§ 1.49 a.m.
§ Mr. Tim Renton (Mid-Sussex)
I wish to raise with the Minister the question of assistance to the coal industry, under Class IV, Vote 9 (E1), a Vote for which the Department of Energy is responsible and which has now risen in the current financial year to a little more than £89 million, in contrast to a figure of £64 million in the original programme in the main Supply Estimates printed on 22nd March 1977.
I begin by reminding the House that the Secretary of State for Energy told us at Question Time a little less than 12 hours ago, although it must seem a great deal longer ago to many of us, that our coal industry was more efficient and more cheap than that in any other EEC country. He went on to tell us, and these words were repeated on the Telex 1187 tape later in the afternoon, that the British coal industry had a subsidy of only 50p per tonne of coal produced, and that this figure was a great deal lower than that of any other coal-producing country of the EEC.
I ask the Minister how the Secretary of State arrived at that figure of 50p. The National Coal Board accounts for last year show that in 1976–77 the Board received grants under the Coal Industry Acts of £54.5 million, and it equated that amount with a subsidy of 46p a tonne of coal produced. On that basis, it only requires simple arithmetic to calculate that if the NCB is to receive a total of £89 million this year, assuming a moderate rise in coal production, that figure is the equivalent of a subsidy of nearer 80p a tonne than 50p.
I have often thought that the Secretary of State for Energy was like a first-year economics student. He read his first-year text books with great enthusiasm but, unfortunately, he never moved on to his second-year text books, which often deny the cogent arguments of first-year economics.
That is why the Secretary of State has not learned that nationalisation is not the answer to all our economic ills, as he preaches it. On the other hand, I would have assumed that he was relatively good at simple arithmetic, but it seems that he is making a mistake about the level of subsidy. Doubtless the Minister will answer that point tonight.
We are glad to hear of the current increase in the NCB's productivity. Sir Derek Ezra, the chairman of the NCB, appearing a few weeks ago before the Select Committee on Nationalised Industries—of which I am a member—told us that the production figures are now up to 47 cwt per man overall, which is an improvement on recent months. Also, coal face productivity is up to 170 cwt, higher than ever before. We are all very pleased to hear that, and I would hope that the substantial productivity payment being made to the National Union of Mine-workers would lead to genuine increases in productivity.
One of the comment that Sir Derek made in a public session of the Committee was that overall results for the current year will look reasonably satis- 1188 factory. On that basis I raise the question of the level of financial assistance to the coal industry. If the overall results are looking reasonably satisfactory, one might ask why in both Supplementary Supply Estimates presented to the House in the last two or three months the level of grant to the coal industry has been increased.
Notably, this increase is in one particular item—that described under the benign heading of "Grants towards Operational Expenditure", or more simply "Operational Grants." In the original main Estimates printed in March last year the figure for operational grants was a notional £10. It rose by a multiple of 1,040,000 to £10,400,000. In the most recent Supplementary Estimates it is up from £10.4 million to £18.7 million, from a notional £10 at the beginning of the year. All this has happened in a year which, according to the chairman of the NCB, is going reasonably well for the Board.
I see a problem which is a cloud no bigger than a man's hand on the horizon but which, I fear, may grow into something much more troublesome if the situation is not corrected immediately. Why has the grant for operational expenditure gone up by this extraordinary multiple from £10 to over £18 million in the course of one financial year? The only reason given in the Estimates is that the grant is for the purpose of stockpiling coke.
It is interesting that in the many meetings which the Select Committee had with the British Steel Corporation and with Ministers from the Department of Industry we never heard a word about the cut-back in BSC orders for blast furnace coke. On the other hand, when Sir Derek Ezra gave evidence to the Select Committee on 8th March he made it abundantly plain that the BSC normally takes from the NCB 1 million tons a year of blast furnace coke but that in the current period it had ordered nothing— not even 500,000 tons or 100,000 tons.
Therefore, I must assume that the whole of the £18 million additional grant to the Board is to enable it to stockpile blast furnace coke that the BSC has not taken up in the current year. The reason for that, presumably, is that the BSC is upgrading coking coal in its own coking ovens because, in a period of decline in steel orders, it wishes to put the added 1189 value into coal by the carbonisation process of turning it into metallurgical coke rather than buying any part of the blast furnace coke from the NCB. This is an extraordinary way of staying within one's cash limit, and clearly it is in order to stay within the limit that the BSC has done this.
