§ The Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. David Howell)
With permission, I should like to make a statement about recent events in the coal industry.
The National Coal Board saw the national executives of the three mining unions last Tuesday, 10 February. Following that meeting, Sir Derek Ezra suggested to me, on behalf of the board and the three mining unions, an early tripartite meeting of the Government, the board and the unions. I was very glad to agree and had planned a meeting next Monday which was convenient to all parties. However, it became clear from contacts earlier today with both sides of the industry that they would prefer a preliminary meeting tomorrow. That will enable them to state their case at the earliest opportunity. I have gladly agreed to that.
As soon as I have been able to consider what is said tomorrow I shall wish to convey the Government's reaction to the board and to the unions. I shall therefore propose at tomorrow's meeting that there should be a further meeting between the Government, the board and the unions for that purpose next week.
At this stage, I should like to make this point: the long-term future of the industry, if it can contain its costs and increase its efficiency, is very bright. It is acknowledged all over the world that coal will have to meet an increasing proportion of our energy needs as the price of other fossil fuels soars. The Government have continued to provide masssive funds for investment in new and modern capacity. In 1980–81 the board's investment programme will have totalled about £800 million. The policy that the Government are pursuing is designed to maximise job opportunities in the long run—because that is what investing in new capacity means. We are investing today in jobs for the future.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
We welcome the Secretary of State's statement. For too long the possibility of a strike, and now the actual strike and the policies that led to it, have been discussed outside the House. The National Coal Board knew that the problem would arise. With regard to bringing the meeting forward from next Monday, of course we welcome the change of mind by the Government. That was not known at 12 o'clock today, and we presume that the change was made at the request of Mr. Gormley. There has been a lack of urgency in the Government's approach to the matter.
The first problem that needs to be discussed is the question of the cash limits. We need to consider imports on the same basis as that on which they are dealt with and controlled in West Germany, France and Belgium. Will the Secretary of State accept that economic forces have invalidated the assumption of the Coal Industry Act 1980? Does he recall that the preamble to the tripartite agreement of 1974 said:One of the difficulties faced by the coal industry with its long lead times from planning to production is that productive capacity cannot be varied rapidly to meet short-term fluctuations in the market. To ensure that adequate capacity and manpower is maintained, thereby forming the base on which the industry can expand, the Government promised in 1974 … that it would be prepared to give assistance to counteract the effects of the short-term fluctuations in demand.The industry is now suffering from short-term fluctuations. Even though a meeting has been called for tomorrow, if the situation in the coal industry is allowed to run it will be too late to pull things back.
138 Is the Secretary of State aware that, overall, the miners feel that they have been let down? They have carried out their bargain on the "Plan for Coal". Productivity has risen rapidly. Even in South Wales it increased by 5 per cent, last year. The miners believe that the thanks that they get for doing that is the closure of pits. What has caused the trouble is the announcement, based on weeks of guesswork, which put the closures in a different perspective. As the Prime Minister said at Question Time, and as we all know, pits are shut down constantly. Eight pits were shut down last year. The miners know that they work in an extractive industry. They complain that all these matters have been lumped together, outside the "Plan for Coal".
Is the Secretary of State aware that Wales—which leads on pit closures—is a close community, in which I was brought up, and that people there are adversely affected by the depression in a far greater way than are people in other parts of the country? In South Wales in particular, with the memory of what happened in the BSC, to talk about large redundancy payments will be irrelevant.
I remind the Secretary of State that events now have a momentum of their own. On the basis that the coal industry is an industry of the future, the Government must act quickly. If they handle the situation properly they can guide events back to the "Plan for Coal". No victories are needed. We need pure common sense.
§ Mr. Howell
I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the welcome that he gave to my statement. As he says, the National Coal Board has known and recognised all along that it faced both a long-term need for closures of uneconomic pits and, in the shorter term, an imbalance between supply and demand that has been aggravated by the recession. He asked why these matters were brought together in a lump—to use his phrase. The National Union of Mineworkers, while recognising that discussions on closures had been pursued at regional level at a fairly steady rate in the past, asked that the National Coal Board should bring these matters together and state them centrally. The board agreed to do that on 10 February.
