§ 5. Mr. Tim Smith
asked the Secretary of State for Energy if he will make a statement on policy towards the future of the coal industry.
§ Mr. Peter Walker
The Government are committed to the development of a modern efficient and viable coal industry.
§ Mr. Smith
Following the publication of the Monopolies and Mergers Commission's report, is it not clear that the coal indsutry has moved into a wholly unsustainable position? Is there not, therefore, a need for a new "Plan for Coal" which recognises the realities of the market and ensures that investment is directed to new and profitable pits rather than to uneconomic and old ones?
§ Mr. Walker
Yes, Sir, but I think, in fairness to the present chairman of the National Coal Board, that a great deal has been done to try to attract investments to the more viable coal-producing areas of the country. Exciting and important investment programmes are available for the future which should be pursued. It is also true that, with proper consultation with the National Union of Mineworkers, the uneconomic pits, which do not have a future, have to be closed.
§ Mr. Hardy
Either now or in his speech on the Petroleum Royalties (Relief) Bill later today, will the Minister comment convincingly on the point that, while the country must now expect to forfeit perhaps considerable income from the offshore oilfields to maximise the take from those fields, at the same time we can expect to see coalfields or collieries closed, where reserves will be locked away to save expense? Will the right hon. Gentleman consider the point in order to maintain his view, which appears to be a trifle more progressive than those of the barbarians behind him?
§ Mr. Walker
We have some exciting prospects for investments in the mining industry. I was fortunate enough to be responsible for this subject when the Selby coalfield was first discovered and gave the original go-ahead for its development. Now, in other parts of the country, there are similar opportunities. It must be in the interests of miners and the mining industry that the substantial investment that is needed for the long-term development of exciting resources is made. Long after oil disappears, the coal industry, like agriculture, for which I previously held responsibility, will remain.
§ Sir Dudley Smith
In view of the exchanges today, will my right hon. Friend take time when he meets the chairman of the coal board to discuss the development of future coalfields and whether they are really necessary, bearing in mind their severe environmental impact? I have particularly in mind the proposed development in mid-Warwickshire.
§ Mr. Walker
Yes, environmental impact must be carefully considered in any planning application, but, as a former Secretary of State for the Environment, I know of few organisations that have done more than the National Coal Board to retrieve the environment after development has taken place.
§ Mr. Eadie
The Opposition welcome the Secretary of State's comments about new exciting areas for coalfield development, but is the right hon. Gentleman aware that since the Government took office in May 1979 not one new pit has been sunk? Is he further aware that if that policy continues it will inevitably mean a contraction of the coal industry?
§ Mr. Walker
The hon. Gentleman must know that since the Government came to office there has been a 9 massive capital investment programme in the collieries in new plant and machinery. The Selby field has been developed and similar fields are now available. The National Coal Board, which has a massive investment programme this year of £800 million, must decide where that money is best invested.