HC Deb 14 November 1977 vol 939 cc12-6
9. Mr. Skinner

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet the National Union of Mineworkers' leaders; and if he will make a statement.

11. Mr. Tim Smith

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next expects to meet representatives of the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers.

31. Mr. Hannam

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next plans to meet the Chairman of the National Coal Board.

32. Mr. Hardy

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he proposes to meet the parties involved in the tripartite consideration of the coal industry.

Mr. Benn

I meet representatives of the unions in the fuel industries and the chairmen and representatives of the fuel industry boards frequently, and shall do so next when the National Energy Commission meets on 28th November.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend tell the leaders of the NUM that the unity of the NUM is paramount at this time and that any attempt to have localised productivity deals can only damage the long-term interests of the miners and will obviously be supported by the Tories, because that is what they have been endeavouring to do for many years? Will he also ask them to take no notice of those in Hobart House, who are not subjected to any productivity deals themselves, but to go along with their present basic claim in order to improve the prospects of the mining industry, thereby improving the chances of getting more people to dig the coal that most people are after?

Mr. Benn

I fully understand what my hon. Friend is saying. It is a matter for the National Union of Mineworkers, and I do not believe that my intervention in this matter would be helpful, necessary or right.

Mr. Smith

Contrary to what has just been said, does the Secretary of State agree that the Nottinghamshire miners would have benefited most from the productivity agreement rejected in the national ballot? What would his view be if the Nottinghamshire miners were to seek a local productivity agreement with the Nottinghamshire area of the NCB?

Mr. Benn

The Conservative Party has been arguing for years about the desirability of balloting workers when matters come up for decision. There has been a ballot, and nobody disputes that it was a ballot in which all the issues were well understood, because it was not even decided on the first ballot. In the circumstances, I think that the House, and particularly the party opposite, had better decide what is its attitude to the decision which has been given. On the one hand, it is not possible to demand ballots and then complain, on the other hand, if the outcome does not conform to that of those who might have taken a contrary view.

Mr. Hannam

When the Secretary of State meets the leaders of both sides of the industry, will he discuss with them the present serious shortage of domestic coal and anthracite? Further, will he accept that his failure to give full support to this productivity deal is a blow for the solution of those particular shortages?

Mr. Benn

I do not for one moment accept the second part of the hon. Gentleman's statement. As to solid fuel stocks, perhaps I may give the House the figures. The stocks now available to the trade are somewhat below what they were last year. On the other hand, the National Coal Board's dispatches of house coal are 300,000 tons up on the comparable period last year, and one-third of the increase in house coal production that I have just described took place in October. Regarding anthracite, where domestic supplies are not available there is a general understanding that the deficiency should be met by imports.

Mr. Hardy

Does my right hon. Friend agree that a new initiative really is required if the long-term danger of division within the coal industry is to be avoided, if coal production is to be enhanced and if markets are to be retained?

Mr. Benn

I agree with my hon. Friend. That was the spirit in which the tripartite agreement was signed in 1974. It was that which led to Mr. Gormley, Mr. Daly and Mr. McGahey making their recent statement. I am the chairman of the tripartite committee, and I think everybody in the industry understands that this problem has to be met. My only doubt is whether Ministers or Members of Parliament are the best people to tell the miners, the mining engineers and mine managers how to dig the coal.

Mr. Tom King

Is the Secretary of State aware that we support strongly the comment just made by the hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Hardy) that a new initiative is needed in which the right hon. Gentleman has a part to play? Does he not accept that continually to tell the House that his intervention would not be helpful makes absolutely pointless his rôle as chairman of the tripartite committee, which agreed that a productivity agreement was essential?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman is becoming silly. Last week he said that I should be dismissed. Now he says that I have a crucial part to play in the future of the industry. The hon. Gentleman had better make up his mind what he wants.

Mr. Tom Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the overwhelming majority of mineworkers in my constituency feel that during recent weeks they have been led astray by false prophets? Is he aware that while they could have been earning £20 to £25 a week more in wages, which with an addition in March next year would have brought them within striking distance of £135 a week, they now face the alternative of either 10 per cent, or a strike, neither of which ideas they find attractive? Could my right hon. Friend, therefore, urge upon the leaders of the NUM to take a second look at this scheme, with a view to presenting more clearly its virtues to the industry?

Mr. Skinner

There speaks the voice of the managers.

Mr. Benn

I understand fully what my hon. Friend says, but I must reply to him by repeating what I said, and firmly believe, that it is best to leave the matter of how the production is to be achieved to the Coal Board and the mining unions—which include the colliery managers, the overmen and deputies—because it is for them to determine how these problems should be solved. But my hon. Friend has fairly reflected the view that was put forward at the time of the ballot, and I know that that is widely understood in the industry.

Mr. Smith

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the right hon. Gentleman's reply, I beg to give notice that I shall seek leave to raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible opportunity.