HC Deb 07 November 1983 vol 48 cc14-6
17. Mr. Teddy Taylor

asked the Secretary of Stale for Energy what is the current level of coal stocks; and what was the level on the same date five years ago.

Mr. Giles Shaw

Total coal stocks in Great Britain at the end of September were 58,437,000 tonnes. The level of coal stocks at the same date five years ago was 34,475,000.

Mr. Taylor

Given the astronomical and extremely costly level of coal stocks and the low increase in productivity in the mining industry, does my hon. Friend agree that there is an overwhelming case for a closure programme for uneconomic pits so that we may have cheaper coal and electricity and thus help the entire economy?

Mr. Shaw

My hon. Friend is right to point out that the large stocks of coal on the surface show that demand for coal at its present price is extremely low. He will be aware, however, that both the chairman of the National Coal Board and his predecessor, Sir Norman Siddall, made it clear to the industry that a reduction in the uneconomic minority of pits was necessary to ensure the viable development of the industry as a whole.

Mr. Haynes

I have never heard so much rubbish in all my life. Are any of the Ministers at the Department of Energy aware of the reasons for the present circumstances? Do they realise that miners are breaking output records at many pits, including those in my constituency in which the number of pits has been reduced from nine to five? Are not stocks high because the Government have closed down half of British industry? When will they get industry back to work so that we can get rid of the coal stocks?

Mr. Shaw

I respect entirely the hon. Gentleman's opening remark. His comments on coal matters are always apt. He will recognise, however, that the industry must turn out a product that those in British industry wishing to buy it can then reliably obtain. That is an incontrovertible fact, however one looks at the industry and its prospects.

Mr. Woodall

In view of the Minister's reply and his answer to question 14, is it not clear that the coal industry is now suffering from the miners' success in producing cheap coal efficiently? Will he join me in advising all miners and their families never to go to Southend for their holidays?

Mr. Shaw

I shall leave the latter point to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, East (Mr. Taylor). The hon. Member for Hemsworth (Mr. Woodall) will surely recognise, as I do, that there have been major advances in the productivity of British pits. At long last there has been a major achievement in relation to the 4.7 per cent. forecast in 1974, but that is clearly insufficient when one considers the present level of sales of British coal.

Mr. Rogers

Will the Minister consider running an education course on energy for his colleagues? Will he also impress on the Cabinet the possibilities of extending to agriculture the logic of his attitude to the coal industry—that if stocks are too high farms should be closed?

Mr. Shaw

I note the hon. Gentleman's observations, but I am not sure that they will solve present problems.

Mr. Rowlands

Is the Minister aware that what my hon. Friend the Member for Ashfield (Mr. Haynes) said is true and that pits and miners in many communities, including that which I represent, are breaking production records month after month? Is he aware that, rather than praise, they simply get kicks in the teeth from the Government? Why do we not cut the 2 million tonnes of coal that is imported and use our stocks to regenerate British industry rather than listen to the type of cant that we have heard today?

Mr. Shaw

I will not take it from the hon. Gentleman that he has received nothing but kicks in the teeth from the Government. I must remind him of the significantly higher investment in the coal industry that has taken place under the Conservative Government. I must remind him also of the £364 million that was put into the industry last year and that the Coal Industry Bill allows for borrowing requirement of £6 billion. The Government have backed the industry. It is time that the industry backed itself.

Mr. Hannam

Will my hon. Friend confirm that the current overtime ban will not reduce coal stocks? Will he therefore urge the National Union of Mineworkers to call a pithead ballot so that the dispute can be ended?

Mr. Shaw

Hon. Members on both sides of the House gravely regret a dispute of this type in the coal industry. It can only harm those who work in it and its prospects of a return to viability.