure, my hon. Friends will do what we can to help. But the two bodies must get together. I know the fears of many men in the coalfield. I have explained the fear about piecework. They have been misunderstood, although they are genuine fears. We want a system which will reward everybody. The board should work towards that end and the result will be a happier and more profitable industry.

5.25 p.m.

Mr. W. R. Rees-Davies (Thanet, West)

I agree very much with the final words of the hon. Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire). One wants to see rewards for work done in the industry. This requires some element of piecework. of genuine productivity bonus in the creation of the new structure which is so necessary.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) has done the House a service by raising this matter. We have heard a great deal recently about miners and miners' pay. Few speakers have thought about what really matters, which is the productivity to be derived from the pits and the problems which arise on that score.

My knowledge is local, at least in recent years, and I shall be referring to the Kent pits, of which there are three—Betteshanger, Tilmanstone and Snow-down; the fourth is closed. I also had some knowledge of the East Midlands area in the days when I was the candidate for South Nottingham. Hon. Members will know that until recently the East Midlands was the area of the greatest productivity and profitability, although its coal was of the poorest quality and sold at the lowest price. There are some lessons to be learned from that.

If I am critical in some of the things I say now, it is because it is necessary for someone to be so; it is because so few people have been constructively critical of matters relating to the pits that so little has been done.

The first major problem that we must tackle is that of absenteeism. The second, which goes with it, is the problem of managerial control—one can call it discipline if one likes. I prefer to call it a proper relationship between the National Coal Board and the men in the pits.

Dealing with absenteeism first, let us remind ourselves a little of the history. After nationalisation, there were problems in the early days and the National Coal Board put up an affirmative proposal for a benefit. That was a bonus benefit where men engaged in the five-shift week. That admirable idea, which could have been a great success, ultimately failed because in those days the excuses for failure to turn up to work for those five normal shifts which were held to qualify for the bonus became so manifold and so many excuses were allowed that in the end people could be absent and not do the five-shift week. The contingent bonus shift was therefore abolished and the payment was incorporated into the weekly wage. The miners had a very good laugh about that, because it meant that they got back to the basis of an ordinary shift and any valid excuse which was acceptable, and this meant the end of the bonus system.

The first thing which is emphatically necessary in order to secure a real improvement in absenteeism is that we should give a bonus benefit for proper attendance, but there must be no single excuse taken. It would be just bad luck if someone were sick during that period; he would not get the benefit of the bonus. After all, the bonus is paid if a team of workers undertakes the necessary shifts not only for one week but for at least five weeks. The bonus should be substantial, because if we are to improve on the figures to which I shall turn this problem must be tackled.

Mr. Gwilym Roberts (Cannock)

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman is not seeking to perpetuate the old myth that the rate of absenteeism is higher in mining than in other industries. I hope that he realises that the system of measurement of absenteeism in the mining industry is rather different from that used in other industries and includes people who are off sick and off for other reasons.

Mr. Rees-Davies

It is absolute nonsense to call it a myth. Interventions such as that will not help. That is what I might describe as a typical protectionist suggestion on the part of Labour Members. I know the position full well.

I turn now to the figures for absenteeism. In the Kent pits the absenteeism figure, which always has included illness and sickness, as it does elsewhere, has been based upon an ordinary five-shift week. In Betteshanger, Tilmanstone and Snowdown the absentee figures in the early part of 1973 varied from 12 per cent, to 16 per cent. That was more or less in line with the then current norm throughout the country. By October of last year the figure at Betteshanger had reached 21 per cent. At Tilmanstone and Snowdown it was 18 per cent. For reasons which are well known to those who understand the industry, the figures in Derbyshire and that area had also risen to between 18 and 20 per cent.

When I took the trouble to look at some of the pay packets, including those of chargemen and men working on the night shift, I found that the average miner working in the Kent pits was working four shifts out of five, because he was orienting his take-home pay to ensure that he secured the maximum tax relief. A very large number of miners there were working four shifts out of five.

In October the figures began to get very much worse. The difficulty was that the National Coal Board had got itself into such a situation that, when I asked for the statistics of absenteeism in the Kent pits for November and December of last year and for January of this year, I was told that all the statisticians were also on strike. We had reached a state of inefficiency which was sublime. I had to go to the pit manager and I then found that the figures were up to nearly 50 per cent. in certain weeks.