The NCB is a traditional supplier to the BSC. Sir Derek Ezra made plain to the Select Committee the difficulties in which the NCB found itself as a result of the BSC cutting it off without a single order. Clearly, this is why the BSC stayed within its cash limit. It shows what a blunt instrument the cash limit is. The one compliment that the BSC has been able to pay itself—and this is something to which the chairman of the BSC kept referring at various times in the past year—is that, come what may, it would this year stay within its cash limit of £950 million. But it is clear that British Steel has done this not only by cutting back severely on capital expenditure and eating into the seed corn for future years, but in many ways by running down certain items of current expenditure.
The Corporation has had to continue to pay the wages, but has it postponed payment of debtors? Clearly, it has run down the stocks of a number of its basic raw materials, and in the case of blast furnace coke it has not taken up material with the supplier which in this case the NCB clearly assumed was committed to it. Therefore, the NCB went on producing, even though the British Steel Corporation was not ordering any material from the Board at all. What a strange and absurd means of staying inside one's cash limit.
This leads me to the question of contracts. Were there no long-term contracts between the NCB and the BSC which would have enabled the NCB to insist on the BSC taking at least part of the tonnage it was expecting the BSC to order? Then, what about the location of coking coal plants which the Board kept going? Are they in areas of high unemployment? Perhaps the Minister will tell me when he replies. Is this one reason why the coking plants were kept going by the NCB at a time when there was no demand for its product from the Corporation? Were they, in common with some of the steelworks, in "Callaghan country" and was that why they 1190 were kept in operation despite the shortage of orders?
I should be grateful if the Minister would enlighten us on the subject of EEC assistance to the NCB for this stockpiling exercise. It is true that the European Community is generally short of coking coal and that there are permissions from the EEC for the stockpiling of coking coal and of that same coal in carbonised form as metallurgical coke. What is not clear is the degree to which the Community pays for the stockpiling to take place in respect of stocking aids. What I have been unable to pick up from the NCB accounts or from the Supplementary Estimates is the degree to which money is coming from the EEC for vast stockpiling. There is no reference to such a flow of money in the NCB accounts.
I should be grateful if the Minister could enlighten us whether the Community is paying for part of the stockpiling because it is its wish that this should happen, and, if so, where the money is going. Could it be one of the cases where the Treasury is keeping the money that comes from the EEC while another Department, in this case the Department of Energy, supplies under its Vote the necessary grant to the NCB?
Then there is the question—and this is the most serious of all—of the long-term future of metallurgical coke. Whatever one may think about this substantial increase in grant to the NCB in this one year, obviously the most fundamental point is the degree of structural change that is taking place in the coal industry at the moment as a supplier of metallurgical coke to steel companies. It must be clear that there are a number of things happening in the steel industry that could lead to that industry buying less coke from coal producers in future than in past years.
The first of these things is the overall reduction in the rate of growth in steel production. Secondly, there is the growing use of direct reduction for iron making and the fact that that will require the supply of coal in a form different from that in which it has been supplied in the past. There is also the factor that for some years ahead it seems that Britain will be a much smaller exporter of steel products than in previous years. In consequence, less iron will be made here. The 1191 natural corollary to that is that there is clearly a development towards much more iron being made in overseas countries, which often have their own coking coal deposits as well as iron ore deposits. Australia is a natural and prime example of that.
I ask the Minister whether in his view the imbalance in supply that has taken place in the current year is merely a short-term situation, or whether there is likely to be a long-term excess of supply over demand of metallurgical coke in Britain. I fear that the latter may be true. In that event, how long shall we continue giving stocking aids for coke even if there is no market for it? Stocking may be useful as a temporary measure, but there are difficulties if we face a long-term imbalance, and in the coke industry we see no change taking place in the market.
Can we be sure that no permission will be given to the BSC for it to build new coke ovens when there are old and depreciated coke ovens available at the NCB to supply the BSC with all the coke that it requires? We need to be satisfied that there is proper co-ordination between the two nationalised industries, and from the remarks made by Sir Derek Ezra at the Select Committee three weeks ago I must wonder, in respect of the supply of coke this year, whether there has been that sort of co-ordination.
It will obviously have occurred to the House that if in the original Estimates for this year a figure of only £10 was allowed for as operational grants to the NCB, in February 1977 there could have been hardly any intention to stockpile coke or coal under this heading in the Supply Estimates. Was it not already clear at that time that the steel industry was in a period of acute depression? It was known that the BSC was already forecasting a loss at that time, albeit quite a small one. It would seem that if there were no provisions made for any stocking grants 12 months ago, the NCB had not received the up-to-date information from the BSC that it should have received, and that the NCB may have been in a mood of too great optimism as regards the sales of its metallurgical coke to the BSC in the months immediately ahead.