As to the view that this has happened suddenly, of course, once the National Union of Mineworkers and the National Coal Board had discussed the future and the need for closures, the regions and the NUM started talking. They discussed those matters on Monday, they are discussing them today, and they will be discussing them again tomorrow. The right hon. Gentleman suggests that there should be a firm reaction. I have gladly agreed to meet both sides of the industry. The original suggestion was that the meeting would be convenient for the industry and the Government on Monday, but today the industry suggested that a preliminary talk—a listening talk, as it has been described—would be useful tomorrow.
It would be absurd to go beyond that when discussions are still taking place between the National Coal Board, the regions and the NUM, and before they have finally decided on their plans. As I indicated in my statement, at tomorrow's meeting I shall certainly propose that there should be further talks with the Government in order to consider the outcome of the discussions between the NCB and the NUM.
The right hon. Gentleman made a number of other points. He mentioned the question of imports. I fully recognise the feeling and sensitivity on this matter. Our net 139 coal imports are about 3 per cent. of the total. Ninety-seven per cent. of coal for British users is supplied by the British industry. In the calendar year our exports of coal will exceed imports. In other words, the industry will be entering into international trade in a net position. The return of our coal industry to international trade, which it knew in the great days of the past, should be welcomed by the whole House.
The right hon. Gentleman said that we should treat imports on the same basis as they are treated in Germany and France. I have to ask him whether he knows what he is talking about. The German plans are for up to 50 million tonnes of imported coal to be allowed into Germany in the coming year. The French plans have been for a major rundown in the French industry to allow a vast increase in the amount of imports coming into that country, I do not want to see that here. I should like to see our industry both import and export successfully and competitively, and that is what I believe it can do.
At the same time, I recognise that the major importers and major customers of the industry are the CEGB and the British Steel Corporation, and obviously the Government expect them to deal sympathetically—as the Government have said in the past—with the supplier, particularly when the supplier is facing a very sharp drop in demand. But comparisons with France and Germany, if the right hon. Gentleman is talking about imports, lead to very different conclusions from the ones that he has suggested.
As for the right hon. Gentleman's claim that the miners feel that they have been let down, I remind him of what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said a moment or two ago. We are investing in this industry £800 million in the current year. That is investment on a scale far higher than that proposed proportionately for the German industry or the French industry, and is again a very favourable comparison for the British industry.
There is no reason for the miners to feel that they have been let down. There should be only a realisation that this is a modem industry with a magnificent future, and that the Government are ensuring that major capital funds are going into modern capacity.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Wales. One recognises, of course, the severe difficulties for the areas which have the greatest number of pits in difficulties. Everyone must recognise that. The right hon. Gentleman says that he comes from Wales. I happen to be a Welshman. We know the difficulties that have faced the people of Wales. That must be seen sensibly. But the fact remains that the best hope—[Interruption.]
§ Mr. Howell
I am sorry, Mr. Speaker. I should have included you in that reference, and I apologise for the omission.
The best hope for the industry and the best hope for secure long-term jobs is investment in modern capacity. It is an extractive industry, and that inevitably means closures.
The NUM asked the NCB to bring all the plans together nationally. What the NCB is now proposing was inevitable and predictable, and must now be carried through in a sensible way, with a full and sympathetic understanding of the problems, particulary on the redundancy side. I have no doubt whatever that it is in the best interests of the coal industry and of the nation for the future.
§ Sir John Eden (Bournemouth, West)
In his talks tomorrow, will my right hon. Friend point to the future and underline his belief that the industry's future very much depends upon continuing investment in the new and the profitable pits, which could be put at some risk by keeping open for too long the uneconomic pits? Will my right hon. Friend also confirm that if at this stage in the development of the industry miners were to go on strike they would only be letting down themselves and the interests of their families?
§ Mr. Howell
My right hon. Friend's last point is, of course, correct. A strike would benefit nobody, least of all the future of an industry of so much promise. My right hon. Friend is correct about the balance of the industry. Investment in modern capacity, in new faces in existing pits, and in new mines, promises the jobs and the competitive coal for the future that will make this a profitable industry
The difficulty that the industry has faced is that the worst 10 per cent. of the National Coal Board's mines lose about £190 million a year. In any extractive industry, one would expect some closures as old capacity becomes exhausted or badly uneconomic, at the same time as new faces and pits open up. That is the sign that the industry is squaring up to and meeting the future, and that is the emphasis that the Government wish to give in expressing their views about the bright future for our coal industry.
