HC Deb 25 March 1976 vol 908 cc717-44

8.2 p.m.

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

I beg to move, That the Coal Industry (Redundancy Payments Schemes) (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Unless there is any objection, with this Order the House may discuss the other motions relating to the coal industry, as follows: That the Coking Coal Grants (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved. That the National Coal Board (Pit Closures Grants) (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved. That the National Coal Board (Stocking Grants) (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved. That the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.

Mr. Eadie

A total of five Orders, all connected with the coal industry, have been laid before the House for approval. Of these three are concerned with the benefits paid to reundant mineworkers. The other two relate to grants, in connection with coal and coke stocks and the production and supply of coking coal.

Although we all sincerely believe that the sort of colliery closure programmes we saw in the late 1960s and early 1970s have gone for ever, mining is an extractive industry, its working medium is constantly changing, and from time to time pits will inevitably have to close because reserves have become exhausted or grossly uneconomic. Where possible the men displaced from the closing pits are found work in continuing ones, but, unfortunately, this cannot always cover all the men, and some have to be made redundant—and miners made redundant in this way will continue to have special problems. Many of them live in isolated colliery villages where alternative employment is just not available. The older ones find it difficult to adapt to other work or, after a lifetime of work in a harsh environment, may be sick or maimed.

The Government have therefore thought it right to continue for a further period the arrangements which have been in existence since the middle 1960s for paying benefit to men who find themselves in these unfortunate circumstances.

One of the Orders for the consideration of the House is the National Coal Board (Pit Closures Grants) (Extension) Order 1976. Under the Coal Industry Act 1965, as amended by subsequent legislation, the Government are empowered to make grants to the National Coal Board with the object of accelerating the re-deployment of the manpower resources of the Board". The grants are in respect of certain items of what the Act calls "relevant expenditure ". These are defined in the Act, and the main ones are: payments by the Board under the Redundancy Payments Act; payments in respect of loss of employment prospects and the cost of early retirement for those redundants who are members of the Board's staff superannuation scheme; payment of removal and resettlement expenses and travelling allowances for men who are redeployed within the industry; and supplementation of earnings of men re-employed in a lower-paid job.

The average cost to the Board of these payments is about £21 million a year and the Government pay a grant of half this—about £10.5 million. Some of these payments also attract grants from the European Coal and Steel Community, totalling about £2 million a year.

The 1973 Act empowered the Government to make payments up to the financial year 1975–76, with a limit of £60 million. It also gave the Secretary of State power, by Order, to extend the period of operation up to and including the financial year 1977–78. It is this extension of the powers to make payments up to March 1978 which the Government are seeking in asking the House to approve the National Coal Board (Pit Closures Grants) (Extension) Order 1976. If the Order is made a revised ceiling of £100 million automatically applies for the five financial years 1973–74 to 1977–78.

I understand that the Select Committee on Statutory Instruments criticised the absence of any mention of the revised financial limits in these Orders or the Explanatory Notes. I apologise to the House for this omission. It was certainly my intention to explain the new limits, as I have just done. They follow automatically from the extension of time and it is all set out in the relevant sections of the 1973 Act. However, we shall certainly bear the Select Committee's point in mind in any future Orders.

I turn now to the Coal Industry (Redundancy Payments Schemes) (Extension) Order 1976. This has its origins in the Coal Industry Act 1967, which empowered the Secretary of State to make schemes under which he would make payments to men redundant at a mine or certain other prescribed places such as workshops or coal preparation plants. Subsequent Acts have extended the duration of this power. Most recently, the Coal Industry Act 1973 extended it to 28th March 1976, and provided that a further extension to 26th March 1978 could be made by order. In that case there would be a revised ceiling of £100 million for the five financial years 1973–74 to 1977–78. The present limit is £60 million. It is this extension that we are seeking the agreement of the House to by approving the Coal Industry (Redundancy Payments Schemes) (Extension) Order 1976.

The next Order concerns the Redundancy Payment Schemes, which can be made under the Order that I have just described. A scheme was originally established under the Redundant Mine-workers Payments Scheme Order of 1968. This has been amended and extended from time to time, and a major revision was carried out in 1973.

The main features of the Scheme are, first, in the case of men redundant at 55 or over, to supplement the man's income from other State benefits so as to make it up to 90 per cent. of his previous net pay for three years, and thereafter, until he reaches the age of 65, to pay him a sum equal to the current rate of unemployment benefit plus his normal mine-workers pension paid prematurely; secondly, in the case of men redundant between age 35 and 55, to pay a lump sum depending on each man's length of service; thirdly, to extend, at Government expense, the National Coal Board's concessionary coal arrangements to men redundant at 55 or over.

So far 69,000 men have benefited from the Scheme, at a total cost of some £70 million. The current cost is running at about £18 million annually. The Scheme attracts a grant of about £2 million annually from the European Coal and Steel Community.

The existing Scheme covers only men made redundant up to 28th March 1976. The next Order before the House—the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1976—extends the 1973 Order so as to include men made redundant up to, but not including, 26th March 1978. It also makes some technical amendments in the definitions and provides a new table of benefit. The rates of benefit set out in Appendix 4 in the 1973 Order are calculated by deducting the rate of unemployment benefit from the figures which represent 90 per cent, of net pay. These rates therefore have to be adjusted whenever the level of unemployment benefit changes, and this is what we are doing in the new table in the Schedule to the Order now under discussion.