In summary, it may seem to Ministers—notably to the Secretary of State for 1192 Energy, who is a great spender—that the £18 million that I have been talking about in the form of operational grants to the NCB is not a large sum. It is the sort of sum that the right hon. Gentleman spends before breakfast. However, it is a fact that it is all part of the £3 billion that has been spent by the Government on aid to industry and employment. All of the £3 billion is a direct cost to us as consumers and taxpayers. It is all money that could otherwise have gone to reduce taxation.
I end by quoting some very apt words of Thomas Jefferson:I place economy among the first and most important virtues, and public debts as the greatest of dangers to be feared. … To preserve our independence, we must not let our rulers load us with public debt. … We must make our choice between economy and liberty or profusion and servitude. …If we run into such debts, we must be taxed in our meat and drink, in our necessities and comfortts, in our labour and in our amusements. … If we can prevent the Government from wasting the labour of the people, under the pretence of caring for them, they will be happy.It is my aim to make the taxpayer and the consumer a little more happy. It is for that reason that I have raised this subject at this otherwise rather unattractive hour of the night.
§ 1.12 a.m.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Beeston)
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) for raising this subject, if for no other reason than that it gives me my first, and possibly last, chance to speak from the Opposition Dispatch Box.
Those of us who come from mining areas are aware that this time of night is not unusual in terms of work. We refer to it normally as the mid-shift. I am happy to be on duty on the mid-shift, because my hon. Friends, who are part of the Conservative Party's energy team, prefer to be in their beds at night and in that may maintain the happiness to which my hon. Friend referred.
My hon. Friend has raised one of the intricate problems which affect our major energy industries. I rise basically to support his questioning, particularly as he has put it in the thoughtful and intelligent way which is developed through our Select Committee procedures.
1193 It is natural that from time to time questions arise as to the way in which we give subsidies not only to our nationalised industries but to industry in general. My hon. Friend referred to the figures, which I still have in mind, which were given by the Secretary of State this afternoon in answer to a question which I put to him relating to the EEC. The British coal industry is subsidised to the extent of 50p per ton. That sounds very little until we think of the number of tons and multiply them by 50p compared realistically with £13.50 per ton for coal extraction in Belgium.
I make the point that, whilst I support my hon. Friend's questioning, I want to emphasise the Conservative Party's support, of which the Under-Secretary of State is aware, for the "Plan for Coal" and our genuine desire for the success of the industry.
One of the basic problems of an extractive industry—again, coming from a mining area, I am familiar with this problem—is that the harder people work below ground extracting coal, the more quickly they exhaust the reserves and the more difficult they make it for themselves to maintain productivity figures. That is because they are further away from the bottom of the shaft and the gates. The problems that then arise are not necessarily understood in the coal figures for productivity and the desire for productivity.
Equally, we realise the importance of long-term investment in the industry. The bulk of production is now coming from coal mines in which the investment was made over 60 years ago. We are now looking to the future and making long-term investments. We realise that these long-term investments may easily bring into production coal which, in the short term, may not have an immediate market. Yet all who study the energy scene in any depth recognise that coal in its basic form is a source of hydrocarbons which will be invaluable in future in many ways.
At Question Time today we pointed out that this short-term productive difficulty raises the subject of vigorous marketing. We have tended to regard our coal production as being absorbed by our own natural industries—steel and electricity. But we may be entering a new phase in which we shall have to con- 1194 sider more positively what we are producing and how we market it.
All countries with coal reserves see them in a positive light and the Governments of those countries are involved, as we are, in plans for future extraction and expansion. When one sees the plans in America, China and Russia for major expansion, one knows that we should have similar plans, particularly in the European context.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex raised the question of the long-term future of metallurgical coke. This is interesting, because the steel industry is in a trough which might be long term. In terms of overall world demand, the rarest coal is metallurgical and provides coke for the steel industry.
When I was in America in September I heard from the company that I visited that it had just concluded a 20-year contract to supply metallurgical coal to Romania, which finds it cheaper to ship this coal all the way from America than to extract it at home. Naturally, my colleagues and I will be interested to hear the Department's plans for dealing with the emerging problems of the steel industry. In particular we should like to hear what plans have been made for marketing and what consultations have taken place with our European partners to overcome short-term production difficulties and to maintain a constant supply of this valuable fuel, which may be in short supply in future.