Every time there has been a substantial rise in pay, there has been thereafter a substantial increase in absenteeism. I am in favour of the miners being the highest paid manual workers in the country, particularly those miners working at the face, and I am on record as saying so many times, but this should be only on the basis that they give us the productivity and that they are prepared to do a decent week's work.

I know, and many Labour Members know from their experience of the pits, that there is a percentage of miners—it is probably as high as 20 per cent. in the Kent pits—who would be willing to work, and who prefer to work, a three-shift week rather than a four-shift week as they have been doing in recent months.

How are we to get a five-shift week? We will not do it on the basis of paying a day wage rate. In the post-war nationalisation years, wages for actual production were based on the tonnage achieved in relation to the norm. For the purpose of calculation it was known as the price list, which was negotiated colliery by colliery at pit level between the National Coal Board and the union for every coalface. That calculation provided the norm and it was paid on productivity and on tonnage.

Along came Lord Robens. In those days Paynter was the national secretary of the union. Those two got together and agreed that it should all be on day work instead of piecework. They passed that through their respective executives because Lord Robens thought that it was a good idea: it was going on in America where it did not work at all badly. It is a failure here.

Of course there is an argument for saying that in a nationalised industry there should be standardised wages in all parts. Hon. Members who know the pits know that pits vary to the same extent as one diamond is different from another and one ruby differs from another, One seam differs from another. Geological conditions vary enormously in different pits. Production therefore varies. It is possible to work out what is the reasonable production pit by pit, and even seam by seam, but that is a job to be done locally between local men on the spot.

Working on that basis, we got decent productivity. Along those lines, surely we can work out a sensible and increased productivity agreement with bonuses if production rises.

For production to rise there must be a team effort. Miners work as a team. They work as a team, not only with the men who actually dig the coal, but also with the fitters and with those who must go in with them—the electricians and so on. So if there is to be increased production we must go back to the days of piecework and productivity.

At the same time, if we want to get rid of absenteeism, as we do, there should undoubtedly be, as the hon. Member for Ince said, some fall-back pay. If the men turned up and put in five shifts during the week, a basic wage would be payable for that, but on top of that there would be the advantages of a direct productivity payment working on the basis of the norm and adding to it. That is why I say that, coupling these two, the miners will undoubtedly be very highly paid if they want to be, because they will have the advantage of conquering the problems of absenteeism—and what a great boon that would be.

There are 19 members of the Labour Party who are sponsored by the National Union of Mineworkers. I want to discuss the rôle which I envisage they should pursue in the coming months.

Mr. George Grant (Morpeth)

I shall try to make my interjection short and will merely ask the hon. and learned Gentleman to reflect on the speech of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Dr. Winstanley), who spoke from experience as a medical consultant. If there were to be a return to a system of a bonus being paid for a five-shift week, there would be a strong possibility of an unfit man going to work in order to earn the bonus, and he would be a danger not only to himself but to others.

Mr. Rees-Davies

I do not think that is at all likely. I will deal briefly with the health and hazard question. I shall have an important suggestion to make on that before I conclude. However, the hon. Gentleman's intervention took me right out of the mainstream of my argument to the effect that absenteeism must be conquered and productivity must rise.

I ask hon. Members to listen to what Mr. Alexander Lindsay, who was for many years a very good Labour man, said to me when writing from Cardiff. Some hon. Members here may well know Mr. Lindsay. Indeed, I suspect that Mr. Deputy Speaker may well know him. Mr. Lindsay says: during my 19 years as Finance Director, South Western Division, from Vesting Day until I retired on age limit in 1965, all the NCB's constant efforts in the directions you indicate "— this letter was in response to a letter I had written earlier to the Daily Telegraphwere defeated by the vigorously militant minority of the NUM members and by the laxity and the apathy of the moderate majority of miners who did not even bother to attend the Colliery Lodge meetings where the bullets of aggression and non-co-operation were manufactured and most devastatingly fired. This is the real point: Over the years, the National Coal Board in London pursued a policy of appeasement with the NUM instead of insisting upon employers' managerial rights in the 'fair and firm' imposition of discipline upon employees—which failure, tragically common to so many of our British industries, is the greatest single factor in the present decline and fall of the industry. Hon. Members know quite well that the management at present is deplorably weak. Little or nothing has been done to stop absenteeism or to check the validity of the matters which arise.

The hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Dr. Winstanley) spoke from his medical knowledge, and he is entitled to do so. When I was dealing with Factories Act cases in the courts in the course of my practice, many cases arose involving pneumoconiosis derivable in the pits. I have complete understanding of and sympathy with those cases. But why has the National Union of Mineworkers objected to having proper clinics and doctors at the pithead? One of the most important innovations that we need is a first-class clinic at each pithead so that all the men in the pit can attend that clinic instead of having to go home to their several GPs.

There are miners who are not good men, who dodge the column with excuses which are not valid. They are a tiny minority, but they do no service to the industry. There are such men, just as there are those who attend union meetings and are the militant Left-wingers who do not give a damn for profitability, for their fellow workers or anything else.

We have got to do three things. First, we have got to see that a week's wage, not a day's wage, is paid. In paying a week's wage, a substantial bonus is given to those who actually attend over the weeks. It is no good going back to the period immediately after 1945. The men must be there to do the work, otherwise the team breaks up. If the team breaks up, we do not get productivity. We must get negotiation back at the pit level and decide what is a proper norm for production, and we must see that the miners get a good increase over and above the norm if they really bring out the coal. They will do it.

We have got to see that physical examinations are conducted at the pithead and not allow men to get away with it, as has been allowed to happen.

Finally, we must change the present management of the National Coal Board. These people may be good at accountancy, although I do not think they are very good at that. If they do not know the figures for absenteeism, how can they possibly compute what the production figure: should be? When I found in Kent that production running from between 35,000 tons and 37,000 tons in Betteshanger last year, went down to 13,000 tons in January—before the strike—in Tilmanstone from 20,000 down to 5,000 tons, and in Snowdown from 25,000 down to 9,000 tons, I realised that it was time that not merely Labour Members but Tory Members should take a close interest in this subject, and I have been doing so for some time.

I urge hon. Members opposite like the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis), who opened the debate on sensible lines—I bitterly regret not having got here to hear the whole of his speech; it took me half an hour to come from Victoria—to take the line that I have been taking in this House in recent days—the nonpartisan line—and not feel that they have to protect the miners. The miners are the barons of tomorrow. They do not need protecting. The days have gone when they need 19 men like those stalwarts who are sitting on the Government benches to protect their interests. They can very well protect themselves. What Labour Members can do—one and all of the 19—is to see that we get a really worthwhile industry which is not notorious for its absenteeism but is famous for its fantastic production at a time when the country needs it.

5.45 p.m.

Mr. Richard Kelley (Don Valley)

One would have thought that had the hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) been so interested in this subject, he would have taken care not to be at Victoria 30 minutes before wishing to address the House.

Mr. Rees-Davies

May I point out that this is the second subject for debate. The first one was at 3.30 p.m., and it is not unreasonable to expect the first one to take a certain length of time. In addi- tion, it usually takes five minutes, not 30 minutes, to get to the House from Victoria.

Mr. Kelley

The explanation is not a satisfactory excuse.

The walls in this House have reverberated throughout the last few years to remarks about the reduction in productivity in the mining industry. We were told that the production figure would have to be reduced from 150 million tons to 130 million tons and that perhaps by 1975 the figure would be 122 million tons. It is rather a shock to listen to those people who espoused the idea that the industry should be run down now indulging in the euphoria for increased production in the mining industry. I do not think any industry in the country has a record of increased productivity such as the mining industry has. Therefore, I do not understand what all this euphoria is about.

Reference has been made in the debate to piecework and whether a man's wages should depend upon his effort. This is what piecework is all about. I had something to do with the industry when piecework was the method of payment. I remember being called to the pit at 4 o'clock one morning because there had been a fatal accident. There was a man called Bob Peacock, who weighed about 17½ stone, under a fall of muck weighing about 8½ tons. He was certified dead. By the time I got there the doctor had arrived, and the question was how to get him out without a great deal of trouble. I said to one of the men who was arranging the Sylvester which would eventually draw the body from underneath the muck, where it was dangerous for other people to go, "Why did he go in there?" He said "We have got to get the job completed". This was a ripping job at the coalface and they had to get the job completed because their wages depended upon it.

This was the kind of thing we had in the mining industry—a constant conflict between the representative of the management and the men themselves who were actually doing the job. It led to the kind of incident which I have just described. It was a good thing that we were able to get away from that. We are still embroiled in this kind of thing because the power loading agreements stipulate the number of men required to perform a task.

Anyone who thinks that we can have the job computerised obviously has no knowledge of the conditions under which mining operations are carried out. We cannot forecast what is ahead of the work. The geology of the place is unknown. The circumstances in which the job has to be conducted are not laid down from any previous experience. It is work which has to be explored by highly intelligent and experienced men at the coalface. Therefore. to expect that productivity should be related to wages or wages related to productivity is out of tune with the kind of problem which faces us.