§ Mr. David Penhaligon (Truro)
What part has the Minister taken in the discussions to date? Did not he realise the reaction that there would be to the announcement, or did he not care about it? Or has he got the reaction that he wanted?
§ Mr. Howell
The National Union of Mineworkers asked for a centralised meeting—indeed, not only the NUM but also the other unions involved—and the NCB put its point of view. It was, of course, recognised long ago that there would be totally understandable feelings and worries in the coalfields and among the unions about the implications for jobs and redundancies.
Some of the early figures that were rumoured, and some of the figures that were thrown around, have proved to be exaggerated. As the National Coal Board in the regions discusses these issues with the National Union of Mineworkers and the other unions, it emerges that the figures for redundancies are substantially lower than the first rumours, and that the figures of closures are substantially lower than the figure of 50 pits which was rumoured, and which was not mentioned or given by the National Coal Board.
The Government recognise also that they must view the problems of redundancies with sympathy and that these must be approached in a sympathetic and sensitive way. That was always foreseen and realised. It is part of facing up to the future for the industry—a strong future, which will be greatly enhanced by a commitment to investment.
§ Mr. Alec Woodall (Hemsworth)
Is the Secretary of State aware that recently the morale in the coal industry and the co-operation between man and management have been at the highest level in the whole history of coal mining, and that that has now been blown to the winds?
Does the Secretary of State appreciate that mine workers have co-operated 100 per cent. in the complete reorganisation of the industry? They have co-operated 141 with the colliery review procedure which has brought about the closure of pits which have been physically exhausted. But now the Government are introducing a new element—that if a colliery is no longer economic it has to go.
Will the Secretary of State explain to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is sitting next to him, that it is not just a matter of the small number of pits which, according to the announcement, are now to be closed but that there is also the fear of the miners that this is the thin end of the wedge? It is easy to make a colliery uneconomic. One has only to leave a water valve open and that pit will become uneconomic in a matter of hours.
Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that he has blown to the four winds the mineworkers' confidence in their industry? Will he take steps now to reverse the position?
§ Mr. Howell
I understand the strong feelings of the hon. Gentleman, but I believe that his view of the industry is a defeatist one which does no service to the industry or to the miners. Let me tell him the reality of what is going on in the mines today. [Interruption.] In some of our new pits, productivity is up to seven times as high as it is in the old uneconomic pits. That is a major achievement, which I salute and which I make no apology for saluting, because it is a magnificent performance.
The future of the industry lies in more pits performing at those high levels of productivity and output per manshift, and in more investment in pits of that kind and in the jobs that will be available in those pits. That is where the interests of the industry lie. I make no apology for saying what I believe to be correct about the future of the industry. It is performing, in some of the best pits, as well as any deep-mine coal industry in Europe or the world. That fact should be recognised and not run down. It raises the morale of the industry and does not undermine it.
§ Mr. T. H. H. Skeet (Bedford)
In his talks, will my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State bear in mind that "Plan for Coal" had very much in mind that there would be pit closures, but that pit closures have fallen into arrears, as it were? Will he also bear in mind that it is not merely an investment of £800 million that has been provided for the industry for the year but that at least another £200 million has been spent by way of the various grants? Will he confirm that what we require in the United Kingdom is a totally competitive industry, which will look to the future for British coal?
§ Mr. Howell
I confirm what my hon. Friend has said. "Plan for Coal" always contained two elements—the heavy investment in new modern capacity and the closures. The heavy investment in modern capacity is going ahead. The question of closures is now being grappled with and faced by the industry. That is correct.
§ Mr. Donald Coleman (Neath)
The right hon. Gentleman has expressed his Welshness. Does he not realise that the part of the announcement that applies to South Wales is the means of destroying a number of communities? Will he understand that it is impossible for miners in South Wales to accept the announcement when the National Coal Board has made no attempt to give any hope in terms of further investment in the industry in South 142 Wales? In the light of the conversations that he will have with the NUM and the NCB, will he instruct the NCB to withdraw its notice in respect of the collieries in South Wales until the discussions have taken place?