Anyone who has taken an interest in the coal industry will have seen that over the last 10 years, and longer, there has been a complete reversal from pit closures, the problems associated with unemployed miners and the need for new industries in mining areas. We have seen a change to massive investment in new fields such as Selby, a major expansion of production and a shortage of manpower. Many people believe that the long-term problems involve not reserves but the maintenance of a work force to extract them.
There has been grave anxiety about the inability to supply the basic needs of the country. There has been a fear that there will not be enough coal to keep the steel and electricity industries going. We have seen coal stocking programmes—which we have supported—to maintain competitive production by moving coal from the 1195 pit-head into store. We have seen the whole gamut of change in supply and demand in the last 10 years.
The House and the Department should team from experience. We should begin in the early days, when the troubles start to become apparent, to question how we can maintain and support an industry without having the massive peaks and troughs that cost so much. In that context I support my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Sussex.
I shall be interested to hear what the Under-Secretary of State says in reply to my hon. Friend's questions. I can assure him that we have an understanding and concern for the long-term future of the industry.
§ 2.20 a.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. Alex Eadie)
I congratulate the hon. Member for Beeston (Mr. Lester) on his formidable speech. It is one of which he can be proud, because there was no note of cynicism in it. He was forthright in putting forward his ideas about the future of coal in this country. Before I forget, let me also congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his debut on the Opposition Front Bench.
Let me try to reply to the debate in the order in which the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex (Mr. Renton) put his case. He asked a number of questions of a financial nature. I wish that he could have framed his questions in the spirit in which the hon. Member for Beeston put his.
I shall deal first with assistance to the coal industry because I think that there might be a better understanding of the problem if I deal first with this aspect of the case. I refer the hon. Member for Mid-Sussex to the final report of the coal industry examination, where it was made clear that the Government were prepared to assist the National Coal Board both in respect of its heavy social burden arising from the past and to counteract the effects on the Board of short-term fluctuations in demand.
I have not seen the hon. Gentleman at many mining debates, but let me bring him back to what has been done. The classic example is the 1974 tripartite agreement among the unions, the National Coal Board and the Government that 1196 we would not be put off by any short-term fluctuations in the market. I said today that we would keep our nerve over certain things that would happen in the market for coal.
Since taking office, the Government have assisted the coal industry with more than £400 million of grants. We have also approved a considerable stepping up of the Board's investment programme. This was necessary to counteract the effects of the low level of investment in the industry in the 1960s, and to reverse the contraction of the industry. Since 1974 the Board's capital investment has been £1 billion. To put it in the language that I generally use when I meet the miners at the pit head, this industry nearly came under the jurisdiction of the undertakers. It was saved from them because, in the nick of time, we realised that the contraction of the industry had to cease.
In the interests of the nation—not just in the interests of the miners and ancillary workers—we have ploughed massive capital into the industry. We now have the most modern technological coal industry in the world, and that is generally acknowledged.
The hon. Gentleman referred to the evidence given by Sir Derek Ezra to the Select Committee. I do not have time to examine the whole report, but if the hon. Gentleman had questioned Sir Derek Ezra he would have found—and I am sure that his hon. Friend knows this—that people from all over the world come to Bretby to get advice and to look at some of the new technology in the mining industry.
The way that I often put it—though for a Scot it is perhaps rather a crude way of putting it—is that the new technology has meant more men leaving the coal face. It means that when someone crawls along the coal face, instead of seeing 30 or 40 people he sees a modern shearer representing about £750,000 worth of investment.
There are a lot of men at the coal face whom I do not see. Let me explain that. The coal industry sustains a massive slice of the engineering industry and provides jobs for people in that industry. That is why I say that at the coal face there are a lot of men whom I do not see: they are there through the machines they make and we sustain them.
1197 The recent Green Paper on energy policy reiterated the need for us to be prepared to give operational assistance to the NCB and made clear the difficulties that the United Kingdom would experience in balancing energy supply and demand in the long term without a substantial contribution from the coal industry. We need to maintain adequate capacity and manpower, on the basis of which the coal industry can expand and cope with increased demand in the long run. In the short term, abundant supplies of other fuels, combined with a low total energy demand, may give rise to problems.
The Coal Industry Act 1977 provides the legislative framework for Government assistance for the industry's operations. Section 2 provides power to make grants for the promotion of the sale of coal to electricity boards. Section 3 provides power to give stocking aid to help the NCB to maintain stocks of coal or coke at the pit head or with certain major customers. Section 4 provides power to make grants towards the cost of producing coking coal.