I therefore ask the approval of the House to the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1976. I emphasise that this amending Order makes absolutely no changes in the benefits under the 1973 Order, except for this necessary adjustment of basic benefit.

The remaining two Orders extend existing powers which were provided under the Coal Industry Act 1973 for the Government to provide assistance to the coal industry. The first is with the National Coal Board (Stocking Grants) (Extension) Order. Coal production cannot be turned on and off like a tap, and when consumption is not sufficient to absorb current production coal has to be put to stock. This process costs money. Section 7 of the 1973 Act empowered the Secretary of State to make grants to the National Coal Board towards costs incurred in the financial years 1973–74 to 1975–76 in stocking coal or coke. These consist of the interest on additional borrowings needed to finance the stocks of coal or coke, the site costs—preparation, rent, where necessary, and so on—and the costs of handling the coal into and out of stock.

Originally, this power to pay grants related only to stocks actually owned by the Board. But it also delivers stocks to major customers on deferred payment, and in these cases, though ownership of the stocks passes to the customers, the Board nevertheless has to cover the cost of financing the stocks until payment is made. It is sensible for the Board to keep stocks moving from the pithead and for the coal to be stocked with its final consumers, and it is equally sensible that there should be power to assist the Board to meet the costs it incurs in financing these stocks.

The National Coal Board (Finance) Act, which recently received Royal Assent, widened the Secretary of State's power to pay grant so as to include coal stocked with the Central Electricity Board, the South of Scotland Electricity Board and the British Steel Corporation under these deferred payment arrangements.

The National Coal Board (Stocking Grants) (Extension) Order, now in draft before the House, is made under Section 7 of the 1973 Act, and its purpose is to extend these powers in relation to the stocking of coal for a further two years— that is, to March 1978. The limit of grants payable will automatically increase from £40 million to £70 million. So far, £4.9 million has been paid to the Board for these purposes.

The second Order relating to assistance to the coal industry is the Coking Coal Grants (Extension) Order. This relates to Section 8 of the 1973 Act, which empowered the Secretary of State to make grants to the National Coal Board or any other producer of coking coal used to make coke for the blast furnaces of the iron and steel industry. Coking coal is generally likely to be in short supply in the whole of the free world over the foreseeable future. We are fortunately able to produce most of our own requirements, and though some of it comes from high-cost pits we need to make sure that capacity is maintained.

The existing powers in Section 8 of the 1973 Act to support production of coking coal cover us only to the end of the current financial year, so this Order will extend them over the financial years 1976–77 and 1977–78. Under the terms of Section 8 the limit for such grants is automatically increased from £45 million to £75 million. To date, £22.1 million has been paid to the Board under this heading.

In the Coal Industry Examination the Government undertook to be ready to provide short-term assistance to the industry, especially in those cases where a product may be essential in the national interest. Both of these Orders will preserve the necessary flexibility for the Government to assist the industry in its operations in a national and European context.

I stress that in the case of both Orders what is at issue is an enabling permissive power. As the House will understand, commitment to actual expenditure is taken only with the approval of the Treasury and after the Board's financial position, the state of the market, and all the other necessary factors have been taken into full account.

It is with full confidence in the essential nature of the measures I have outlined that I ask the House to give its approval to these five Orders.

8.8 p.m.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

As the Minister explained, these Orders flow from the 1973 Conservative legislation on the coal industry. Although they are extension Orders, it is right that we should examine some of the points the Minister made and seek to clear up some of the points that have not been made.

This debate takes place against a background this week of much news about the coal industry. We have had an unseemly situation of a new search being made in public for a Chairman of the National Coal Board, an unfortunate and humiliating state of affairs for us all to see. I hope that the day will come when chairmen of nationalised industries are treated not like Ministers' office boys but with the dignity one hopes they will be able to enjoy to enable them to undertake their job properly.

Today we have seen publication of the agenda for the National Union of Mine-workers' annual conference in the Isle of Man in July. Many of the matters we are now discussing will be discussed later in the year. Early retirement, the effect on the costs of the Board, and redundancy are on the agenda. That conference, which asks for higher wages for miners, will be a conference of great significance to the industry.

I wish to comment briefly on a number of points made. I do not want to go over all the old ground because the Minister has been fair in his explanation of the situation. I wish to take first the National Coal Board (Pit Closures Grants) (Extension) Order, which in a sense is central to all the Orders laid before us. The fact is that in the 1965 Act powers were given with the object of accelerating redeployment of manpower resources of the Board and the elimination of uneconomic colliery capacity. I am advised that in 1973–74 £12.7 million was spent under this provision, that in 1974–75 £13.8 million was spent, and that approximately £14 million is the likely outturn for 1976.

It is well known and often stated that the NUM resists the closure of pits when proposed on purely economic grounds. But, with the arrival in the near future of major new coal-bearing areas—I am thinking of the Selby field and other finds which are being discovered—what is the general policy on closures? Will the figure of £14 million for 1976 jump substantially when these new coal-bearing areas come into production?

What criteria will be used to determine which pits should be closed? After all, it is within our recollection that a few weeks ago there was justifiable worry and concern over the closure of Langwith colliery. Will the Minister reiterate what the criteria are or are likely to be for closures in future? Will he indicate whether the policy in the industry is to base future coal production only on these major new finds or to keep in being, as one might guess should be the case, some of the pits which are marginal in performance?