§ Mr. Howell
These are matters that area representatives on the tripartite committee will have the opportunity of putting to me tomorrow. They will have the further opportunity of discussing them and their implications when we meet next week. These are the matters that will be discussed. That is the purpose of the meeting.
§ Mr. David Knox (Leek)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that miners at the Victoria colliery, Biddulph are on strike today against the proposed closure? Is he further aware that these are not militants but individuals who are among the most moderate miners in Britain? Does not that suggest that there is something wrong and that the whole matter needs to be reconsidered?
§ Mr. Howell
I did not hear the first part of my hon. Friend's question. He will recognise that the need for more investment and the need for more closures is part of the unfolding pattern of the industry as it moves into the future. I have made that clear to the House. I believe that to be the right way forward. As the scale of the new investment is fully appreciated, and as it is seen where the prospects for the industry lie—they are extremely bright—those who have the best interests of the industry at heart will recognise that this is the way forward.
§ Mr. Don Dixon (Jarrow)
When will the Government take account of the social consequences of their policy? The last pit in my constituency is to be closed, along with four pits in the Durham coalfield. The North has the highest percentage of unemployment in England, Wales or Scotland. It has the second lowest number of vacancies in England, Scotland or Wales. There are almost 50 unemployed persons for every vacancy. We do not have a Minister for the North, a Northern Development Agency, a Grand Committee for the North, a Select Committee for the North or Question Times for the North. However, we have the unfortunate record of the highest percentage of unemployment. When will the Government do something for the North of England before they suffer the consequences that will eventually come if their present policy is carried through?
§ Mr. Howell
As I have said, social policy must be approached imaginatively and sensitively, and that is what the Government are doing. I recognise the redundancy problems that are bound to arise from pit closures. There are bound to be some redundancies. However, we learn as the days pass that these will be far fewer than the exaggerated figures that have been thrown about. The Government will view with sympathy the social problems brought about by redundancies. We have always made that clear, and that is our position.
§ Mr. Jim Lester (Beeston)
I think that we all recognise that, whatever the factual economic case for pit closures, there are delicate sensibilities in the industry. I am delighted to hear that my right hon. Friend urged an earlier meeting than the one on Monday, and I look forward to Monday's meeting. Will he confirm that he will keep his diary open for as many meetings as are necessary to deal properly with the issue? I have great faith in the common sense and level-headedness of the British miner. I have 143 lived among miners throughout my life. I am sure that if they recognise that they are treated fairly and that the Government approach this difficult and sensitive problem with an open mind and not in any dogmatic way we shall have nothing to fear from them.
§ Mr. Howell
The next meeting that I propose is not necessarily for Monday. It will take place on a suitable day next week. I share totally my hon. Friend's view that there is a need for the industry and the Government to talk open-mindedly about the way in which investment can be maintained. I have indicated our sympathy towards redundancies. I have said that in the current year the industry will certainly be exporting more than it is importing. I have some other words to say on that score. This adds up to a sensible agenda on which to discuss the problems that the NCB and the NUM now face, with which they have come to terms and with which they have to grapple in the light of the inevitable closures, which are difficult but which must be carried through in the longer term interests of the industry and the nation.
§ Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)
Is the Minister aware that 10 years ago there were at least four pits in Derbyshire that were considered uneconomic? The situation changed dramatically because different seams were worked. The oil price increase in 1973 made a significant difference. Many of the pits that were regarded as being under threat 10 years ago are now producing coal. That has happened to such an extent in North Derbyshire that it was announced yesterday that no pits would close in the area. When the right hon. Gentleman talks about temporarily uneconomic pits he is talking about the economic pits of the future.
Does it not make nonsense of the Government's argument when we hear Ministers say that the recession is bottoming out? Surely it would be folly not to have sufficient coal and energy to ensure, if the Tories are right, that we are able to keep the factories going in future. Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that one of the reasons why so-called moderate miners are incensed is that he and other Ministers, together with the NCB, were telling them only a few weeks ago that if they accepted a 13 per cent. wage increase they would keep their jobs? That is why they are furious in many areas. That is what the Minister does not understand. If the Government are to be at arm's length from the dispute, which the Prime Minister keeps saying she is and wants to be, will the right hon. Gentleman give a guarantee that when the strike is fully in action next week the Government will keep at arm's length and let it arrive at a successful conclusion?
