HC Deb 26 January 1981 vol 997 cc631-2
13. Mr. John Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he has any plans to curb coal imports into the United Kingdom.

Mr. John Moore

The choice of supplier is a commercial decision for the consumer. It is not our intention to restrict his freedom of choice. However, the great bulk of United Kingdom coal demand is met from indigenous sources and this should continue to be the case as long as our production is competitive.

Mr. Evans

Is the Minister aware that that is an entirely unsatisfactory answer? Is he further aware that miners have increased their productivity in response to the constant demands that have been made upon them? Does he understand that they will be disappointed by an answer that suggests that the coal that they produce should continue to be stockpiled, at great expense to the NCB, while coal continues to be imported? Does he understand that, if there is to be the closure of collieries while coal continues to be imported, that is a recipe for trouble within the mining industry?

Mr. Moore

First, I confirm that there have been productivity and production increases that reflect the underlying strength of our coal industry. Those are increases that should be commended by both sides of the House. However, to subsidise or protect markets is surely a route to stagnation. The major growth markets for coal are in areas where there is competition with other fuels, especially during the next 20 years in industrial markets. It is vital for all those with the interests of the coal industry at heart, and vital for the industry's future if it is to grow, that it stays competitive.

Mr. Bill Walker

Does my hon. Friend agree that the high productivity pits in Scotland and the United Kingdom can compete with any pits in the world and that if the rest of the industry were as competitive, we need have no fear about coal imports?

Mr. Moore

Whilst I accept my hon. Friend's basic comments, I would not wish to discriminate between pits in any part of the United Kingdom. I stressed in my main answer that the bulk of our production—and the bulk of our future—is in pits that should have no fear if we are to retain a competitive industry.

Mr. Edwin Wainwright

Does not the Minister realise that what he is saying means that we could rub out the coal mining industry? That could happen if we allow coal to come in in quantities that could be supplied to the nation from our own resources. Does he not agree that threatened pit closures and allowing the importation of 7½ million tonnes of coal will cause a good deal of unrest in the industry? Why do not the Government try to make certain that our energy prices, altogether, are so reasonable that fuel can be sold to our industries, to ensure that we no longer have the present surplus of coal, when we are also importing it?

Mr. Moore

I understand the concern, in the midst of recession, but we must keep the facts in proportion. Approximately 95 per cent. of our consumption is of domestic coal. That excludes nearly 4 million tonnes of coal that we exported last year. The industry has nothing to fear from the defeatist comments that tend to be made in parts of this debate. Most of our coal is produced and used indigenously. We hope that that will continue.

Mr. Skeet

Does not my hon. Friend agree that only 5.8 per cent. of the United Kingdom's total consumption is imported, and that the crucial factor that the Opposition have overlooked is the price of coal that we import? Is it not cheaper to buy some of the coal from abroad, bearing in mind the specification and requirements?

Mr. Moore

A large percentage of the increase in imports in 1980 was, as the Opposition well know, a reflection of contracts negotiated during the appalling winter of 1978–79. As I indicated clearly in answer to a different question, they will be reducing in 1981.

Mr. Eadie

We established in last Wednesday's debate that this year there would be a 6 million tonne drop in the consumption of coal supplied by the National Coal Board. We also established that there would be imports of about 8 million tonnes. Do the Government prefer coal imports even if it means miners being unemployed?

Mr. Moore

That is a slightly simplistic view of what is happening in 1980–81. While sales are down by approximately 1.2 million tonnes, exports are up substantially, to the tune of 4 million tonnes. Stocking is certainly up 3.9 million tonnes, but production is also up by over 3 million tonnes. So it is a combined problem, a problem that we expect the board, not the Government, to tackle.