HC Deb 18 November 1974 vol 881 cc891-5
Mr. Patrick Jenkin (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Energy, if he will make a statement on the outcome of the miners' ballot on an incentive scheme in the industry.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Mr. Michael Foot)

I have been asked to reply.

The Government, the National Coal Board and the mining unions were parties to the Coal Industry Examination this year, which recommended the introduction of a sound and effective incentive scheme in the industry. The details and the negotiation of such a scheme were, of course, a matter for the NCB and the National Union of Mineworkers.

The particular scheme proposed by the National Coal Board was put last week to the miners so that they could decide through their own democratic machinery whether they were willing to accept it, and a majority have now come down against the scheme.

I am sure that discussions will continue within the industry to see how higher output can be achieved through other means, and the Government welcome the recent statement, of the NUM Executive about reaching production targets. I certainly hope the miners will do all in their power to get the coal the country needs, to assist in carrying through the planned development of the industry and to sustain the social contract.

Mr. Jenkin

The Question was originally tabled to the Minister's right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, but I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will do his best to answer the two or three brief questions that I will put to him. Does he agree that the rejection of this carefully negotiated set of proposals deals a body blow to the Coal industry in the present circumstances? Does he not agree that the rejection is an ill omen for fuel supplies in Britain this winter? The right hon. Gentleman referred to the final report of the tripartite examination, which emphasised the vital importance of a sound and effective incentive scheme leading to a substantial increase in output. What "other means"—I use the Secretary of State's own words—do the Government have in mind to achieve the 120 million tons a year target agreed in the tripartite talks? What steps are the Government taking to secure the achievement of that target?

Mr. Foot

I think that I anticipated some of the right hon. Gentleman's questions in my original reply. I should not be prepared to use the kind of language he used about a body blow to the industry's future or to the achievement of the aims we wish to secure for the country this winter. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has already answered Questions on that subject. Certainly, in normal circumstances coal stocks are satisfactory for the winter. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] The hon. Gentleman asked me the question, and I have given the answer in exactly the same terms as it was given before.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked what means will now be followed to try to secure the productivity which we wish to see and which the miners have said they wish to see in the industry. As I said in my original reply, I have no doubt that there will be fresh discussions between the National Coal Board and the Executive of the National Union of Mineworkers. The Government are eager that those discussions should start, and wish them well.

Mr. Kelley

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the situation before the ballot had been considerably exacerbated by certain statements made by people outside the House, and that, having some regard for the result of the ballot, the least said here, the soonest mended?

Mr. Foot

I am not entitled to discour age any comments that right hon. and hon. Members may wish to make in the House. They are entitled to comment upon these matters as they think fit. But I think that everyone who knows anything about what happened in the coalfields in the past week will agree that several statements were made which did not assist the situation.

Mr. Beith

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that recriminations at this stage will not profit anyone, and that those who voted against the scheme did so for a variety of reasons, some of them severely political and some of them genuine? Does he agree that the time might be right to examine the kind of national productivity premium that the Liberal Party advanced last February?

Mr. Foot

What the Liberal Party advanced in February and October was a statutory control of incomes that could have brought the whole thing to a standstill, so we should not return to the proposals of the Liberal Party or to the policy advocated and practised by the Leader of the Opposition. However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman in this much, that I am opposed to recriminations in the matter. As I have already said, I believe that there will be discussions between the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board about the future.

The miners have said on many occasions—again last week, when they saw my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, and he had a most cordial welcome at their headquarters in London—that they wish to assist the country in getting the coal it needs.

As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, there was a variety of different reasons why the miners voted against the scheme. Those of us who come from coalfields, and know some of the historical reasons why miners have been opposed to similar schemes, know why the vote went the way it did. What the Government wish to secure is the most amicable discussions between the National Coal Board and the miners' union to see how we may get the coal that only the miners can produce.

Mr. Alexander Wilson

Does my right friend agree that the tripartite discussions, and the conclusions from those discussions, were a direct result of the Wilberforce Report? Does he also agree that in their deliberations on the National Coal Board's offer of an incentive bonus scheme the miners had a reason of historical background for turning the scheme down, on the basis of industrial injury, death and pneumoconiosis in the coalfields? We know the nature of the scheme. Will my right hon. Friend tell the Opposition two important factors? First, will he tell them that nobody in the country will have the necessary coal produced unless he can get the miners to produce it? Secondly, will he tell them of the unanimous resolution passed by the National Union of Mineworkers' Executive when they met my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy, in which they pledged full support for any honourable agreement that our Labour Government will make with the union?

Mr. Foot

I am sure that my hon. Friend does not need any assistance from me in telling the Opposition what they should think about some of these matters. It is not quite the case, as I recall it, that the proposals under the scheme derived from the Wilberforce Report, although there were references to it or another proposed scheme at the end of the report. The discussions which led to the scheme arose from the steering committee established by the present Government, which covered a far wider range of topics than this incentive scheme or any other. It covered a plan for the development of the industry over years, and I believe that that plan has been generally welcomed by miners throughout the country. It is on the basis of that general, far-reaching plan that we can still look forward to a proper response to the proposals made, and look forward to the country getting the coal it needs, which can be got only by miners.

Mr. Skeet

As production is likely to be down by about 6 million tons this year, will the right hon. Gentleman safeguard industry and the housewife by ensuring that in a very difficult winter we have available a sufficient supply of coal by imports?

Mr. Foot

I have already replied to that question, quoting what has been said by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy.

Mr. Mendelson

While accepting that right hon. and hon. Members must have the right to comment on this important event, may I ask whether my right hon. Friend does not also accept that all those hon. Members representing mining areas know that hysterical attacks upon a decision of a majority of miners are not helpful in the present situation? Does not my right hon. Friend also accept that all that has happened is that a union has, by its own constitutional means, taken a certain decision on a set of proposals put to it by the employers? Is it not in the best interests of the country and everyone else concerned to leave the matter now to the people in the industry to go on organising their own affairs?

Mr. Foot

As usual, I think that there is a great deal of wisdom in what my hon. Friend has said.

Mr. Speed

Can the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that there will be no substantial power cuts this winter?

Mr. Foot

The hon. Gentleman should put particular Questions about power cuts to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy. The hon. Gentleman knows the arrangements in the House for putting such Questions. I was asked about the incentive scheme and the ballot in the mining industry, and that is the subject I have been dealing with.