§ Mr. Howell
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's last remark is in the interests of the miners, the industry or the nation. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for confirming that in North Derbyshire there will be no closures. That brings home some of the exaggerated comments, figures and rumours that have been flying about, which have made it much more difficult for the industry to put the issue in a sensible perspective.
Individual closures, economic faces and economic mines are matters for management and unions to examine and determine. They have the colliery procedure. The management has to decide which pits are economic and which are uneconomic. It makes its decision on individual closures. That must be the way to run the industry.
§ Several Hon. Members rose—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I propose to call five more hon. Members from either side of the House. It will be a very long run.
§ Mr. David Crouch (Canterbury)
Does my right hon. Friend agree that perhaps there has been a lack of communication? Will he consider the advice of Lord Robens, who carried out 406 closures when he headed the NCB? He advised that we should never think of a closure only in terms of its effect on the balance sheet. He added that to do so would be disastrous. Will my right hon. Friend bear that advice carefully in mind?
§ Mr. Howell
The views of the management and the industry about how closures are to be conducted are formulated in a most sensitive manner. They are based not merely on brutal arithmetical calculations but on a full understanding of the future potential of a pit and the implications of a closure, which is a serious event. I believe that approach to be right.
My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a lack of communication. After the meeting of 10 February it was rumoured that 50 pits were to be closed. Those rumours were circulated and they caused unnecessary fears about what was being proposed. There will be further details following discussion between the NCB and the appropriate regions tomorrow. However, the closures will be considerably fewer than the figures that have been bandied about.
§ Mr. Jack Ashley (Stoke-on-Trent, South)
Even if there has been some exaggeration, as the Prime Minister and the Minister said, does the Secretary of State not realise that he is damaging rather than helping the industry, because the miners in Stoke-on-Trent and elsewhere, who have responded to the request for an increased production, will not respond in future if they see pits being closed because of a temporary fall in demand?
§ Mr. Howell
I am not sure that the right hon Gentleman is correct. The miners are responding magnificently to the new investment with a higher productivity and a higher output per man-shift than before. The response is there. The mining industry knows—this is a point that one is entitled to make—that with a history' of uneconomic pits, the performance of the industry, which could be highly profitable and will be in the future, is being held back. Jobs and opportunities for opening up new investment are being jeopardised by uneconomic; performance. The sooner that that is recognised and we are able to move forward from the uneconomic pattern of the past, the higher the morale of the industry and the more the miners will be glad to be working in a profitable industry that can compete with the best in Europe and in the world.
§ Sir Albert Costain (Folkestone and Hythe)
Does the Minister appreciate that when considering the closure of Kent mines he should explore the possibility of miners being employed on the Channel tunnel? In that work their skills in the pits would be very valuable. Is it not better that they should be employed in helping the economy of the country than in producing coal at uneconomic prices, which will increase the price of electricity?
§ Mr. Howell
Clearly we welcome every new and profitable employment opportunity that can be found. The continuation of uneconomic pits and unprofitable mining, 145 in some cases in pits well over 100 years old, will not help towards the prosperity of the industry or the country, nor will it help to create the jobs for tomorrow for which we hope.
§ Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)
Is the Secretary of State aware that he cannot see coal because the monetary policy of the Government is in the way? I come from a moderate coal mining area in Nottinghamshire, but does the right hon. Gentleman understand that the miners there are seething about the present policy? Is he aware that, because of the Government's policy about the mining industry, importers that supply us with coal will hold us to ransom in the future? Is he aware that we need every cobble of coal that we can produce from our own pits? Four years ago we were seriously short of coal. When the economy picks up, we shall desperately need every cobble.
