HC Deb 08 June 1981 vol 6 cc8-9
8. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Energy whether he will arrange to meet representatives of the National Coal Board to discuss the level of financing of the coal industry.

17. Mr. Dormand

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when he next proposes to meet the chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss future investment in the coal industry.

The Under-Secretary of State for Energy (Mr. John Moore)

I and my colleagues meet the chairman and other members of the National Coal Board frequently to discuss aspects of the board's affairs. My Department is at present undertaking a review of many aspects of the board's finances, including its investment plans.

Mr. Canavan

Now that the Government have given the financial go-ahead for a pilot scheme in Wales for the extraction of oil from coal, will the Minister discuss with the NCB the feasibility of a full-scale coal liquefaction plant at Grangemouth in central Scotland using the abundant coal reserves at the nearby Hirst seam? In order to ensure that Scottish interests are adequately represented at board level, is it not time that the Government considered appointing a representative from the Scottish coalfield to full membership of the NCB?

Mr. Moore

We are coming to a question about Point of Ayr shortly. I would draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to the substantial investment in the Scottish area, part of the overall investment in the coal industry, amounting to £40.4 million last year. I would also draw his attention to the presence among members of the National Coal Board of the industrial relations director, Mr. Jimmy Cowan, the ex-director of the Scottish area.

Mr. Dormand

Will the Minister confirm that, so far as the Government are concerned, investment will remain at the level agreed under the 1974 "Plan for Coal"? Will he not agree that help with the cost of substituting British coal for foreign coal and the cost of stocking is not only important but a reasonable request by both the National Coal Board and the National Union of Mineworkers? What pressure is the hon. Gentleman putting on his right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make additional money and grants available for the conversion of industrial boilers from oil to coal?

Mr. Moore

I have a choice of riches. The Government are committed to the concept of the "Plan for Coal", although many things have changed since 1974. The Government are committed equally to seeking to assist the board in its aim that the CEGB and BSC imports should be reduced to the irreducible minimum. The financial commitments have been made clear and will be met by the Government.

Mr. Hannam

Will the Minister confirm that exports of our coal to Europe are increasing considerably and will continue to do so provided that we can produce coal at competitive prices? Does this not mean that the industry has to agree a programme of closures of uneconomic pits?

Mr. Moore

My hon. Friend is right. The National Coal Board is to be congratulated on the substantial increase to 4 million tonnes of exports last year. It is already looking to more than 8 million tonnes in 1981–82. Most of these exports, amounting to over 7 million tonnes, are expected to go to the EEC market. The competitive nature of our coal industry is the key to its retaining and increasing the export market.

Mr. Eadie

Will the hon. Gentleman look again at the answer he gave to my hon. Friend the Member for West Stirlingshire (Mr. Canavan) regarding Scottish representation on the National Coal Board? The industrial relations director is not a member of the National Coal Board. A clear undertaking was given. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will therefore remedy a situation that is causing some anxiety in Scotland

Mr. Moore

I should be only too happy to consider any points that may be raised. The overall organisation of the industry is a detailed matter, but I should be happy to consider any such representations and to look at the matter again.

Mr. John H. Osborn

Although I welcome the increase in exports, is my hon. Friend aware that continental buyers are still finding cheaper coal from other sources? Is there any hope of making a substantial reduction in costs, so that British coal can be competitive in the next two decades and the industry can meet its original output targets?

Mr. Moore

As we have often said, coal's expanding future is, to a degree, a reflection of its ability to penetrate the potential export market and the new market in the industrial usage of coal. Therefore, it is crucial that the industry should keep its costs competitive if its sales are to increase.