We have been telling the House for a long time what this problem is—that coal is the principal source of energy. It is source of energy over which we have political control and which is, and always was, far cheaper in the long run than Middle East oil. Add to the cost of oil the cost of maintaining a military presence in the Middle East, which was necessary to allow oil to be extracted from the area, and oil becomes a great deal more expensive than coal. The miners' group of MPs told the House that for 20 years but no one took any notice until there was an equalisation of military forces in the Middle East. The Russians made their presence felt, and the United States and Western Europe were no longer able to obtain oil from the Middle East at the price they wanted. Suddenly coal has become important. Miners are not economists or political scientists, and they probably never went to university, but they gave warnings of what would happen and almost named the date. They were completely ignored.

Now comes the problem of raising productivity in the pits to about 150 million tons a year. That is what the debate is all about. The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler) spoke about standard conditions. There are no such things. Not even the power loading agreement can be related to standard conditions. Conditions can never be appraised because their consistency can never be guaranteed from one day to the next. The wage must therefore be agreed by some form of common con- sent. There will have to be an appraisal of the local conditions in the pit with the wage paid according to a national scale. That is the point to which the industry has developed. To some extent accidents like the one I described need not take place because wages will not be dependent upon the completion of a task which is rendered impossible by geological factors.

I now turn to the danger to health and the fact that miners contract respiratorial diseases. There comes a point at which men suffering from pneumoconiosis are no longer fit to work at the coalface. Pneumoconiosis has a legal significance which is not related to its medical significance. The seriousness of chest disabilities is not always shown up on X-ray plates. Bronchitis, for example, cannot be registered on an X-ray plate, yet it is a disease to which the miner is susceptible, as was shown by evidence produced in a recent article in The Lancet. A man who is suffering from a severe pull and already has respiratorial difficulties would find it impossible to carry out some of the tasks required of him at the coalface.

Therefore, in discussing absenteeism full account must be taken of the laborious nature of the job and the already inhibited conditions of the miner's chest, complaints from which almost nine out of every 10 men suffer. If a man is a member of a team the safety of his work mates may well depend on his efficiency. I have yet to meet a doctor in any mining area who would not be prepared to certify that a man was unfit to carry out his tasks if he was suffering from what many might regard as a minor infection of the chest. They realise that the man's strength and stamina would not be adequate.

The hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West must realise that absenteeism cannot be resolved by taking a case to the Bar and arguing legal points. These men must use their muscles to lift heavy weights and place massive supports into position to protect the lives of others. It is a question of being physically fit as against being mentally alert. Payment on a weekly basis would adversely affect the miner if I am correct in assuming that the hon. and learned Member would wish the wage to be cut if a man was absent.

The answer to the problem of productivity lies principally in the question of capital investment. The fact that little more than a week after the resumption of work production is up to 80 per cent. of productive capacity is sufficient testimony to the men's loyalty to the nation. Their history is also proof of their loyalty. During the war and afterwards when the nation was struggling to assert some kind of economic recovery from the greatest catastrophe ever to overtake mankind the miners continued to produce the coal, increasing their productivity year after year. They have responded in a similar fashion over the last 10 days to the agreement reached on miners' pay.

The idea that we can produce more coal by inducing the miners to make more effort is a non-starter. I believe that they are already doing everything that can be expected of them, and if the nation wants more coal out of the pits it must put more money into them.

5.59 p.m.

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

The House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) for initiating the debate. In doing so he demonstrated both practical and technical experience in a way which probably assisted other hon. Members in making their contributions.

My hon. Friend said that we should be considering the question of productivity in the mining industry and that the nation, indeed the world, must realise that we are confronted today with an energy crisis. These points to some extent demonstrate Government thinking. When the Opposition were in Government they took the line that we had an energy problem, but, as my hon. Friend emphasised, it is not merely an energy problem—it is rather an energy crisis.

My hon. Friend said that 1960 was the period when we had the greatest productivity rise in mining. It is significant to bear in mind that this was at the start of a great technological breakthrough in the industry. There was, for instance, the introduction of powered supports, which substantially contributed to the increase in productivity. The House should be reminded that these productivity increases, which were substantial, were achieved at great personal sacrifice by people in the industry.