I turn now to the Coal Industry (Redundancy Payments Schemes) (Extension) Order and that part of the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order which deals with redundancy. The Under-Secretary has given the figure of £21 million as the cost of the scheme. Is it possible for him to give any indication of the numbers who are likely to be declared redundant—I have already referred to the point regarding early retiring age which is to be discussed at the NUM conference—since a number of people are taking early redundancy? Part of the scheme is designed to adjust the rate of benefit in step with changes in unemployment benefit. We fully understand that. Nevertheless, I should like to know—I am sure that everybody else would like to know—what the predicted figures are, whether the figure given by the Under-Secretary is a low figure for the future against the background of the changing pattern of redundancy in the industry, and whether people are taking early redundancy.

The second part of the last Order deals with concessionary coal. The hon. Gentleman touched on that matter. This might be described by some as a small matter, but it presents an extremely confused picture. We know that concessionary coal agreements are local agreements. There is no national agreement. The present scheme costs about £33 million. I am not querying or quarrelling with that figure. If we divide it among the 245,000 or 246,000 people in the industry who are entitled to enjoy this benefit, it works out at about £2.50 per person. But we want a few answers about the way in which this concession is granted.

The Under-Secretary knows that, with the spread of smokeless zones—smoke-controlled areas—there are situations in which it is not possible to burn coal, and the obvious alternative is a smokeless fuel. There are also situations— regrettably, this is a point to which I shall have to return later regarding stocks—in which there is no opportunity of burning anything in a grate, because there are no flues in the buildings concerned.

We are getting towards a situation in which, as I see it, there will be three levels of recipients of concessionary benefit. There will be those who take the coal, those who take the Sunbrite, and those who take the allowance in lieu of either of those products because they have some other form of heating. If the payment is in cash, presumably no tax is paid. If, on the other hand, it is paid in some other way, tax is levied on the concession.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

It is the other way round.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

My hon. Friend corrects me. It is the other way round.

I wonder whether this concession now needs looking at afresh with a view to considering whether we may get some national agreement on what is, after all, one of the perks of the industry. I am not quarrelling about perks in industry. Many industries have perks. However, it is important to have a scheme which is seen to be fair to all who are likely to be recipients, whether working for it or as dependants.

Mr. Fred Evans (Caerphilly)

I think that there is a fourth category—widows —who cannot translate bituminous coal into smokeless fuel and cannot draw payment in lieu. They have to take coal which is unsuitable for modern fireplaces.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

That is an extremely important category. I would add widows to the list of those about whom I should welcome comments from the Under-Secretary.

The changing nature of the way that we can or cannot burn coal leads to the stocking Order. I am advised that by the end of 1977 we shall have stocks of between 25 million tons ard 26 million tons. That will cost about £350 million, which is a great deal of money. It costs about 50p per ton to put coal into stock. Therefore, it is in everybody's interests to get the stocks down as much and as quickly as possible.

I am not suggesting that the stock figures are as horrific as is sometimes made out by those who try to point out that the high level of stocks is destroying morale in the industry. Nevertheless, today perhaps more than ever, when the fall in the international value of sterling has increased our oil import bill by about £250 million a year, the need to use this precious indigenous resource is very strong. Therefore, I should like the Under-Secretary to tell us what plans there are to go back to a reasonable export trade in this product. In the past we had a strong export position of about 13 million tons a year. That sank away to 2 million tons, and is now about 4 million tons.

It never fails to sicken me—I make no apology for repeating this—that 30 per cent. of all coal imported by the EEC comes from Iron Curtain countries. With the United Kingdom as a member of the EEC, it is not good enough. I know that the Under-Secretary is doing his best in this area, but I should be interested to know about his situation report on our export programme.

The domestic market is comparatively small. I still have a living fire in my house and I enjoy it very much.

Mr. Adam Hunter (Dunfermline)

Hear, hear.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support.

Regrettably, houses now built by local authorities do not have flues. Therefore, it is impossible for the domestic market to grow in many areas. I wonder what success the Under-Secretary is having in persuading his right hon. Friends in the Department of the Environment and elsewhere to ensure that houses are built with flues so that we can use coal, the solid hydrocarbon, in our homes and not be dependent upon gas, with all the problems which revolve round its current price, or oil, which is still largely imported. The hon. Gentleman knows, because I have spoken to him about it, that some of my constituents who live in local authority-owned properties have been horrified at having to be converted from solid fuel to gas. If we want to get that market up we have to take another look at the regulations concerning council housing.

Not all stocks attract Government grants and, as the Minister pointed out, the figures are mercifully not very high. I believe I am correct in saying that only stocks above 10 million tons attract Government money. Nevertheless, the Order we are passing here this evening is worth another £3 million to add to the other figures I have given. The Under-Secretary has told us the story about coking coal, and provided we continue, as we seem likely to do, with the blast furnace for making iron, we shall need that support. But this group of Orders taken together add up to more than £100 million.

I am the first—and I have always been consistent in this—to want to see a modern and efficient coal industry. I have backed it ever since I came into this House and I intend to go on doing so. But the fact also remains that there are taxpayers who wonder occasionally whether we do not spend rather too much time concerning ourselves with those employed in the industry and not enough on those who are customers of the industry. That is a complaint which all hon. Members have heard and it is one which we have to meet head on.

