HC Deb 14 November 1977 vol 939 cc2-6
2. Mr. Hal Miller

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what increases in production and productivity have been achieved over the last three years in the coal mines since the signing of the tripartite agreement in 1974.

3. Mr. Warren

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he last discussed coal production problems with the Chairman of the National Coal Board.

The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

Overall production and productivity in the coal mines has not increased over the past three years. I have discussed this and other problems with the Chairman and Board members of the NCB and the mining unions on many occasions.

Mr. Miller

What responsibility does the Secretary of State accept following the Government's signature of the tripartite agreement? In particular, can he tell the House why he failed to give support to the productivity deal in the coal industry?

Mr. Benn

Perhaps I could give the House some other figures. According to the German coal producers' figures published earlier this year, output per man-shift in hundredweights is 67 in Britain, 55 in France and 50 in Belgium. The operating subsidies paid per ton of coal produced are 83p in the United Kingdom, £3.73 in Germany, £22.22 in France and £36.64 in Belgium.

The answer to productivity in the mining industry must rest with those who work in the industry. As chairman of the tripartite committee which produced the Plan for Coal, I gave my support for the scheme which was agreed by the Coal Board and the NUM.

Mr. Warren

Accepting the Secretary of State's declaration that he was responsible, may I ask him to bear in mind that absenteeism is a major factor in declining coal production? Will he have an immediate meeing with the Chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss with him the bizarre situation which has arisen from correspondence I have had with the Chairman of the Coal Board, and also with Mr. Arthur Scargill, in which it has been declared that the miners from Yorkshire picketing at Grunwick have been paid by the union to be absent from the coalface?

Mr. Benn

My own view is that Members of Parliament or Ministers telling those in the mining industry how to produce coal is not effective. I am not prepared to learn any lessons on the handling of the coal industry from the Conservative Party.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend accept and agree that the coal mining industry as an extractive industry, with investment over the years, has possibly reached its optimum? Will he further agree that there will be great problems in trying to increase productivity if there is no further breakthrough on the technological front and that we must, therefore, get accustomed, as most other countries have done, to the fact that productivity is not likely to increase by any great amount, whatever method is used? Will he also bear in mind that there have been other ballots in the mining industry in 1975 and 1976 which upheld the pay policy at that time and that the minority who were against it, such as Arthur Scargill and myself, had to accept that majority vote? Therefore, we expect the rest of the miners and everybody else to accept the majority verdict in this case.

Mr. Benn

As my hon. Friend knows much better than I, there are geological factors which make increased productivity difficult beyond a certain point. The House should also know that face productivity in the first 30 weeks of this year is up on last year and that in the new pits, such as Royston, which my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary visited on Friday, productivity is four times the national average because of retreat mining and new technology. All this underlines the unwisdom of those who are not familiar with or do not work in the mining industry in seeking to read lectures to those who actually work in it.

Mr. Emery

After the discussions with the Chairman of the National Coal Board, is the Secretary of State, as a member of the Cabinet as well as Secretary of State for Energy, able to make clear to the House that the Government are expecting the National Union of Mineworkers to accept only a 10 per cent. increase in pay?

Mr. Benn

The Government's position on this has been made clear time and again, including by myself when I visited a pit in Lancashire on Friday. The truth is that the disappointment felt by the hon. Gentleman and others of his right hon. and hon. Friends is due to the fact that there has not been a conflict or confrontation between the Government and the mining industry. That is the point that the hon. Gentleman has at the back of his mind. If I were to identify the policy of the Conservative Party, I think it might be properly called "In search of strife".

Mr. Emery

Is it 10 per cent., or more?

Mr. Kelley

Will my right hon. Friend consider with the Chairman of the National Coal Board the question of increasing productivity by a productivity bonus scheme? I remind my right hon. Friend of the millions of tons lost to the British industry prior to the power-loading agreement as a result of the failure of the people at the point of production and the local underground officials to agree on geological and mechanical failures which interrupted production at the coalface.

Mr. Benn

My hon. Friend knows that there is a long history in the mining industry, and no doubt that long history played some part in the recent ballot. But he will also know that Joe Gormley, Lawrence Daly and Mick McGahey issued a statement recently, which I strongly support, calling for an increase in production in line with the undertakings reached in the tripartite agreement.

Mr. Tom King

Does the Secretary of State appreciate that we regard his answers to the questions of my hon. Friends as pathetic as his general contribution throughout the period of the ballot on productivity? So long as he continues to have responsibility for his present office, will he recognise that his position as chairman of the tripartite committee places on him certain responsibilities which he cannot wave away in the way in which he has sought to do in the House? Will he use that position to try to do all he can still to achieve some element of productivity, which is recognised widely in the industry as being still possible?

Mr. Benn

The hon. Gentleman made a speech recently in which he threatened to review the capital investment programme of the mining industry. Nothing could be more likely to worsen relations within that industry than to suggest that this country could do other than rely upon coal. Since I read in the newspapers that the hon. Gentleman now has a public relations firm advising him, I suggest that he sacks it.

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