My hon. Friend was correct to refer to the closure programme of collieries, but the important question of productivity was the keynote of his contribution. He was right to ask for figures from the National Coal Board on the productivity records of some of the main collieries over a 15-year period, and I shall endeavour to give him the information which he desired.

My hon. Friend also spoke about what he defined as the sociological problem of how to get improved productivity and improved industrial relations. He demonstrated that if there is co-operation in the industry only good can accrue, in terms of productivity and the future outlook of mining.

My hon. Friend put to the House an analysis of the various wage structures in mining and spoke about the piecework system. However, it must be understood that there is no chance of the industry going back to that system.

I feel privileged to be making my first speech as a Minister, particularly as it relates to an industry which I know well. As a former miner I have worked hard under the piecework system. I have on some occasions worked hard the whole day and earned no money at all. There would be great difficulty, due to the geological and other factors which affect the working of piece-rate systems, in getting the men in the industry to accept such a system.

I know through my experience as a trade union negotiator that the piece-rate system caused more difficulty than anything else in industrial relations in mining. One had to be almost a Philadelphia lawyer to be a trade union negotiator. Terms such as deep cuts, falling stone, bad roof and tight gum were used.

My hon. Friend has shown that the system did not work in what we now call cost-benefit analysis terms. Discretionary payments doubled over 15 years, despite all the troubles. The return to a day-wage system in the mining industry has brought peace and stability to the industry.

Perhaps the main part of my hon. Friend's contribution was the suggestion that an incentive scheme might be applied. He tried to illustrate, from his personal experience, how such a scheme could be operated. He said that an attempt should be made to marry the pieceworking system to a day-wage system. I hope the House will agree that wage negotiations, at local, regional or national level, are matters for trade unions and employers. The NUM and the NCB should be involved in these negotiations—not the Government.

The hon. Member for Bosworth (Mr. Butler) was in favour of an incentive scheme, but such a scheme would have to be worked out so that it was not operated on a colliery versus colliery basis. The history of the matter would be against such a scheme, but the suggestion could probably be explored by the unions and the National Coal Board.

Mr. Adam Butler

Would not the Minister agree that an incentive scheme on a purely national or industry basis would be of little or no value in increasing productivity? That is why I press for a colliery-based scheme. Will the Minister use his not inconsiderable influence to try to persuade the NUM to look at a colliery-based incentive scheme, rather than a purely national one?

Mr. Eadie

I wish to make it clear that this is a matter not for the Government but for the employers—the National Coal Board and the miners' unions. Probably one of the most significant lessons recently learned is that it is a great mistake for Government to interfere in wage negotiations. This is particularly applicable in the mining industry, in which negotiations should be left to the unions and the National Coal Board.

Regarding new techniques, miners have an excellent record in co-operating in the introduction of new techniques and new machines, and I am sure that this co-operation will continue.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Roberts) drew attention to the manpower problem that we could easily face in the industry He was aware that we have not an energy problem but an energy crisis. My hon. Friend said that we should see where pits could be expanded now. He was perhaps mainly making a constituency point, although I may be doing him an injustice in saying that. He was probably looking at the matter in the national interest as well.

My hon. Friend pointed out that if that policy were pursued in an endeavour to increase coal production it could create problems over housing development. He cited the mini-town development in his area. I can understand the problem. We are carrying out informal discussions with the unions and the NCB, and hope to institute as soon as possible an inquiry into the industry, which we promised in our election manifesto. I have pleasure in telling the House that we are implementing our election pledge only days after being elected to office.

I am sure that the House is glad to have the lion. Member for Hazel Grove (Dr. Winstanley) back again. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who contributed to mining debates in a previous Parliament, for his contribution today. He has family connections with the industry and a professional connection as a medical practitioner. The hon. Gentleman described how injured miners are dealt with. The problem is one of great concern to those of us who have worked in the industry. When a man is seriously injured underground his fellow miners are anxious to get him to the surface quickly. Time can be of the essence. I have been involved in such situations, and I know that miners make heroic efforts to hurry an injured man to the surface so that his life may be saved.

The hon. Gentleman was right to raise these problems. There has been a great deal of co-operation between the unions and the NCB to try to expedite such life-saving attempts.

We are also grateful to the hon. Gentleman for drawing attention to a miner's difficulty in returning to work after suffering an injury. The hon. Gentleman showed a sympathy and compassion that may have been lacking in other hon. Members with regard to the problem of how difficult it is for a miner to go back to work although he may appear to be fit. Sometimes a miner has to be like an athlete. Half-fitness is not enough for a man who has to crawl up and down a coal face which is 3–5 ft high and handle objects weighing 2–3 cwt, in the most awkward and difficult conditions. There must be a proper medical inspection before a miner is passed as being fit to return to work. We wish that people would understand that, and then they might understand the problems of the so-called absentee record.