Up to 1973 the coal industry in this country struggled, not suprisingly unsuccessfully, to compete with cheap oil from the Middle East. No coal miner in Britain could dig coal cheaper than oil coming from the ground at 15 cents. a barrel. After 1973 the coal industry has still kept a relationship with the oil business, but a different relationship. Now it is a question of watching the OPEC price and tailoring the coal industry to what that price does. I suggest that that could be a dangerous course to follow for too long and that we must soon be coming to the point where the industry must be prepared to strike out on its own and to realise that there are big markets, whether they be in continental Europe or anywhere else, for the product at the right price.

I do not suggest going back to the kind of coal industry which led to so many of the terrible stories with which one is familiar, but I am saying that this industry should stop limping along behind OPEC and should be prepared to stand on its own feet, and, if it can, to get its costs down and thereby to increase its market. Therefore, if these Orders help the industry to set this pace, I can assure the Minister that we on this side of the House will not oppose them.

8.24 p.m.

Mr. Eric Ogden (Liverpool, West Derby)

The House will know most of those hon. Members in the industry who have taken part in coal debates and will know of their particular interest. I gather that even though there is a Register in effect, it is still necessary to declare one's interest. I do so right away, as others have done before, and speak as a member of the National Union of Mine-workers.

I support all five of the Orders but I propose to comment on only two. First, on the Order concerning concessionary coal, I never really appreciated the 10 cwt. of coal that used to come into my house every month for 12 years until after I had come to this House. Now, when I pay £12.60 for 5 cwt, of anthracite stovesse nuts—and I will not mention the name of the supplier—I appreciate more and more the concessionary coal which I used to receive. This is a very valuable part of being a member of the coal industry.

I would ask my hon. Friend some questions on the Stocking Grants Order. It is certainly necessary and desirable that there should be adequate stocks of coal. This is an industrial insurance policy. Moving coal and stocking coal can be a very expensive business. I wonder whether in the Department any calculations have been made or any alternative suggestions are being considered, and whether it might be much cheaper for the taxpayer and the fuel industries—coal, electricity and gas—if we were to persuade the Central Electricity Generating Board to burn more coal and to stock more oil. I would think it simpler to stock oil and less costly than stocking coal.

I am not suggesting that that can be done in every part of the United Kingdom, but if those calculations were to be made as a cost benefit analysis—a horrible phrase—they might bring some interesting results which would save the taxpayer money and would save the Electricity Board and the National Coal Board very large sums of money, for, as the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) pointed out, very large sums indeed are involved.

The hon. Member also said that perhaps there is a danger that we are giving too much attention to the employees in the industry—the workers—and too little attention to the customers. There may be a very, very slight danger of that, but he will know that this is an historical industry. Coal cannot be separated from its past, and certainly the history of the coal mining industry, the fact that too much attention for 250 years was given to the customers and almost none to the workers, is something which we have to bear in mind at all times.

I agree with him that uncertainty about the present Chairman of the National Coal Board is unnecessary and undesirable and that this is something which ought to be cleared up. In the Press reports, the headlines were very different from their content. This may be an example of some parts of a Department or some parts of an industry "flying a kite". If this is so, the kite ought to be shot down in flames very quickly.

Some of my hon. Friends and I on this side of the House have been trying to do just that, and I suggested to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House this afternoon that it would be appreciated if our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy would come to the House at some time next week—he may not be quite as busy next week as he has been this week, or may be he will be even busier—to make a statement about the future of the Chairman of the industry. In my view, and that of other hon. Members—though I must make it clear that I do not speak for the group and have no mandate to do so; I am giving a personal opinion—there is absolutely no reason why the Chairman of the National Coal Board, who has done a great deal for the national interest and for the workers' interest, should not be offered another term as soon as possible. Let us get that out of the way so that detailed and general negotiations can take place among people inside the industry who know and trust each other.

Finally, I would put this series of Orders in the context of the series of Orders which came to the House last night and again today. It seems that at last there is some kind of change in Government policy which I personally welcome. For many years, under Governments of both parties, most aid for industry has been given almost on a geographical basis, depending on whether an industry was north or south of the border, in or out of an intermediate area, for example. That was a very broad band and an expensive way of dispensing taxpayer's money.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell and Wishaw (Dr. Bray) said last night, when we discussed the financial assistance to be given to the BP acetic acid plant on Humberside, that if this had been done by means of a broad tax concession, the £10 million aid would have cost the Exchequer £75 million. We should also bear in mind in this context the financial aid to be given to the Felixstowe docks. Some hon. Members may disagree with this but we now seem, I think with their agreement, to be selecting industries for this assistance rather than random geographical areas. Sometimes we back winners and sometimes we back concerns which are not quite winners—yet. If these Orders and the proposals for the BP plant and for Felixstowe mean that aid will go to specific industries, I welcome that change. Certainly no industry deserves more Government support than the coal industry, the base for our essential future requirements for fuel and energy.

8.30 p.m.

Mr. Ivan Lawrence (Burton)

Before I give my approval to these Orders, I want to raise a matter that puzzles me. I have no interest to declare except that of being a taxpayer. I am puzzled about the provisions for concessionary coal.

