HC Deb 04 July 1983 vol 45 cc5-7
4. Mr. Canavan

asked the Secretary of State for Energy what subjects he expects to discuss at his next meeting with the chairman of the National Coal Board.

11. Mr. Beith

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he plans to meet the chairman of the National Coal Board to discuss the future contribution of the coal industry to the United Kingdom's energy requirements.

15. Mr. Ioan Evans

asked the Secretary of State for Energy when next he proposes to meet the chairman of the National Coal Board; and what matters he expects to discuss.

Mr. Peter Walker

I have already met the chairman twice and I shall meet him regularly to discuss all aspects of the board's business.

Mr. Canavan

Now that the Secretary of State has a new job, will he try to find a better man than MacGregor for the chairman's job? Will the right hon. Gentleman show more faith in the coal industry than his predecessor did by giving enough investment to stop the hit list of 70 pit closures, involving 65,000 jobs? Will he make a start by reversing the decision to close Cardowan?

Mr. Walker

I hope, devoid of any prejudice or previews, that the hon. Gentleman and members of the mining industry will judge Mr. MacGregor's chairmanship according to the results. He is a man of immense ability, with a deep desire to see the coal industry succeed.

No criticism of the Government's investment in the coal industry can be made. Capital investment is running at £800 million a year, despite a loss of nearly £500 million in 1982–83. That cannot be discounted, nor can it be said that the Government are not willing to invest in the coal industry's future.

Mr. Beith

When the Secretary of State meets the chairman of the NCB, will he tell him that he now recognises that it would be quite wrong to put a nuclear power station in the middle of the Northumberland coalfield at Druridge bay? Does he realise that such proposals are part of the background against which miners are judging the closure of Lynemouth colliery, which was announced this weekend? That, as well as the fact that some of the men at Lynemouth will not be transferred to the highly profitable Ellington pit, is leading to great opposition to the proposal.

Mr. Walker

Whether a colliery remains viable and economic is a matter for the NCB and there is a procedure by which the NUM is fully consulted. At a meeting that I had last week with leaders of various unions representing the mineworkers one of the leaders urged that that procedure should continue, and it will.

Britain's nuclear programme must be considered in terms of our long-term energy demands.

Mr. Evans

Does the Secretary of State realise that there are deep anxieties in the South Wales coalfield at reports of 70 pit closures, with 70,000 miners to lose their jobs and the coal industry's capacity to be cut by about 25 million tonnes? When the right hon. Gentleman talks to the chairman of the NCB, will he try to get him to understand that, despite the present recession, we should not run down our industry so that when there is an economic upturn we shall not have the necessary coal?

Mr. Walker

The hon. Gentleman knows full well from his long connection with and interest in the coal industry that throughout its history pits have closed because they were uneconomic. If I wished to make a party point I could compare the volume of closures since the war under Labour Governments with the volume of closures under Tory Governments. But that would be embarrassing for the Labour party, so I shall refrain from doing so.

It is in the interests of the mineworkers to ensure that we have a viable and successful industry, which is what I wish to see.

Mr. Skeet

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that stocks of coal now total 55 million tonnes, a 9 million tonnes increase on last year, and that the main job of the new chairman is to market coal and not necessarily to produce it? Does he agree that the future of a viable industry must rest on the sale of coal?

Mr. Walker

My hon. Friend is completely correct. In the one discussion that I have had with the future chairman of the National Coal Board he expressed to me the immense importance of improving the marketing of coal. If he succeeds, I know that he will be supported by miners and all connected with the future of the mining industry.

Mr. Lofthouse

When the Secretary of State next meets the chairman of the National Coal Board, will he instruct him to come clean with the miners who much prefer the truth to a veil of secrecy? Will the Secretary of State also ask the chairman to let the miners know what the production capacity of the industry will be at the end of his three-year contract, and how many men over the age of 50 years will then be employed in the industry?

Mr. Walker

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that miners wish to know the facts and to examine the position on its merits. As far as I know, Mr. MacGregor, and, indeed, his predecessor have attempted to do that. The industry is important to the country's long-term future. I believe that the present chairman and the future chairman wish it to succeed in that goal.

It is my view, having spoken to both gentlemen, that the suggestion that there is a great hit list of pits is unreal. There is a need to examine each pit to see whether it is economic and sensible, and if not to close it, but also to invest in future production methods.

Mr. Forman

When my right hon. Friend next meets the chairman of the coal board, will he tell him that his Department will give its full support to the board's efforts to sell more coal to our EC partners? Will he also bear in mind that the excellent scheme for converting industry's oil-fired boilers to burn coal needs the support of his Department as well?

Mr. Walker

The conversion scheme has been important. The matter is partly the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry and I shall discuss it with him. The sale of coal, whether to Europe or elsewhere, is of immense importance to the future of the National Coal Board and the miners. I shall be examining the issue with the chairman of the board.

Mr. John Smith

The Secretary of State will be aware of Mr. MacGregor's reputation in the steel industry, where, to put it mildly, his industrial relations style was highly provocative and where he was responsible for the destruction of thousands of jobs. Will the Secretary of State give an assurance that Mr. MacGregor will not be allowed to develop his own nostrums and will be kept under firm check and control by the right hon. Gentleman as Secretary of State for Energy?

Mr. Walker

The job of the National Coal Board in its entirety is to try to pursue policies which are in the interests of the future of our coal-mining industry. From the one discussion that I have had with Mr. MacGregor, I believe that his objectives in improving sales, efficiency and productivity, and of course in continuing a massive capital investment programme, are the policies required for the future of the industry.

Forward to