The hon. Gentleman made a plea for better working conditions and safety. This Government are well seized of that problem, and we shall see that in the forth-coming inquiry there are joint discussions on this.

The hon. Gentleman talked about beat knee, nystagmus and pneumoconiosis. One can get beat knee without going down the pit. It is better known as housemaid's knee. I winced when the hon. Gentleman talked about it, because beat knee is a painful experience.

In Scotland we call nystagmus "glennie blink". Its history goes back to the time of the Davy safety lamp. The miners in Scotland called the lamp the "glennie", and when a miner developed blinking of the eyes they did not call the ailment by the medical name with which the hon. Gentleman is most familiar. The hon. Gentleman will be glad to know that because of much improved lighting conditions the problem is not very big, but we should not be complacent about it.

Pneumoconiosis is a very serious problem.

Mr. Kelley

Is not my hon. Friend of the opinion that the danger of contracting pneumoconiosis from the dust arises from the fact that insufficient money has been spent on suppressing dust at transfer points and cutting operations, and that the expenditure of more capital would probably reduce the incidence of the disease?

Mr. Eadie

My hon. Friend is aware that the NUM has been expressing a view on the matter for a considerable time. Safety questions will be considered by the inquiry, and I am sure that everything will be done to improve the situation.

The question of morale was raised by the hon. Member for Hazel Grove when he spoke about better methods of mining. Morale has improved considerably since the Government made a settlement with the miners only days after coming into office. Production in the industry is now about 88 per cent. of normal in most areas.

I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter of new techniques, because the view is often expressed that mining is an old, antiquated industry. In fact, it is highly technical and very well mechanised. But it will be a glorious day when we can mechanise it even more and take away the hard work and danger from the industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. McGuire) is a great authority on mining. He speaks with authority, because he has taken part in the industry. When he asked whether we were going to talk about productivity and piecework schemes in relation to the 1880 basis, I remembered my introduction to the industry on the 1880 basis of productivity and the production that was expected. One would come up the pit and see a notice at the pithead saying that the pit would not work the next day because the quotas had been over-produced. That happened to me in my early days in the industry. It was not such a great hardship to me, as I was then single, but it was a tremendous hardship to married men with families to be abruptly told that they would not work the next day. I do not think that that is generally appreciated.

My hon. Friend came out strongly in favour of incentive schemes. He showed by his personal experience how he would like to see something initiated of that nature. I must tell my hon. Friend that incentive schemes and wages are matters primarily for employee and employer rather than for the Government. Of course, anything which would increase productivity commensurate with safety would be applauded by the Government.

I find it difficult to wind up the debate because so much has been said and so much could be debated and discussed.

The hon. and learned Member for Thanet, West (Mr. Rees-Davies) talked about the National Coal Board not being very efficient in terms of management. The hon. and learned Gentleman is now absent. He may be a good lawyer, but if his prescription were applied I am afraid that industrial relations in the mining industry would be chaotic. I should be rather worried if it were applied. However, the hon. and learned Gentleman is not present and I do not think that I should make a further comment on his speech. No doubt he has had to leave for the best of all possible reasons.

The Government are seized of the fact that coal will play a vital rôle in our energy supplies. They are determined that the miners should receive a fair return for their unique contribution. We are also aware that it will be essential for the industry to be efficient and that it is necessary that coal supplies should be reliable. Although we realise that coal is at present markedly cheaper than oil the margins could change from time to time. Nevertheless, we are confident that the industry has a good future.

In the forthcoming tripartite inquiry the Government, with the unions and the NCB, will work out how coal can make the most effective contribution to the economy. Proper treatment of miners and a proper regard for safety, health and like considerations will play their rightful part. We are aware of the NCB's proposed development programme, and we shall wish to discuss with the board how that programme can best be achieved and whether more should be done. In planning any major development careful attention will be paid to matters such as transport and housing and necessary social provisions such as schools.

I am indebted to the initiator of the debate. It has made a contribution towards bringing to the country's attention some of the mining industry's problems. I am sure that because of the sympathy and the understanding which has been shown by some hon. Members the debate will make a contribution towards improving the morale of our essential mining industry.