Over the coming months, and, I guess, over the coming years, the utter absurdity of many of the implications of the Sex Discrimination Act which we have so recently passed will become even more manifest than they are already. Some have already been raised several times. One absurdity has appeared in connection with concessionary coal. My hon. Friend the Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) said that three levels of people receive the concessionary allowance—the ordinary coal concessionees, the Sunbright concessionees, and those who have money in lieu of the allowance. The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) added a fourth category—that of the widow. There is in fact a fifth.

Mr. Adam Hunter

The concession to widows does not apply in every part of the United Kingdom. It does in Scotland, but I understand that they get no concession in some parts of England.

Mr. Lawrence

Widows are a subcategory, if not a full category. I do not wish to join in any argument among Labour Members. I am happy to accept widows as a fourth category for the purposes of the argument.

There is a fifth category. I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest was coming to it when he spoke about the stocking Order, but I then discovered that that meant something else.

The category I refer to is that of women. I shall not go into the historical reasons for giving concessionary coal to face workers; I assume that there are good reasons. I assume that there were good reasons for giving it to mineworkers who no longer worked on the coal face. I even assume that there were good reasons for giving it to people other than mineworkers who no longer worked on the face.

I shall no doubt be corrected, if I am wrong, by those more knowledgeable than, I concede, I am of these matters, but I do not believe that there was ever any pressure welling up from the mining industry for the concession to be extended to women workers, such as secretaries, shorthand typists, filing clerks, canteen workers and "Mrs. Mopps". I do not believe that these ladies were forcing such a concession out of the coal industry.

Of course I have great admiration for the work that all these necessary people do and I have every wish that they should be paid a fit and proper wage, but should they be getting concessionary coal?

Mr. Fred Evans

Surely the hon. Gentleman realises that part of the strength of the NUM is that it regards itself as an indissoluble union of workers in a particular industry and that the categories to whom he has referred are regarded in pay settlements and at all other times as an integral part of the industry, eligible for settlements across the board. It is when one of these women is a householder in her own right that she becomes entitled to concessionary coal.

Mr. Lawrence

I yield to no man in my admiration for the National Union of Mineworkers and the great cohesive force it has been in British industry over the years, and particularly the respect it has had for the women who work in the industry. But why is it that it has just at this particular moment awakened to the necessity to provide these women workers, for whom it has so much respect, with concessionary coal? Over the past 10, 20, 100 or 200 years these women have been an integral part of the industry and yet have not received concessionary coal.

I know the answer, in case hon. Gentlemen should think that was anything but a rhetorical question. It is the Sex Discrimination Act. But at a time when the nationalised industries—and I wear my hat now as a taxpayer—are losing a fortune, at a time when the less well off and particularly the old-age pensioners are having to pay a savage increase in coal prices, can it be sensible to extend this concession of approximately a ton of coal a month or its value to all manner of women employees who neither need it nor expect it? If they need it, why was there not a concession of this kind for them before?

Mr. Ogden

I have a special interest here because my particular sponsors within the National Union of Mineworkers are the colliery officials and the staff association. The pressure for this concession has been going on for 15, 20 or 30 years. In some areas it was granted, because these are local agreements. The concessions do not go to every woman employee of the National Coal Board; they are still restricted. But surely almost every industry or profession has some perks, whether it be travel remuneration or advantages of another kind, for those who work in the industry, regardless of sex.

The Sex Discrimination Act helped, but it is not fair to suggest that a woman householder who works for the National Coal Board and now receives not a ton of coal, but perhaps 10 cwt., is getting that advantage at the expense of a pensioner. That spoils the hon. Gentleman's own case.

Mr. Lawrence

I have no wish to spoil my case and I accept what the hon. Gentleman tells me, that there was pressure, but I wonder how strong it was. I wonder also how, with the great humanitarian cohesiveness of the National Union of Mineworkers nationally, that pressure managed to be resisted until the very moment that we, in a moment of blindness or at any rate lack of foresight, introduced the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act. It seems fortuitous, an astonishing coincidence, to my simple mind, that this pressure should have come to the surface at the very moment that we passed that rather remarkable piece of legislation.

Will the Minister be good enough to confirm that the Order has now gone out from the National Coal Board to give this concession to all women employees who are householders? Can the Under- Secretary confirm that this concession is likely to apply to at least 800 women employees, and that at a cost of nearly £30 per ton——

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Myer Galpern)

There is some difficulty for the Chair here. The hon. Member is dealing with some existing practices. Could he help me by relating what he is saying to Article 3 of the Order which deals with redundant mineworkers, not with people who are remaining in employment?

Mr. Lawrence

I will certainly try to assist you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As I read it, Article 3(iii)(c) of the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1976 deals with the position of coal industry employees in connection with concessionary coal, and that is the very matter that I am raising.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

We are dealing with the Coal Industry (Redundancy Payments Schemes) Order. We are not dealing with existing practices.

Mr. Lawrence

If you are having difficulty, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in grasping the way in which I relate——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

There is no difficulty in my mind. I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman has some difficulty.

Mr. Lawrence

Not really, Mr. Deputy Speaker, because I was about to ask the Minister whether he could say what effect Article 3(iii)(c) will have upon the granting of concessionary coal to women in the industry, according to the direction of the Chairman of the National Coal Board.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

If they become redundant.