To some extent, these operating grants are complementary. There is an interdependence between levels of stocks and the quantities of coal burned in power stations. If stocks are regarded as excessive, it may be preferable to encourage the burning of coal in power stations rather than provide funds to finance stocks.
The Government have agreed to make £10.4 million available in this financial year in aid for the stocking of coal and £8.3 million for the stocking of coke. In addition, £5 million is being provided this year for coal burning in Scottish and Welsh power stations. While the Government are prepared to provide assistance to the NCB operations, where appropriate, the United Kingdom industry is not heavily subsidised and compares excellently with its European counterparts in this respect.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex challenged the figures. I shall inquire into what he said and write to him to substantiate the figures. My information is that they are factual, but I want to put them on the record so that we know what is being challenged.
Aids to production to the Board were about 50p per tonne in 1977, compared 1198 with £2.6 in Germany, £13.3 in France and £19.8 in Belgium. Most of the grants made by the Government to the industry have been to help with the heavy social burden of the past. Although the number of colliery closures is much smaller than in the 1960s, collieries still become exhausted or geological difficulties make them uneconomic to work. In these circumstances they have to be closed and men are made redundant or are redeployed in the industry.
Of the £89 million assistance for the industry in this year's Estimates, £13 million is for grants in connection with pit closures. They are paid to the NCB to help with the cost of statutory redundancy payments, provisions for early pensions for redundant non-industrial staff, and towards the cost of redeploying other men within the industry. I thought it was pretty unworthy of the hon. Gentleman to talk about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in relation to this matter.
A further £19 million is for the redundant mineworkers' payments scheme. This is a Government scheme which makes weekly payments to miners redundant between the ages of 55 and 65, supplementing other State benefits. After three years of redundancy, if they are still under 65, these men receive reduced benefit from the scheme, but get paid their mineworkers' pension prematurely. This costs a further £4 million. Men redundant between 35 and 55 get a lump sum under the scheme but no weekly benefit. The hon. Gentleman may be aware that only last week, under a Statutory Instrument approved by the House, we put forward proposals which to some extent will extend these provisions.
In 1974 it was recognised that the past contraction of the coal industry presented a financial problem for a viable pension scheme because of the exceptional ratio of pensioners to contributing members.
§ Mr. Tim Renton
I thank the Minister for saying that he will look again at these figures and write to me if he finds they need revising. The point I was making was that on the basis of the Supplementary Estimates that we are now considering the grants from the Government in the current year appear to be of the order of 80p per tonne compared with 50p for last year. That is the point I 1199 was making and I would be grateful if the Minister would look into that particular aspect.
§ Mr. Eadie
I thought I gave the hon. Gentleman that assurance. The Government therefore undertook to assist in meeting the deficiency in the pension fund related to those men who were pensioners on 6th April 1975, and also any added deficiency caused by increasing the pensions in line with the rise in the cost of living. The pensions of these men have risen from £3.60 in 1975 to £6.16 now— not a very big sum. The Government contribution has risen correspondingly from £18 million to £34 million per year. Since the hon. Gentleman is obviously quite happy with the financial information, I shall not deal with other aspects, but they are on the record.
The hon. Gentleman dealt with the subject of coking aid. I should like to say something about the background to the provision of coke stocking aid. The coal industry, because of the long-term nature of its investment, is not able to adjust production rapidly to cope with short-term fluctuations in demand. These effects are noticeable in coal products, such as coke, as much as in coal. Obviously, it is for the coal industry itself, through its relationships with its customers, to do as much as it can to smooth out the effects of these fluctuations and to build into its operations as much flexibility as possible.
However, the Government have recognised that the effects of short-term fluctuations can be severe and they recognise that it would be against the interests of the country if these effects were to include damage to the long-term capacity for production of coal and coke. It is for these reasons that the Government renewed their powers in the Coal Industry Act 1977 to pay grants to the NCB to enable it to build up and maintain stocks of coal or coke. The National Coal Board produces coke through its subsidiary company National Smokeless Fuels. The company will produce about 3½ million tons of coke this year of which almost 1 million tons will be blast furnace coke, and a further significant amount will be foundry coke.
National Smokeless Fuels has been particularly affected by the continuing world- 1200 wide depression in the steel industry. The main customer for blast furnace coke is the British Steel Corporation. But BSC produces most of its coke itself and NSF is a supplier only at the margin.