§ Mr. Howell
Imports will fall in the current year. The present high level of imports arises as a result of long-term contracts entered into under the Labour Government. Rushing out to buy coal on the spot market is no longer possible. I do not blame the Labour Government for allowing long-term contracts. It is reasonable that industries should be free to buy coal particularly for electricity, for other processes and for other inputs at the cheapest possible price to maintain jobs and to produce competitive products. We want everyone to be in jobs, and the best way to maintain jobs is to maintain competition. That applies to all raw materials and all manufacturing processes. That was the view of the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Nigel Forman (Carshalton)
Is my right hon. Friend aware that everything that he has said today, and everything that his Department has done since the Government have been in office, indicates the Government's continuing strong commitment to the future of the coal industry? In his forthcoming discussions with both sides of the industry, will he look again at possible increases in the market for coal by the adoption of some measures to encourage and assist the direct use of coal in industry because that is one of the markets for coal which could be expanded much further to the benefit of all employed in the industry?
§ Mr. Howell
I shall consider my hon. Friend's view. The economic facts already provide a massive incentive for industry to move from oil to coal. The economic attractions and the attractions in terms of energy efficiency of going over to coal and coal-fired equipment are very great, so the economics are working in favour of the expansion of the industrial steam-raising market for coal. I should like to see those economic forces working as vigorously as possible.
§ Mr. George Foulkes (South Ayrshire)
Is the Secretary of State aware that when I spoke to the Scottish director of the National Coal Board some weeks ago there was no talk of closures—indeed, quite the reverse? That is why I believe that this is something that has been cobbled by the Government in the past few weeks. Will the Secretary of State stop treating tomorrow's meeting as a preliminary meeting because he knows the views of the miners and the NCB? Will he come to an agreement tomorrow on the basis of "Plan for Coal"?
§ Mr. Howell
The preliminary meeting is what both sides of industry have asked for. It has been recognised for a long time that closures in Scotland or anywhere else will continue. They have continued for the past two decades. It was always recognised that uneconomic pits would have to be closed as the industry moved to profitability. There is nothing new in talk of closures. It has always been understood that the process of closures would have to continue in an extractive industry.
§ Mr. Alan Haselhurst (Saffron Walden)
If there can be flexibility in determining whether a pit has run out of coal, or of coal which can be profitably extracted, does my right hon. Friend agree that there could be flexibility in the timing of closures of such pits in order to dovetail in with new investment in production?
§ Mr. Howell
The precise timetable or programme is a matter for the National Coal Board. I know that it recognises the need for timing of new investment and the closing of uneconomic capacity to be managed sensibly. That is why the board is proceeding with talks in the regions.
I have emphasised the Government's commitment to heavy investment in modern capacity. We have sympathy with the redundancy problems, and our views on imports, which I re-emphasise are extremely small with net imports of 3 per cent. of the industry's total market in the United Kingdom, are matters about which we can talk. I shall listen to the views in the preliminary meeting for which I was asked. We can discuss those views in the further meeting that I have proposed. I am sure that we can examine in great detail the implications of what is being proposed by the National Coal Board. There is no reason why we should not continue to talk constructively because in our view the industry has a constructive future based on massive investment.
§ Mr. Peter Hardy (Rother Valley)
So far in these exchanges the Minister appears to have committed himself to a sensible, sensitive and imaginative approach. He has said that we must not be dogmatic. Therefore, will he give us an assurance that at the preliminary meeting and the one that will follow he will make it clear that the Government will not stick inflexibly to the timetable and the financial arrangements in the Coal Industry Act 1980?
§ Mr. Howell
The National Coal Board, even now, is continuing discussions on what it proposes. We shall have to see what the proposals will be when they have been completed and how the National Union of Mineworkers reacts both in the regions and centrally. We shall have to discuss the implications. The background against everything of which I have spoken takes place is a background of massive continued investment in the industry and an understanding of the social and redundancy implications of what is involved. Those are the matters, among others, that we shall discuss in the tripartite meeting. That is the right forum in which to discuss them, and to continue to discuss them, in a constructive spirit.
§ Mr. Peter Rost (Derbyshire, South-East)
I accept the need for closures, but is it not regrettable that the National Coal Board has failed to issue a more precise statement of its proposals, which might have avoided unnecessary fears and rumours and the precipitate action of the miners? Has not this matter been handled in a less tactful and sensitive manner than is desirable?
§ Mr. Howell
The NCB regional managements have produced precise statements about the implications of the closures during the next three years. It is true that when the matter was discussed at a national level on 10 February at the request of the National Union of Mineworkers and other unions, grossly exaggerated rumours appeared in the press. The figures for redundancies and closures produced at regional discussions have been precise. They are considerably less than was implied in some of the exaggerated rumours.