Mr. Lawrence

I am grateful, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Can the Minister confirm that, at a cost of nearly £30 a ton—that was the figure I understood, but the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) has opened my eyes to the fact that in his part of the world the price of coal approaches £50 a ton—this will cost the National Coal Board, and ultimately the taxpayer, more than £360 a year per woman employee, which approaches £250,000 at today's prices—and nearer £500,000 the price of nearly £50 a ton which the hon. Member for West Derby is paying?

Will not the Under-Secretary admit that the concession, especially at this time, is a complete and absurd nonsense?

8.42 p.m.

Mr. Adam Hunter (Dunfermline)

I should like to speak about concessionary coal for people receiving redundancy payments. Under previous Orders of some years ago, certain people who became redundant before they were 60 received 90 per cent. of their net income and concessionary coal for three years, but when their period of redundancy ended they received no more coal. That was a severe hardship. I know one man who, after working 46 years in the pit, took redundancy pay just a few months before he became 60. His redundancy payments ended when he was 63, and since then he has had no concessionary coal. That is a serious anomaly. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do something about it.

8.43 p.m.

Mr. Fred Evans (Caerphilly)

If one must bear in mind the Register of Members' Interests, I suppose that I should say that I am the son of a silicotic miner.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) for his very fair speech and the humanity that he obviously feels towards this great industry. However much our business interests may want the industry to be sharp and wide-awake, we should not give it a microscopic examination and pick out tiny points. Aneurin Bevan once said that this island is made of the substance extracted by the industry. Through it we have the means to supply ourselves with energy in a world that will be increasingly starved of it, despite our oil reserves and those of the OPEC countries, which are finite.

In the coal industry, we have a source of energy which is almost infinite compared with these other resources. If used intelligently, it could bridge the gap and fill our energy needs until we get nuclear power. It could bypass many of the costs and balance of payments burdens that we now have to bear by importing oil.

I pay tribute to this great industry. We have agreed in the past that it is a special industry which needs special treatment. It is important for the community.

There is a special human element in mining. Any form of mining is incomparably the most dangerous and arduous of all occupations. It carries the hazards of earth movements and explosions, which have so scarred mining history, and there is the continual problem of health hazards. In considering wage claims and other aspects of the industry, these dangers and hazards should always be borne in mind.

Reference has been made to the fact that the next NUM conference will consider a reduction in the retirement age of men in this arduous industry, but many other workers are looking at this idea as a possible way of reducing unemployment in their industries. For instance, teachers will be discussing a reduction in the retirement age, together with generous retirement provisions of a lump sum payment and pension. They would be retiring at an age when they could be retrained or take up other occupations using the skills they exercised in the classroom.

Most miners live in isolated areas and, adaptable though they are, there are not many opportunities for retraining or the redeployment of their skills.

It is a little niggling to look at the expenditure of the mining industry under a microscope, though I do not, of course, suggest that it should be allowed to run wild. We want to make the industry cost-conscious and competitive.

The Chairman of the NCB and I have crossed swords over a number of issues, but he has the well-being of the industry very much at heart and is well aware of the contribution that it can make to our national well-being.

We may argue about various aspects of the mining industry, but there is no doubt about the part it can play, under efficient management, in the general pattern of this country's economy.

The concessionary benefits are a patchwork inheritance from the former private owners of the mining industry. There are extreme variations in the concessions available from district to district and coalfield to coalfield. In my coalfield, if a man dies because of a chest disease, unless his death certificate gives that disease as the primary cause of death, his widow receives no payments and no concessionary coal. In other coalfields, if the industrial disease is merely mentioned on the death certificate the widow and the dependants qualify. These are serious anomalies, which the Order is designed to tidy up.

In South Wales the taskmasters were very hard. I should like certain people to come into my coalfield to meet the irate women who, having lost their husbands in the coalfields after nursing them through fatal chest illnesses, receive no recognition other than a piece of paper saying "Well done, thou good and faithful servant. For 50 years in the colliery thou shalt receive nothing."

The nursing of the industry has to be a continuing process. If we exercise care and constraint I am sure that it will nobly see us through some difficult times in the next decade. The hon. Member for New Forest wishes it to be an exporting industry. So do we all, and that can be so. The great day of the industry will be when we do not burn coal, and when the new technologies of conversion are given their full head of steam and we become one of the great net exporters of coal.

8.53 p.m.

Mr. John Biffen (Oswestry)

The House has been fortunate in being able to conduct a modest debate on the coal industry under the guise of the draft Statutory Instruments at an appropriate and convenient time. It has been a useful debate. I shall take up certain points made in the commendably brief speech of the hon. Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Hunter), who reminded us, in respect of the draft Statutory Instrument on concessionary coal, that this is an almost inchoate benefit that is conferred upon those who work in the industry. There is no unity of treatment, and there is a good deal of mild resentment at the partiality of its application.

My first question to the Under-Secretary of State, which derives from the speech made by the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans), is whether the draft Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order seeks to rectify the anomalies to which reference has been made and whether, as a result, there will be a more uniform treatment in respect of concessionary coal in the industry. I tend to err on the side of those who prefer payments in cash to payments in kind, not merely in the coal industry but across the whole spectrum of employment.

Our minds are focused on the concessionary coal issue, and the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) has some bearing on this. If, as a result of the Sex Discrimination Act, a number of people become beneficiaries who otherwise would not have expected to be beneficiaries, the sense of injustice and partiality will not be alleviated. The reverse of that will happen. My hon. Friend should be congratulated on making that point because it is relevant to the application of the Statutory Instrument.