Thus, whilst in normal circumstances NSF has been able to weather the cycles in demand, the current severe decline in the market has hit the company particularly badly. At present BSC is taking no coke from NSF, though the NCB is discussing with it a resumption of supplies.
Export prospects are little better. There are huge stocks of coke in Europe—some 21 million tonnes, with 15 million tonnes in West Germany alone. The EEC market is saturated. Competition for supplies to countries outside the Community is severe.
NSF has reduced production to about 70 per cent, of its coke oven capacity and has decided to close down the Glass-houghton coke works and to take permanently out of commission five of the eight batteries at the Manvers coke plant. In the light of the difficulties that the reduction in the demand for coke has caused, the Government agreed that there was a case for providing coke stocking aid to the NCB under Section 3 of the Coal Industry Act 1977. This is the purpose of the provision of £8.3 million in the Department of Energy Supplementary Estimate for 1977–78.
The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex asked about the facilities permitted by the EEC. Under ECSC rules, stocking aid for coal can be given on usable stocks in excess of one-twelfth of annual production. So far the only aid to production given on a Community basis is for coking coal sold between member States.
At present the Council has before it three proposals. There is a proposal for aid on up to 20 million tonnes of excess stocks of Community coal and coke. The 20 million tonnes would be allocated to producing countries in proportion to the previous year's production level, and only stocks in excess of one-twelfth of annual production would qualify for aid.
The Commission has made new proposals for a scheme of aid on intra-Community sales of steam coal. The aid would be at a rate of 10 European units of account, which is £6.30, on 12 million 1201 tonnes per year over a three-year period, and funded through the EEC budget.
There is also financial aid for increased coal-burning electricity generating capacity. This is a scheme for additional coal-fired capacity, giving some preference for projects which would burn Community coal. The original proposal was for a fund of 500 million EUA, and aid at 30 per cent, of the additional cost of a coal-fired system over a comparable oil-fired system. However, the details are under discussion and could be subject to substantial revision.
These discussions are continuing. I was in Europe not so long ago. We produce the cheapest coal in the EEC, but we are concerned with the question of coal from third countries. We are not asking for any favours, but if the EEC is to mean anything, we should be entitled to ask for action within the bounds of ordinary membership and commercial practice.
The hon. Member for Beeston mentioned the figures. I think that he suspects that they are nearly correct. I do not think that he is as sceptical as his hon. Friend. But I shall provide the same information to him, because that is only fair.
The hon. Gentleman gave support for "Plan for Coal" for investment in the long term. He is pledged to back a most modern coal industry. He talked about a vigorous marketing policy. He is correct to do so. I mentioned what we were trying to do within the EEC. He will concede that that is in accordance with a vigorous marketing policy.
We are always looking for other uses for coal. I hope that this month or next month the report of my working party will be published. It deals with the whole question of research and development—liquefaction, fluidised bed combustion, low BTU gas. These are all markets for the future. To some extent they coincide with what the hon. Gentleman said, that we have to think in the long term as well as the short term.
If we are to have an industry in the long term, we must invest now, because one cannot sink a pit in six months or plan reserves in six months. When one closes a pit, one closes it for all time. If the nation wants a coal industry, it must invest in the industry now.
1202 I was pleased that the hon. Gentleman mentioned his American visit. I was there about a month after him and saw my first coal refinery. This is one of the other future markets for coal.
I have many times addressed miners at the pithead, where I have described the matter as follows. We are told that we enjoy financial strength now because of North Sea oil. This financial strength comes from a wasting asset that may very well be gone by the 1990s or the end of the century. We can maintain the financial strength of the country by being ready to carry out the liquefaction of coal, the making of synthetic petroleum. I believe that this will be a good legacy that we can leave to our children and grandchildren.
We talk about gas and oil being wasting assets, tailing out in the 1990s or disappearing completely in the next century. We have 300 years of coal that will be a priceless asset to our children and grandchildren.
I have tried as best I can to answer the points raised. The hon. Member for Mid-Sussex quoted Thomas Jefferson. I do not know how much coal Thomas Jefferson mined. I want to quote Joe Corrie, the miners' poet, describing the role of the miners today:It was crawling aboot like a snail in the mud,Covered with clammy clay who made me the image of God.Jings, but it's laughable tae.When going for the black diamonds that the country needs, many men have to work uncomfortable circumstances and a very hostile environment. I have felt great pleasure in answering some of the questions raised in this debate.