§ Mr. Michael Welsh (Don Valley)
I am grateful to the Minister for swiftly altering the date of the meeting to tomorrow. When he attends that meeting, will he accept that no miner has any desire to strike? Miners want to work. It is only when they are driven to the extreme that they strike. They believe that they have now reached the extreme. It is important to bear in mind that viewpoint at the meeting. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that we have always known that in the short run the industry needed more help than has been provided by the Coal Industry Act 1980? That was explained in Committee. But if the pits are closed in the short run there will be fewer shafts, and when the demand for coal increases the pits will be unable to meet that demand. It is vital that more investment should be provided in the short term to keep open the pits and to develop new seams. Industry should be encouraged to change from the use of oil to the use of coal. The EEC has money available, which could be provided for investment if the Government so desired. But the Government stopped the National Coal Board from borrowing from the EEC. Will the Minister ensure that at tomorrow's meeting an acceptable conclusion is reached so that the miners can return to work and produce more coal?
§ Mr. Howell
I agree with a great deal of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. Obviously, he has great experience of these matters. But there is no vast source of money available from the EEC to which we have recourse. That is not provided for under EEC arrangements. There is no such honeypot of investment. I have put forward a proposal to the EEC—and have continued to press it—for assistance for coal production within the EEC, but it has not yet proved acceptable to other Community members.
The hon. Gentleman said that men who believe that they are driven to extremes are deeply concerned and angered. Any reasonable person would feel so if he believed that he had been driven to extremes. But in this case that belief is not well founded. Neither the industry nor anyone working in it has been driven to the extreme. Proposals have been put forward to modernise the industry, to invest at a high rate, and to close uneconomic capacity, which has held back the industry. That is not driving anything to the extreme; that is the industry driving itself, through its magnificent performance, to a much brighter future.
The arrangements that follow the NCB's proposals will be discussed at the meeting tomorrow. I shall discuss those matters with both sides of the industry next week and, I hope, when further opportunities arise.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
The Secretary of State appeared to give blanket approval to the NCB proposals. Is there no room for negotiation in the discussions, given the Government's rolling cash limits, the temporary recession, and the rapidly increasing imports? During a period of industrial unrest two years ago the Labour Government had to come to the House every day and report on the position. Will the Secretary of State report to the House regularly on what is happening in the coal industry?
§ Mr. Howell
The arrangements for, and the precise timing of, any statements are matters for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. However, I am anxious to keep the House fully informed of what is happening in the great energy industries of Britain, including the coal industry. It would be wrong for me to have any other wish.
I have emphasised the Government's determination to ensure investment in modern capacity. I have spoken of our sympathetic view towards redundancies, and the problems that are bound to arise in an extractive industry However, I have already said that the facts about imports are different from those suggested by some hon. Members. I shall listen carefully to what both sides of industry have to say at the preliminary meeting tomorrow. I look forward to further discussions about the details and the implications of the NCB's proposals to secure the future of the industry and produce competitively priced coal and raw material for industry, our electricity generators, and our manufacturers. We intend to discuss how best the Government and industry can move forward along that path, which is the right path for the coal industry, those working in the industry, and the nation.
§ Mr Robert C. Brown (Newcastle upon Tyne, West)
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I seek to have a correction made to column 90 of the Official Report of 16 February 1981, which records me as having mentioned a figure of "£50". The figure should be £250.
§ Mr. Speaker
I shall ensure that the necessary correction is made in Hansard. I think that some hon. Members are about to raise points of order. The House is anxious to debate the Linwood closure, which is an abbreviated debate. It is also anxious—this applies especially to Liverpool Members—to discuss the EEC sugar proposals. The Ten-Minute Bill comes before the debates, and will take half an hour from the time available for the debates. I warn hon. Members that they may prevent one of their colleagues being called to speak on a matter that means a great deal to them.
§ Mr. Allen McKay (Penistone)
On a point of order Mr. Speaker. The position relating to discussions about the strike in the coal industry is delicate. Indeed, the position in the coal industry has been delicate since 1926. Do you, Mr. Speaker, think that we should have a report from the Minister on Thursday, as has been suggested?