What kind of worker is defined for the purposes of the application of the Statutory Instrument? What, for example, would happen in the case of a typist who was a householder and was declared redundant? Would she be deemed to be a mineworker under the Statutory Instrument? It is legitimate to ask that question, although it may seem a minuscule issue to raise in the calm atmosphere of the debating chamber. But in a mining community these issues might give rise to a resentment and a sense of the ridiculous.

We welcome the courtesy of the Under-Secretary in apologising for the financial omissions in the draft Statutory Instrument. Doubtless he made his apology as a result of the kindly strictures made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Page), to whom the House is indebted for his chairmanship of the Committee. The omission is one of some substance. One does not have to be a Victorian workhouse master to have a regard for this sum of money, because it will have an impact on public spending of about £100 million.

I shall speak briefly about the Statutory Instrument on coal stocking support. I am anxious about that, and I think that anxiety is widely felt in the House. It derives from the stocking situation, not only in this country but in those countries which have been suggested as natural export markets. Mention has been made of the disposition of the Germans to take imports from Eastern Europe. The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) has campaigned on the issue. I find the suggestion disturbing, because the Germans expect to have coal stocks amounting to about 28 million tons by the end of this year. That suggests that there may be a very serious problem affecting many of the major coal producers in Western Europe concerning coal stocks, and the news today that the Indians have a major stocking problem is a reminder that it is not merely a European problem. It implies considerable financial obligations on the taxpayer, whether they be borne through the Central Electricity Generating Board or through any other agency. I felt that the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) made that point very well.

I think that we ought to use this short debate to ask the Under-Secretary what his own expectations are about the use that will be made of the draft Statutory Instrument on stocking grants, and what he thinks are likely to be the trends in the levels of consumption and output and, consequently, of stocks.

The hon. Member for Caerphilly very properly gave us a little tour d'horizon of the coal industry. He did it with great skill, Mr. Deputy Speaker, under your eagle eye, within the necessary restrictions of these draft Statutory Instruments. He said that we must keep this industry competitive and cost-conscious. I am sure that that is so. Even if some additional headroom has been provided for the industry by recent exchange rate movements and their impact upon oil prices, the only sure foundation for a prosperous coal industry in this country is for it to remain competitive and cost-conscious.

9.1 p.m.

Mr. Eadie

One of my hon. Friends expressed pleasure at listening to the speech of the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson), and I shall try to respond in the same spirit.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of what he described as the news of the "undignified spectacle" of the search for a new Chairman for the National Coal Board. To an extent, I agree with him, but I hope that he, in turn, will agree with me that the Government are not responsible for speculative articles that appear in the Press. I assure him and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Ogden) that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State hopes to make an announcement very shortly. In view of that, I must ask the House to be patient.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derby declared his interest as a member of the Miners' Parliamentary Group, although he said that he did not speak officially for the group. I too, happen to be a member of the group, and I can confirm that what he said about the appointment of a new Chairman to the NCB is a correct reflection of the Group's views.

The hon. Member for New Forest mentioned the agenda of the National Union of Mineworkcrs. Certain hon. Members get a great deal of pleasure when that agenda is quoted. The NUM is a very important body, and its conference is also important. It has been extremely radical over the years. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is an educative experience to study its agenda. In many ways, it would be no bad thing if other hon. Members could afford the time to go through the agenda——

Mr. Ogden

My hon. Friend should take the hon. Member for New Forest (Mr. McNair-Wilson) to the conference.

Mr. Eadie

Subject to my ministerial responsibilities, I hope to be able to manage a couple of days there myself.

The hon. Gentleman asked about pit closure policy, and whether I thought that the figures would jump substantially. At the moment I have no indication that they will. Pit closure is a matter for the National Coal Board, and indeed, for the National Union of Mineworkers. There is a procedural arrangement which has existed for a considerable time. It has worked reasonably well. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman any more information on that. It ties in to some extent with the third point, which I was very pleased that he made, concerning the Selby coalfield. He asked about the implications of the development of the Selby coalfield for coal production in the United Kingdom or, for that matter, the whole policy of Plan for Coal.

We are still awaiting approval from the Department of the Environment on the Selby coalfield, but it does not have any implication in relation to the production of coal in the rest of the British coalfield.

The hon. Gentleman has heard me say before—particularly since I had been in the Department—that I have always rejected the peripheral coalfield philosophy. When we have a natural resource such as coal the Government seek to exploit it in the best interests of the nation. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. Evans) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Hunter) also bitterly resent the peripheral coalfield philosophy.

Mr. T. W. Urwin (Houghton-le-Spring)

While my hon. Friend is on the subject of peripheral coalfields, will he agree with me that the 550 million tons of coking coal reserves under the sea off the North-East Coast constitute a peripheral coalfield of great magnitude? Would my hon. Friend care to extend the argument which he and I had a few weeks ago in an Adjournment debate, about the serious implications of National Coal Board policy concerning exploration for the eventual development and production of a very large part of that quantity of coal, the problems encountered in the recent past, and the contribution that coal can make to the nation's tremendous problems with coking coal reserves?

Mr. Eadie

Had I noticed that my hon. Friend was present behind me during the debate, I might well have suggested that he would also resent the peripheral coalfield argument. I am sure that what I say will have my hon. Friend's endorsement as well. His intervention has underlined it. The vast quantities of coking coal are an asset to the nation. I endorse my hon. Friend's remarks on that point. No nation can hope to become great industrially unless it has adequate reserves of coal, and particularly coking coal, because the steel industry is of paramount importance in an industrialised country.

As to redundancy, and whether it will increase, I have some very interesting figures and I shall probably write to the hon. Member for New Forest. There is a new trend in the manpower figures, particularly in regard to the younger age groups. It gives us great heart and encouragement to find that there is a change in balance in the age of our manpower in the industry. Although I cannot appear at the Dispatch Box as a prophet, I regard this manpower trend as to some extent very encouraging.

The hon. Member for New Forest mentioned concessionary coal allowances and the problems that arose in smoke-controlled areas. This subject has been widely discussed and debated for a considerable time. The hon. Member said that the scheme needed examining as more and more of these areas came into force. He must appreciate that the agreements vary throughout the different coalfields. To explain their structure and nature would involve a study of the history and development of the mining industry. What the hon. Gentleman said will be borne in mind, and I am sure that there will continue to be pressure, particularly from the unions, on this point. It is a good thing that this sort of subject can be discussed in Parliament and opinions voiced upon it. There are problems in deciding on a figure in lieu of concessionary coal for those whose homes do not burn solid fuel.

The hon. Member mentioned the stocking position and related it to the devaluation of sterling. He made a strong plea for an examination of the export trade and raised the question of third countries being involved over the supply of coal. When we joined the Common Market there was a general agreement on the need to minimise the intrusion of third countries, not only for coal but for other products. There has even been discussion in Europe on whether third countries should have access to Europe. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is an opportunity to increase the United Kingdom's share of this export trade.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the absence of flues from some houses. This is a responsibility of the Department of the Environment, with which we have had discussions on the subject. Local authorities have discretionary powers in this respect, and here again it is a good thing for views to have been expressed in Parliament, not least about an element of choice for the consumer.

The hon. Member said that he wanted an efficient coal industry, and we all endorse that. He mentioned the position of customers and employees and suggested that the industry should strike out on its own. One way to do that would be to devise a thoroughly new approach to the stocking of coal. I regard that as essential.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Derby mentioned the coal stocking position in relation to the electricity boards' approach, and expressed his concern about the matter. We are well seized of this. The National Coal Board has submitted certain proposals to us. That was why I coined the famous phrase—or so I am told—about a coal-fired power station "at a stroke". If we carried out a change from oil and gas to coal, we could quite easily get the equivalent extra coal burn of a new coal-fired power station. However, the matter is under negotiation and consideration. I am sure that all these matters will be considered.

The hon. Member for Burton (Mr. Lawrence) raised the question of women in relation to concessionary coal. I thought that he was amazingly courageous. There will not be many women in Britain who will thank him if they read some of his comments. However, I think we all understood what he meant, although it could be misunderstood. When Parliament passed the Sex Discrimination Act it became the law of the land. The NCB or any other undertaking must observe the law. As I said earlier, the whole question of concessionary coal agreements varies widely throughout the country. For the grade about which the hon. Gentleman was talking, there were already district agreements, under which male clerks, if householders, traditionally benefited. Under the Sex Discrimination Act the NCB was advised that it was compelled to give the concessionary coal similarly to female clerks who were householders, on exactly the same basis as to male clerks.

The hon. Gentleman asked for figures, and so on. In responding to that request, the best thing that I could do would be to write to him giving him the figures and a general explanation why the Sex Discrimination Act had to be operated on this aspect of concessionary coal. To some extent I am obliged to the hon. Gentleman for raising the matter in the House.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, in a very cogent but short speech—as usual—raised the whole question of concessionary coal and the element of retrospection. The hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) also raised this matter. It is very anomalous. I am seized of the points made. Frankly, this matter has always been anomalous. When we were making progress in the mining industry there always had to be a starting date when applying retrospective legislation. However, I must be fair and say that the unions themselves have approached the Government on the whole matter of retrospection and its effects. There are many unfair characteristics and anomalies, such as those mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline, and my hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly.

I have answered as best I can the main points that have been put to me. If there is any matter that I have not dealt with, I shall certainly write to the hon. Member who raised it. I hope that I have not been too long in explaining these necessary Orders. I think that the House will agree that a new future has been opened up for the coal industry in the last year or two and that it must not be prejudiced by short-term fluctuations.

We require a consistent approach from Government, so that the industry can properly chart and pursue its long-term course. This debate has shown that hon. Members on all sides of the House believe that these Orders, which will extend the powers in the respects that I have outlined, will provide an essential part of the framework within which the industry operates. I am grateful for the constructive approach that has been adopted in this debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Coal Industry (Redundancy Payments Schemes) (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.

Resolved, That the Coking Coal Grants (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.ffi [Mr. Eadie.]

Resolved, That the National Coal Board (Pit Closures Grants) (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.—[Mr. Eadie.]

Resolved, That the National Coal Board (Stocking Grants) (Extension) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.—[Mr. Eadie.]

Resolved, That the Redundant Mineworkers and Concessionary Coal (Payments Schemes) (Amendment) Order 1976, a draft of which was laid before this House on 17th March, be approved.—[Mr. Eadie.]